Shanghai Social Diary

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Our view of the landmark Pearl Tower, as we headed to the VIP dinner at the former British Consulate. It’s because of views like this that I love Shanghai.

SHANGHAI — Now that I’ve returned to the U.S. for the winter and have finally downloaded and organized my photos in Lightroom, I’m back to writing about my fall adventures in China.


SHANGHAI — One of the most talked-about events in Shanghai last fall was the reopening of the renovated Rockbund Art Museum (RAM) with a solo exhibition by Zhang Huan, one of China’s contemporary stars. Fumio Nanjo, the well-respected director of Tokyo’s Mori Art Museum, curated the show.

A bizarre depiction of Confucius. (© Zhang Huan Studio, Courtesy The Pace Gallery).

In this largest-ever one-man show at RAM, “Q Confucius,” Zhang — who in recent years has embraced Buddhism — used Confucius symbolically to explore how changes in Chinese society and the country’s economic growth have impacted art, society and religion. His answers were in the form of via large-scale sculptures, ash paintings and installations, most commissioned for the exhibition.

He is interested in what place religion will have in the future of China and how the country will or will not incorporate its traditional beliefs. While during the Cultural Revolution, the teachings of the ancient sage Confucius (551-479 B.C.) fell out of favor, the Government of the People’s Republic of China now has opened Confucius Institutes to promote China’s cultural influence abroad. Confucianism emphasizes such tenets as morality, responsibility, and respect for authority.


I went to the Rockbund opening with Liu Ying Mei, formerly gallery owner of Shanghai’s 140sqm Gallery, now an advisor and curator for collectors on Chinese and international art. Mei, seems to know every one in the art world.

Everyone was running up and down the stairs to view the packed exhibition, and it seemed all of Shanghai was there. As we didn’t want to miss the innovative Shen Wei dance group performance under the stars, we rushed though the exhibit but vowed to return for a more leisurely visit.

Artist Zhang Huan’s exhibit opens at Rockbund Art Museum. The show’s logo “Wen Kong Zi,” which translates to “ask Confucius,” is actually a Chinese character within a character within another character.
The entrance to the pedestrian-only street Yuanmingyuan Lu (“lu” means “street”) is at the center of the Waitanyuan Plaza behind the famous Bund.
Entrance to the Rockbund Art Museum.
Confucius was there to greet us all! … along with the oxen.
Art collector Yu Ming Fang, art advisor and curator Liu Ying Mei, and artist Zeng Fanzhi.
A massive, lifelike, one-ton, 32-foot statue of the incarnation of Confucius was submerged waist deep in a pool of water.
Richard Hong is one of two million registered descendants of Confucius, the revered philosopher and educator; this I found very interesting.
The opening, a very important event in Shanghai, drew large numbers of media.
I enjoyed seeing people of all ages in attendance.
Zhang Huan contrasts Confucian beliefs with the teachings of Christianity, such as the painting of Last Supper. (© Zhang Huan Studio, Courtesy The Pace Gallery).
Another of Zhang Huan’s paintings on display (© Zhang Huan Studio, Courtesy The Pace Gallery).
The comings and goings of so many people created a lot of excitement.
On the balmy October evening, the crowd partied in the street behind the Bund in the Waitanyuan area. In the 1930s, it was home to many cultural and religious institutions.
It was a treat to be outside, under the stars, visiting with friends, with enough room for everyone to spread out and move around.
L to R.: When I moved to the front of the crowd for a better view, I found myself standing next to Zhang Huan, wearing a baseball cap, deep in thought and holding his daughter’s hand. ;Fumio Nanjo, director of the Mori Art Museum, Tokyo, kicked off the evening.
Zhang Huan welcomed the crowd.
Bao Yi Feng, the special events guru, masterminded this one-of-a kind celebration.
Arne Glimcher, founder of the Pace Gallery, with his Beijing Director Leng Lin.


Zhang Huan, born in 1965, was one of the first and is among the most influential of Chinese performance artists. In the 1990s, he worked in Beijing’s avant-garde artists’ community, Da Shan Zi.

His body is often his canvas, and his often-nude performance art has often drawn reprimands from the authorities. He first attracted attention with his 1994 12 Square Meters. Completely naked, slathered in fish and honey and swarmed with flies, he sat on an outhouse-style toilet for an hour.

It was social commentary, a protest about the squalid conditions in which many poor Chinese country dwellers lived.

In 1998, he moved to New York, became part of the art scene, and drew international attention for his daring. And then in 2006, he was among a group of artists who returned to China. Many subsequently became well known; I suspect they learned the art of self-promotion in the U.S.

Zhang’s colossal sculpture, Three Heads, Six Arms (2008), was temporarily installed in the plaza in front of San Francisco’s City Hall. (Zhang Huan Studio/Edouard Malingue Gallery /The Pace Gallery).


Zhang Huan’s massive Shanghai studio is in a former textile mill. More than 100 assistants and craftsmen work on multiple projects, from making paintings and sculptures of ash to fabricating giant metal installations like the giant Buddha that once stood in San Francisco, in City Hall Plaza.

Zhang experiments on an ongoing basis, and he is unusual among Chinese artists in that his work is constantly evolving. He has moved away from performance art to focus on spiritual questions in recent years, and he has brought new ideas and styles to traditional Buddhist statues.

Zhang Huan with New Yorker Daphne Palmer (then studying in Beijing, now at NY’s Pace Gallery) at his Shanghai studio in a former factory.

