11/11/2013, by CLAS

Where the Governmental and the Avant-Garde meet

The following post by Kiki Yu was originally published on the blog of the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at UNNC.

If the charm of Berlin lies in the confrontation of different ideologies demonstrated through architecture and the closeness between history and present, the beauty of Shanghai is highlighted through the harmonious mix of all kinds of contradictions.

Industrialisation and post-industrialisation, demolition and construction, the East and the West, the traditional and the modern, the birth of the communist and the flourishing of capitalism, the governmental and the avant-garde, the extreme poor and the newly emerged self-regarded nobility. Shanghai is a city that confidently embraces differences and transformations, as if the city itself is a piece of contemporary art, working-in-progress, open to interactions with every participant. Just like what Shanghai was almost a century ago in its last golden age of modernism, the city is still constantly attracting various kinds of people from around the world, whose involvement all contribute to the making of Shanghai.

Coming back to my home country China after living in the UK for more than eight years, I often tell people that this is not a return. It feels like living in a new country but I happen to speak the language and have some blood connections. China’s transformation, as illustrated through Shanghai, has been at times shocking. Not just because of the speed of change, but also the diverse experience this massive country can offer. This time in Shanghai, what I experienced was a show of art and culture, through time and spaces.

The West Bund Biennale

I was lucky to attend the opening of West Bund Biennale of Architecture and Contemporary China on the weekend of 20th Oct. Hosted in four disused huge oil tanks and a factory workhouse at the riverside of Huangpu river in Xuhui district, this large government-funded event demonstrates China’s confidence in marking itself as in a stage of an information society or creative economy. Some 20 years ago Shanghai was one of the cities in China most impacted by decollectivisation, resulting in the collapse of state-own giant factories and massive lay offs. Only two decades later, this former industrial area is turned into exhibition sites showcasing Chinese and international contemporary art.

When avant-garde meets governmental support, it is not necessarily a negative. The non-profit nature of the event, gaining enormous financial support from officials seems to have led to unexpected autonomy in curating. As part of the Biennial, the exhibition and performance, the sound art was a path breaking one, as even internationally, this is a very rare occasion for such an alternative and niche form of art, including works by world leading sound artists Alva Noto, Jaap Blonk and Merzbow. The exhibition is open to the public for free. A great chance for citizens to engage with liberal arts and critical thoughts. This has the potential of pushing forward the construction of public citizenship.

When the biennial becomes a fashion

West Bund shows us that ‘biennials’ are becoming quite the fashion in China. Before the West Bund, what Shanghai has been known for is the Shanghai Biennale which celebrates its 10th anniversary in 2014. Last year, the opening show was held at the Shanghai Contemporary Art Museum housed in a restored industrial building that used to be a power plant, a huge factory building that is almost identical to Tate Modern in London. Showing art works and hosting international forums, the biennale aims to create a critical public space for idea exchanging. This is in China, where people normally do not expect Habermas’ public sphere. However, while the concept of the public sphere is being constantly challenged in the West, public spaces in China are being constructed, through the flow of power relations that is somehow unique to China. Forums and public art spaces created at Biennales is a kind of public space, where government support of individual artists, semi-official scholars, intellectuals, international critics and agents are all involved in the game of Taiji.

While the Shanghai Biennale has been regarded as an established one, there are many other emerging biennales around China, such as the SZ-HK Biennale for architecture, China International Poster Biennial in Hangzhou, Beijing Biennial, Lianzhou Photography Biennial, and so on. All of the sudden, biennials have become a trend, a symbol to show off the success of China’s cultural and creative industries. This is part of the governmental achievement, responding to the call for the strengthening of the nation’s soft power by the previous president Hu Jintao in 2007. The West Bund, for example, formerly a massive farmland near the Huangpu River, is being developed into China’s South Bank – a centre for arts and culture.

In addition to the 2010 landmark event of the Shanghai World Expo, Shanghai’s International Film Festival joins the likes of other A-list international film festivals in Tokyo, New York and London. Shanghai definitely aims for more. In the past five years, a few new art and creative districts have been established, such as the Covent Garden-like Tianzifang in a Shanghai ‘longtang’ style residential area at the edge of former French concession; the construction of the Shanghai Film Museum exhibiting the history of 20th-century China through cinema, and a factory-converted galleries site Hongfang, just like the 789 art district in Beijing.

There has been a construction wave of exhibition and museum infrastructure in China recently. While previously, museums in China were exclusively owned by the state, more and more private or semi-private museums have been constructed, such as Rockbund museum in Shanghai, Minsheng Museum in Shanghai and Beijing. OCT, as a state run real estate group recently build four art centres in different cities, in addition to the first and the main one in Shenzhen, including Beijing, Shanghai, Xi’an, Wuhan. In the West Bund, there are some newly constructed privately-owned museums such as De Museum, Long Museum.

However, with establishment of new museum infrastructures, a number of questions arise. How do we run these museums? Do we have enough creative man-power to run these museums? Do such events and policy-made art and media districts encourage the creativity and diversity of cultural experience? Does it encourage equal participation of creative workers – providing resources and opportunities? How about the active participation of the consumers, providing diverse products, creative inspirations, and critical thoughts for different groups and does it help construct consumer-citizenship?

Dr Tianqi (Kiki) Yu, Assistant Professor in Film and Media Studies, School of International Communications, University of Nottingham, Ningbo China

Photo: the riverside of the West Bund

Posted in Culture, Film and Media