The Report: Shanghai and Hong Kong 2010

Shanghai World Expo

The Pearl, Shanghai at Night

Having made five trips to Shanghai in the past 15 years, the development of the city continues to astound. The word or concept of globalization is everywhere. Yet the experiential reality and visual witness of it become increasingly more profound as it evolves.

The World Expo in Shanghai, May-Oct 2010, features pavilions from 191 countries, various corporations and several cities, all distinguishing themselves through architecture, product brands, and ideas for the future. It is a feast primarily organized for the benefit of the Chinese and the region. International attendees from elsewhere are projected to represent roughly a mere 10% of the total visitors. I was among them on my recent visit en route to the Hong Kong International Art Fair, HK 10.

View of Expo, Israeli Pavilion in rear

Despite the vastness of the Expo site itself, with pavilions on both sides of the Huangpo River, the major venues were packed. An average day hosts up to 300,000 visitors. With overwhelming attendance, waits up to five hours for pavilion entry, long queues for restaurant seats and use of bathrooms, my visit was both exciting and daunting.

Exit from China Pavilion

China Pavilion, interior

I did attain entry to my top destinations, the Chinese, US and UK Pavilions, among others. These three pavilions represent the essence of Expo. China and the US manifest the great powers of East and West. Their pavilions are selling their different world views, meant to seduce, entertain and invariably compete. The China Pavilion, star of the show, immediately declares the formidable power of the State through its authoritarian architecture. The pavilion interior celebrates collective accomplishment and pride in its progress to-date. Underlining the Expo theme, “Better City, Better Life” the displays encourage consumption and trumpet a siren call to join the world of highrise living, sleek furniture and flat screen TVs. This message, both overt and subliminal, is wrapped up in sophisticated visual presentations, massive murals, Universal Studio-type conveyances that take visitors through remarkable, glittering landscapes, and other sensory devices. No expense was spared; the impact is a huge success.

US Pavilion, exterior

In contrast to the collective emphasis in the Chinese pavilion, the US Pavilion emphasizes the power of the individual, focusing on imagination, creativity, education and cooperation. The experience begins in a staging area where magnificent images are flashing of US icons like the Grand Canyon, the Statue of Liberty and Las Vegas. A handsome, young Causcasian fellow leads a sort of pep rally, exhorting the audience in Chinese to repeat in English, “I Am Awesome”, “You Are Awesome”, “We Are Awesome”. I admit to wincing on this one.

Then the audience enters a huge visual, multi-screen show featuring all aspects of American society. Eloquent speeches and sincere outreach meant to communicate our values, culture and dreams are made from a host of speakers, from President Obama to Kobe Bryant to Joe the plumber to the kids next door.

The central presentation is a short film about a young girl who imagines building a garden in a decrepit, forgotten space between residential towers in the city. Against all odds, she leads the charge. Fighting naysayers, vandals and obstinate neighbors, the garden eventually blooms with the cooperation and participation of all concerned. (Better City, Better Life) The wow factor occurs when a rainstorm that wipes out the first planting attempt, also mists the entire auditorium, creating a surprising and engaging moment that brings everyone personally into the film.

Then the auditorium empties out into a final room replete with brand identities and products by the various corporate sponsors who funded the effort. The pavilion was done on a limited budget and overall felt too predictable. But of course, I wouldn’t have missed it and hopefully other visitors found it more persuasive than I did.

United Kingdom Pavilion entry

Seeds at end of acrylic rods, United Kingdom Pavilion

In difference to the sociopolitical stance of China and the US, the British pavilion is essentially conceptual. It embraces the other spectrum present at Expo which orients to green technology and save the planet themes. In celebrating the world’s botany, by housing individual seeds inside of an explosion of acrylic rods, the entire building represents the interface of science and the miracle of nature. The presentation addresses some similar themes as the US, such as imagination, the value of working together and the possibility of the future, but without any whiff of British Empire.

