Shanghai Social Diary: Shanghai’s Art Scene

The ninth annual Shanghai Biennale took place in the city’s new museum, the Power Station of Art—a perfect setting for Huang Yongping’s towering mixed-media piece, “Thousand Hands Kuanyin.”

Back from another extended stay in endlessly fascinating and ever-changing Shanghai, I’m posting another installment of some of the social, cultural, culinary, and travel highlights.


The art scene in Shanghai was booming this past fall with the Chinese government’s goal of expanding its emphasis on its culture, arts, and heritage. Two new major art museums in Shanghai, the Power Station of Art and the China Art Palace, both opened on October 1, 2012, the National Day of the People’s Republic of China.

For this column though, I’ll focus on the Power Station of Art, the venue for flourishing contemporary art.


The ninth annual Shanghai Biennale was the debut show at the Power Station of Art (PSA). For years, the Biennale venue was the Shanghai Art Museum, a colonial building once part of the Shanghai Horse Racing Club situated on the edge of the centrally located People’s Park.

On a drizzly Sunday in November, I went with my friend Sam Gaskin, art editor of TimeOut Shanghai, to view the Biennale. Since he had already researched the show and talked personally with many of the artists, he was a wealth of information.

Drawn by Curator Qui Zhiji, a conceptual map of the Shanghai Biennial’s theme, “Reactivation,” adorns the entrance at the Power Station of Art.

My photo of the PSA building in 2010, when it was used as the “Pavilion of the Future” during Shanghai’s World Expo.


We began the day at the Power Station of Art, then visited a number of the show’s “city pavilions” scattered throughout Shanghai.

Constructed at the end of the 19th century as a power plant supplying electricity, the Power Station of Art (PSA) is the country’s first government-owned contemporary art museum in mainland China.

Chief curator Qiu Zhijie has described the gargantuan space as “Shanghai’s Tate Modern,” referring to the London museum that is also housed in a former power station.

From a distance, you can see the time and temperature displayed on the towering chimney of the building, located on the Puxi side of Shanghai.

The PSA is often compared to London’s Tate Modern Museum, which was also once a former power plant.

On the rooftop, Nishino Koyo’s “On Becoming the Wind” swayed in the breeze with its large metal wings.


The Power Station of Art’s  massive entrance atrium was filled with Huang Yongping’s piece, “Thousand Hands Kuanyin,” a monumental tribute to female Buddhist Bodhisattva (enlightened being) Guanyin—who according to legend was given 1,000 arms to help all those in need.

Huang Yongping’s 59-foot tower, “Thousand Hands Kuanyin,” filled the cavernous entrance atrium.

TimeOut Shanghai Art Editor Sam Gaskin stands in front of Huang Yongping’s structure.

The tower, composed of cast iron, steel, and mixed media, takes its form from Marcel Duchamp’s “Bottle Rack” (1914), his first “readymade” piece (an ordinary object unaltered except perhaps by being repositioned or signed by the artist).

Each of the hands of the 1,000 arms performs a Buddhist gesture or holds a commonplace object.

Gazing through UK artist Elan Vital’s work, “Petroc Sesti,” a liquid vortex in a glass sphere, gave us another view of the atrium space.


The Biennale’s theme of “reactivation” resonated in several ways: the museum building is the reactivation of a century-old power station; the Biennale presence reactivated the Expo site, dormant since 2010; and, most significantly, the museum’s existence is a major reactivation of officially sanctioned Chinese participation in the contemporary art movement.

Videos, paintings, sound art, installations, and sculptures—the works of international and national contemporary artists—filled dozens of rooms on five floors. What a change from the days when the Cultural Revolution repressed the arts!


Artist Simon Fujiwara’s “Rebekkah” was inspired by China’s Terra Cotta Warrior sculptures, which guard the tomb of the first Chinese emperor, Qin Shi Huang (259 BCE – 210 BCE).

