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.
ARTIST ZHANG HUAN AT THE ROCKBUND ART MUSEUM
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.
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.
FROM CHINA TO THE U.S. AND BACK
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.
THE EVOLVING STYLE OF ZHANG HUAN
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.
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.
THE SHEN WEI DANCE ARTS PERFORMANCE
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.
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.
DINNER AT THE FORMER BRITISH CONSULATE
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!
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.