Shanghai has a long, rich and little-appreciated vein of experimental art spaces and projects, sites of big ideas, small budgets, open minds and broad possibilities. Their histories take center stage in curator Chao Jiaxing’s new bilingual anthology Under Construction 2008-2016: A History of Shanghai Art Institutions.
While big names and big prices have bogged down much of the Chinese art world, and even museums often subject to market whims, a third path nurturing the experimental and oddball has always coexisted.
“They go by different names, independent, non-profit, alternative, artist run, all with their different specificities,” says Chao, who also emphasizes what she calls “paninstutional” curatorial projects without their own physical spaces.
Chao surmises that the heyday of independent spaces in Shanghai has passed, primarily but not entirely due to the travails of securing suitable, affordable spaces. A handful persist, such as AM Space, SNAP and Terrace Project, but the creative, experimental energy behind them has shifted instead into popup projects using empty or commercial spaces, or museums between shows.
The book memorializes some projects that were magnificent in their time, including the cross-city Shanghai eArts Festival and a one-time sound art biennale at a proto-West Bund. Artist and curator Yin Yi’s BM Space brought the neglected genre of sound art to the forefront, for once. Dance and art center Ke once notably featured an exhibition of Yoko Ono, who visited in the flesh. Moca Pavilion briefly brought all manner of performance and experimental art into the usually staid confines of People’s Park. Currently inactive independent online magazine Randian provided the Chinese and broader Asian art world with an unbiased voice and perspective. Basement6 brought a colorful cacophony of all comers to a dank repurposed storage basement for a few glittery years. Fei Contemporary Art Center critically explored tough questions of gender, labor, migration and production in their provocative installation projects.
Under Construction has its roots in Chao’s long-time archiving of the rises and falls of various Shanghai institutions, but took formation into a book project in August 2020, with support from renowned Shanghai artist Ding Yi. Several essays by Chao herself join with contributions by Shanghai’s most active artists including Miao Ying and Yu Ji and curators like Wang Weiwei and Biljana Ciric. Chao grounds the exploration in early spaces like BizArt and DDM Warehouse, experimental nonprofits founded respectively in 1998 and 1999, both running until 2010, which were early incubators of the Shanghai scene we have today.
“I chose 2008 to 2016 because that was a period of particular activity, starting with the 2008 Olympics that launched a new era for China,” says Chao.
While most spaces run through a natural lifespan, as their creators or an instrumental manager moves on to a new phase, the Shanghai particularities of demolition, rezoning and rent hike hikes have claimed quite a few. The mid-2010s also brought new challenges beyond gentrification, with big-ticket imported shows combining with the arts being overrun by wanghong online influencers, “leaving space for little else in the attention economy.”
One of the few from Chao’s focused period that has survived is am space, founded by acclaimed artist Yu Ji first on Xiangshan Lu in 2008, and moving to the basement of a heritage building on Shimen Er Lu and Fengxian Lu in 2010. Chao laments am’s inconsistent levels of activity, but it remains a hotbed for young artists’ shows, performances and talks. Another stalwart is School of Visual Arts Shanghai Platform, or SNAP, backed by New York’s SVA and founded and run by artist and professor Hu Renyi. Its Bund-adjacent space on Sichuan Zhong Lu features a hodgepodge of student and older artists, though Chao critiques it for overly focusing on “that old school Shanghai crowd – it needs to find a future.” That direction, she surmises, could be as an outlet for the over 60 young overseas educated artists who’ve returned to China during Covid, who she has gotten to know through her collaboration with young artist Zhao Zilang. “They need a place for their first for their first few shows - it could be a space for them.” For now, young artists are “going back to places like bars, like a decade ago”, such as the video art projected at ALL Club last year.
M50 retains two nonprofits, CC Foundation and Chronus Art Center, respectively established in 2015 and 2013. Pond Society, backed by the New Century Art Foundation, opened at West Bund in 2016. The newest arrivals are Shouter, a space for young artists within the Cloisters on Fuxing Lu, and Terrace Project, featuring Shanghai-based artists making single-work projects for the balcony of the French Consular Residence on Huaihai Zhong Lu and Wulumuqi Lu curated by artist Alice Chen Lingyan, both launched in 2020.
Available at most Shanghai museums and via distributor Text & Image Bookstore, Under Construction is an important book for Shanghai art history, summarizing what we have gained, and lost, in a relatively short period. Institutional memory, even of institutions, can be so fleeting in such a fast-charging city, but yesterday’s labors having their lingering impact upon today. The wonderfully weird, the quirkily experimental has become a rarer beast, but it flows through our veins, and through the ceremonial wine goblet.
‘Under Construction’ is available at Text & Image Bookstore.