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IN the last three years, Shanghai has been on a tear to transform itself into a global arts capital. New museums and galleries are popping up in a former industrial area known as the West Bund, while existing institutions have been steadily drawing more visitors, particularly among those under 35.
At the Rockbund Art Museum, one of the private museums leading the charge, young Chinese make up a big share of visitors. They are frequently spotted taking photos of the art - or selfies against the art.
Larys Frogier, Rockbund's museum director, says: "Four years ago, there were only two or three private museums in Shanghai. Now there's around 15 to 20. It's a sea change."
"We get many Chinese visitors who don't have much cultural knowledge, and they come to museums with a kind of innocent way of experiencing art - there's no pre-judgement. But they have a strong appetite and curiosity. And they're catching up quickly through the Internet, art events and other resources. Their expectations are also rising in tandem."
Rockbund has been in the vanguard of staging ground-breaking art shows since 2010. Ugo Rondinone, Zhang Huan, Cai Guo-Qiang and other luminaries have exhibited here.
From January to May this year, Singapore's Heman Chong put up his biggest and most important solo show to date here. The museum also partners Hugo Boss to confer the Hugo Boss Asia Art Award to emerging artists.
The current exhibition features works by Felix Gonzalez-Torres, a gay New York artist who died of AIDS in 1996 but whose foundational practice has inspired top living artists such as Chong, Rirkrit Tiravanija and Angela Bulloch.
His most famous works comprise thousands of wrapped candy strewn on the floor or piled in a corner. Visitors are encouraged to take as much candy as they want, and the depletion of the pile is symbolic of the AIDS virus diminishing the body of AIDS victims - the late artist's poignant reflection on the health crisis in the US in the 1980s and 1990s.
Although China legalised homosexuality almost 20 years ago, older Chinese have ambivalent feelings towards the LGBTQ community, and Chinese television aren't allowed to show the lives of gay men. The young visitors to Rockbund, however, are unfazed as they ponder the larger meaning of Gonzalez-Torres' art which occupies all six floors of the museum.
Mr Frogier observes: "There's a significant change in attitudes among art lovers and collectors. We're seeing much-younger people getting involved in the arts scene and caring a lot about the discourse."
"Previously, collectors saw art as pure investment. But new collectors, while not blind to the investment aspect, are equally concerned about how they can contribute to the development of the arts scene."
"They're setting up collector's networks, and learning from each other. They're becoming museum patrons, opening up private spaces to show art, and starting foundations to support emerging artists. There's a full process of engagement - and all this happened within just a few years."
The old is new again
In a way, the Rockbund Art Museum epitomises everything cosmopolitan that the new Shanghai wants to be again. By the early 1900s, the city was China's centre of opulence and grandeur. The presence of the British, French and American communities influenced Shanghai's art, food, fashion and architecture.
This extraordinarily rich interaction of cultures came to end in the 1940s with World War II, followed by the rise of Communism.
But when China started to open its doors to the world again, Shanghai saw a growing opportunity to reclaim its cultural eminence. Contemporary art, design and architecture have now become key to the city's plans.
In October 2012, China opened the country's first state-run contemporary art museum, the Power Station of Art (PSA), in Shanghai's former industrial area now known as the West Bund. Like the Tate Modern in London, the PSA is a converted power plant that now houses contemporary art. And, just like the Museum Mile of New York, West Bund is conceived as a long stretch of cultural spaces.
Currently, the PSA showcases the excellent Shanghai Biennale which opened in November. In its continuing spirit of cosmopolitanism, the museum appointed the Indian artist-curator group Raqs Media Collective as chief curator for the show. And the results are stunning.
By most accounts, the 11th Shanghai Biennale is one of its best editions to date. Raqs Media Collective (comprising Jeebesh Bagchi, Monica Narula and Shuddhabrata Sengupta) have imagined artists as future-ready pilots of the imagination.
Several works speculate near-future utopias or dystopias in visual and theatrical terms. The biggest attraction is a gigantic installation built by Mou Sen and MSG, an experimental Chinese theatre collective founded by Mou Sen. Titled The Great Chain of Being - Planet Trilogy (2016), the work invites viewers to enter the body of a crashed airplane - only to find themselves in a mind-bending rabbit hole of post-apocalyptic images, lost broadcasts and strange digital detritus.
Elsewhere, photographer Fabrice Monteiro creates fantastical portraits of a personified Mother Earth in jeopardy, while other artists such as Takashi Arai, John Gerrard and Phuong Linh Nguyen create disturbingly beautiful images out of environmental disasters.
Narula, one of Raqs' artist-curators, describes the world of art as "an antidote to the poison of every inevitability that seems to surround us. It is also a challenge to the notion that things have to be a certain way".
The themes of excess, waste, banal industrialisation and senseless consumption continue in Heidi Voet's long wall of kitschy carpets purchased from Alibaba e-commerce site, and Georges Adeagbo's roomful of cheap memorabilia collected from Shanghai's flea markets.
Ambitious master plan
If the art appears somewhat pessimistic, the mood in the West Bund where the Shanghai Biennale is located is not. Since 2008, billions of dollars have been pumped into the vicinity to transform this once-grey industrial area into a hip arts corridor along the Huangpu River.
Various industrial buildings have been turned into galleries and museums. The best ones include the Yuz Museum, founded by Indonesian tycoon Budi Tek who has more than 1,500 works in his collection, as well as the Long Museum West Bund opened by flashy billionaire couple Wang Wei and Liu Yiqian.
Shanghai Centre of Photography, or SCoP for short, opened last year with aims to be a "premier museum-quality venue dedicated to the art of photography". Its current attraction is the new art film Moving Mountains by superstar shutterbug Yang Fudong created for the prestigious Rolls-Royce art programme.
But all these developments look small compared to the upcoming Shanghai DreamCenter, a sprawling integrated arts and entertainment complex with performance venues, chi chi restaurants and high-fashion stores.
The DreamCenter is an ambitious collaboration between Hong Kong Lan Kwai Fong Group, US' DreamWorks Animation and Shanghai China Media Capital, built to the tune of US$2.5 billion.
These developments are proving irresistible to many: top gallery Shanghart even moved from the hip M50 Creative Park to the West Bund cultural corridor just to be where the action is.
Lorenz Helbling, Shanghart's founding director, explains: "It is a great location, with lots of open space just next to the Huangpu River. Also, the city and the district are supportive of this development. This is Shanghai's - if not China's - most exciting up-and-coming art district."
He adds: "China has always had a lively art scene with strong, individualistic artists ... Together with curators, critics, gallerists and many others, these artists were pushing things forward for many years."
"But now, with more and more private collectors deciding to open their own museums and art spaces, and actively contributing to the discussion, there has been increasing visibility and power of contemporary art in Shanghai."
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