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by Summer Block
By now, everyone knows that Chinese art is moving fast, but no one’s quite sure where it’s going. China’s economic boom is especially felt in Shanghai, the country’s financial capital and largest city (with more than 16 million people). Shanghai is very much about money, flashy clothes, restaurants, night clubs and parties, or so it seems.

Of course the city has its artists and art galleries, and many are thriving. The cultural environment remains restrictive and censorious -- in fact, it may be getting worse -- and plenty of young artists are understandably more interested in selling work than making political statements. In any case, the audience for Chinese contemporary art in China frequently consists largely of Westerners and Westernized Chinese.

Wang Jianwei at Shanghai Gallery of Art
Exemplary of Shanghai’s new capitalist road is a development called Three on the Bund, a glossy collection of restaurants, bars and boutiques along Shanghai’s Huang Pu river, surrounded by elegant colonial edifices and kitschy futuristic skyscrapers. The building contains a branch of the legendary restaurant Jean Georges, the nouvelle-cuisine palace Laris and an Armani store, among other material delights. Last but not least is the Shanghai Gallery of Art, which recently presented "Dodge," a harrowing video and sculpture installation by Wang Jianwei.

Now 48, Wang graduated high school in Sichuan province in 1975 and was sent to the countryside for re-education. He returned to study painting at the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts, but soon took up video, becoming a pioneer on the Chinese video scene. One of his memorable videos, Ceremony (2003), was featured at the Pompidou Centre in Paris as part of France’s "Year of China" in 2003.

Wang’s new installation features a large, staircase-shaped plastic structure -- it resembles a skyline of cookie-cutter buildings -- topped by what looks like a cascade of white plastic goo (it’s actually solid), out of which emerge white, faceless figures, with splayed, elongated limbs and gaping holes where their mouths and genitals would be. The figures seem to topple down the slope, eventually collapsing and melting into a pool at the foot of the sculpture.

Viewed from the back, the skyline-sculpture has a hot pink vaginal tunnel hollowed out in its base. Mirrors on the facing wall redouble the opening, gazing into its depths like a clinical speculum.

At the other end of the gallery (an unfinished office space gridded with cinderblock columns), is a corridor, through which visitors can reach Wang’s latest video. This corridor resounds with heavy, antiquated locomotive sounds that are piped through the rest of the gallery: clanking chains, train whistles and various low machine moans.

The 10-minute-long video loop presents various scenes of crowded waiting lounges, karaoke parlors and living rooms, spliced together into a near-continuous whirlwind of action. People chatter into cell phones or sing karaoke, many of them staring out past the camera, as if watching off-screen television sets, pointing and commenting.

Pushing through the crowd is a group of doctors and nurses escorting a sick man. Initially he walks, rolling his IV along. Later he is carried in a stretcher. The crowds ignore him, and the medical professionals also pay only the most desultory attention to their patient. 

At the video’s end, as the man in the stretcher is moved down a seething hospital corridor, one bystander literally falls, this time down a flight of stairs -- an echo of the tumbling sculptural figures in the gallery. The blindly partying youth, the officious but ineffective officials, the hapless patient whose condition only worsens -- might Wang be proposing an allegory of Chinese society?

Ji Wenyu and Zhu Weibing at ShanghART
After the glamour of Three on the Bund, the atmosphere at the Moganshan Lu arts area, a collection of reconverted warehouse galleries along Suzhou Creek, is considerably more déclassé. Rotting industrial debris and sullen apartment complexes lend the new art district an air of gritty authenticity, but don’t be fooled -- plenty of money is being made here. On a recent Friday evening, the complex was nearly deserted except for a few security guards, maids and the odd curator, wilting in the sticky heat and mosquito eddies.

One of the most venerable Moganshan galleries is ShanghART, which has recently expanded into a second building called the "H-Space." In the new gallery, Ji Wenyu had installed his wry oil paintings as well as textile sculptures that he makes in collaboration with his wife, Zhu Weibing. The 47-year-old Ji, a Shanghai native, visited the U.S. on a scholarship in 1998 and is currently showing his work at Museum 52 in London.

Titled "Here, the Scene Is Better," the show spoofs the vulgarity of China’s new middle class sensibility via illustration-style pop imagery. The theme has become familiar by now, but Ji’s work is more playful than scolding.

One of Ji’s new oils, titled Bright Night of Shanghai, has a large, postcard-style image of Shanghai’s famously bright skyline in its center. Power cords, painted trompe-l’oeil, connect the image to painted sockets, switches and meters covering the rest of the picture surface. It’s all about electricity, and the viewer is clearly at the controls. The painting also suggests that the consumption of power is being strictly tracked and measured, a form of the score-keeping familiar to the famously competitive Shanghainese.

Ji and Zhu’s "soft sculptures" are more unusual -- large-scale fabric constructions that resemble meticulously crafted stuffed toys, some life-size. Two impressive works depict women from the waist down in a position of childbearing, laid out on platters like turkeys. In Brought Five Children into the World, small, doll-like figures spill forth from between pink thighs in a bumbling, bloodless scramble that suggests a child’s innocent concept of reproduction, as a ring of tiny figures surround the legs, stretching out their hands in worship.

