Shanghai Social Diary: San Francisco Asian Art Museum Trip: Part I

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Shanghai Social Diary

SHANGHAI — I was in Shanghai when the San Francisco Museum of Asian Art delegation came to Shanghai (its sister city since 1980), and I was delighted to join them for a few busy days.

I like to report on various museum’s trips to China, as it highlights what is happening in the art and museum world and gives readers a chance to see “the best of the best.”
Heading the SFAAM delegation was Museum Director Dr. Jay Xu, who was born in Shanghai and at one time was one of the assistant curator at the Shanghai Museum. Since Jay is a local boy made good – actually, better than good! – the delegation got the “royal treatment” everywhere.

He explained the purpose of the intense expedition: “This is not a shopping or sight-seeing trip. The focus is looking at contemporary art.”

The Shanghai Peninsula positioned on the historic Bund—the riverside promenade—is sister to Hong Kong’s legendary Peninsula Hotel.


The delegation checked into the fairly new, luxurious, five-star Peninsula Shanghai Hotel that held its grand opening in late 2009. As Shanghai is legendary for its 1920’s and 1930’s Art Deco architecture, and the hotel was designed to blend in with the feeling of the historic Bund neighborhood.

The Hon. Sir Michael Kadoorie, Chairman of Hong Kong and Shanghai Peninsula Hotels, wanted to recreate the glamorous era when Shanghai was fêted as “The Paris of the East.” He spared no expense.
New York-based architects David Beer (pictured) and Paris-based interior designer Pierre-Yves Rochon kept the influences of the Art Deco movement, but with a modern twist.
The Lobby acts as the cities’ social hub and overlooks the gardens of the former British Consulate.
One of the 44 suites in the 235-room hotel.
Sir Elly’s Bar.
Sir Elly’s is renowned for fine dining.
The rooftop bar has a panoramic view across the Huangpu River of Pudong, the city’s skyscraper-filled financial center.


One morning I met up with the museum group at the Shanghai Museum, which opened in 1996 in People’s Square, and showcases 5,000 years of Chinese history with more than 120,000 objects.

If you see only one museum in Shanghai, it should be this one because it has the finest collections of Chinese art: bronzes, sculpture, ceramics, calligraphy, paintings, coins and jade, Ming and Qing-dynasty furniture, and crafts made by China’s 55 minorities.

Shanghai Museum has one of the best collections of Chinese art. An ancient Chinese bronze inspired the shape of the impressive building.
Stone lions and mythical beasts guard the entrance of the Shanghai Museum, which is located in People’s Square, on the site of the former racetrack.
Dr. Jay Xu of the San Francisco Asian Art Museum and Chen Kelun, Vice Director Shanghai Museum.
Jay Xu’s contacts made it possible for us to have an extraordinary private viewing in the VIP Hotong Room. What made this extra special was hearing scholarly explanations from Jay, who once held the position of assistant curator at the Shanghai Museum.
Museum staffers wore white protective gloves to bring out exquisite porcelain and bronze pieces from the vaults and unroll calligraphy scrolls for us to admire.

The Shanghai Museum houses a priceless porcelain collection.
Pam Kramlich, Eric Wear, Dick Kramlich, and Chuk-Kwan Ting are neighbors in Shanghai. The VIP room was built in the style of a Ming dynasty garden.
Jay’s enthusiasm was contagious as he discussed the significance of the ancient bronzes, porcelains, and Chinese art objects.

Timothy Wu, Vivian Wu, and Eric Murphy joined the group.
The museum also has an excellent gift shop, and a beautiful tearoom perfect for taking a break.
The group ended their tour with a quick lunch in the casual museum café.


The next day we boarded the bus for Taopu Art District, in the Putuo residential area that is becoming a new hot spot for contemporary art.

The Taopu Outside Park (TOP) located in a carpet factory/warehouse complex built in the 1980s, had just opened a few days earlier and is still under the radar. I was excited about going, as I had missed the opening because I was in Beijing.

Taopu Art District is located 45 minutes by car in an industrial district. On the way, we passed by bicycles and scooters, still a popular form of local transportation.
The Ring Roads, the major traffic routes, are built above ground to accommodate growing amounts of traffic.
From the bus, we saw views of old and new Shanghai.


At our first stop, Swiss-born Lorenz Helbling, who is the force behind this new art district, greeted us. A well-respected art expert, he opened ShanghART, the first major international contemporary gallery in Shanghai in 1996, and was one of the first to participate in Art Basel since 2000.

