Research Log | ShContemporary and Chengdu Biennale


30 August - 17 September 2007

AAA's invitation to participate in ShContemporary-Asia's first international contemporary art fair arrived at an optimal time! After a very long, hot and artistically quiet summer in Beijing I was feeling both restless and eager to check out some art beyond China's capital. ShContemporary (5–9 September) followed by Reboot: The Third Chengdu Biennale (13 September – 12 October) seemed like the perfect way to kick-off the autumn art season.


PART 1: SHANGHAI (30 August – 10 September)

30 August – 3 September: Getting ready for ShContemporary
As it's nearly impossible to get things done without face-to-face contact in China, I flew to Shanghai from my Beijing base a few days before the fair frenzy hit to coordinate logistics for AAA’s booth at ShContemporary.

30 August, 5:30pm: The printer wears two hats …
Arrived at 713 Dong Daming Road to meet Zheng Weimin. Zheng is the founder of ddm warehouse, an independent art centre that opened in 2000. Coincidentally, he also operates a small design studio literally behind the scenes. Lost between a hotpot restaurant and parking lot, Zheng came out to meet me. I entered the space to find a dozen or so people working on different projects. Everyone had his or her role and each was ready to pull an all-nighter. Yet again, I was reminded that most people in China wear at least two hats and wear them well! Looked at various paintings and several bronze sculptures from Zhang Dali’s solo show, ‘Three Unities — Man and Beast’, curated by Mathieu Borysevicz. After sharing a quick ‘home-style’ meal in the office with the ddm team and finalizing printing details, I headed out for my next meeting.

9:20pm: Student interviews at Starbucks
Needing some extra manpower during ShContemporary, I called upon several friends for recommendations. That’s how I found Ivan Wang, a 24-year-old aspiring painter/song writer with a passion for Chinese pop music. Currently a graduate student in the Printmaking Department at the Shanghai Academy of Fine Arts, Ivan turned out to be a lifesaver. By the end of Day 1, confirmed printing and hired one assistant.


31 August & 1 September: Last minute details …
Two days of non-stop running around. Interviewed Terry, a 27 year-old aspiring painter/entrepreneur with fluent English and some gallery experience.
Anecdote: Last year, Terry started a company that sells reproductions of paintings produced in Shenzhen’s booming Dafen village — internationally known for pumping out copies of works by masters such as Monet and Van Gogh. Working as a middleman, his company buys the work from the factory for about 3 dollars and sells it to the wholesale dealer for about 5 dollars. In Dafen, factories range is size and reputation. Insiders refer to shops with 100 workers as ‘small studios’ while warehouses with 900 plus workers are defined as factories. I asked about copyright and he said, ‘copying is natural in China, we download an image from the Internet and sell it. It’s no one’s business.’ Let’s just say, Terry was not the right fit for AAA, although I learned quite a bit about the Shenzhen art factories.


2 September: Art hopping in the rain with independent filmmaker/curator Mathieu Borysevicz
Thanks to Mathieu’s guidance, we hit four openings around the city with time for a bite to eat in less than 6 hours!

2:00 pm: Grand opening, The Tolman Collection, Shanghai
On view, 'The Kaifeng Jews', paintings by Yin Xin, a Paris-based Chinese artist.

3:00pm: Opening reception, Studio Rouge
On view, 'Pandora's Box: Gao Yu Solo Exhibition'.

4:00pm: Three openings, Shanghai Zendai Museum of Modern Art
'Guangci 2005 – 2007', curated by Shen Qibin; ‘Overlapping: Recent Works by Yang Qian’, curated by Pi Li; ‘Pain in Soul: Performance Art and Video Works by He Cheng Yao’, curated by Wang Nanming.

6:30pm: Grand opening, ShanghArt F Space
On view, 'When Zhuge Liang Meets Pandas', a new project by Shi Qing. Shanghart F Space, part of a relatively new art district called Art Space near Fudan University, is dedicated to promoting emerging, experimental and conceptual art projects.

8:00pm: Turned in early, completely wiped out after my whirlwind art tour.


