"Art must have individual character, national character, temporal character" ~ Li Feng Mian. Reflections on Shanghai's 10th Biennale at the Power Station of Art.


Prior to attending this exhibition, I hadn't really thought about what I expected contemporary art in China to look like. In any regime that practises mass censorship, art and creative expression - many of them created with the purpose of reflecting, challenging and commenting on the cultural zeitgeist - is usually the first to go by either being tightly controlled or completely hidden away. In some ways, I was prepared for a Brave New World-esque sight of garish happiness - the spectacular, exuberant yet just slightly artificial works that you tend to associate with China's 'official' cultural events (think: Spring Festival Gala). Something like the bright, flat-toned propaganda of the Mao era - happy smiles and inspirational motivation the only things keeping the facade alive.

Which is why I was quite surprised to find that the sombre undercurrent of China's contemporary art was not hidden away and painted over, as expected, but on display - a startling response to the exhibition theme of looking into post 1978 modernity and the way 'society' is constructed in this modern age. Perhaps a sign that the censorship in China is not as strong as I thought or perhaps this sense of restriction and constrainment is precisely a reflection of a country where so much goes unsaid and unaddressed - shown in the only way possible.

Death, erasure, mutation, transformation, decay, disconnect and abandonment weigh in heavily as you move from exhibit to exhibit. The colours were muted - awash in shades of brown, black, grey with an angry sort of force in the lines of many works. I found The Story of Ah Q particularly striking in its graphic energy.

True to the theme, there was an overarching focus on technology, scientific progress, industrialising and what it all means for human relationships and society. If there was colour, it was the inescapable glare of purple UV light; harsh bright colours reflected in vast, empty spaces. If there was beauty, it was beauty hard won from various trials and tribulations.


Even Liquidation Maps by Yin-Ju Chen - perhaps one of the most visually striking pieces in my opinion - explores a similarly heavy subject matter by mapping the sky on dates of calamities and massacres. There was something discomforting - even disturbing - about the overall vibe of the art - not exactly cheerless, but an acknowledgment that any beauty that exists is beauty that has to be found within a grim reality.

Something must be said about the Power Station of Art (上海当代艺术博物馆) itself. A vast refurbished power station, it's located in the area where the Shanghai Expo 2010 was held. Having visited the Expo in 2010 with my family and remembering the overwhelming crowds numbering hundreds of thousands in 35C heat, coming back five years later to a relatively deserted area, with piles of rubbish and debris still marking places where international pavillions once stood, was jarring - and there's no sign that anyone is doing anything to clean it up.

The gallery itself is built around a gigantic chimney that is colloquially referred to as Shanghai's 'thermometer' because you can see it from Shanghai's main bridges. The size and scale of the gallery itself is simply breathtaking - spanning five huge stories with high vaulted ceilings and gigantic escalators, it just awes you with how vast it is (and it's potential for truly huge art exhibits). In the afternoon, with light filtering through spaces and playing off the clean lines of stairs and walls, it was just beautiful. Some of my favourite photos were taken of the way the art and its visitors interacted with the spaces.

And, on the rooftop, a panoramic view of Shanghai. Really, it's a stunning space.