In the afternoon, the group also visited Lorenz ShanghART Gallery in M50, another art district, in a post-industrial area. As I had other plans, I skipped this part.

Left: The ShanghART Taopu Gallery. Our art guide, Xhingyu Chen, took us around. Born in Hunan and raised in New York, she now resides in Shanghai and has created a career bridging East and West.
Above: Lorenz Helbling led us on a tour of his ShanghART Taopu, which is the “first warehouse-style art museum” in China. With 32,000 square feet, it is large enough to hold large-scale works, storage, and educational facilities.


Among the artists exhibited at ShanghART Taopu was Filmmaker Yang Fudong, who produces powerful video and photographic works. His black-and-white films, originally shot in 35mm, are some of the most beautiful made in China.

Also greeting us was artist Shen Fan, whose work “Landscape: Commemorating Huang Binhong” was on exhibit during SFAAM’s “Shanghai” exhibit. The legendary artist Huang Binhong was a modern master Chinese landscape painter, thus the tribute.

Swiss-born Lorenz Helbling, founder of ShanghART, was one of the first to recognize the importance of contemporary Chinese Art. Here he explains video artist Yang Fudong’s installation-in-progress, which includes 10 videos and a 3-ton ornamental stone column.
Yang Fudong’s “Blue Kylin” (2008) is a sculpture and video installation that portrays a stone-carving village, part of the artist’s film “Seven Intellectuals in Bamboo Forest IV” video. The complete five-part work was seen at New York’s Asia Society in 2009.
“Blue Kylin” video shows people working in a stone-carving factory in the northern province of Shandong producing sculptures like this.
Artist Shen Fan’s Landscape with his 2520 neon tubes. Various musical notes played on the Qin musical instrument causes neon tubes to light up in various lengths, shapes and locations until the whole canvas is lit.
The San Francisco Asian Art Museum delegation in front of Shen Fan’s installation.
Shao Yi’s “Broadcast” is composed of 59 20th-century home radios collected by the artist himself.
Inspired by nature, Liang Shaoji made “Broken Landscape series No.1” from ancient fossilized camphor wood.
Xu Zhen’s “Dinosaurs” is a 10-ton colossus, halved and placed in huge glass cabinets—a work reminiscent of Damien Hirst’s “The Shark.”
Yang Zhenzhong created “Massage Chairs – Then Edison’s Direct Current was Surrendered to the Alternating Current.”
Wang Guangyi’s “The Materialist.” The worker/peasant/soldier is made of fiber-reinforced polymer and the surface is covered with hulled millet.
Chong-Moon Lee and Eliza Cash.
Many established artists—Yang Zhenzhong, Zhang Ding, Yang Fudong, Shi Qing, Tang Maohong, Xiang Liqing, and Shao Yi—are relocating their studios to the Taopu area for more space, light, and affordable rents.


We walked across the alley from the ShanghART Taopu to the studio of Yang Zhenzhong, another artist who works with video and photography.

At Yang Zhenzhong’s studio. The group took their turns climbing the steps and looking through the peephole.
They chuckled when they realized his humorous work included two perspectives of women’s legs: the common view and a more tantalizing glimpse.
Another view.
Our guide, Xhingyu Chen, is the author of Chinese Artists: New Media 1990-2010.
One of the many works in progress featured was a five-pointed star (pentagram), one of the world’s oldest and commonly used abstract forms—incorporated into the flags of many countries.
Artist Yang Zhenzhong negotiating with Dipti Mathur.
In China, they still use an old-fashioned (and perhaps more efficient) street-cleaning method.


Next, we visited the studio of ceramicist Liu Jianhua. Liu was trained in Jingdezhen, the “Porcelain Capital,” where imperial ware for the Emperors was once produced. The artist is known for his multi-color-glazed porcelain works, often in blue-and-white and “famille rose.”

L to R.: Liu Jianhua is among the well-known artists who moved his studio to Taopu for larger space. Some artist’s studios were previously in M50 art district, before it became popular and more expensive.; Pam Kramlich and Jeanne Lawrence alongside Liu sculptures.
I was struck by the many large crates that were waiting to be shipped worldwide, attesting to Liu’s popularity.
Liu’s white ceramic cityscape was on view at the San Francisco Museum’s “Shanghai” exhibition.
Liu’s ceramic “Container Series” contrasts traditional Chinese ritual vessel shapes with contemporary ones. He uses celadon glaze “green ware,” prized during the Song dynasty (960-1279), with a traditional red glaze known as “sang de boeuf” (oxblood).
A recurring image in his work is that of a headless female holding a suggestive pose and dressed in the traditional sexy cheongsams that were in vogue in Shanghai during the 1930s.
Known for his quirky ceramic designs, Liu creates city skylines (such as Shanghai and Hong Kong) with poker chips and dice.
The iconic panda bears.


