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The 9th Shanghai Biennale

Jacob Dreyer

Depiction of the newly-opened Power Station of Art in Shanghai.

Since the mid-1990s, China has assumed greater and greater importance in the contemporary art world, as artists like Ai Weiwei and Cai Guo-Qiang gain international prominence and major galleries such as Pace, James Cohan, and Gagosian establish themselves in Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong respectively. However, good Chinese artists don’t necessarily make for good Chinese art, as this year’s Shanghai Biennale shows. The abundance of talented artists, thoughtful curators, and of course the rapidly changing, chaotic and beautiful society which offers inspiration and subject matter to artists haven’t overcome the intrinsic limitations of the local art culture. Specifically, artists are forced to either go a hypercommercial route, often culminating in the specter of art as a luxury product—the tacky SH Contemporary fair exemplifies this, with luxury cars auctioned off side by side with art works and prominent space given to top-shelf alcohol brands—or to fit themselves into the uncertain role of socialist cultural worker in a China that is still officially communist, even as it is dominated by the same market dynamics seen in the West. The 9th Shanghai Biennale, directed by the local government, betrayed the problems of the latter approach. Opportunities that could have been spectacular, for example, the opening of the Power Station of Art, the first state-run contemporary art museum in China, ended up seeming derivative and tacky, and a sense of incompetence in the details of execution cheapened a potentially amazing venue for cultural production.

The Power Station of Art was unveiled for the biennale, and the space seems to fit in well with, or perhaps may have even inspired the theme of “Reactivation.” On your way to the space from, say, the residential French Concession in the center of the city, your taxi will pass shopping malls, major streets, office buildings, and then smaller restaurants, dingy apartment blocks, and exhaust-black public toilets. By the time you’re ready to ask if you have gotten lost, you’ve arrived. Located on the waterfront, in another city (like London, but more on that later) the site would be absolutely central to cultural life. But in the weird world of Shanghai real estate, where huge swathes of the city are sparkling new even as others seem untouched since the 1980s, this is a marginal borderland, albeit one with some of the best city views around. Shanghai has, in the past few decades, transformed from a vast, grubby warehouse of poverty into one of the premier spaces for finance capital, with the accompanying luxury apartments, nightclubs, gyms, and lifestyle paraphernalia that that entails; the neighborhood in which the biennale is held hasn’t yet been hit by this wave, and it is unclear whether the “Reactivation” theme is intended to bring back the ghosts of the past, or clear them away more quickly.

These spaces of socialist modernity, left as useless ruin, are now appropriated as the center of a new cultural renaissance, which far from forgetting its industrial heritage invokes it at every opportunity. On paper, the possibilities are endless, and it is clear why the renowned curator Boris Groys, a scholar of Socialist Realism and the legacy of Communism, decided to get on board what could have otherwise seemed like a local production. If the socialist legacy has a future, it might be as the heritage and tradition of the world’s soon-to-be-largest economy. Indeed, Groys’s hand was felt on some of the most intriguing works on display: some photographs by the Ukrainian artist Boris Mikhailov, with his brilliant commentary on the contemporary life in the former USSR; and American photographer Martha Rosler’s photographs of Cuba, taken in the early 1980s. In the context of the space, with its echoes of a revolutionary past, these visual references to socialism are infused with vigor. What might seem clichéd or stale in New York becomes part of a very real legacy here, one which physically surrounds you.

