For a couple of weeks every autumn, the unsavory smells that squat up and down Shanghai’s streets are joined, and sometimes overwhelmed, by the perfume of Osmanthus. It started here a few days ago, giving shelter from the usual olfactory harassment to those who pause under the trees. The city’s art scene has a similarly brief but intense blossoming every September. This year, it’s been more intense and pervasive than ever.
Many of the city’s museums launched blockbuster shows, with Swiss conceptual artist Ugo Rondinone showing at Rockbund Art Museum, Brazilian artist Vik Muniz exhibiting at the West Bund Long Museum, and Cai Guo-Qiang’s, The Ninth Wave, continuing at the Power Station of Art.
In the space of one week the city also hosted three art fairs—Photo Shanghai, Art in the City and SH Contemporary—with another, the West Bund Art and Design Fair, opening two weeks later. With the exception of SH, these were all new offerings.
The flurry of new fairs comes in response to a dearth of activity in 2013, when SH Contemporary, which has been the city’s most ambitious art fair since its inauguration in 2007, was cancelled. The Italian organizers, BolognaFiere, were searching for a new local partner.
Newcomer Photo Shanghai had the audacity both to launch before SH Contemporary and use the venue practically synonymous with SH: the star-topped Shanghai International Exhibition Centre, which was gifted to the city by the Soviets in the 1950s. Photo Shanghai wisely chose to limit its exhibition space to the building’s main hall. With a relatively select 50 galleries packed into the space, and plenty of visitors in attendance, the fair thrummed.
Establishing a clear niche—art photography, old and new—gave Photo Shanghai focus. Photography hasn’t heretofore been a major draw for Chinese collectors, something fair director Alexander Montague-Sparey glibly attributed to the fact that it hadn’t been available before, despite the fact that local galleries including M97, OFOTO, MD Gallery, Aike Dellarco and BANK have been exhibiting contemporary art photography for years. Nevertheless, galleries were positive about the fair and their sales.
Highlights of the exhibition included: a satellite view of the Forbidden City reconstructed out of computer components by Zhang Bing; images of subtropical flora taking back space from Hong Kong’s architectural impositions by Romain Jacquet-Lagrèze; vintage NASA photographs exhibited by BREESE LITTLE; Peter Fetterman Gallery’s collection of historic works by Henri Cartier-Bresson; documentation of paper and paste portraits by JR at MD Gallery’s booth; and a crowd photo, with people in different colored clothes rearranged to suggest migrant worker bag tartan, by OFOTO’s Zhang Bojun.
For all its success, Photo Shanghai didn’t do much to introduce new talents or develop the critical conversation around Chinese photography. Fortunately, Minsheng Art Museum’s contemporaneous exhibition, Contemporary Photography in China 2009-2014, provided welcome context to the commercial offerings. Backed by Sandy Angus, one of the co-founders of ARTHK, Photo Shanghai came off with barely a hitch. The biggest complaint was air bubbles forming under the paint of a few booths’ walls.
Despite having deeper roots in Shanghai, SH Contemporary experienced much deeper problems. Just days before the fair, it was unclear if SH would open at all. A last minute push from the Italian Consulate garnered permits to show works, but not to sell them. Licensing issues also meant international galleries were unable to bring their works through customs, and they were stuck at the airport for much of the VIP opening. Japan’s Whitestone Gallery and Korea’s Gallery Soso were just two of the booths limited to showing their work in catalogues. Large sections of the venue’s long wings echoed with emptiness. At the opening of SH, Tom Pattinson, director of the SURGE affordable art fairs, was sympathetic, explaining how local partners and administrators extort a greater cut as fairs increase in prominence, and that red tape is applied more emphatically. Gallery directors Steven Harris and Mathieu Borysevicz were doubtful SH will ever take place again.
On the upside, SH brought together some great work, with M97 showing photos of brutalist industrial architecture by Michael Wolf and wonderful new abstracts by Wang Ningde composed of colored lens filters embedded in canvas. ShanghART exhibited restrained paintings by Wu Yiming, while FQ Projects showed Lu Chi’s Taihu rockery in colored glass and Wang Dawei’s paintings on concrete-coated canvas. BANK gave its entire exhibition space to comic works by young painter, Geng Yini.
Squeezed in between Photo Shanghai and SH Contemporary was Art in the City, a fair held at the chi K11 Art Centre. The exhibition space is located in the third floor basement of Huaihai Road’s K11 shopping mall, a smartened up retail space in place of the International Exhibition Centre’s ersatz palace. The fair was co-organized by Massimo Torrigiani, Davide Quadrio and Donna Chai, all of whom have considerable experience in Shanghai’s art dealings, with Chai and Torrigiani both heavily involved in previous editions of SH.
Participation in Art in the City was limited to 15 selected galleries, which benefited from larger than average booth sizes. It innovated with entrances that resembled old Shanghai streets and by presenting visitors with a linear path that more closely resembled a museum exhibition than a gallery show or art fair. The carefully curated experience and the high quality of work made it popular with galleries and visitors.
Highlights of the fair included Peng Wei’s ink painting on hemp paper sculptures at the Shanghai Gallery of Art booth, resin sculptures by Jin Shan at Aike Dellarco, and a 640cm mural containing an unquantifiable amount of paint by Zhu Jinshi courtesy of Pearl Lam Fine Art.
With mega-fair Art Basel Hong Kong firmly established down south, and given SH Contemporary’s problems, Shanghai may be better suited to the boutique art fair. Given the number of new fairs competing for galleries and collectors’ attentions, future fairs may also need to brand themselves more distinctly, focusing on a niche the same way Photo Shanghai has.
While Art in the City had a local bent, even smallish fairs can provide room for major international galleries, as evidenced by the West Bund Art and Design Fair, directed by artist and art administrator Zhou Tiehai. White Cube, Lehmann Maupin and Hauser & With were among the 26 galleries that signed on, as were top Beijing galleries Boers-Li, Galleria Continua and Pace Beijing. Held in impressive aircraft hangars near the Yuz Museum, the fair’s 26 galleries, plus a token five design studios, make the fair squarely part of the boutique trend. At the West Bund fair, Aike Dellarco’s fatigued-looking director Roberto Ceresia posited that Shanghai’s art fairs could be consolidated or better spaced out, perhaps by moving one or two to March, where they would benefit from the attention Art Basel Hong Kong brings to the region.
One fair, at least, chose not to take place this September. SH021, which had its inaugural showing last year, is planned for November, when the Shanghai Biennale will give Shanghai’s art scene another burst of activity before activity winds down again for the winter. —[O]