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by Barbara Pollack
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Shanghai, a city with old European-style neighborhoods and a 21st-century skyline, is the Chinese city that foreigners love best. In Shanghai it is possible to cling to lingering images of intrigue and glamour that have not quite been erased by the contemporary reality of sheer commerce. The Chinese know that Beijing is the true center of culture in China, as testified by the presence of scores of art communities and over 300 galleries. The Shanghai scene, then, always has a bit of a chip on its shoulder, anxious to prove that it can outdo Beijingers, or at least provide more fun.

The ShContemporary art fair, launched in 2007 by Basel pro Lorenzo Rudolph, Swiss dealer Pierre Huber and the BolognaFiere SpA, has never quite lived up to the pace it set during its resoundingly successful inaugural year. It has changed directors three times in five years, in 2011 anointing Milano art press publisher Massimo Torrigiani as major domo. A handsome and charming spokesperson for culture, Torrigiano brought a bit of cachet back to the fair, which had been losing top tier participants in recent years. No doubt thanks to the continuing China art boom, he was able to convince the best galleries in China -- Pace Beijing, James Cohan Shanghai, Boers-Li Gallery, Shanghart and many others -- to participate. Actually, this list is a bit like the fair, which grouped a select dozen galleries together in the prime real estate of the first floor atrium and relegated other equally good spaces, such as Pekin Fine Arts, Pearl Lam Fine Art, Shanghai Gallery of Art and White Space, all of whom participated, to the upstairs, where they were lost in a sea of mediocrity.

The reality of China’s art scene is that though it includes some exciting dealers curating high quality shows, the vast majority of galleries are still operating as shops, selling second-rate works as quickly as possible and rarely cultivating a stable of artists. By limiting the number of participants to only 87 galleries, Torrigiano made a focused effort to improve the quality of the fair, but some sections could have benefited from still more pruning.

ShContemporary was conceived as an international fair, but rapidly lost ground to HK Art, which this year attracted over 63,000 visitors and dealers like Acquavella, Gagosian, Sean Kelly, Victoria Miro and Galerie Lelong. Now, according to Torrigiano, ShContemporary aims to be the best fair in mainland China -- which it is, though it doesn’t have much competition, just two fairs in Beijing that many consider dreadful. Instead of being a magnet for collectors and dealers from around the world, or even from around Asia, ShContemporary is a succinct showcase of the best galleries in China. This virtue may or may not be enough to attract collectors to its doors.

The 2011 edition brought in a handful of heavy hitters: Uli Sigg, who has the world’s largest collection of Chinese contemporary art; Richard Chang of the Domus Collection; Wang Wei, the wife of China’s biggest art collector, Lu Yiqian, who is opening up a private museum next year; and Budi Tek, the Indonesian art collector who already has three private museums. But western collectors were mainly absent and even many Beijing art followers stayed home. Still, dealers all made enough sales to make their time worthwhile, chalking up the experience as a good networking opportunity.

“I think we should support this fair as the way of the future,” said Pace Beijing president Leng Lin, who admitted he felt lonely without the presence of many major galleries. Before the fair opened, Pace had sold two works to regular clients, a portrait by Li Songsong for $200,000 and a 2010 painting by Zhang Xiaogang for $500,000. “Perhaps this fair is more suitable for Beijing Commune,” he added, referring to his other gallery, a venue for emerging artists and a feeder for Pace Beijing.

“Massimo made some strategic decisions that could give this fair a real boost,” said Arthur Solway, who was manning the booth for James Cohan Shanghai. The gallery had paired works on paper by Richard Long, priced between $12,000 and $45,000, with elegant bronzes by sculptor Wang Xieda, which are $16,000. Cohen was happy to find buyers for two younger artists, Guo Hongwei, a newcomer with enormous potential, and Yun Fei-ji, a Chinese artist who lives in New York and has shown for a decade with the gallery. “Everything here is priced below $100,000,” Solway said. It’s different than what we would do in Hong Kong or Taipei, but I’m looking to reach the new collectors.”