4 September: The booth, boxes and books
130 galleries and a dozen museums invited from around the world took over the monumental Shanghai Exhibition Centre. Organized by Bolognafiere, Pierre Hubert and Lorenzo Rudolph in less than one year, the fair was divided into three sections: Best of Galleries, Best of Artists and Best of Discovery.

11:00am – 2:00pm: Divide and conquer …
Susanna from AAA and Ivan picked up computers across town while Charlotte Friling (AAA summer intern) kept an eye on our boxes, which arrived safely. I ran around chasing after missing AV equipment, furniture, and our printer who was busy setting up his own booth. The place was buzzing with artists installing work, press people talking on their phones and dealers waiting for their shipments.

3:00pm – 4:30pm: Sealed boxes and empty bookshelves
Our backdrop went up smoothly. The booth was beginning to resemble a library! However, like a child in a candy store, I was eager to tear into our boxes, which contained 128 books for display and 800 newsletters to handout. The organizers instructed us not to open our boxes without approval from the China News Agency. We waited and waited but no one came by. At around 4:30pm a man walked by and said, 'there’s not enough time to look through these boxes so you can’t open them.' Feeling deflated but determined, we asked the organizers to get involved.

4:30pm: Charlotte gets a taste of Chinese bureaucracy
Following instructions from the fair organizers, Charlotte and Ivan ran over to the China News Agency headquarters to plead our case. The officials listened politely and said, 'we don't have time to read each book cover to cover with a translator before the opening ceremony. You cannot open the boxes or display any of this material during the fair.' Ouch! We were completely shut out with no alternatives.

7:00pm: A ray of hope …
We received word that we might be able to distribute newsletters.
The AAA team calls it a night and gets ready for day two.

11:00pm: Pierre Hubert Art Prize ends with a party at Glamour Bar
Organizers could not have anticipated the mob scene at the entrance to Glamour Bar, which had reached maximum capacity by 11pm. Everyone was there! Maneuvering through the crowds and successfully avoiding a black eye, I finally got inside. Bumped into many old friends and met new friends.


5 September: Censorship let the show begin …

10:00am – 5:00pm
Completed booth set-up.
Received thumbs-up to distribute AAA newsletters. Prohibited from displaying books.
Anecdote: Officials banned Art Forum from participating in the fair on the opening day because of content. They almost banned Arts of Asia Pacific, a media sponsor, due to a 'sensitive image' of Mao Zedong on one page. The magazine was allowed to participate only after removing the image from each magazine and handing the pages over to officials.

2:00pm: A feast
Charlotte and I enjoyed an impromptu lunch with artists Lin Yilin and Wu Shanzhuan, Guanyi (Collector), and Wang Huangsheng (Director, Guangdong Museum of Art). Finally a day with clear skies!

6:00pm: ShContemporary preview
Journalists, collectors, consultants and dealers weaved from one booth to the next searching for the ‘best’ story or the ‘best’ purchase.

8:00pm: Official opening, ribbon cutting and vernissage
VIP’s from around the world showed up, a very successful opening!

10:30pm: ShContemporary official party at Mundo Latino
Spent about 20 minutes at the event before nearly collapsing from exhaustion.


6 and 7 September: ShContemporary VIP viewing

10:00am – 6:00pm
At the end of the day, exhibitors seemed pleased with the turnout and sales. While some galleries, most of which were selling contemporary Asian art, sold-out during the Vernissage, others were hoping to break even by 9 September. International dealers were astounded by the prices of contemporary art from China. All of the exhibitors I spoke with were happy to be involved and attendees were impressed with the quality of the fair.


8 and 9 September: ShContemporary opens to the public
10:00am – 6:00pm
I divide my time between the AAA booth and documenting the fair. Several galleries told me major deals were closed during the last half hour of the fair. The collectors were from all over the world with a strong collector base from Korea, Hong Kong and Singapore.


9 September: Time to go …
Pack up in record time thanks to Ivan and Althea’s assistance. We left the exhibition center for the final time as dozens of people ran off with bags of apples from Gu Dexin’s installation. It was a fantastic image!


