When veteran Swiss art dealer Pierre Huber arrived in China for the first time 12 years ago, he didn’t much care for Chinese art. What a difference a decade makes. Earlier this month, Huber joined forces with former Art Basel director Lorenzo Rudolf to launch ShContemporary, Sept. 6-9, 2007, a massive art fair in the center of Shanghai. The duo hopes to make this the "number one art fair in the world in ten years" -- and their first year put them off to a good start.
It was not without its hitches, of course. With even the smallest booths running at €10,000, most Chinese galleries were priced out of the event, leading to a certain amount of local ire. In the weeks leading up to ShContemporary, the local media picked up the grumbling of several Shanghai galleries that were not invited to attend, including Bizart and Eastlink. There were even rumors of a protest or staged intervention.
Western critics who journeyed to Shanghai to take it all in have so far put the emphasis on the negatives -- incidents of censorship by customs officials and the omnipresent corporate branding, in particular. Those more familiar with the local scene will tell you that such incidents are par for the course, and not necessarily specific to ShContemporary itself. True, the participation of Hermès and Hennessey was depressingly crass -- the latter displayed a marble-encased bottle of brandy that drew more visitors than much of the art. But it’s also true that if it’s not covered in designer logos, it’s not China.
(Artists were quick to skewer the Asian lifestyle fetish. The Louis Vuitton trademark pattern was much copied at the fair, from Wim Delvoye’s branded pig skins to Mungi Yang’s Story of Stone and Luxury Products at Park Ryusook Gallery.)
In the end, Huber and Rudolf pulled off an impressive feat, bringing together 100 galleries, including 50 from Asia, all under the roof of the Shanghai Exhibition Centre, which has lavish, wedding-cake architecture that is a perfect symbol of Shanghai’s love of opulent, European-inspired grandeur. The fair lured a range of international galleries, including Albion (London), Arndt & Partner (Berlin/Zurich) Espacio Minimo (Madrid), Walsh (Chicago) and I-20, Max Lang, Max Protetch and Tilton (all New York), plus Chinese heavy-hitters like Contrasts and ShanghART. For a first-time fair in this developing country, it was well-organized and had some good work, complete with massive art installations and a polished VIP program.
Western art stars to China
As for actual sales, the presumed raison d’être of the pilgrimage to Shanghai, these seemed to be fairly rare. Even Huber and Lorenzo framed the fair’s first installment as an opportunity for long-term rather than short-term profit -- a chance to get in on the ground floor, promote artists and cultivate contacts with those Chinese collectors everyone is talking about as the future of the art market.
Some business was done, though largely with non-mainland-Chinese -- dealers mentioned Koreans and Taiwanese as buyers, along with visitors from Hong Kong. As for the locals, as one dealer put it, "a handful of Chinese collectors buy mantelpiece art" -- what might be called "safe" art from the (mainly Western) mainstream. Thus, the major European galleries did best with Andy Warhol and Jean-Michael Basquiat (though, you have to ask, would they have done better with the same material elsewhere?) alongside Asian mainstays like Yoshitomo Nara and Wang Guangyi.
Many major European galleries stuck to the classics. Galerie Enrico Navarra exhibited works by Basquiat, Pablo Picasso, Edward Ruscha and Warhol, while fellow Paris dealer Jérôme de Noirmont exhibited Jeff Koons beside Pierre et Gilles and Bettina Rheims. New York’s Max Lang also displayed works by Warhol and Basquiat, as well as Alexander Calder, Keith Haring, Damien Hirst, Roy Lichtenstein and Yayoi Kusama. Fellow New York dealer Leo Malca also chose to exhibit Basquiat, Haring and Kusama. Galleri Faurschou joined the mix from Copenhagen with Picasso, Robert Rauschenberg and yet more Warhol.
Of the seven Shanghai galleries in attendance, Galleria Continua (which is based in San Gimignano, Italy) and Galerie Urs Meile (which was founded in Lucerne) mounted booths that looked particularly good. ShanghART, one of the first Chinese galleries to participate in Art Basel and other Western fairs, presented works from the iconic "Aesthetics of Cold War" series by the aforementioned Wang Guangyi. According to Huber, Wang is a historical figure, representing the first wave of Chinese artists who combined the all-too-similar languages of Pop and communist propaganda.
