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Shanghai is taking to meishu, for the first time an art scene is emerging in China’s most commercial city

With the Shanghai Museum expanding this month, a modern art museum planned for two years hence and a dozen serious commercial galleries likely in 1997

There is little beauty on which to feast the eyes in Shanghai, a huge sprawling megalopolis filled to breaking point with nearly fourteen million people. Massive land clearances and fast rising structures announce the influx of capital into a city that was once a bastion of hard line Communist ideology.

In 1988 Beijing and Shanghai entered in to a revenue agreement by which Shanghai contributes a fixed amount to the central government and keeps any surpluses for its own use. The result is that huge developments are underway—the building of a micro-electronics industry in Caohejing and the establishment of a new port and free trade and export processing zone in Pudong, to mention but two.

But Shanghai is already showing signs that at least some of the money is finding its way into the arts. The Shanghai Museum, displaying fine ceramics from prehistoric to Ching dynasty wares and exceptional ancient Chinese stone and polychrome wood sculpture, was rehoused and opened two years ago in Peoples’ Square. Two more galleries are scheduled to open on 11 October (see p. 8). The Shanghai City government is also planning to construct a concert hall opposite the new museum building. It is rumoured that another museum devoted to modern art will open in two years’ time.

On the fringes of the city a glass pyramidal structure, as hot as an oven inside, houses the life work of the highly regarded Liu Hai-su, who died two years ago, aged ninety-eight. The Liu Hai-su Museum opened in March 1995 at a cost of RMB 30 million ($4,363,600), and the Shanghai city government pays RMB 1,500,000 ($218,000) annually towards its running costs. Liu worked in traditional pen and ink and in oils and was the founder of the Shanghai Art School. His work is now in great demand from Hong Kong (HK), Taiwanese and, increasingly, mainland Chinese buyers.

Given the museum’s conservative attitudes, it was surprising to learn that in March it organised an exhibition of installation art, entitled “In the name of art”, sponsored by local businesses and curated by the well known critic, Zhu Qi. Hard-hitting and humorous, Zhou Tie Hai’s work “Airport announcement” has as a sound backdrop the repeatedly announced flight departure times and foreign city destinations, lampooning the eagerness of local artists to get rich and famous quick overseas. In another more direct comment on art and money, Ni Wei Hua created a three-metre high, gold painted sign out of the Chinese characters for “art” (meishu).

A few Shanghai-based commercial galleries of international standing also now exist. ShanghART, which opened in March this year, occupies a small space in the Portman Shangri-La hotel on Nanjing Don Lu and is run by a Swiss entrepreneur, Lorenz Helbling, who has been based in Shanghai for a number of years. “The gallery’s buyers are mainly Europeans, Americans and South East Asians who live in China and a few foreign collectors who visit China spasmodically”, he told The Art Newspaper, “although recently a few local residents have acquired work. Also some overseas galleries have bought work from me”. Furthermore, The Art Newspaper has discovered that the American multinational, Bellsouth, a subsidiary of AT&T, has regularly bought works of contemporary Chinese oil painters and another US company, Coopers and Lybrand, has acquired the work of Wang Ming Shi. The German chemical company, Henkel, is also a corporate buyer of contemporary Chinese paintings. In ShanghART’s stable are the young and promising Ding Yi, who paints silhouettes of icons such as the horses of Xu Beihong, and the controversial Jin Weihong, whose most recent exhibition showed her experiments with the nude, a once taboo subject in Chinese art. Mr Helbling explained that his artists must have “a creative fire”. He cited as examples the works of Pu Jie and Ji Wen Yu, who satirise contemporary Chinese society. None the less ShanghART also deals in the traditional pen and ink paintings of Tang Guo and Jin Weihong.

The C&S Gallery, in the huge TV Tower building and run by an American-educated Shanghainese, recently put on an exhibition of oil painting portraits of ethnic minorities in traditional costumes by a local artist of stature, Ding Shao-guang. The gallery is now concentrating on selling limited edition prints and etchings by Western masters such as Miró, Matisse, Renoir and Cézanne to wealthy Shanghai citizens. The Sun Bird Art Gallery sells early twentieth-century Chinese oil paintings and has diversified into offering haircuts and face massages to its visitors. At the moment, the only other commercial art gallery of note in Shanghai is the Zhu Qi Zhan Art Gallery.

Both Sotheby’s and Christie’s have had representative offices in Shanghai for three years. Mike Bruhn of Sotheby’s, Shanghai acknowledges that the auction house helps to attract buyers to its auctions in HK and Taipei. The next HK Sotheby’s preview of works is scheduled on 11 and 12 October, coinciding with the opening of the new galleries in the Shanghai Museum. Mr Bruhn agreed that “most people in Shanghai are not interested in contemporary art and so most artists look to HK and Taipei galleries for support”. He also pointed out the absence of any mechanisms that might encourage serious collecting. There are no tax incentives for example, and no specialised art insurance companies in the Peoples Republic of China (PRC). It is also unclear in the PRC whether art should be regarded as a moveable or a fixed asset. But despite this prognosis, Sotheby’s still manages to attract corporate buyers from the mainland to its regional auctions. “All the money is in Shanghai and traditionally the city has had many collectors”, Mr Bruhn commented.

Perhaps the most famous auction house operating in Shanghai at present is Duo Yun Xuan (A piece of cloud) on Nanjing Dong Lu. Mr Bruhn likened their auction rooms to “a Phillips or a Bonhams” and said that the buyers were exclusively Asian. Jennifer Livingstone of the British Council in Shanghai, who has witnessed a number of auctions at Duo Yun Xuan, told The Art Newspaper that, “there is usually a mixed crowd for the ink and brush painting sales, made up of Shanghai but also HK and Taiwan bidders and prices can go as high as $10,000 for one painting”.

In a year’s time there could well be a dozen serious commercial galleries in Shanghai. In two years’ time the city may even have a new modern art museum. Before too long China’s great stock of artists will perhaps be able to sell and exhibit their work on the mainland. It will perhaps take a little longer to convince the wealthy residents of the new Economic Zones on China’s east coast to buy non-traditional contemporary art, but education and changes in the tax law would speed the process along. The Shanghai authorities have repeatedly confirmed their commitment not only to economic but also cultural development. The city itself is changing extraordinarily rapidly and there is a sense that the residents are keen to make it once again the wealthiest and most glamourous in China. Art will undoubtedly play a part in that process.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Shanghai is taking to meishu'