The Cult of the Individual: three solo shows in Shanghai

I cross the road and avoid getting run over by the blink of an eye. No-one tells you that in China the cars, bikes, tricycles loaded up with 50 polystyrene boxes, bundles of sugar cane or fence panels, trams, buses et al, can turn right when the green man indicates your right of way. You have to learn this fast and remember it. Pearl Lam Gallery is my destination. It, like many galleries, restaurants, and much of Shanghai life, is hidden inside a building that reveals little about its contents. Some lives are lived in the streets ~ a communal existence where laundry is washed and dried in public view ~ and others are lived in the tower blocks.

Once inside, I am the only visitor in a gallery that is cool and cavernous, unfolding like so many more secrets. The ceiling is mirrored reflecting walls and floors made of stone. The artist holding her first significant solo exhibition here is Li Xiaojing and her show is called Beyond the Canvas. Her simple paintings relate to print-making, calligraphy, nature, urban life and historic Chinese visual culture (One Section, 2009, oil and pencil on canvas, is pictured). As I travel through the space my mind moves on from these pretty canvases to contemplating the experience of seeing the work of one artist in a solo presentation. I would have walked straight past these works in an art museum. Am I giving them a disproportionately large amount of my time? Or is this what all contemporary art requires and deserves?

One Section oil and pencil on canvas

At the Goethe Institute I encounter an exhibition that attempts to reconcile the interior/exterior existences in the city: ‘Waiting for an Artist solo project by Lu Pingyuan’ is the last in a series called Alternatives to Ritual curated by independent Shanghai-based curator Bijana Ciric. This programme of exhibitions, according to Ciric, was “inspired by the Institutional Critique – a 1960s’ movement in which artists expressed their opinions about art institutions and their conventions and rituals around staging exhibitions.” The institutional comment in this instance isn’t very clear, and, similarly to Li’s, this isn’t work that would attract and hold on to my attention if it was on display in an art museum.

Wet clothes are hung from corner to corner of the room and a washing machine is set into the wall to wash the clothes again as soon as they are dry. Humidity is supposedly the subject here, but Lu’s installation is conceptually confusing. I asked him ‘will you wash the clothes yourself?’ ‘No’, he said. ‘Someone else will’. That is the end of our conversation, so I do not get to ask whether these are his clothes and, if not, who or what exactly is waiting for him. However, the longer I spend with the work the more I appreciate the opportunity to consider the two parallel modes of being in Shanghai and how and when they converge.


On the other side of town, on my own again, away from the bustle of a so called private-view, my eyes helplessly submit to my sense of touch as I feel my way down a lightless corridor. The room that I find (pictured) at the end has no corners or other spacial clues. At the opposite side could be a full-size stage or cinema screen or it could be tiny like one of the doors in Alice’s Wonderland; the only players on the stage are pools of light and sound. Dutch artist Gabriel Lester’s slickly executed exhibition ‘Roxy’ is hosted by Minsheng Gallery. It mostly comprises two pieces, this one: How to Act, 1999 and Turn of the Events, 2012 (but also includes a lazy after-thought re-presentation of his piece Melancholia in Arcadia, 2011).

Minsheng Gallery have left traces of signage from the previous exhibition on the wall, making orientation in their relatively small space more difficult than it needs to be. I am told that in China everything moves fast; perhaps they were trying to move too quickly on this occasion. As I watch the shadows cast by light through a miniature landscape slip under the conveyer belt it naturally leads my thoughts back to the city. Lester is part-based here and is represented by Leo Xu Projects. His work is biennial-friendly (his CV includes Liverpool Biennial and dOCUMENTA 13) requiring only cinematic literacy – which should not be hard in a place where pirate DVDs cost 10RMB (£1).

To each of these solo exhibitions I give at least 30 minutes and I feel that I am rewarded for this output of time. I have a vague notion that visitors to large museums and art galleries spend around 30 seconds looking at each work – often less – but although I could find this quoted, no-one online seems to want to take authorship of this statistic. Whether or not it is true, it is believable. How can it be any other way? There is so much to see in an art museum that we visitors have the following choices: to revisit many times, to spend time only with one or more items of interest, or to sweep our eyes superficially across it all.

While reflecting on the difference between art museums and solo exhibitions, I come across an essay by Jane Norman called How to Look at Art, published by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York in which she says: “people want to understand the artist’s message but have no confidence in their ability to do so”. She goes on to advise: “having learned to think in words, most of us must be re-educated to think in shapes and colors and spaces… communication with an artist must be through his work. It must be direct, not diluted by verbal translation.” It is not Norman’s intention to be anti-big-art-museums; however, it seems that she articulates a problem best solved by seeing an artist’s work in a solo presentation where interpretation and distractions are minimal.

Already at least one of the solo exhibitions I visited has closed. On the manic streets of Shanghai, food and retail outlets open and close on a daily basis; and galleries in tower blocks and artist districts change over their exhibitions at a pace that almost challenges them. Thankfully, to help to navigate the city’s cultural offer, local start-up Shanghai Detour produce a monthly printed art map. The map reveals a young but thriving arts ecology populated by a diverse selection of artists, venues, funders and agendas; but at the core of all of this activity are monographic presentations, offering direct access to an artist’s intention and soul. Only they give us adequate space and time to consider the artworks as objects before layering them with local meaning, global resonance and magical properties.

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