With an eye on the big picture, however, ShContemporary took steps to counter any esthetic conservativism of the Chinese market. Thus, the fair was highlighted by prominent curated sections, specifically meant to guide buyers out of that comfort zone and educate them on the art of the future.
A program dubbed "Best of Artists" dominated the main hall with adventurous installation pieces, including works by Lu Hao, Wang Du and Purification Room by the late Chen Zhen. New York-based Thai artist Rirkrit Tiravanija showed Beware Rich Bastards, a large Plexiglas box filled with rice. Visitors were encouraged to take a free tote bag and fill it with rice, gradually revealing a canvas at the back of the box, painted with the piece’s title slogan. (Unfortunately, the gallery ran out of tote bags after the opening night party, leaving the canvas still mostly obscured at the fair’s end.)
For "Best of Artists," globe-trotting Beijing artist Ai Weiwei created the haunting Mei Le, 167 pieces of coal fabricated out of fiberglass, glazed with Chinese lacquer and then stored outdoors to weather before being arranged in an evocative Stonehenge-like array on the floor -- though its effects were muted by the antiseptic convention-center surroundings. Gu Dexin -- a longtime friend of Huber, who can take credit for introducing him to Chinese art 15 years ago -- was featured outside in the exhibition center’s courtyard with September 2nd 2006, an installation incorporating a steamroller and a heap of apples, which filled the air with the cidery smell of rotting fruit -- the odor of a more dynamic art scene fermenting, perhaps.
Looking to place the present as part of a historical trajectory -- hopefully an upward one -- Huber intentionally situated "Best of Artist" participants Zhang Peili and Chen Shaoxiong across from each other on either side of a wide aisle. "All the video in China starts with [Zhang Peili]," Huber explained, while Chen Shaoxing is his worthy contemporary successor. For the fair, Chen Shaoxing documented his memories of a trip from Shanghai to Beijing as a series of careful pen and ink drawings that were then matched with captions in a video montage of everyday scenes and various ruminations on life. Across the corridor from this silent series, Zhang Peili’s boisterous Happiness echoed around the exhibition space. On each of two television monitors, a group of schoolgirls is seen doing calisthenics, one group sped-up and one slowed down. Above the monitors hangs a pair of red and white track jackets typically worn as school uniforms in China.
Three nominees in this "Best of Artist" show were from India -- Zarina Hashmi, Sudarshan Shetty and Jitish Kallat -- again marking a drive to break free of parochialism. Unknown to the international community only a year ago, Kallat is now a major name in Indian art and a recent participant in the 2007 Venice Biennale. The Rickshaw, specially commissioned for ShContemporary, is an auto-rickshaw fashioned out of fiberglass dinosaur bones, a striking meditation on violence, extinction and decay. The Rickshaw was sold as an edition of three pieces, one of which had already been snapped up by the second day of the fair.
But 70-year-old Mumbai artist Zarina Hashmi stole the show with Homemade/A Life in Nine Lines, her series of minimalist designs based on housing blueprints stripped to resemble a series of esoteric symbols. Huber referred to Hashmi as "my philosophy for the future of this fair," one of the most talented artists living in India today, whom he took credit for discovering two years ago. From relative obscurity, Hashmi has become a hot item -- she was the first Indian artist to have work installed at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, and one of her pieces was just purchased by the Museum of Modern Art.
Marketing young Asian artists
Upstairs in the exhibition center, the space was more intimate and less ornate -- an appropriate venue for ShContemporary’s "Best of Discovery" series, a collection of (mostly) young artists being introduced to the Chinese buying public for the first time, directly trying to jumpstart a market for emerging artists. Taiwanese artist Tu Weizheng followed his strong showing at this year’s Shanghai Biennale with an equally impressive booth at ShContemporary. His fake archaeological discovery mock-up, Bunam Civilization, was constrained by the art fair space, but still Tu profited from ShContemporary -- during the course of the fair, he was picked up by a Taiwanese gallery thanks to the fair’s exposure, as were several other "Discovery" artists.
