Thursday, May 12, 2011

Shanghai Social Diary

Walking the block to the famous Bund promenade with a view of the Pearl Tower, located across the Huangpu river, in the background.
by Jeanne Lawrence


SHANGHAI—I decided to live in Shanghai because it appeared to be the “happening” city, and it has lived up to my expectations. Every day it seems to have something new to offer—a restaurant, a building, a hotel.

The Rockbund Art Museum (RAM), the first contemporary art museum in the historic Bund, is part of the six-block Rockbund Project restoration.
Last spring, one of the new attractions was the Rockbund Art Museum (RAM), which opened a block from the Bund, the historic waterfront that was once home to the city’s financial institutions. A contemporary art museum, the RAM offered three memorable exhibitions in its first year, two by solo artists and one a group show, and I was fortunate to see all of them and attend the opening early May.


The museum is part of the “Rockbund Project,” the development of a historic six-block area by Hong Kong’s Sinolink in partnership with New York-based Rockefeller Group International, although the Rockefeller family isn’t directly involved.

In this four-acre mixed-use area, the developers are restoring landmark buildings that include some of the finest Art Deco and modernist architecture in Shanghai.

In this massive restoration, their aim was to create a fashionable neighborhood with new luxury residences, retail and office space, and public buildings such as the five-star Peninsula Shanghai Hotel.
The Rockbund Project includes the five-star Peninsula Hotel, which held its opening gala in March 2010 — the first new building on the Bund in 60 years.
The four-acre, mixed-use development is restoring landmark buildings that include some of the finest Art Deco and modernist architecture.
Next to the Peninsula, the former British Consulate and gardens are slated for reconstruction.
The Rockbund Project intends to restore buildings to their original condition, preserving as much of the original as possible.  
The neighborhood reflects the old and the new and is being gentrified and revitalized.
The Rock Bund Museum is housed in the former Royal Asiatic Society (RAS) building that was completed by the Palmer & Turner architectural firm in 1932. Details of RAM’s Art Deco style with Chinese motifs. The RAS was one of China’s first public museums.

I was invited by the Shanghai Foreign Correspondents’ Club for an exclusive peek of the museum before the official opening.

When I first moved to Shanghai in 2008, the buildings in the area of the Rockbund were all either dilapidated or under construction and I couldn’t imagine its future. Since it was my first visit to the “new” neighborhood, I had to search a bit to find my way.
Our group was invited by the Shanghai Foreign Correspondence Club for a preview before the May 4, 2011 opening.
The six-floor museum is housed in the 1933 building that formerly belonged to the Royal Asiatic Society, one of the first museums in China. British architect David Chipperfield redesigned the interior, preserving many of the architectural details.

This was a real pre-view, since the building was still under construction. We wandered around the space, looking at the pieces, while the workmen were still hammering away, and it was exciting to see the artworks before the museum was open to the public.
Outside the museum, one of the “airplanes” designed by a “Peasant da Vinci.”
We enjoyed our private preview of the Rockbund Art Museum while art work was still being installed.
A gyrocopter from the “Peasant da Vincis” exhibition.
Before the official opening, workmen put on finishing touches around the clock.
The hardhat rules.
Above: Artist Wu Yu Lu made robots as a hobby but never expected to see them in a museum.

Left: Jeanne Lawrence — that’s me — beside my favorite robot.

Below: Art consultants Michelle Blumenthal and Defne Ayas ready to catch a ride with the Rickshaw Robot.
We were amused by this home-made robot.
Peasant art—a submarine with a fish tail, which added a touch of humor.
Another version of a submarine.
After the preview, we went to hear one of China’s most recognized artist, Cai Guo-Qiang, talk about his inaugural exhibition, “Peasant da Vincis.”
Artist Cai Guo-Qiang, with his interpreter, spoke in English and Mandarin.
The audience was an international mix.
Cai Guo-Qiang travelled China’s countryside for five years collecting the creations of rural artist/designers for this show.
Known for his use of gunpowder (a Chinese invention), Cai showed a slide show of some of his “explosive” work.
Cai’s international reputation grew thanks to the fantastic pyrotechnic displays he created for Shanghai and the Beijing Olymics.
The 2008 Beijing Olympics opening, which I attended, was arguably one of the greatest shows on earth—ever.
After the lecture, the neighborhood at dusk.
Tourists packed the streets near the Bund, one of Shanghai’s main attractions.

