SH Contemporary was back at it again this year with the 5th Contemporary Art Fair. Quickly becoming one of the most prestigious art fairs in Asia, this year was no exception as numerous local and international artists descended on Shanghai from September 7th-10th to appreciate and share their best pieces inside the exquisite Shanghai Exhibition Center on Nanjing West Road. Renowned galleries James Cohan and Pace Beijing had exhibits while the spotlight sections this year were the Asia Pacific Photography Prize and a series of special contemporary art projects strewn across the venue from non-profit organizer ArtHub.Though the hall was never packed, for a Friday afternoon there was a respectable crowd of youth with DSLRs, greying men of assumed importance in suits, foreigner mothers with their families in tow, tourists, and Chinese of all ages.
Sexuality was an overarching theme at the Fair, though not an overbearing one. It seemed as though each wing of the Exhibition Center had at least one nude or risqué piece. The most impacting for us personally was The Problem of Color 2, a photograph of a man’s posterior exuding a small trail of blood displayed at ShanghART. The piece could be seen as a metaphor for the treatment of homosexuals in the PRC, or alternatively some gender inequality overtones might creep out from the indeterminate origin of the blood trail, perhaps leaving male patrons imparted with a touch of empathy. Similarly impacting pieces were the full scale anatomically correct nude fiberglass sculpture I Am 22 Years Old But Without My Period as well as five small untitled paintings of nude obese women in exposed positions that stands in sharp juxtaposition to society’s attitudes towards larger physiques.
The most popular exhibit was definitely Red Gate Gallery out of Beijing. Like moths to a flame, the wall of electronic LED and LCD displays attracted crowds that lingered longer than most and explored almost all of the booth before moving on. Integral to this attraction were two large LCD displays flanking the entrance to the booth — one showing various lone young Chinese teens loitering next to a payphone (titled Payphone), and the other showing a sleeping woman with a cellphone beside her (titled Sanya Vibe). Above their heads the words “Call me” scrawled in pen for the former and lipstick (complete with kiss) for the latter along with a phone number confused a few who either perhaps could not read English, or were not entirely sure if they were supposed to obey the instructions. Eventually, it seems someone dialed the number (perhaps the artist themself, or an earlier visitor looking to continue the fun of that exhibit from a different part of the museum) prompting the phones to ring. When the youth answered the payphone, they simply disappeared with a pop and, a few seconds later, a different youth took their place. When the sleeping woman’s phone rang, she enjoyed the vibrations of the phone by tracing it along her contours, never bothering to answer (we said sexuality was a big theme here).
Aside from the contemporary art meant to surprise like those listed above, art that just happens to be contemporary (defined as post WWII, but in China’s case would more accurately be post 1970s) and more traditionally arty, if you will, dominated most of the fair. Our personal favorites of these pieces include Hong Ling’s Windy Autumn, Igor Bitman’s The Young Girl With Ballon and the sculpture Apple–China by Li Lihong. These pieces were not only on display for showcase, but also for sale. Chinese affluents have been snapping up artwork as investments recently (due to limited real estate options) and the Contemporary Art Fair was no exception. At Tina Keng’s gallery, for example, the centerpiece painting was up for sale for (or sold already for) 300,000RMB (~$45,000)!
If one considers successful contemporary art as amazement of the new and unexplored, it is not certain or not if the fair was a success. In some places bored patrons mulled about the halls, stopping only briefly to snap a few shots on their digital cameras (or worse, their cellphones), while in others crowds gathered over impromptu speeches or introductions of an artist or gallery piece. What would potentially shock a Westerner would of course differ from elderly Chinese and likewise from Chinese youth, but that’s not to say any of the three were that affected. For the most part, the reaction brought forth was humor or delight and more than a few made us chuckle out loud. Amusement in particular was had by some of the more punny displays such as ShuShu (梳书 – Chinese for comb-book), the earthly delights found in Sanya Vibe, or the reactions of young Chinese to the message “Karl Marx is just a myth” conveyed through the familiar “English language textbook” format of Lesson 1.
If you’re not looking for outright shock value, however, you could consider the fair a rousing success. We believe if the art can produce any reaction at all, it has already succeeded as a medium of emotional transfer from artist to patron. That transfer was present in the abounding smiles and good-naturedness, as people from around the world came together for a few days in Shanghai to appreciate and admire achievements in this global language.
Edit: James Cohan and Pace Beijing were erroneously listed as artists rather than galleries.