Three big arts exhibitions are happening right now in Shanghai. Let's get into it!
Song Dong kicked off his Rockbund Art Museum solo on Friday night with a metropolis made of biscuits. Titled Eating the City, it was part installation, part performance — the performance element being its demolition and subsequent wolfing down by greedy hordes at the show’s private view (SORRY!). But that was kind of the point: impermanence runs through Song’s practice. From early film works like Frying Water (1992), to last year’s Blank Stele which invites museum goers to write in water on a stone obelisk, à la water calligraphy, this show is all about moments.
Up on the sixth floor, sentimental meets sinister by way of titular work, At Fifty, I Don’t Know The Mandate of Heaven: comprising 50 porcelain dolls - apparently the artist’s favorite childhood plaything - they’re a mischievous bunch. Some are cooking, sleeping, or writing - others are spinning decapitated heads on a turn table. Also reminiscing on the artist’s youth is Back Image, recalling open air screenings of revolutionary films.
Continuing a palpable — if unspoken — reflection on political China are repeated references to surveillance and control. The most literal is Slogans up on the third floor: comprising red banners and fencing, the only way to experience the work — and reach new ones — is to follow a prescribed, enclosed path. Likewise, 16 (fiberglass) policemen are dotted throughout the show. On entering, visitors are met by The Use of Uselessness: Bottle Rack Big Brother. A riff on Marcel Duchamp’s work of almost the same name, Song positions empty vessels to look a lot like surveillance cameras…
While that last work might be a nod to western art history traditions, the wider exhibition is more about Chinese ones. That includes exquisitely rendered veggies in Jingdezhen porcelain up on the fourth floor, but more broadly, the entire show. Taking the form of seven chapters of traditional Chinese literature (one per floor, plus an installation on the museum’s facade), the exhibition is a wink and a nod to a Confucian aphorism.
Honestly, there’s a LOT to take in here — with little in the way of explanation. Do go, though: Song Dong is a huge deal, and this is a fantastic overview of his work.
30rmb entry fee. Runs until March 26.
Master of light James Turrell’s solo opened to great fanfare — and not a small amount of selfie action — on Saturday. The American artist is a huge deal: active since the 1960s, his work centers on the relationship between space, light, and the viewer to create immersive installations, optical illusions and sumptuous tones. Expect lots of that in the Shanghai show. Ganzfeld, for example, draws museum-goers into a disorientating space, where curved walls cast in intense light make defining its dimensions and horizons almost impossible. Clever stuff.
Even more intriguing are Turrell’s smaller scale works. Take Transmission Light Work, a series of mirror-like objects using holography not to create a 3D object, but to seemingly capture and make physical light itself. Instead of being something intangible and dispersed, solid fragments of light get reflected in the ‘mirrors,' their shape changing as the viewer walks around the space. Internationally, Turrell has worked on several outdoor architectural interventions to ‘frame’ sections of sky. There’s no such work for the Shanghai show, unfortunately - but there is a documentary on the ground floor about one such piece in the UK in which he discusses the meditative possibilities of gazing up into space.
Turrell’s life work, Roden Crater, is shown here by way of a handful of photographs. The remnants of an extinct volcano out in the Painted Desert in North Arizona, the artist has been transforming the landscape into a naked eye observatory since the late 1970s. The context gets you thinking: Given he’s now showing in a city where a heady mix of neon and pollution create such improbable, crazy light, it seems an opportunity missed not to somehow channel the Shanghai sky, to make it something beautiful and even meditative. If anyone could do that, it’s Turrell.
Much like last year’s Olafur Eliasson show, this one’s going to be all over your WeChat. And despite a hefty 200rmb — two hundred renminbi! — admission cost, it’s likely also going to get crowded: several installations have limited capacity, making waiting in line inevitable, especially at the weekend.
Entry fee 200rmb. Runs until May 21.
For something completely different, do check out Made in Germany at ScOP. An overview of German photography from the 1850s to today, impressive historical context frames a fascinating range of styles spanning early pictorialism — that is, photography as art — right through to subjective photography, a movement that used the medium to capture the inner psyche and human condition.
The Bauhaus section is a particular highlight. Against the aftermath of World War 1, German architect Walter Gropius’ influential design school attracted the most innovative, most pioneering avant-garde artists of the time. When a certain László Moholy-Nagy joined the fold in 1923, photography at Bauhaus really took off. He’s here by way of a relaxed portrait by Paul Citroen, as well as his own experimental play on elongated shadows titled Midnight Sun.
The show traces not just artistic movements and trends, but also political and economic ones too. Monetary reform in the years after World War 2, for example, are documented via Peter Keetman’s abstract images of industry — in this case, back fenders in a VW factory, beautifully curved to look like rice terraces. In contrast, later images of East Germany capture economic scarcity and a palpably starker reality.
Architectural photography shows strong, thanks to Bernd and Hilla Becher’s obsessive, insistent Water Towers series, as well as Werner Mantz earlier snaps of glass-clad department stores and imposing bridges. Fashion is also represented by way of the legendary Helmut Newton — find that towards the end of this jam-packed show.
Highly recommended, particularly for photography buffs.
Runs until April 2. 40rmb entry fee.
All art exhibitions on our Art Calendar here.