Since friends were in town, I brought them to the official opening night. RAM wasn’t large enough to accommodate everyone in the international crowd who attended, so the event was held in the open-air courtyard behind the museums.

On the big night, David Chipperfield was there, accepting compliments for his design. I also saw jewelry designer Kai Yin Lo and art maven Amy Wood and journalist Sarah Monks in from Hong Kong; and from Manhattan Edie Lederer, Robyn Joseph, Shirley Young, and Maureen Sullivan, rock-and-roll legend Quincy Jones. Among the artists in attendance were Yan Pei-Ming, Zhou Tiehai, and Zeng Fanzhi.
New Yorkers Jeanne Lawrence, Edith Lederer, and Robyn Joseph at the entrance to the Rockbund Project. Historic buildings under renovation line the streets.
English Architect David Chipperfield spoke on opening night of RAM, which he renovated.
The RAM’s official opening was held in the open-air courtyard.
The Chinese characters painted on the façade of the RAM said, “Never learned how to land.” Hong Kong jewelry designer Kai Yin Lo with artist Zeng Fanzhi.
Kai Yin Lo with composer Tan Dun and New Yorker Shirley Young.
Art Maven Amy Woods flew in from Hong Kong.
Journalist Sarah Monks from HK; AP’s UN Bureau Chief, Edith Lederer, in from New York; Robyn Joseph; curator Maureen Sullivan; me, and Shanghai gallerist Mei Liu Ying.
The view of the famous Bund as we walked to dinner after the opening.

The director of RAM when it opened was Lai Hsiangling, the former director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Taipei.

For the inaugural show, Lai chose “China’s Peasant da Vincis” by New York-Beijing based artist Cai Guo-Qiang. (I still can’t pronounce his very difficult name correctly!)

New York readers may have seen his exhibitions at the Metropolitan, MOMA, and the Guggenheim. Cai Guo-Qiang is known for works that include gunpowder illustrations and large-scale installations featuring everything from exploding cars to flying wolves. He also curated China’s first official pavilion at the Venice Biennale.
The first RAM show, by Cai Guo-Quiang, was “Peasant da Vincis.”
Zhou Qingzhi, Eunice Wong, and Charles Wong at the opening. Sheldon Trainor, Emelda Trainor, and Lynn Ou at the opening.
After the tour, we were fortunate to hear Cai Guo-Qiang himself discuss and his work over the last 30 years. He showed an utterly engrossing video of his explosion events around the world, including the pyrotechnics at the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

As the museum opening coincided with Shanghai World Expo 2010 (the World’s Fair), whose theme was “Better City, Better Life,” Cai had chosen a related theme: the creativity of peasants and their contributions to Chinese modernization. He explained,
“Anxiety is present in Chinese society over its state of transition between 'Made in China' and 'Created in China,’ and it is the hundreds of millions of peasants who have paid the price for the construction of modern society and better urban life in the reform era. The slogan of the Shanghai Expo is 'Better City, Better Life,' and to this I would add: 'Peasants – making a better city, better life.”
Artist Cai Guo-Qiang and businessman Thomas Ou.
Looking for inspiration from the peasants, Cai traveled to eight rural provinces, where he selected unpretentious homemade inventions, some serious and others more whimsical. The collected inventions included submarines, gyrocopters, planes, a UFO and robots that paint in the style of artists Jackson Pollock, Yves Klein, and Damien Hirst.

According to introductory materials provided by the museum, Cai was “exploring the subject of human creativity, the unquenchable universal desire to innovate and dream, and the influence of nature, society, politics, and other cultural factors on invention.”
Cai Guo-Qiang’s “Head On” appeared in the Deutsche Guggenheim in 2006. The 99 wolves are made of wire, plastic, and sheepskin stuffed with hay.
Cai’s eclectic body of work, “Inopportune: Stage One,” appeared at the NY’s Guggenheim in 2008. The “exploding” cars are made with LED light rods. A farmer-made submarine built by one of the “Peasant da Vincis.”
One of the planes collected by Cai for the “China’s Peasant da Vincis” exhibition.
The submarine, plane and helicopter created by Chinese inventors were part of the show of peasant art.
Robots commissioned by Cai can paint in the style of Jackson Pollock.