Discovered in 1974 in Xi’An, the tomb is one of the greatest archaeological finds of our time. Like the Egyptian pharaohs, Qin was buried with everything he would need in the afterlife, which in his case included an army of more than 7,000 life-size terra cotta warriors and over 10,000 weapons.

Artist Fujiwara traveled to the historical site with a young British woman named Rebekkah, after whom he named this work of art.

The Terra Cotta Warriors were discovered in Xi’An in 1974 at the tomb of Emperor Qin Shi Huang, who first united China in 221 BCE.

For “Rebekkah,” artist Simon Fujiwara created a series of clay models with expressionless faces like those he saw in Xi’An.

Fujiwara named his work for the young British woman who accompanied him to the site.

Sam Gaskin explains the history behind the Rebekkah sculptures.

Jeanne Lawrence and the 35 plaster Rebekkahs.


“The Long Ton” is made from two large pieces of roughly carved marble, one sourced from China and one from Italy, digitally cut into identical shapes.

The Italian piece is a quarter of the size of the Chinese one, but they hang at the same height, resulting in the optical illusion that they are the same size.


Looking up, we were treated to Chinese artist Wang Yuyang’s stunning light installation, a trail of fluorescent light bulbs following the path of a falling feather.

“Falling Like a Feather,” seen from above. The artist mapped out the pattern digitally, then recreated it in real life.


Paris-based duo Lucy + Jorge Orta’s “Nexus Architecture x 50 Intervention Koln.”

The connected jumpsuits are intended to be worn by participants so they create a “multi-faceted, multi-limbed formation of people joined together in a single human chain, sharing a common space.”

“Rollo,” by Abraham Cruzvillegas of Mexico.

Cruzvillegas uses brooms to paint these nearly ten-feet-wide monkey drawings on paper primed with layer upon layer of varnish paint.

Museumgoers watch “The Way Things Go,” a video installation by Swiss artists Peter Fischli and David Weiss.

Chinese artist Wu Junyong led a children’s drawing workshop.

Chinese artist Jiang Zhi’s “In Our Time” consisted of facsimiles of government palaces constructed out of fireworks.

Jiang Zhi’s piece is a reference to a firefighter who was killed in the line of duty while battling a blaze started by fireworks.

Each monochrome stripe in Parisian cooperative Société Réaliste’s “States of Shades” represents a composite of the “average color” of masterpieces from a chosen country’s national museum.

After determining the “average color” of a museum’s pieces, Société Réaliste uses those color values to figure out a country’s “national painting color,” which in China’s case is this pale brown.

A “pressed down” staircase by Poland’s Monika Sosnowska.

At the PSA, I ran into well-known art dealer Lorenz Helbling, founder of the ShanghArt gallery in Shanghai.

“Gaps – Wallwave Vibrations” is a 2012 piece by Italy’s Loris Cecchini.

The “gaps” are an “organic symbiosis between sculpture and the wall.”

The three-dimensional pieces were created with numeric control cutting machines and molded from polyester resin.

Cecchini’s work was popular with museumgoers.


On visual overload, we decided to take a lunch break at Xiao Yang’s Dumplings. Though its new, mall-like setting wasn’t as appealing as the former street stall on the old Wujiang Food Street, which was razed for development, the dumpling mecca didn’t disappoint!

Yang’s is famous for sheng jian bao, or pan-fried pork buns.

Juicy pork is folded into the almost transparent wrapper.

The bun-like skins are fried in a cast iron pan until the bottoms are crispy.

People eat dumplings by the plateful for breakfast, lunch, or snacks.

Sam and I enjoyed our lunch.

Yang’s Dumplings is a favorite stop for both locals and tourists.


After our quick bite, we dodged rain and the torrent of pedestrians en route to visit the “City Pavilions” contemporary art project, a tribute to the exchange of energy and ideas in our increasingly global culture.

This year, the Shanghai Biennale invited 30 cities from around the globe to participate in the City Pavilion project. All were given exhibition space, many in unused, dilapidated historic buildings that provided an interesting contrast to the contemporary works on display.