“City Pavilions,” including entrants from Detroit, Brooklyn and Berlin, are found in historic buildings farther north in the city; the use of these old industrial buildings for art exhibitions might be the most interesting part of this year’s biennale, and its truest claim to “reactivating” old energies in the city. If, as Groys writes in The Communist Postscript, culture is intrinsically antithetical to economic understandings of reality (and the former is named communism), then the rich links between the industrial past of the Power Station and the work that is on display at the biennale could be seen as a coherent call to a different vision of contemporary China—one which has discarded the cruel logic of economic production in favor of a more humanistic vision. If only that were how it had turned out. The most prominent exhibit as one enters the biennale is a coffee shop. Moreover, the echoes between the Power Station and London’s Tate Modern, another decaying industrial relic turned public contemporary art gallery of international prominence, went from seeming like a subtle tribute to a mediocre copy almost immediately. The Tate Modern, of course, recently featured millions of Ai Weiwei’s “Sunflower Seeds.” The porcelain sunflower seeds, each one subtly different from the others, symbolized the massiveness of the Chinese population, and the paradox of a human reality so vast, yet still characterized by individual differentiation.

The work was one of the most notable of the Tate’s exhibitions in the past five years at least, attracting praise from across the critical spectrum. It is disappointing, then, that as soon as one enters this new factory-turned-gallery, one is immediately confronted with several large-scale pieces that replicate the size and repetitiveness of Ai’s piece, but add a self-orientalizing quality, one of the more negative aspects of Chinese art of the past decade. Dozens of Chinese porcelain vases are stacked one on top of another, reaching to the ceiling; a room-sized display features hundreds of brass hands reaching out into the air; and terracotta warriors descend a staircase (of course, with sardonic facial expressions). Even worse, this is all in the same room. We get it, there are lots of Chinese people. Thanks.

Curators and critics who I spoke to told me off the record of how pieces were still being mounted on the wall literally hours before the opening, on cheap foamboard of the type that middle school students use for science fair projects; architects bemoaned how the elegant industrial space had been debased into a sort of Chinese Hotel Lobby Baroque. As of the second week of the biennale, exhibits had prominent spelling errors, for example the “Hong Knog” Inter-Vivos Film Project. This also happened in the 2010 biennale, when catalogs were printed with the theme “Reherasal” on the cover. These anecdotes reinforced the sense that I got when, during the preparations over the summer, I was invited to a meeting held in one of the offices used for the 2010 Shanghai Expo, located near the site of the Power Station. Chief Curator, Qiu Zhijie, held forth about his views on art and plans for the biennale to an audience of his students from the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou, a handful of culture ministry bureaucrats, and select foreigners, more or less in the same category as myself. Banners featuring Haibao, a blue, Gumby-esque humanoid who was the mascot of the Expo, cheerily stared down at us from the walls, lending a sheen of the absurd to a moment which could have otherwise been inspiring.

This, in fact, is the problem of the Chinese art world (as distinguished from individual Chinese artists): it lacks confidence because it obtains funding and support from a corrupt and incompetent government. Artists and curators, no matter how radical their artistic claims, are seen as national standard bearers, roughly analogous to Olympic athletes; their merit comes from their performance relative to a Western standard. For example, Qiu has repeatedly invoked the legacy of Mao in a politically charged way, but state-run exhibitions like the biennale seem to appropriate this sort of outsider vision for their own, defusing their critique. Unsurprising, then, that a moment which could be the start of a renaissance of Chinese culture, such as the opening of the Power Station, ends up seeming merely a tawdry imitation of better, more exciting things happening elsewhere.

In New York and London, artists are artists; in Shanghai and Beijing, artists are Chinese artists, appropriated by the government as proof that China can compete not only in economic, but also cultural terms. A similar phenomenon was seen in the recent Nobel Literature Prize given to Mo Yan; his works are deeply critical of a corrupt Chinese modernity, but the sense that he is “our guy” made it front page news (while his critique of the imprisonment of Liu Xiaobo, 2010’s dissident Peace Prize laureate, was not publicized). This identity, artificial and heavily ideological, is a heavy burden to bear, and drags art down to the level of vulgar competition, with insecurities prominently on display.

The elements of a renaissance or, if you like, reactivation of Chinese modern culture are all in place: countless talented young artists, international attention, excellent gallery spaces, and again, a fascinating moment in the history of Chinese civilization. It only remains for a breath of fresh air, or a further opening of the climate, to put them in place.