The rise of the creative class in Shanghai
I do believe that Asian alternative spaces represent a new type of model in terms of modern society and culture being invented in Asia at this moment. This is possibly the most interesting aspect of Asias future, and is also one of the distinctive aspects coming out of the development of global culture. Hou Hanru
The history of Chinese contemporary art is a matter of a couple of decades. In Shanghai, in particular, its development has been characterized by very peculiar social, cultural and economic circumstances. At the end of the 1980s, some of the local artists joined together in informal groups, in order to discuss the role of contemporary art in modern society, its relationship with the past and the so-called old culture, as well as their own position in the relatively more tolerant cultural climate of China. When I refer to a group of artists, I do not mean an organized group with an unequivocal artistic mission or statement, but more a scattered group of intellectuals.
After the famous China/Avant-garde exhibition organized in Beijing in 1989, Shanghai artists started organizing private happenings and exhibitions, using temporary spaces or casual venues. But these events rarely reached a wider public, and responded more to a need of self-expression, than to an explicit desire to communicate with an audience. Artists were invited to take part to officially sanctioned exhibitions which took place yearly throughout China. Occasionally, they exhibited in more international contexts, at first in Asia, and eventually in America and Europe. But despite the fact that major international showcases of contemporary Chinese art, for instance in Berlin and at the Venice Biennale, had attracted much attention, the situation in Shanghai did not change until 1996. Lorenz Helbling, a Swiss gallerist, started organizing exhibitions of 'avant-garde' artists in Shanghai. First in his house and eventually at Shanghart, as he named his space in Fuxing Park. Shanghart was thus the first private gallery devoted entirely to the promotion of so-called 'avant-garde art': political pop, abstract painting, and kitsch art. After Shanghart was established, numerous other galleries flourished. Nowadays we can count more than thirty of them. Among the best known and active are: Eastlink, Yibo Gallery, Aura Gallery [fig.1] [fig.2] and Hwa's Gallery.
One of the main issues faced by gallery owners in Shanghai and in the whole of China is that of a limited, almost non-existent, market. More than 90% of the clients are foreign enterprises or foreign private collectors. In this sense, many of the so-called contemporary art galleries have a strong business side, rather than promoting artists on a long term basis. They mainly show particularly institutional, traditional Chinese and Western art.
Setting up an experimental space for art
In late 1999 BizArt became operative: our aim at first was to respond to a real need of the city: a free, artistic environment where local artists could operate independently on a project basis. Our idea was to move around the city in temporary spaces transformed in artistic venues. This simple structure was the ideal mode to operate without attracting the attention of local authorities. After the establishment we found ourselves facing another difficulty: the lack of trained personnel able to support the organization of art events but also of BizArt as cultural center. In China there are no official degrees on curatorial aspects or art management comparable to those found in other countries. Many of the curators who are now active do not have a background in organizational matters and, some of them, come from a totally different working experience. Under these circumstances, the only way to proceed was to learn by doing. In particular, a group of local young artists understood what we were trying to do and expressed their desire to cooperate.Working with the young artists was very inspiring. At the beginning of 2001 the artist Xu Zhen, began to work at BizArt. With him, we organized an average of three events per month. These were either sponsored by private companies and institutions (Consulates, Embassies, EU) or self supported by artists. BizArt provided organization, services, space and Public Relations. Under the guidance of experienced video artists such as Yang Zhenzhong, we began offering technological facilities to artists such as DVD, carver, video and audio editing, which are in China expensive and difficult to access. In 2002 our formal exhibition center was pulled down and we moved around the city three times in a few months. At the end of the year we finally nested at Moganshan Lu together with Shanghart Warehouse, Eastlink and around fifteen other artists studios and an increasing number of other art galleries (Art Sea, Art Scene China) and designers studios. [fig. 3] [fig. 4] [fig. 5]The atmosphere of the industrial area at Mogashan Lu is exciting and the opportunity of sharing the same urban space with artists and other important artistic organization offers, allows us to have a stronger presence in Shanghai, even though the area that we occupy is still under risks of being demolished. [fig. 6] [fig. 7] Moreover: a co-operation with Artists Links and the British Council opened up a new direction: an artists-in-residence program was set up. Next to that a series of conferences, international exhibitions and a supporting project with the Venice Biennale linked BizArt to other countries. Exhibitions organized together with Artsonje Art Center in Seoul and networking with other Asian independent art spaces and organizations linked to Art Factories, develops BizArt's international recognition.
Cooperation with the Chinese Government, morbid art and last years underground art events
But one of the key problems of our organization was to solve the following dilemma: should BizArt become a gallery/company or a non-profit cultural organization? In China this question is not of evident solution. A private, cultural association or a non-profit organization cannot achieve legal status unless affiliated to a governmental organization. In this respect, any cultural event is strictly under the control of the Shanghai Cultural Bureau which has the power to endorse it or to deny permission. Moreover, the Chinese Government always treats contemporary art and its avant-garde developments with circumspection - especially video/new technology and performances - and censors place serious limits to artists self expression.
