Shanghai, long known as mainland China’s most cosmopolitan metropolis, has recently re-emerged as a global capital. Above sea: Contemporary art, urban culture, and the fashioning of global Shanghai offers the first in-depth examination of turn of the twenty-first-century Shanghai-based art and design—from state-sponsored exhibitions to fashionable cultural complexes to cutting-edge films and installations. This book offers a counter-touristic view of one of the world’s fastest developing megacities, one that penetrates the contradictions and buried layers of specific locales and artifacts of visual culture. Informed by years of in-situ research, including interviews with artists and designers, the book looks beyond contemporary art’s global hype to reveal persistent socio-political tensions accompanying Shanghai’s explosive transitions from semi-colonial capitalism to Maoist socialism to Communist Party–sponsored capitalism. Analyses of exemplary design projects such as Xintiandi and Shanghai Tang and artworks by Liu Jianhua, Yang Fudong, Gu Wenda, and others reveal how Shanghai’s global aesthetics construct glamorizing artifices that mask historically rooted cross-cultural conflicts between vying notions of foreign-influenced modernity versus anti-colonialist nationalism, and the city’s repressed socialist past versus its consumerist present. The book focuses on Shanghai-based art and design from the 1990s–2000s, the decades of the city’s most rapid post-socialist development, while also attending to pivotal Republican and Mao-era examples. Challenging the “East-meets-West” clichés that characterize discussions of urban Shanghai and contemporary Chinese art, this book illuminates critical issues facing today’s artists, architects, and designers and provides an essential field guide for students of art, design, art history, urban studies, and Chinese culture.
The introduction argues that the global turn in contemporary art has been limited by overly generalized cultural categorizations and inadequate coverage of the local social, economic, political, and historical contexts of non-Western artworks. In response, the author posits an urban-focused, historically grounded, and theoretically rigorous model of disciplinary diversification that foregrounds key examples of art and design created in and about Shanghai. The city is described as an exemplary case study with which to localize global contemporary art, accounting for Shanghai’s longstanding “East-meets-West” mythology and genealogy stemming from its early twentieth-century semi-colonial past and radical transformation during the Cultural Revolution (1966–76). The introduction acknowledges how Republican Shanghai has been recognized by scholars as a modern cultural capital with its own unique Shanghai style, haipai (literally sea style), and proposes that we must also consider the city’s art and design of the 1990s–2000s, the period of Shanghai’s most rapid growth as an international financial and cultural capital.
Chapter 1 examines pastiche in the shopping mall and cultural heritage site Xintiandi before discussing the site’s buried modern art histories marred by cross-cultural conflicts. Xintiandi physically surrounds China’s first communist meeting site of 1921, today memorialized as a museum. The complex was designed with reference to the vernacular homes of its formerly foreign occupied French Concession setting, and it is officially celebrated for its “East-meets-West” and “Old-meets-New” architecture, even while the construction demolished most of the site’s existing homes and dislocated thousands of working-class residents. This chapter analyzes how Xintiandi’s seemingly benign East-meets-West façades mask collusions between the Chinese Communist Party’s autocratic state power and capitalist development while romanticizing Shanghai’s modern cosmopolitan legacy. The chapter analyzes examples of Xintiandi’s repressed cultural histories, including the revolutionary art and design experiments of Pang Xunqin, founder of the 1930s avant-garde collective The Storm Society; leftist writings and art promoted by Lu Xun; and the major Cultural Revolution–era debate sparked by Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1972 documentary Chung Kuo Cina. The chapter argues that the official admonishment of Shanghai-based cultural projects by Pang and Antonioni speak to collisions between Shanghai’s semi-colonial past, Maoist socialism, and Cultural Revolution–era totalitarianism that still resonate in Shanghai today.
Chapter 3 investigates the turn of the twenty-first-century global expansion of Shanghai’s contemporary art vis-à-vis the first international iteration of China’s premier contemporary art event, the Chinese Communist Party-sponsored 2000 Shanghai. The chapter theorizes biennialization-as-banalization vis-à-vis contemporary exhibition practices and the promotion of contemporary Chinese art. The chapter argues that the Shanghai Biennial’s curators’ hopes of harnessing the spirit of Shanghai were ultimately supplanted by a generic brand of global contemporary art that neglected the city’s unique historical features and current concerns. This chapter then examines critical responses to the 2000 Shanghai Biennial and critiques of the global positioning of Shanghai’s contemporary art as seen in Ai Weiwei and Feng Boyi’s counter-exhibition “Fuck Off” and in two related works by artists Zhou Tiehai and Yang Fudong.
Chapter 4 considers worlding, or the city’s positioning as a cosmopolitan center on an international stage, as a philosophical construct and tangible phenomenon tied to the development and promotion of present-day Shanghai and contemporary Chinese art. The chapter presents three Shanghai-based installations by transnational art stars Gu Wenda, Xu Bing, and Cai Guoqiang. Disrupting the East-meets-West soundbites surrounding discussions of these works, this chapter interrogates the artists’ privileged subject positions, arguing that such artworks function as branding campaigns that world Shanghai. The chapter also discusses the loaded cultural geographies of these installations’ shared sites: the Bund, once the heart of Shanghai’s British and US-controlled International Settlement; and the Pudong Skyline, considered the shining jewel of China’s post-socialist economic rise. The chapter concludes by discussing a more critical recent project by Cai Guoqiang that acknowledged the migrant labor fueling Shanghai’s urbanization in the face of the 2010 Shanghai World Expo; and a related urban intervention by artist Ai Weiwei.
Chapter 2 considers how Shanghai Tang, a Hong Kong-founded fashion brand, exploits Shanghai’s imagined cosmopolitan legacy towards the building of a multinational luxury brand. The author considers the rising political tensions between Hong Kong and Shanghai, as Hong Kong was handed over from British to mainland Chinese rule in 1997. The chapter discusses a 1997 Shanghai Tang advertisement featuring Chinese actress Gong Li, addressing how the image signals the return of class-based society while sanitizing mainland China’s immediate socialist past. This chapter also examines the powerful influence of Shanghai Tang’s founder, art collector Sir David Tang, on the international dissemination of contemporary Chinese art, exploring key Shanghainese painters promoted by Tang, including Yu Youhan, Wang Ziwei, and Ding Yi. Referencing these artists’ connections to Shanghai Tan and also the French fashion brand Christian Dior, the chapter theorizes the rise of a contemporary Chinese art/fashion system. The final section focuses on Shanghai-based sculptor Liu Jianhua, who has been supported by both Tang and Christian Dior, and the artist’s subversion of mainland China’s presumed role as “the factory of the world” through his ceramic-based practice.
The conclusion considers the continued, widespread proliferation of the staid East-meets-West trope through a critique of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 2015 exhibition, “China: Through the Looking Glass.” Ruminating on the afterlives of East-meets-West exoticizations, the conclusion synthesizes the preceding ones by analyzing the exhibition’s loaded cross-cultural hybrids of art-fashion-celebrity culture and Sino-US corporate sponsorship. The chapter argues that “China: Through the Looking Glass” might have countered the critique that the exhibition did not adequately present contemporary Chinese culture by including some of the art and design projects presented throughout the book, summarizing the vital issues these projects raise.