Shanghai Project and Art in the City Usher in a New Era for the City’s Art Scene

  • Installation view of Envision Pavilion by Sou Fujimoto and Slogans for the 22nd Century projections by Douglas Coupland as part of Shanghai Project, 2016. Image by @erikasong3, via Instagram.

    Installation view of Envision Pavilion by Sou Fujimoto and Slogans for the 22nd Century projections by Douglas Coupland as part of Shanghai Project, 2016. Image by @erikasong3, via Instagram.

As Shanghai shakes off its summertime stupor, the engines of a slicker-than-ever commercial calendar are roaring. Last week, a third edition of the newly rebranded PHOTOFAIRS | Shanghai and the city’s galleries welcomed hoards. And while the start of the fall season brings about a familiar rhythm across the art world, in Shanghai this year a pair of new community-focused initiatives—the Shanghai Project and a retooled Art in the City—began to chart a new and exciting course for the city’s art scene.

From a global perspective, it’s curious that, in Shanghai, high-profile community-focused art events have arrived after a trio of well-established art fairs, a significant and internationally important gallery scene, and a number of major private museums. However, as with China more broadly, Shanghai remains typically, defiantly contrary. But why take this back-to-front approach? And can such community initiatives signal an eventual rounding-out of a Chinese arts ecology long-rooted in commerce?

Shanghai Project marks by far the most ambitious of the city’s latest cultural platforms. The initiative’s first stage opened on September 4th and runs through next July with a multidisciplinary approach designed to engage those outside of the city’s expected arts crowd—from scientists to hackers to activists. A multisite program of exhibitions, public art installations, events, and screenings centered on sustainability for the 22nd century hopes to encourage those in urban Chinese hubs to think about their futures.

In typical Chinese fashion, Shanghai Project’s initiatives are not just about the city, they’re also powered by one of the companies behind its very fabric. The festival is organized by Shanghai Himalayas Museum, founded by real estate Zendai Group. It sports a serious list of international contributors: Hans Ulrich Obrist and Yongwoo Lee co-directed phase one; Japanese architect Sou Fujimoto created a spectacular pavilion; and Liam Gillick created a whimsical installation inside the city’s Century Park. However, Shanghai Project is first and foremost for those who call the city home.

  • Left: One in a series of performances as part of Otobong Nkanga’s Landversation, part of Shanghai Project. Right: Liu Yi’s Seed Planet, a public art program for children, and Liam Gillick’s Shanghai Schlemmer installation, both part of Shanghai Project. Images by @shanghaiproject, via Instagram.

    Left: One in a series of performances as part of Otobong Nkanga’s Landversation, part of Shanghai Project. Right: Liu Yi’s Seed Planet, a public art program for children, and Liam Gillick’s Shanghai Schlemmer installation, both part of Shanghai Project. Images by @shanghaiproject, via Instagram.

“Today’s cities are not homogeneous in terms of the communities who live there; different communities have different needs and different expectations,” said Maurizio Bortolotti, director of research and public programming for the Shanghai Project. “The Community Participation Program [CPP] aims to engage with those needs. It’s not exclusively for specialized audiences of culture, but for everybody.”

In this vein, the festival’s program of events is ostensibly more about the city’s social and cultural fabric than it is about art in a traditional sense. Among other highlights it includes cooking demonstrations of Shanghainese specialities that have been forgotten—either to the cult of convenience, or to the city’s increasingly diverse population. A collaboration with architect Yu Ting, Urban Micro Space Revival Plan, converts abandoned, neglected, or overlooked sites into venues for events. M Space on Donghu Road, for example, ekes out space between two existing buildings for facilities that include a gallery, cafe, and garden.

“The idea is to give a representation of the possibilities for life in Shanghai, one that is more lively, more dynamic, and more connected with the social and cultural background of the city,” Bortolotti explained. “These small places where people gather together for social moments better represent the life of Shanghai than spots like the Bund or the financial district.”

Also concerned with engaging audiences beyond expected gallery-goers, and emblematic of the market-first cultural approach, is Art in the City. The event’s third edition, which opened this past weekend, switched format from a four-day selling exhibition with offsite events to a month-long festival featuring art tours, a dedicated art bus, and a revamped platform called BLAST! showcasing jury-selected digital media and sound art.

  • Andrew Stooke, Touch, a finalist for Art in the City’s BLAST!. Image courtesy of Art in the City.

    Andrew Stooke, Touch, a finalist for Art in the City’s BLAST!. Image courtesy of Art in the City.

“Art in the City was born to be flexible and responsive; as an instrument to connect all of these pieces, to connect dots,” explained co-founder Donna Chai of the shift in format for 2016. In the context of an art scene that hasn’t just blossomed but snowballed in recent years, such community initiatives are invaluable in opening up what was once a niche area of interest in Shanghai to a wider audience.

“The first thing is multiplication,” explained co-founder Massimo Torrigiani of the motivation behind Art in the City’s latest update and the key to the Shanghai art scene’s continued growth. “We now have more galleries, more museums, more artist-run spaces, more collaborations between brands and artists than ever before.” The potential risk, according to the director, however, is that this expansion in art infrastructure doesn’t result in expanding art’s reach out into the wider community. “We want to create occasions for those who are not usually involved in the art world by showing works by people whose work isn’t normally displayed and by bringing art to spaces and places where it isn’t normally shown,” Torrigiani added.

Bortolotti of Shanghai Project, who first arrived in 2009 to help plan the 2010 Biennale, described a similar phenomenon in Shanghai’s growth. “The city was much less active up until about 2010, which was a watershed,” he said. “I would say Shanghai at this moment is the most international city in China, so it’s really a gate, a bridge between China and the rest of the world.” Bortolotti sees Shanghai as perfect ground for experimentation of how culture can expand—both in China and elsewhere, too. “You’re testing different models,” he said. “It’s something that can’t happen now in Europe or the U.S. because the situation is much more established and defined. In Shanghai now, everything is possible: The city is very receptive and open.”

  • Installation views of Art in the City’s main exhibition, TAKE ME OUT. Images courtesy of Art in the City.

    Installation views of Art in the City’s main exhibition, TAKE ME OUT. Images courtesy of Art in the City.

For Torrigiani, it’s natural that these community-based initiatives would follow a robust commercial art world and collecting public: “Developing the commercial world, which to be clear is not at all a bad world, and the image of collecting and spending was key to developing” any art scene for Shanghai, he said. “That commerce gave art a kind of fuel to create larger projects. The important thing is that nothing becomes hegemonic, and that’s what’s central to Art in the City: providing a balance of initiatives that have different goals, aims, and modulations.”

How this new chapter of Shanghai’s contemporary cultural scene will be received by the wider community it seeks to court remains to be seen. Whether sparked by an art bus or cooking, a dialogue between the city’s well-documented monied arts enclave and those seeking to learn from and contribute to Shanghai’s wealth of cultural creativity seems a positive step indeed.



—Frances Arnold