When abroad, whether for work or leisure, or often for both, I inevitably drift towards a city's culture, be it the usual museums, cuisine or architectural landmarks. Pretty typical, as one glance over any city's trademark postcard often demonstrates its most unique elements of art and design as one can visually cram into a single image. Finding myself on break in Shanghai, I gladly admit I have been shamelessly riding a culture bender, wandering this magnificent city's endless streets satiating my non-stop curiosities.
Standing tall as one of the most spectacular and modern cities at the start of the 21st century, Shanghai has certainly shifted rapidly into one of the world's leading urban centers—a conscious move that has drawn its fair share of praise and criticism for its development and displacement. With close to 20 million people residing in this old port city, its skyline has been infiltrated by an assortment of gorgeous and gaudy steel and glass towers looming over many of its heritage buildings from its British colonial era. Along the most infamous strip of old and new is the Bund, a stretch along the west side of the Huangpu River dominated by old banks now filled with high-end shops and some of the city's most innovative galleries, 18 Gallery and the Shanghai Gallery of Art. Like everything else in Shanghai, art is driven by reputation and market value, which creates an output of mostly object-based works riding market trends. But here on the Bund of all places, contemporary art has flourished as a process-orientated experience dealing directly with the district and the city.
Turning its old industrial areas, such as Tianzifang, into a "creative industry park," Shanghai has really succeeded in balancing and capitalizing tourism, functionality and its own history. As a series of average lane factories from the 1930s, Tianzifang is being touted as what New York's Soho used to be for good reason. Spanning a maze-like area of 20 000 square meters filled with galleries, boutiques, studios, restaurants and cafes, the area has become a hugely successful venture attracting artists and designers from all over the world to work and live here.
Similarly, in 2002, Shanghai's municipal economic committee officially took over 41 000 square meters of former industrial factories and warehouses along Suzhou Creek and turned it into another creative industry park now internationally known as M 50. While trendy condominiums are currently for sale and entire complexes sat demolished as piles of debris and rubble, there were also rows upon rows of galleries and design studios under repair and overflowing from the old mill factories.
Home to spaces such as Island 6, Shanghart and Twocities, the park features more than 130 artists from over 10 Mainland provinces and 16 foreign countries and districts, including the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Swiss, Israel, Norway and Hong Kong. Wandering around the vast network of open air spaces was certainly a very different feeling than one gets from a typical museum or gallery experience, as here, there is an integration between art, the city and its history.
Image credit: Luo Dan, 2009
Same goes for the art shown. While it's consistent to note that bad art exists everywhere, the strong works to surface were simply phenomenal in their honesty and engagement with the rapid development of the region. Being far more impressed by the young photographers who range from the fantastical to performance-based, Luo Dan's solo exhibition, The North and The South, at Epsite stood out for me in its limitless sentimental bewilderment. Documenting ordinary moments with a profound clarity, the photographs hold a starkness that do not attempt explanation at the strange and estranging. As an artist with a unique voice, his work, along with hundreds of others each year, has been given a venue to communicate its own sense of identity while being able to dialogue with each other as well as an international art audience, all the while proving to be be economically viable and culturally enriching.
*First pubished in Vue Weekly