The exhibition is suggestive of the Venice Biennale’s “National Pavilions,” but each city’s display is independently curated so a broad range of ideas is represented.

The Biennale’s “City Pavilion” project featured contemporary art from 30 cities worldwide.

The pavilions were scattered around the Puxi side of the city, along Nanjing and Yuanmingyuan Roads.

In neighborhoods such as these, the exhibitions of contemporary art contrasted with the empty, often dilapidated buildings in which they were shown.

One of the empty buildings that housed contemporary works of art in the City Pavilion project.


Dusseldorf, Vancouver, Pittsburg, Detroit, San Francisco, and Brooklyn were among the contributors to the exhibition.

Inside the Sydney Pavilion.

The Sydney exhibit, “The Floating Eye,” encouraged “an observation of a city’s shifting references and influences.”

The San Francisco Pavilion, a little taste of home for me.

Inside the San Francisco Pavilion.

The San Francisco Pavilion featured work by art collective The Residents.

The expansive Dusseldorf Pavilion.

Sculptor Thomas Stricker milled beautiful, undulating, coral-like forms out of styrofoam in the Dusseldorf Pavilion.

Another surprising City Pavilion exhibit.

Brian Jungen’s stunning life-size whale skeleton made of plastic chairs in the Vancouver Pavilion.

Regrettably, the fans were off when we visited; when they are on, they add another dimension to this work.

A playful, graffiti-like installation.

Scenes that seem to have come out of a coloring book hung on the walls of another unused building.


Our day concluded with a visit to Shanghai’s 50 Moganshan Road (known as M50). This former industrial area is now packed with art galleries, artists’ studios, and a few small cafes.

Abstract painter Ding Yi is the director of the non-profit V Art Center. Its recent show, Just What is it About the End of the World that Makes it so Appealing?, was curated by the multi-talented Mathieu Borysevicz, former director of the Shanghai Gallery of Art.

The M50 art complex, now filled with rows of art galleries and studios, is a must-see for art-loving visitors.

V Art Center’s cross-disciplinary exhibition explored what makes impending doom and end-of-world predictions, such as the Mayan apocalypse and the Rapture, so appealing.

The exhibition drew many young and enthusiastic visitors, here posing in front of Swiss-born artist Olaf Breuning’s “OMG.”

Art collective MadeIn’s “Safe House,” a spiritual survival tent complete with built-in steeples and crucifixes, against a backdrop of paintings by Geng Yini, Ouyang Chun, and others.

Ma Daha’s “Second Till Last Supper,” one of the works by more than 20 artists exploring pop culture’s impact on the world.

Jeanne Lawrence joins in on artist Ma Daha’s feast.

Chinese artist Li Jinghu’s “Noah’s Ark” comprised a shelf of snack food and beverage packages with animal motifs.

This wooden bomb was scheduled to be opened on December 22 (assuming we were still alive to witness it).

Chinese artist Zhang Lehua’s “Leave Tomorrow’s Work for the Day After Tomorrow.”


The video that most captured our attention was “The Last News” (2002), a fictionalized television newscast of the end of the world, by Christoph Draeger and Reynold Reynolds.

The film includes real images of devastation such as the 9/11 along with manufactured footage, such as the destruction of Big Ben, to illustrate how the media sensationalizes events.


Two of the more amusing and popular videos were Chinese-American artist Kenneth Tin-Kin Hung’s “The Fast Supper” and “Fat Free Nirvana” (2011). These tongue-in-cheek animations explore our fast food culture and the links between obesity and our food chain.

In “The Fast Supper,” a take on the famous Leonardo da Vinci painting, Jesus binges on buckets of “JFC” and other fast food until he explodes in an obesity-inspired rapture.

In contrast, in “Fat Free Nirvana,” Buddha eats organic and vegetarian fare and becomes thinner and thinner until he fades away on the screen.

The venues may have been spread all over town, but we managed to make it another jam-packed and wonderful Sunday in Shanghai. We wished we’d had another few days or even a week to see it all.


Photos 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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