A similar ring of tiny, doll-like figures huddles around a fuzzy soft-sculpture of a slab of fatty meat on a plate in Meat (braised pork chunks). Their hands seem to be joined in a syrupy symbol of community celebration over the giant dinner. However, a second, nearly identical sculpture, Meet, hints at exclusion, adding more figures outside an identical circle, isolated from the shared plate.

The soft sculpture Mad Group has the same out-of-control feeling that marks Wang Jianwei’s sculpture at the Shanghai Gallery of Art. Six or seven cavorting figures, striking sexy poses or pointing guns, are stuffed into a soft toy car, in what appears to be a getaway scene. Car ownership is a powerful symbol for the newly rich in China, part of a careening, overcrowded adventure where anything goes.

China’s new growth often seems ungoverned, directionless and dangerous. In the case of Mad Group, the control afforded a driver by owning his own private car seems tenuous at best.

Despite Ji’s sardonic pose, there is something touchingly sentimental about the textile panel Watch the View, wherein a small figure stands on the balcony of his faceless apartment tower and gazes at distant mountains with an almost proprietary pride. The petty aspirations of Shanghai’s striving classes are easy to mock, but Ji reveals a gentler sympathy with the tower dweller, realizing a fantasy of affluence and autonomy beyond the dreams of his younger self. 

Though Ji Wenyu and Zhu Weibing stole the show, there were also several notable pieces in ShanghART’s primary gallery space, including works by venerable painter Pu Jie and younger artists Yang Zhenzhong and Xu Zhen, the latter one of China’s most notable artists under 30.

Luo Yongjin at ArtSea
Another gallery in the Moganshan district is ArtSea, which specializes in photography and recently presented a group of black-and-white architectural photographs from all over China taken by the 46-year-old Luo Yongjin. Luo initially gained fame with a series of black-and-white photographs documenting the lives of ordinary people from behind a detached, neutral lens, then abandoned figure photography entirely, embarking on a long series of architectural shots devoid of people.

Behind the apparent objectivity of Luo’s approach is a complicated mixture of sympathy, nostalgia and disdain. Without color or human presence, his spaces appear uniformly inhospitable and barren: anonymous urban apartment blocks, ungainly nouveau riche palaces and imposing public spaces. In China’s frenetic rush of development, the solid black-and-white buildings look deceptively still, but as this show illustrates, they are in fact the most salient examples of the country’s constant, unregulated movement.

The show’s title, "About Face," is a play on the subtle Chinese concept of "face" (as in "losing face"). Luo’s "New Residence" series documents attempts by the emerging middle class to gain face, or public dignity, constructing private villas between Shanghai and Hangzhou, about 100 miles to the south. These near-identical, hastily fabricated homes are ostentatious and awkward, a celebration of "private ideals and public grandeur," in the words of curator Monica Demattét. Any critic of American "McMansions" is familiar with residences that occupy the largest possible footprint and use a jarring mix of incompatible styles. For the Chinese, such homes represent not only newfound wealth but the repudiation of decades of state-imposed communal living. 

Luo’s photos also showcase the fanciful, fairground style of new gas stations, now serving hundreds of thousands of new drivers. The castle turrets or pagoda roofs of these tacky structures contrast markedly with their drab highway surroundings. Meanwhile Luo’s "Government Buildings" series profiles the kind of squat, almost aggressively plain structures that seem designed to impart a sense of stolidity and authority.

Liang Weizhou at 1918 ArtSPACE
Near Moganshan but independent of it is 1918 ArtSPACE, a warehouse gallery and community center, complete with a bar, accessed via a steep flight of bamboo stairs. The open, airy (and blessedly air-conditioned) space recently mounted a retrospective of works by Shanghai artist Liang Weizhou covering the years 1995-2005. Liang is one of the very few expressionist painters working in China today, and his work is strikingly different than most anything else on the gallery circuit.

Liang’s style is direct and bracing, unmediated by sarcasm or pastiche. Filled with the faces of his friends and family, even his cat, Liang’s paintings are characterized by sweeping swaths of color and dramatic drips of paint. One arresting image, titled Artist and His Son, depicts the artist kneeling before a dark background with his young son. The artist smiles frankly out at the viewer with an obvious sincerity that is disarming.

On one long wall, Liang displays two paintings from his "Reflections" series, showing figures staring disconsolately at broken mirror shards on the ground. Directly opposite this series, the gallery walls are dominated by several bold, large-scale paintings in bright red, explorations of the uneasy meeting of east and west, exemplified by Reflection No. 9, a mural-sized canvas with an Indonesian puppet figure gazing warily across the space at a Cubist nude a la Picasso.

