PHOTOFAIRS | Shanghai held its fifth edition between 21 and 23 September 2018. As in previous years, the event was held in the Shanghai Exhibition Center—a neoclassical construction dating from 1955, built in the form of a central hall with two curved wings, topped with an ornate and unmissable 110-metre spire. The building is surprisingly decorative, considering it was built to commemorate the Sino-Soviet alliance. It now hosts multiple trade shows, including art events such as PHOTOFAIRS | Shanghai, a product of the World Photography Organisation, which also organises a comparable event in San Francisco.
The fair took place in one wing of the Exhibition Center and inside the large domed central hall. Fifty-five dealers from 15 countries took part, with more than 20 galleries coming from within China, including AIKE, ART LABOR Gallery, C14 Gallery, Frogman Art Gallery, Juhui Art Gallery, M Art Center and see+ gallery. According to the organisers, over 80 percent of the exhibitors were from the Asia-Pacific region, plus other exhibitors, such as the local private HOW Art Museum, founded by hotelier and collector Zheng Hao. New entrants included some heavyweights such as Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac and Galleria Continua. Numerous photography professionals were also in attendance, including Martin Barnes of London's Victoria and Albert Museum, HS Liu and Karen Smith of the Shanghai Center of Photography, Mark Lubell of New York's International Center of Photography, not to mention curators like Christopher Phillips and collectors such as Fosun Foundation's Jenny Wang.
Photography as an art form is relatively new to Chinese audiences. As collector Wang Jun—whose Beijing-based private museum the Light Society only shows photography—explained, 'For a long time in China, photography was only thought of as a tool to record historical times, and it was also thought of, after World War II, as a political tool. So it is only since about the 1980s that it has become thought of as art.'
One of the first exhibitions in Shanghai to focus on contemporary photography was put together in 1999 by curator Victor Wang. Entitled The Same But Also Changed, the show presented 15 Chinese artists, including Chen Xiaoyun, Geng Jianyi, Hu Jieming, Liang Yue, Xiang Liqing, Yang Zhenzhong, Yang Fudong and Xu Zhen, and the aim was to explore more experimental concepts in the medium. However, the show was closed by the authorities before it even opened; at the time—due to a tough governmental stance on experimental material—such shows were often shut down.
This year, Wang was invited to 'revisit' his exhibition, presenting this new project in a central location in the fair. The works from the original show have mainly been lost, but he brought together other pieces by some of the same artists. The now well-known artist Xu Zhen showed Actually, I Am Also Dim (2000)—a wall of photographic prints on post-it notes, showing body parts such as arms, legs and torsos. Visitors were entranced by the piece, but were not necessarily familiar with the art world etiquette of not touching works; one of the fair organisers observed a tendency for audience members to attempt to lift off the post-its constituting the piece, even though they had been glued down precisely to prevent this from happening.
Also included in Wang's curated show was a large installation by Miao Ying of free-mounted shaped forms, digitally printed with kitschy landscapes of bright green grass and intense blue skies. The installation was titled Content-Aware, The Five Pillars of Awareness: Reclaiming Ownership of Your Mind, Body and Future (2016). Yang Zhenzhong's Wrong way round (2011)—a set of photographic diptychs showing people facing the camera and then turning their backs with their clothes back to front—attracted the attention of the authorities, who somewhat inexplicably asked for the pairs showing military uniforms to be removed on the fair's public days but not during the two-day preview reserved for VIPs and collectors.
While Wang's project was reasonably experimental, the rest of the fair drew heavily on two other themes: images of Chinese life—from street scenes showing urban decay to rural landscapes—and portraiture.
Portraits varied. There were well-known works, such as Irving Penn's black-and-white platinum palladium print of an elder Pablo Picasso shot close-up at Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac (Picasso [B][2 of 6], Cannes, France, 1957, 1957), and pieces by younger artists such as Anja Niemi, whose portrait of a woman with her face painted like a crying clown (The Crying Circus, 2016) was presented at Galerie XII. (The photograph forms part of a larger body of work from 2016, titled 'The Woman Who Never Existed'.) At ShanghART Gallery, Yang Zhenzhong's 2010 'Extras' series consisted of colour close-ups against plain backgrounds of brightly lit film extras who are captured in a studio, their faces beaming with artificial smiles.
A broad gamut of images focused on elements of Chinese life were also widely exhibited, from classic Magnum prints such as Marc Riboud's black-and-white shot of street wrestlers—Beijing, 1957 (1957)—to Zhang Dali's large-scale colour photographs of walls pierced with holes or vandalised with drawings shaped like a human face. Taken in Beijing in the late 1990s, the series—'Demolition'—was presented at Pékin Fine Arts and also records the destruction of traditional buildings in the capital. At 10 Chancery Lane Gallery, Shi Guorui's astonishing large-scale photographs dating from between 2005 and 2016—captured using a pinhole camera obscura technique and showing bird's eye views of Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing—were ghost-like in blurry monochrome.
According to one dealer, the offerings at the fair this year tended to emphasise an image of photography as a serious art form. 'In the past, this fair was too commercial, but now it is becoming more serious, and lot of collectors are coming', noted Mimi Chun of Hong Kong's Blindspot Gallery. Blindspot showed a variety of artists, including a series by South Ho Siu Nam—'Into Light' (2007-2008)—of tunnels photographed at night, with a bright patch of light in the centre emanating from an undetermined source. Blindspot also presented a set of colourful and abstract archival inkjet prints by Jiang Pengyi from the series 'In Some Time' (2015–2017), in which feather-like wisps of colour cut through the picture plane. There was more abstraction at Cipa Gallery with pigment prints by Shen Linghao consisting of blurred colours in various forms, such as bubbles on a blue background, a blade of light or stippled layers fading into each other.
Vintage photography was almost entirely absent—certainly because of the prices, but also because Chinese buyers are not yet ready to spend heavily on what is still, for them, a new collecting field. While there was a report, unconfirmed by the gallery, that Thaddaeus Ropac sold a Mapplethorpe for USD 200,000, most sales were at a much lower level. KÖNIG GALERIE, for example, said their sales were in the EUR 20,000 to EUR 25,000 range.
A number of dealers remarked that sales seemed slower this year for multiple reasons. For a start, the government's anti-corruption campaign has hindered spending, although the impact this has had on the market is unclear. Certainly, a factor was the fall in the SSE Composite Index—an index of all stocks traded at the Shanghai Stock Exchange—which slumped significantly around the time of the fair. Nevertheless, PHOTOFAIRS | Shanghai is clearly gaining confidence, as is its audience. —[O]