Chinese and Indian artists were out in force, including the photo manipulations of Chen Ching-yao; Jiang Zhi’s evocative "I’m your poetry" series; and Shilpa Gupta’s untitled interactive video installation. Sharmila Samant recreated a traditional Calcutta saree from hundreds of soda bottle caps fastened by hand -- a commentary on cheap labor, local crafts and disposable culture. Samant had made only one saree by the time of the fair, but the artist plans on creating a total of 20 such works from Coke and Fanta bottle caps.
While Chinese, Japanese and Indian artists continue to dominate the Asian scene, both Korea and Pakistan made impressive showings, with promising artists including Ham Jin, Rashid Rana, Mohammed Ali Talpur and Sophie Ernst. Talpur and Ernst are both represented by Green Cardamom gallery in London. Ernst’s video installation Dying Gauls projects the images of men from the streets of Lahore talking about their conception of the afterlife on plaster replicas of the famous "Dying Gaul" busts, a smart association of ancient and contemporary, east and west.
Russia-born artist Aleksandr Schumov was spotlighted with Supremus Ehegraben, a narrow corridor installation filled with an assortment of the artist’s photographs and personal bric-a-brac, creating an intimate, cluttered, lived-in space somewhere between a dorm room and a shrine. The result was a well-received antidote to much of the fair’s slick, hyper-designed sensibility, perhaps fueling Rudolf’s prediction that Russian and Eastern European art would have an increasingly large role in the fair’s future.
Glamour at commercial galleries
Compared to these polished curatorial interventions, the floor of galleries was something of a grab bag, a motley collection of tried-and-true classics and high-risk ventures. James Cohan Gallery pulled out all the stops with its show-stopping video installation From Neander Valley to Silicon Valley by Nam Jun Paik.
A few galleries went farther afield, displaying work by a variety of western and eastern artist. Osaka’s MEM showcased the photography of Tomoko Sawada while OTA Fine Arts from Tokyo presented Tsuyoshi Ozawa’s eye-catching "Vegetable Weapon" series. New York dealer Thomas Erben showed the comic book stylings of Chitra Ganesh. Gallerie Frèches presented Xiang Liqing’s untitled architectural series, while Charlotte Moser boasted works by Yan Pei-Ming, including the moody dream space Paysage International-Lieu du crime. Shanghai’s two-year-old Shine Art Space showed work by notable Chinese artists Shen Xiaotong and Feng Zhengjie.
Rival Chinese art capital Beijing presented entries from Chinese Contemporary and Chi-Wen Gallery. Tang Contemporary captured the crowd’s attention with Jin Zhongwei’s Manufacturing of Surgical Instruments of Ophthalmology, an installation and performance piece featuring live workers hand-crafting optical equipment beside life-like dummies. Hong Kong’s 10 Chancery Lane raised the bar with a stall full of compelling pieces, including work by Huang Rui, Li Wei and entries from Cang Xin’s "Identity Exchange" series, documenting the artist exchanging uniforms with a policeman, a doctor and an opera singer.
Smaller galleries also found an audience, notably the Indonesian Langgeng Gallery, home to the artists Harnis Purnama, F. X. Harsono and Srihadi Soedarsono. Indian galleries made a strong showing at the fair, including Bodhi Art, Sakshi and Gallery Chermould.
Overall, while somewhat sequestered from the Shanghai population at large, and still finding its legs, the mere fact that ShContemporary managed to pull off a professional-level art fair is still another sign that the world art trade is moving east. Huber even anticipates forming a kind of collectors’ club with an office in Shanghai to scout out new talent and make purchases.
"In Europe and the U.S., it used to be that with three galleries from Asia you could say you were a global fair," Rudolf joked. Now, Asian artists have market centers in their own countries, suggesting that artists from China, India and elsewhere can look forward to escaping the role of token Asian elsewhere.
"There is no Chinese art and Indian art and Japanese art, any more than there is French art or German art or American art." Rudolf soothed. "There is only good art and bad art."
SUMMER KUMAR is a writer and critic living in Shanghai.