The answer to the above problem came, when, supported by several international institutions, especially French ones (Alliance Française and French Consulate), we decided to make our big leap forward and rent a disused factory to set up our company. After many consultations with lawyers and economic specialists, we found out that the simplest solution was to establish a fully Chinese company, whose owner is the painter and BizArt founding member Huang Yuanqing. We obtained a gallery license that allowed us to organize exhibitions openly and to cooperate at an official as well as private level. The company, which has a business scope and a fiscal status, makes BizArt a commercial enterprise in the eye of Chinese authorities, which eases things immensely and also allowed us to survive financially. BizArt became a private organization with two distinct types of activity, "business" and "art" - which are integrated, yet independent. In this way, it can maintain its artistic convictions. This independence both from the government and from private institutions became an important strategy to establish experimental art centers in China.
At the beginning of 2001, the Chinese Government issued a new law regarding public performances and the sexual contents of artworks. This law reached the attention of international media and has been object of a wide discussion among journalists, curators and institutions representatives in China and abroad. This matter allows us to talk about the situation of contemporary art organizations in China and the possible relationship of private art organizations with the government. When a curator, gallery or private organization in China decides to plan an exhibition or event, the first question they ask themselves is: should it be open to the wide public or only to a selected circle of connoisseurs? To find the right answer to this question is fundamental for the organizational aspects of an exhibition together with contents and selection of artworks. Most art events involving art works with political or social statements are destined to be underground events, time and place are being kept secret until the last minute and most of the time are closed down by the authorities within a few hours, sometimes even before the official opening. For this reason, contemporary art events in China had had a sort of accidental or casual organization, where the concept was more a sort of umbrella to cover a number of artworks and artists. In such events, the nature and quality of the artworks varied a lot, and the artworks were displayed casually in temporary spaces adapted as exhibition venues for the occasion. Besides, the financial problem of such exhibitions (mostly self supported by artists and very rarely sponsored) interfered with the quality and the making of the artworks displayed.
In the last few years, we have witnessed in China several art events characterized by the use of human and animal corps, a phenomenon that starting randomly in some exhibitions in Beijing (The Corruptionists, Post Sense and Sensibility) reached the attention of the media and government and its censorship department, the Propaganda Bureau. In reaction to these exhibitions, the Chinese Government issued a very detailed law that incriminates these activities as immoral and punishable with jail and financial charges.
But this law, which we had been expecting for some time, only formalized some previous regulations, and it did not interfere substantially with our activities. Nevertheless: we are aware that BizArt is always under control and our exhibitions and other activities are checked directly or indirectly by the authorities. Therefore we want to keep an open contact with the police and the Cultural Bureau. So far our strategy for enhancing our presence and dialogue with the government is a success. None the forty events organized in the last year and a half were shut down. We organized a video exhibition (Homeport, august 2001) in Fuxing Park with the support of the local Government. It was the very first time that such an event had been set up in a public open space in Shanghai. Interestingly, the permission was granted to us in the midst of the propaganda campaign against xingwei yishu (literally behavior art, mostly related to art performances).1 From April on many newspapers, magazines and homepages (tom.com) reported articles against xingwei yishu. The general attitude, common for all of them, was to be very critical toward this phenomenon in China, indicating performance art as being immoral and subversive.
One of BizArt intents is to keep our venue open to artistic expression but also free for a general public. Finding a balance of being supportive to Chinese young artists and to keep being as open as possible was - and still is - very hard. As a matter of fact the more or less silent approval by the local authorities does not amount to a real cooperation. The Chinese Government does not grant any financial support to us and only virtually allows us the freedom to operate. Our recent confrontation with other similar organizations in Asia during the international symposium in Hong Kong called In-between revealed that a formalized cooperation with the local government might influence and sometimes limit activities of independent art organizations or even lead to bankruptcy as in the case of Bamboo Garden in Taiwan.2 The Taiwan government granted a space to art organizations such us Bamboo Garden in exchange of a number of activities a year (minimum one per month). The result was that the cost of realization of such a number of activities was higher than the funds available. So far, even though BizArt has been called a few times by the local Government in Shanghai to cooperate with them in the making of an art center, we believe that the time is not ready for taking such a risk. For this reason, we believe that BizArt should continue to be a hybrid organization between business and non-profit activities. The precarious economical situation of BizArt, which struggles to support the wide organization, does not obstacle the production of exhibitions, events, work-shops and the artists-in-residence program, thanks to the help and support of the local artists and organizations and the enthusiastic response of the public.
1. For details about early performances in China: Li Xianting, The Pluralistic Look of Chinese Contemporary Art Since the Mid-1990s, Chinese Art at the End of The Millennium, 2000, pp 72-78. Edited by chinese-art.com
2. In-between was organized by 1aspace and Hong Kong Government, Cultural Department in December 2001. Reference documentation produced by 1aspace. 1aspace is located at Niufang (abattoir) in Hongkong where many art organizations are now sharing a common space i.e; Videotage, 1aspace, Chinese Contemporary and a few artists studios.
Born in Busto Arsizio (Italy, 1970), Davide studied at the Venice University, Oriental Languages Department, Chinese Language and History of East Asian Art. He graduated with a final dissertation on the history of Labrang monastery and the architecture of Eastern Tibet. He is now resident in Shanghai where, besides organising exhibitions and cultural events, he is also carry on his own artistic activities.
Born in Shanghai in 1977, this very young artist has always been interested in cultural and social interchanges. For this reason, since 1998, together with other artists, he organized many art exhibitions in Shanghai. Besides his own art activities, Xu Zhen is now co-operating with BizArt as art director, designer and event organizer.