He has attracted attention for his “ash paintings” and sculptures, created from the remains of temple incense ash offerings. Zhang says these ashes reflect people’s hopes, as they burn incense while praying.

Always expanding his repertoire, he directed and staged a version of “Semele,” the 18th century opera by George Handel last year in Beijing. In the opera, produced by KT Wong Foundation and Lady Linda Davies, of London and Shanghai, Zhang transposed the Greek myth into a Buddhist context set in ancient China.

In Zhang Huan production of the 18th century opera “Semele,” the backdrop was an original Ming dynasty ancestral temple he discovered in the provinces of China.
Zhang Huan with Daniela Wambold, in Beijing with Cambridge University’s program, attended the performance and after-party.
Collector Pearl Lam has installed one of the best collections of Zhang Huan’s work in an art gallery in her Shanghai home.
One of Zhang’s “ash sculptures” in Pearl Lam’s gallery.
An “ash painting” in Pearl Lam’s gallery.
A photograph of Zhang Huan wearing a muscle-suit made of meat hangs in Pearl Lam’s gallery.


After viewing the exhibition, we sauntered to the plaza for the Shen Wei Dance Arts performance. Artistic director Shen Wei is known for creating cross-cultural performances that blend dance, music and opera. I found it breathtaking, almost unworldly, and visually fascinating.

The show after the show was the performance by the Shen Wei Dance Arts. A view of the ultra-modern Pudong across the Huangpu River was the backdrop.
In this setting, I was once again struck by the visual contrasts one often finds in Shanghai. We saw modern Pudong in the foreground and behind it some former colonial buildings.
Shen Wei Dance Arts performers.

Born in China, now a resident of New York’s Greenwich Village, Shen Wei was the lead choreographer of the Olympics 2008. The company performed to great acclaim at the New York Armory in November 2011 and is getting more and more international attention.

Irina Berko, Wang Xiao Hui, and Nicolas de Waziers.
Artist Yan Pei Ming and friend.
Vanna Tang and Liu Ying Mei.
Artist Wang Xiao, a friend, and Jeanne Lawrence.
Ana Gonzales, Carlos Martinez de Aragon, and Monica Angelini.
Rebecca Catching and Michelle Blumenthal.
Liu Ying Mei and Mathieu Borysevicz.
Most headed home, while we headed to a VIP dinner.


Following the performance, there was a VIP dinner in a tent in the gardens of the former British Consulate. Reconstructed in 1873, it is one of the oldest buildings in on the Bund. The world-famous architectural firm of I.M. Pei recently renovated it.

People lingered and mingled in a relaxed atmosphere afterward. Many stayed late, but some Beijing artists who had flown in headed off to enjoy a second dinner. They wanted typical Shanghainese food, which they miss in Beijing. I’m sure they enjoyed some drinking, too. I wish I had gone with them!

The historic British Consulate in the early 1980s became the Friendship Store for foreigners, and then turned into offices. Later, left empty, it fell into ruin.
The government has been revitalizing this northern section of the Bund, and the consulate and the surrounding colonial buildings have been lovingly restored.
Its address now is No. 1 Waitanyuan. I was delighted to finally get my first glimpse inside, now that the restoration was completed.
The British Consulate interiors were beautifully done. With its warm interior and period furnishings, the place resembles a British men’s club.
The complex, now used as State Guest House and function space, is operated by the Peninsula Shanghai next door.
The VIP dinner was held in a tent on the lush garden grounds.

Zhang Huan.
In a very appealing ritual, the star of the night Zhang Huan made the rounds. He toasted every table of guests and was toasted in return, a worthwhile custom to adopt. I just hope Zhang Huan didn’t feel obliged to drink an entire glass at each stop!
The table toasting is similar to being greeted by the hosts at the door in America, but more intimate. No one feels left out by not sitting at the head table, and it’s very endearing.
Shen Wei and Zhang Huan.
The menu was flavorful. It began with jellied pork with black vinegar sauce and foie gras mousse, and the main course included braised beef, roasted duck breast, and steamed eggplant, followed by Asian-spiced baked cod.
Jeanne Lawrence, with Richard Hong, a direct descendant of Confucius.
Artist Zeng Fanzhi and gallerist Pearl Lam.
Cindy Tai and Lorenz Ng.
Wang Huimin and daughter Tiffany Chao.
Yan Pei Ming and Zeng Fanzhi, two of China’s most famous artists, exchanged information.
What a fabulous night in Shanghai!

All the Art World Attended

Art dealers and collectors were among the guests who flew in from around the world. I bumped into Arne Glimcher, who in 1960 founded Pace Gallery (formerly called PaceWildenstein). When it opened in the 798 Factory district, it was the first major Manhattan gallery to establish itself in Beijing.

Arne was there with Leng Lin, the president of Pace Beijing since 2008. In 2004 Leng founded Beijing Commune, also in 798, a commercial art space meant to promote young, progressive artists.

Others in the crowd included the ubiquitous Pearl Lam of the eponymous gallery; artist Zeng Fanzhi, who set a record for Chinese art at auction; artist Yan Pei Ming; Mathieu Borysevicz, director of the Shanghai Gallery of Art in Three on the Bund; and Arthur Solway, director of the Shanghai’s James Cohan Gallery.

Among others present was Richard Hong a direct descendant of Confucius; Rebecca Catching, director of OV Gallery now in the Moganshan 50 district; Irina Berko and fiancé Nicolas de Waziers, who run Berko Gallery; Irina’s brother Maximin Berko, founder of The Shanghai Fine Jewelry and Art Fair); and artist Xiao Hui Wang.

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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