Shanghai Art Scene

Isaac Julien installation, Shanghart

Outside Expo, the Shanghai art scene continues to expand. Highlights included the world-class presentation at the esteemed gallery, Shanghart, of Isaac Julien’s latest work, “Ten Thousand Waves”. A nine-screen installation with surround sound, the work premiered at the 2010 Sydney Biennale. The piece examines the motivations of need and desire that drive people to embark on perilous journeys to achieve a better life. Julien’s filmic approach gives a nod to the techniques of the great Chinese filmmaker, Yang Fudong, who is also an actor in the piece.

Fang Lijun, Minsheng Museum, Shanghai

Zeng Fanzhi, Minsheng Museum, Shanghai

Two new museums now enhance the local Shanghai offerings. The Minsheng Museum in Redtown opened with a significant exhibition of the history of contemporary Chinese painting. From the soviet-inspired social realism of the late eighties up to the present time, it is perhaps the first museum exhibition to catalog the activity of the past thirty years. Featuring well-known names such as Yue Minjun, Zeng Fanzhi and Fang Lijun, it gives their work a context and highlights the huge departure represented in their respective imagery and ideas.

The Rock Bund Museum, located on the Bund, opened with a show curated by Cai Guo Qiang. He presents what he calls “Chinese peasant da Vincis”. These exhibitors invented machines, robots and other devices that currently exist or once existed. They were designed to assist in overcoming man’s limitations in daily life. They are simple, innovative and inspiring pieces, making the show a perfect compliment to the themes at Expo.

HK 10

Sevva, restaurant terrace, Hong Kong

Hong Kong has long been a sophisticated and cosmopolitan city. It teems with energy and money. Swank hotels, opulent restaurants and bars, international fashion boutiques and new Mercedes abound. The press is full of stories of the new power of Asian art buying, especially at auction. The recent record sale of $106 million for a Picasso painting is rumored to be a Chinese buyer. Larry Gagosian is opening another gallery branch in Hong Kong and Pace Gallery is set to follow.

Jin Nv sculpture, HK 10

HK 10 was greeted with anticipation. Opening attendance at the Fair was probably 40% non-Asian. The quality of exhibitors was high from booths featuring international favorites like Warhol, Hirst and Nara to emerging talent from Japan and Australia. The opportunity in Hong Kong is to see a different slice of the art market, find an overlooked gem, source young talent and engage with new vendors and participants. As an emerging market, there is a freshness and a clear desire to expose the artists and to educate the audience. Business was very good for some and a groundwork-laying exercise for others. While it is difficult to quantify the sales figure for the Fair, Christie’s concurrent auction of Contemporary Asian Art and 20th Century Chinese Art is public record.

Christie's, Hong Kong

Christie’s sale was previewed and held live in the vast Hong Kong Convention Center in halls just adjacent to the Fair. Like many new buyers, the Chinese are more comfortable buying at auction than through galleries that are unfamiliar to them. Sales proceeds including buyer’s premium from the evening sale on May 29 comprised of 36 lots yielded over $38 million (303,360,000 HKD). I can attest to the ardent bidding and enthusiastic applauding for achieved prices from the standing-room only crowd. The acquisition of fine art, wine and jewels have made Hong Kong the third most important auction market after the US and Europe for Christies and Sothebys. However, Chinese law prevents foreign auction houses from operating on the Mainland or from selling cultural relics in Hong Kong, so revenue growth currently has some limitations.

Folker De Jong, James Cohan Gallery, HK 10

Back at the art fair, the crowds built daily as the weekend approached. Unlike fairs in the West where buying usually happens immediately on the first day, or even in the first hour, sales mounted over several days as buyers contemplated and considered. By Saturday, the audience was dominated by camera-toting Asian youth. Crowds of young people surrounded the artworks everywhere, successively shooting pictures and having their picture taken with an engaging painting or sculpture. No contemplation of the work seemed evident. Capturing the image was apparently it’s own reward.

The Wrap

The international art fairs have grown far beyond being just a marketplace. They are cultural platforms and meeting places. They welcome buyers and sellers, as well as museum directors, curators, critics and even the artists. Through educational programming like lectures and panels, local museum and gallery exhibitions of strength, special performances and installations in the fair and around town, each fair becomes its own nexus. HK 10 inhabits this role most distinctly now for China.

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