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Shanghai Art

by Graham Earnshaw

Shanghai wants to be number one. Beijing wants Shanghai number one in economic development, and ?? leave the rest to us, please. Which leaves the arts in a state of some uncertainty.

In recent years, Shanghai has opened a world-class museum, easily the best in the Chinese world, and an opera house which beats anything Beijing has by miles (kilometres). And if it is true that in the end, art follows money, then Shanghai should one day be the artistic heart of China.

But for now, Shanghai is only ahead in terms of certain venues. For music both classic and rock, ballet and opera, Beijing leads the way due to massive government subsidies and its huge population of students and intellectuals, the best and the brightest from all China.

Shanghai, in its current phase at least, is focussed on making money and growing the business. For now, people in this city, the largest and richest in China, have little time to consider such superfluous things as “culture”.

“What do you think of the Grand Theatre?” I asked a taxi driver one night as we swung passed its floodlit magnificence.

“I don’t know,” he replied. “It’s got nothing to do with us ordinary people.”

But there is one cultural area in which Shanghai DOES excel, and that is contemporary Chinese art.

One gallery particularly has focused, managed and encouraged Shanghai artists over the past six or seven years – Shanghart, an operation run by Swiss art expert Lorenz Helbling.

In fact, the organisation and promotion of modern Shanghai’s artists really begins with Helbling, and the measure of his success is the range of other galleries which have sprung up in the past couple of years to cash in on what is becoming a clear tend.

“The art scene her is becoming more and more visible, the infrastructure is slowly growing,” Helbling said. “But it’s still very much a matter of educating people.”

The weird concoctions of east and west which Shanghai’s artists create are distinctive precisely because of the lack of any overall trend – every artist is markedly different, there is no herd instinct in operation, as there is in Beijing, Nanjing, Chengdu and other emerging centres of Chinese art (if you disagree with this, please remember art is the ultimate subjective commodity).

“It’s very realistic,” said Helbling. “Each artist has his own style.”

One of the biggest selling of Shanghai’s artists is Ding Yi, who specialises in highly detailed symmetrical works covered in crosses. Another is Wu Yiming, whose works executed in Chinese inks, depict an alternative universe in which faceless people wearing ancient Chinese costumes.

Another element of Shanghai’s contemporary art scene of the age spread of the participants with three generations actively participating. The younger generation, increasingly, is turning away from paintings and static works generally, and looking to video production, video installations, to express themselves. The downside of that trend for the galleries, of course, is that the market value of a video work of art is almost impossible to fix – the average art buyer may look at them but they are not going to buy them.

Video apart, Shanghai art, once a sensational piece of exotica at art shows around the world, has now moved closer to the mainstream, and prices generally have risen to match.

An average painting for sale at the Shanghart gallery four years ago would have had a price tag of maybe USD1,000. Now, paintings go for up to USD10,000. Good for business and good for the artists’ bank accounts, but it also tends to make the artists less interested in pure pursuit of their muse, and more conscious of the market reaction to different style or directions.

Shanghart remains the most high profile of Shanghai’s galleries, and has expanded beyond its home in the Fuxing Park to a large converted warehouse near Suzhou Creek. Other galleries worth investigating include Yibo, near the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Pudong, Eastlink, also near Suzhou Creek, and Aura Art Gallery, one of a number of galleries near the intersection of Urumqi Lu and Anfu Lu.

Foreigners remain the main buyers of Shanghai art, But Shanghart’s Helbling says there are increasing signs that Chinese buyers are viewing contemporary art as being a good investment.

Hopefully they like to look at the paintings they buy as well.

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