MadeIn is a collective of artists formed by conceptual artist Xu Zhen. Zhen experiments with a wide variety of art forms, including installations, video performances, photography, and paintings. He is a graduate of the Shanghai Arts & Crafts Institute, which undoubtedly influenced his decision to found MadeIn in 2009.

MadeIn is a collective of artists who conceive and execute work in various media, and their work was on display at the 2010 Shanghai Biennale.
L to R.: Artist Xu Zhen took over a huge studio space for the collective that he initiated.; The movement of the sculpture was mesmerizing as we watched it spin around.
On our visit, we were able to watch the artists and craftsman in the process of creating new works.

Leaving Taopu art district, we head back to Shanghai for lunch.


Noon. We headed back to the city. The group enjoyed a Chinese cuisine luncheon at Ding Xian Huayuan, a British-style mansion turned eatery surrounded by a peaceful Chinese garden.

The French Concession — known for wide boulevards shaded by plane trees— was our lunch destination.
The restaurant Ding Xian Huayuan is located behind walls with a gated entrance.
Behind those walls, we discovered a tranquil, manicured Chinese garden.
Ding Xian Huayuan restaurant is located in a British country-style mansion.
Throughout the city, Heritage Architecture plaques designate historical sites.


Later in the day, the Asian Art Museum group met at Pearl Lam’s Contrast Gallery in the Bund area. The ubiquitous Pearl, who has established herself in Shanghai, London, and Hong Kong, is one of the great forces in Chinese contemporary art—as a collector, art patron, and dealer. This May (2011), she announced all her galleries will be renamed to Pearl Lam Galleries.

Pearl was featuring a solo exhibition: “Shao Fan: An Incurable Classicist.” Artist Shao Fan is known for bridging Chinese traditional images and forms and reinterpreting them for modern times.

L to R.: Contrast Gallery is located near the Bund and in a neighborhood of Art Deco buildings dating from the 1920s and 1930s.; Old and new Shanghai. In the background is the iconic crown-topped Westin Hotel.

That night, one of the highlights for the Asian Art Museum group, was the soiree at Pearl Lam’s extravagantly and whimsically appointed penthouse with its own art gallery. It was the perfect ending to the Shanghai trip.

The next day the Asian Art departed for the city of Hangzhou, which you will read about it in the next column, Part II.

Contrast Gallery (renamed to Pearl Lam Gallery in May 2011) is owned by Pearl Lam and is considered one of the city’s best. On view was the solo exhibition: “Shao Fan: An Incurable Classicist.”
Contrast Gallery (renamed to Pearl Lam Gallery in May 2011) is owned by Pearl Lam and is considered one of the city’s best. On view was the solo exhibition: “Shao Fan: An Incurable Classicist.”
L to R.: “The White Hare,” a work in Shao Fan’s show, “An Incurable Classicist.”; “Black Hare” by Shao Fan, whose work shows the spirit that exists in every living creature.
Virginia Foo and artist Shao Fan.
As we left, I noticed the LED sign on the Aurora Tower. Take a close look. You’ll notice a sign of the times in China, where anti-smoking sentiment is a recent development.


If you’re planning a trip to Shanghai, you might look at the SFAAM’s itinerary as a guide of places to visit.

Here’s a sampling of their packed itinerary during their six days in Shanghai: a walk along the Bund; a trip to the Shanghai Gallery of Art, where Director Mathieu Borysevicz gave them a tour; a stop at the recently opened Rockbund Art Museum for contemporary art; a trip to the village of Zhujiajiao to see an opera written in 1598 “The Peony Pavilion” and directed by composer Tan Dun; a historic tour with historian and business leader Patrick Cranley; lunch with historian Tess Johnston; dinner at the home of gallerist Elisabeth de Brabant; dinner at real estate developer Vincent Lo’s Private Club; a visit to the studio of artist Zhang Huan; a stop at Shanghai MoCA; and a traditional Shanghai “Hairy Crab” dinner. Whew!

Photographs by Jeanne Lawrence

*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.

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