10 September: Shanghai, MOCA
Spent the morning at Shanghai’s impressive Museum of Contemporary Art and learnt about the education programs.



PART 2: CHENGDU (11 – 17 September)

My primary goal in visiting Chengdu was to document the opening of "Reboot: The Third Chengdu Biennale" curated by Britta Erickson, Shen Kuiyi, Lu Hong and Exhibition Director Feng Bin, as well as a two-day international symposium. The curatorial team invited scholars, curators and artists from around the world to present papers and participate in the discussion.

12 September: Motorbikes in Chengdu wear raincoats …

8:00am: I gave myself an hour to reach the symposium and arrived just in time for a desperately needed coffee before Shen Kuiyi’s introductory remarks.

Anecdote: I thoroughly enjoyed Chengdu’s wild roads, which are complemented by chain-smoking drivers who spit out the window and curse at each other in local dialect! It was a pleasant change from the generally subdued and grumpy drivers in Beijing. Chengdu’s commuter traffic is always bumper-to-bumper. While cars of all sizes occupy the streets, weaving in and out from one lane to the other, motorbikes rule this town. Slammed in traffic, I blocked out the orchestra of beeping horns to admire the fleet of motorbikes adorned in brightly colored ponchos. There must have been hundreds cruising along Chengdu’s rainy streets that morning.
A great image for the visual rolodex!

9:00am – 5:20pm: Lost in translation … International Symposium (Day 1)
In line with the theme of the Third Chengdu Biennale, the International Symposium explored the significance of China’s ink painting tradition in relation to the evolution of contemporary art in China. It was difficult to spur a heated discussion during the symposium because the papers were delivered in Mandarin or English without simultaneous translation. The Q&A session was a mixture of Mandarin, English and local Sichuan dialect.

9:00am – 11:00am: Morning session
Moderators: Shen Kuiyi and Julia Andrews
Papers presented by: Pi Daojian, Lu Hong, Pan Anyi, Britta Erickson and Peter Sturman.

2:00pm – 5:20pm: Afternoon session
Moderators: Britta Erickson and Lu Hong
Papers presented by: Pauline Yao, Julia Andrews, Katharine Burnett, Francesca Dal Lago, Zhang Yingchuan and Zou Yuejin.

6:00pm: Grand opening of Thousand Plateaus
Pauline Yao, Chen Shaoxiong, Fiona He and I attended the inaugural exhibition, ‘Echoes-Chengdu: New Visual Art Documentary Exhibition 1989 – 2007.’ Exhibiting Artists included: Chen Qiulin, Dai Guangyu, Yu Ji and Zhou Bin. Chen Qiulin and Yiji attended the opening. The Director of Thousand Plateaus, Liu Jie, produced an in-depth catalogue in conjunction with the exhibition to contextualize the history of performance art in Chengdu during the past two decades.

7:30pm: Bubble machines and late night snacks …
We followed Chen Qiulin and ended up at a massive restaurant with live performances accompanied by bubble-making machines. It seemed like everyone involved with the Biennale or Chengdu’s art scene was there and the place was crawling with curators, collectors, and artists. I couldn’t hear myself think let alone engage anyone in conversation so we left quickly and ended up enjoying spicy seafood on Xiang Kuangzi Street. For those familiar with Beijing, it’s essentially ‘ghost street’, just smaller and more charming.

13 September: Aiya, late again … International Symposium (Day 2)
I tried to enjoy a second rainy morning in Chengdu, but the motorbikes in ponchos were wearing on me. It took about forty-five minutes to find a taxi. Luckily the driver cruised like a maniac and we made it across town in record time. No time for coffee but made it to the conference just before the bell!

9:00am – 11:00am: Morning session
Moderators: Jane Debevoise and Zheng Shengtian
Papers presented by: Pan Gongkai, Liu Xiaochun, Dong Xiaoming, Jane Debevoise and Zhu Qingsheng .

2:00pm – 5:20pm: Afternoon session
Moderators: Lu Fusheng and Shen Kuiyi
Papers presented by: Niu Kecheng, Xu Gan, Luo Qing, Chen Ruilin, Feng Bin, Zhang Hongtu and Zhang Hong.