Much has been made in the U.S. press this year about the presence of big-time Chinese buyers at auctions in New York, London, Hong Kong and especially Beijing. But there’s a way to go to get them to support local galleries. At the fair’s VIP opening on Sept. 7, 2011, new faces were out in force. At one dinner, I sat beside Zheng Huang, an investment analyst who has started the Shanghai Art Appreciation Circle to coax young businesspeople to get interested in art. Nearby, a collector who houses his treasures of contemporary art in a mammoth upscale karaoke club was inviting people to an after-party. The next night, at an exclusive dinner for 60 hosted by dealer-collector Pearl Lam, I was introduced to Tang Ju, a Beijing collector who specializes in Chinese realist paintings. Still, I noticed the absence of auto magnate Yang Bin, a force in Beijing art collecting circles, and Tan Guobin, who was welcoming visitors to his private museum in Changsha the following week.

“We have sold 70 percent of the work we brought,” said Fang Fang, owner of Star Gallery in Beijing, and a dealer who does a great job reaching young entrepreneurs. He sold Gao Yu’s painting, The Strongest Foam ($100,000), and Qiu Jiongjiong’s Liberty Leading the People ($23,500), and had at least five bidders for a small painting by new art star Chen Ke. Another Asian gallery that did very well with local buyers was Taiwan-Beijing dealer Tina Keng, who sold four paintings by Xiaobai Su, a Chinese artist living in Germany, for prices up to $150,000. One gallery that proved that Chinese buyers are beginning to turn to western art is Galleria Continua, originally based in San Gimignano and now in Beijing, which sold Michelangelo Pistoletto’s double-mirror work, Two Less One, for $68,350 to a German collector living in Shanghai. Continua also sold a suite of nine 1986 drawings by Nedko Solakov for $5,500 and an Antony Gormley sculpture for $48,000 to Asian buyers.

“I’m not here just to open up a pop-up store,” ShContemporary director Torrigiano said on closing day, indicating his long-term commitment to Shanghai. “This is not a step backwards toward a local fair, but a fair with an international outlook that is looking at the art world from here.” Still, many participants grumbled that the Italian firm had not yet quite meshed with its local Chinese partner, a requirement for doing business in China, leaving many technicalities still not smoothed out. The fair had no WiFi and the electricity went out intermittently. Everyone is getting tired of the fair’s antiquated exhibition hall, the gingerbread-house of the Wuhan Exposition Center which was a gift from the Soviet Union in 1956. Plus, all dealers were facing the enormous 33 percent tax on sales of art remaining in China, an obstacle eliminated in Hong Kong’s tax-free zone. But, according to Torrigiano, “This is a false problem, because has not been so big that it has stopped galleries from flourishing in China.”

Outside the fair, Shanghai offers many gallery openings and museum exhibitions worth seeing, certainly a kind of compensation. The Minsheng Art Museum’s “Moving Image in China: 1988-2011,” an exhibition of 20 years of video art in China, was worth the trip by itself. The show begins with the first experiments by Zhang Peili and Wang Gongxin in the mid-1990s and goes through to the latest crop of younger artists including the beautiful animations of Sun Xun and Qiu Anxiong. The finale is a multiscreen projection by Yang Fudong, who shows at Marian Goodman Gallery; with luck this work will find its way to New York soon.

Something brand new for China is video work by the likes of Ryan Trecartin and Paul McCarthy, which could be found at a great gallery show, “Daft,” at Shanghai Gallery of Art. At the opening, gallery director Mathieu Borysevicz was seen donning a fat suit in Rania Ho’s installation Ho Fatso (2011). In this exhibition, U.S. bad boys and girls (Mika Rottenberg is included) are paired with Chinese artists who are definitely pushing the envelope for this often staid art scene. An exciting new group, Ma Daha, contributed an installation titled History Channel: Back to Basics, which paired theatrically constructed footage of missiles going off with a very funny spoof of cavemen lighting the first fire.

“I don’t know what the future of the fair is,” said Borysevicz that night. “We need this fair and we have to support the fair but it’s going to have to improve for us to comeback.”

BARBARA POLLACK is author of The Wild, Wld East:  An American Art Critic's Adventures in China (Timezone 8 Books).