For its second show, RAM featured the works by Zeng Fanzhi, one of China’s leading contemporary artists. Zeng’s “Mask” series, which went sold at auction for almost $10 million U.S., set a record for Chinese art.

I found this show, which ran from August to October, as intriguing as the first. The theme was “Man and Nature,” and it included 20 of Zeng’s works. His oil paintings have a dark side, with such imagery as a bloody bull carcass, flaming forests of bracken, and snarling wolves. Other animals in his works — a bear, a pair of monkeys and an elephant with his trunk raised — appear to be threatening or threatened.

Zeng exhibited two paintings that were each 33 feet across, his biggest to date. Another novel aspect of the exhibition was Zeng’s first foray into sculpture: a pair of mammoth tusks that he painted and then polished repeatedly to achieve a high gloss.
Zeng Fanzhi, creator of the “Man and Nature” exhibit, was born in Wuhan, China in 1964.
Zeng Fanzhi, best known for his paintings, exhibited two giant mammoth tusks—his first sculptures—in his RAM show.
A Zeng sculpture depicting a “hidden” Virgin Mary and Christ was also on display at the old Union Church (1885) down the block.
For this exhibition, Zeng painted two 33-foot canvases, the largest of his career. This one depicts a wilderness scorched by wildfire.
On entering the museum, audiences were confronted by a painting of a bull carcass.
An elephant marked with some of Zeng’s “accidental” brush strokes. One of the menacing animals that inhabit Zeng’s paintings.
This covered lamb sculpture is crafted from gold nanmu wood.
Canvases were displayed facing each other, in the same way Chinese scroll paintings were traditionally hung.

In the fall, I returned to see RAM’s third exhibition: “By Day, By Night: or Some (Special) Things a Museum Can Do.” It featured works in various media — video, audio, photography and installations — by artists from disparate backgrounds.

Guest Curator Hou Hanru, Director of Exhibitions at the San Francisco Art Institute, brought in works by Nedko Solakov (Bulgaria); Choi Jeong-Hwa, (Korea); Sam Samore (USA); Shahzia Sikander (Pakistan); Zhou Tiehai (China), Pedro Cabrita Reis (Portugal), Du Yun (China), Sun Xun (China), Tu Wei-cheng (Taiwan).
Art enthusiasts congregated on the third and fourth floors of RAM for the opening of the third exhibit.
The participating artists onstage at the launch of “By Day, By Night.”
Choi Jeong Hwa’s “Lie of Lie,” made of red, silver and transparent acrylic beads.
Korean artist Choi Jeong Hwa at work on one of his installations.
Pedro Cabrita Reis’s “In Here, Out There” is a depiction of the gallery’s layout, rendered in fluorescent lights.
American artist Sam Samore’s film, “Hallucinations/Paradise,” was shown in the screening room.
Artist Tu Weicheng hangs his work.
Nedko Solakov documented his overland journey from Bulgaria to Shanghai with notes, drawings, photos and maps.
Animations and paintings of dragons from Chinese artist Sun Xun’s “Beyond-ism.”
Taiwanese artist Tu Weicheng uses volunteers to measure a bridge on Suzhou Creek in “Urbanscape and People’s Measurement of It.”

It was great to be in Shanghai and see RAM take its first steps. With quality artists, top-notch curation and a prime location, the gallery has already established itself as one of the city’s noteworthy art institutions.

Closed for renovations for most of 2011, the Museum will reopen in September. I’ll be back, eager to see how it evolves.

Meanwhile, if you missed Zeng Fanzhi’s show at the Rockbund, you still have a chance to see his work in Hong Kong during the spring auction season (May 27-June l). Rockbund Art Museum and Christie’s in Hong Kong will feature “BEING,” an exhibition of 30 of his works that is sponsored by the Francois Pinault Foundation.
Photographs by Jeanne Lawrence, Rockbund Museum, and Asia Tatler.

*Urbanite Jeanne Lawrence reports on lifestyle and travel from her homes in San Francisco, Shanghai, and New York, and wherever else she finds a good story.