6:30pm – 7:30pm: Opening ceremony, Reboot: The Third Chengdu Biennale
Mr Deng Hong, Chairman of the Biennale, gave opening remarks. Artists from the area, including Luo Zhong Li, came out to show support while collectors, curators, and artists from Taiwan and the United States also attended.

7:30pm: Official opening
As the opening was winding down, Pauline Yao and I overheard exhibiting artists Li Huasheng and Leung Kui Ting planning a trip to Qingcheng Mountain. Coincidentally, Pauline and I were also planning a trip to the Taoist Monastery so we asked Li and Leung if we could tag along. We planned to meet at Li’s home the following morning.

9:30pm: Time to unwind
After the opening, several people headed back to the hotel bar to decompress. Chen Shaoxiong, Cui Xiuwen, Pauline Yao, Peter Sturman, Fiona he and I arrived, followed up quickly by Wang Peng and wife Yennie, Britta Erickson, Francesca Dal Lago, Shen Kuiyi, Julia Andrews, Zhang Rui, and Arnold Chang.

11:00pm: More late night snacking …
Wang Peng, Yennie and I were hungry so we headed back to the city in search of food. Following the driver’s recommendation, we ended up at a delicious outdoor restaurant for meat on a stick and more seafood. Chengdu’s night culture, which is based around food, is vibrant and vastly different from Beijing. The city comes to life after 10:00pm. After a great feast and promises to meet up in Beijing, we headed our separate ways.

14 September: Visiting Qingcheng Mountain

10:30am: Baozi breakfast with Li Huasheng
I arrived at Li Huasheng’s home while he was finishing breakfast with son Li Ze and Hong Kong artist Leung Kui Ting. Pauline was stuck in traffic so I took the opportunity to enjoy a baozi with a cup of coffee.

Li pulled out a book and showed me a painting from 1975. He spent quite a bit of time rendering the peaceful landscape at Qingcheng Mountain during the 1970s. In those days, Li was still a starving artist. One day while painting at Qingcheng Mountain, a man asked him to trade a painting in exchange for a meal. Hungry and honoured to add his painting to a book filled with landscapes by masters such as Xu Beihong and Zhang Daqian, Li jumped at the opportunity. The man asked Li to paint on all of the empty pages in the book but Li responded humbly, ‘I must leave room for the hungry painters of the future’.

After hearing this story, I was even more excited about visiting Qingcheng Mountain with Li Huasheng. Pauline arrived and we hit the road in Li’s monster jeep.

What a special day …
The weather was perfect! We ate lunch near the spot where Li had traded a painting for a meal more than three decades ago. After a long hike and a tea break, we drove to the back of Qingcheng Mountain as the sun began to set. We stopped to enjoy the mountains where Huang Binhong painted his night scenes. Li and Leung chatted while Pauline and I dozed off. I haven’t had a day like that in a long time!

16 September: Visit to Nanding Art Center

In 2004, Guo Wei, Zhou Chunya, Yang Mian and Zhao Nengzhi decided to rent a warehouse and divide it into artist studios. What began as a modest cluster of four has mushroomed into Chengdu’s booming Nanding Art Center. Today, approximately 50 artists have studios in the area.

I called Guo Wei, thanks to Lu Peng’s introduction, and he agreed to meet me! Zhou Chunya, Zhao Nengzhi and Yang Mian were out of town.


2:00pm: Visit with Guo Wei in his studio
Guo Wei (b. 1960, Chengdu)

3:00pm – 5:30pm: Studio visits
Bai Dongliang (b. 1982, Lanzhou); Ji Lei (b. 1972, Chengdu); Tu Tu (b. 1976. Chengdu); Chen Xian Hui (b. 1974, Chongqing); Wu Jianxin (b. 1966, Chengdu)

6:30pm: Final meal
Guo Wei dropped me off in town and I met up with Chen Qiulin for a hotpot feast! I finally got a taste of hotpot heaven.

After nearly three weeks on the road, my travels had come to an end. A perfect way to kick off the art season, I packed up and tried to get some rest before flying back to Beijing where the fall frenzy was already underway.





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