The less glamorous side of Shanghai's art scene.
All art fairs, air kisses and glitz, the Shanghai scene’s been ramping up the glamor of late. But away from all your Yuz Museums
, Power Stations
and the like are young artists living their own, quite different reality. Meet Yang Yihang: sat behind a massive monitor that feels out of place in his otherwise lo-fi studio in an abandoned Jiading warehouse, Yang leans back into one of his two brown upholstered chairs and draws deeply on his umpteenth cigarette of the afternoon.
“I like Shanghai - Pearl of the East, they call it - but five years from now, I want to be back in the countryside.” Digging out his phone, he shares snaps of a leafy forested valley in Xiuning town, close to Huang Shan in Anhui province. "This is where I’ll build my house. It’s cheap there, you know."
This is where he lives now.
This year has seen the stars align for the young Jiangxi-born artist. Not that fame and fortune would deter him from returning to his rural roots, mind, but it might just influence the build. Yang’s third solo opens this weekend at Aqua Arts Foundation (AAF), a non-profit platform for contemporary arts in Shanghai set up by the group behind Vantage Magazine, Aquaspace serviced apartments, and a whole bunch of other stuff.
Editor and AAF curator Cecilia Chan discovered Yang’s hideout during an unrelated photoshoot for the magazine in an adjacent space. She returned to the Jiading spot in April 2015 to find the artist surveying his badly-flooded studio from atop one of those shabby brown chairs. “It was maybe up to here”, recalled studio assistant Shu Yuan, pointing to somewhere alarmingly over knee-level.
Deluge and destroyed artworks aside, AAF saw potential and committed to not just sponsoring Yang’s space, but also a show — My Studio Got Flooded Because Shanghai
— opening this Friday, September 25. Ahead of that, we stopped by Jiading for coffees and chat.
Entirely self-taught, Yang’s never been one for formal education. After leaving school at the age of 16, he moved to an “artist workshop” in Guangzhou. In 2001, the set-up saw thousands of artists apply considerable skills to replicating oil paintings by mostly long-dead Europeans. Think copies of Van Gogh, Da Vinci, Rembrandt, et al, all destined for Europe via a Hong Kong company. “Those paintings you see in the movies? They are made in China,” he said. Far from sterile, the environment was a revelation to Yang. “The people working there were really good at what they do -- their paintings looked just the same as the real thing.” On how the experience shaped his own style, he said, “I learnt a lot from watching those masters. But I got bored of just copying.”
By 2004, Yang’s friends were moving on -- specifically to Shanghai. Two years later, he followed suit, settling on Jiading Qu for its comparative cost versus space advantages. “I’ve moved maybe five times since then,” he said, pointing towards former digs just 500 meters down the road. In 2014, Yang and a friend found current space 口艺术，a rundown concrete sprawl surrounded by car dealerships, garages and scrawny-looking dogs.
Flooding potential aside, it’s good: there’s space for his three road-worn motorbikes, punching bag and gloves, loads of canvases, as well as the purpose-built mezzanine that Yang calls home.
Yang lives simply. Apart from those motorbikes - each currently surrounded by wrenches, oil and spare parts -- it’s mostly tangles of paint tubes, massive canvases and pots of brushes. Is he happy here? “Shanghai is great for meeting people, and of course for its commercial element,” he explained. Nonetheless, his paintings recall Yang’s dream, as well as his roots -- think mountains, water, and all things natural, layered in deft strokes and punctuated by the odd collage element like lengths of string and tufts of trees.
“My inspiration is my home,” said Yang. All mountains and water, there’s also fire in his works: flashes of red and orange, his canvases are certainly striking. Touching on what he describes as a craving for nature and its associated spirituality, Yang’s paintings also draw inspiration from those copies upon copies of Old Masters’ paintings encountered in Guangzhou. “They portrayed everything from Greek mythology to biblical stories -- they had such energy, as well as tragedy,” he explained.
Yang said that he tries to channel the spiritual fortitude or sheer sadness of these narratives into his own work. As he talks, Yang acts out a kind of one-man-band version of Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam
-- muscly forearms and all. And indeed, a nearby scaffold points to recent dalliances with ceiling painting: it’s no Sistine chapel, but a flight of ravens in black, upside-down brushstrokes breathe life into the concrete space.
After a whirlwind week of blue-chip artists and big-name galleries flogging multi-million yuan works, visiting Yang’s studio is a welcome reality hit. He leaves the city for around one to one-and-a-half months each year, two-wheeling it across China to Qinghai, Yunnan and Sanxia and beyond (the only places he hasn’t been, Yang reckons, are Dongbei, Inner Mongolia and Tibet). Between times, go see him for a brew and a natter. Otherwise, do visit his exhibition, details of which are right here
Photos and translation assistance by Rhiannon Florence