Liang is far from lightweight -- indeed, many of the "Reflection" pieces were taken from a troubled time in his own life, where divorce and sole guardianship of his young son prompted a turn from a vibrant red palette to a gray one. Several works are given over to the artist’s dream life, in which the artist pictures himself in domestic spaces both intimate and surreal. This intimacy hints at a different sort of progressive promise, truer than private cars and spacious apartment towers, a personal space outside of the day-to-day political world. More than simply sentimental, these family scenes seem rebellious. 

The Duolun Museum of Modern Art
Shanghai’s Duolun Museum of Modern Art is the first modern museum of contemporary art in China and one of only a few nonprofit venues in the city. The museum seeks to encourage the international exchange of artists while hosting educational and community events. In fact, during a recent visit, a workshop group was busily constructing found-object sculptures on the third floor. This summer the large, central Shanghai building hosted a solo exhibition of works by Chen Wenling, and two of Chen’s towering nightmare figures flanked the entrance: a bright red, shouting man on one side, and on the other, a white figure riding a pig and brandishing a cleaver -- both well over 12 feet tall.

Now in his mid-30s, Chen began his sculptural studies at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing and then went on to have exhibitions extensively around the nation. His work is just beginning to be shown outside of China (with prices in the $20,000-$25,000 range), and was included in exhibitions last year in Seoul and this year in Padova, Italy.

Chen’s bronze and fiberglass sculptures are not, conceptually, anything very out of the ordinary -- explorations of greed and shallowness in the form of surreal animal fables, they are instantly equated with Animal Farm, Heart of a Dog, even Aesop’s fables. But no disquisition on artistic concept could adequately explain the awful shock of seeing these lurid figures up close and surrounding you, an endless procession of monsters taking up two of the museum’s three floors.

Chen’s "Blissful Life" series contains pigs, fish, dogs and other animals in the throes of extreme, triumphant joy, without context or consequence. Chinese critics often refer to Chen’s work as a satire on optimism, but most reviews focus primarily on Chen’s whimsical, imaginative figures without dwelling on the dark side. Yet the dark side is hard to miss, as Chen makes explicit the connection between aggression and optimism, his gamboling animals enjoying the bodily contentment of low, vulgar pleasures.

The "Valiant Struggle" series further blurs the line between animals and men, as human-like pigs and pig-like humans strike military poses and lead martial parades. Comedic folk art facial expressions take on the terrible contortions of unchecked rage and desire.

Upstairs, the Duolon exhibition includes pieces from Chen’s earlier series, "Red Children," sculptures of bright red little boys in various attitudes of fear, loneliness or glee. These works were originally displayed on an isolated beach, but they look equally lost amid the squalid pigs and dogs. Their facial expressions are unambiguous and without nuance, the pure emotions of children, and they seem all the more lost and innocent amid such sordid company.

Though Chen’s sculptures are nothing if not attention-getting, their impact was rivaled by Korean artist Son Bong-Chae’s more understated show on the third floor of the Duolun. Son collected photographs of historical places in the Korean countryside, sites of invasion, war and disruption, then placed multiple images of the same location one on top of the other in separate layers. These layers are mounted on transparent acrylic sheets inside a series of three-dimensional light boxes that appear like illuminated oriental pen-and-ink drawings, representations of time as an accumulation of memories and meanings.

The small, rectangular dioramas are reminiscent of Joseph Cornell, but while Cornell’s fragile collections are heartbreakingly still and timeless, Son’s are dynamic, eternally fading; not Cornell’s held breath, but a single long, sighing exhalation.

Liu Guangyun at Eastlink
Still another gallery at Moganshan Lu is the consistently interesting Eastlink, whose latest exhibition was a show of new works by Liu Guangyun titled "Artificial Flowers." The 44-year-old Liu Guangyun was educated in Beijing before relocating to Shanghai, where he has had several shows. He spends much of the year in Mainz, Germany, and his European following is substantial. He has regular exhibitions throughout Germany and in Hungary, Poland and the Netherlands.

Liu is known for wide-ranging mixed-media experiments, and in "Artificial Flowers" he collages together high-gloss portraits of models from fashion magazines with images of artificial flowers and plants, creating allover compositions devoted to "unnatural" beauty. The largest of these collages are free-standing slabs that lean against the gallery walls. These pillars look substantial but reveal themselves to be startlingly light when nudged -- the appearance of solidity is part of the illusion.

Overall, the works are competent but not memorable -- the effect is somehow flat, with a rushed, art-school quality. Abusing these images and slathering them with painterly medium, which is part of Liu’s collage process, may be cathartic, but ultimately these icons of manipulation are not transformed. The usually innovative Eastlink becomes just one more venue for the tyranny of the advertising image, so ubiquitous in today’s Shanghai. 

Perhaps the most effective work distributes crumpled magazine images in a flat, cardboard flowerbed, where the bright pages seem to bloom amid silk flowers. By taking the glossy pictures outside of their bindings, Liu reminds us of their tactile quality as pieces of paper, a step that goes farther towards undermining their fantasy appeal than any snide juxtaposition of images. The floor, after all, is just littered with paper -- a refreshing bit of sobriety in this frantic modern metropolis.

SUMMER BLOCK is a writer and critic living in Shanghai.