The Chinese art scene is red hot. In the last decade there have been influential shows of Chinese contemporary art around the world. This art is being bought locally and supported by the government, most visibly in the form of public art commissioned by municipal governments.
I found that contemporary Chinese painting has to negotiate a tightrope. On the one hand it may fail by giving up an unique Chinese visual sensibility and merge into a western contemporary movement. On the other, the Chinese visual history may overwhelm any attempt to modernize. In walking through Shanghai’s M50 or Beijing’s 798 art districts we did not see a single ink drawing showing cars, buses, or cities. There was, however, a very clever calligraphic take on Mondrian.
I find that the cleverest and the most innovative work is being done by sculptors. Three random works which caught my eye are pictured above. These are not, by any means, the most influential works of Chinese sculpture. The first is an edgy representation of a (pink!) spider, the second a clever take on bonsai, the third a quirky quote of classical Greek sculpture. Perhaps the freedom to explore is related to the fact that Chinese sculpture carries less of a cultural load than painting or ceramics.
M50 on Moganshan Lu in Shanghai is a collection of galleries, studios and spaces which house art and art projects. I was afraid I would never find it without google maps, but then I searched the web and someone on Tripadvisor had left precise and accurate instructions on how to reach this place. We arrived at noon and had a quick lunch at one of the cafes before starting in.
China has a thriving art scene, and M50 gives you a quick cross-section of the work being done. Quite a bit of it is not new, but there were gems tucked away in several of the galleries. In the middle of a gallery with very decorative colourful canvases I was blown away by three incredible abstracts.
Paintings were only one of the many kinds of media on display. There was also a large amount of porcelain. Some of it used older techniques, but there were some pieces which used the new high-temperature glazes: some of these colours are brilliant. I had an interesting chat with one of the artists about techniques and kilns. There was a time when I’d wanted to learn ceramics, but discovered that it was hard to get time on kilns in Mumbai. This conversation made me wonder whether it would be worthwhile establishing a small kiln at home.
We walked through a maze of lanes and wandered into a small cafe which had a barista doing great artwork in cappuccino. As we sat there and destroyed her performance art, we saw a fashion shoot in progress. I did some ambush shooting during this (see photo above). Art districts involve all kinds of things.
My current off-work passion is photography. This seems to be a small niche in M50. We walked into a studio which called itself “The Dark Room”. It was manned by a crew of enthusiastic youngsters (see the featured photo) who showed me their dark room behind the shop. This brought back nostalgic memories of my school days when I was associated with a bunch of others in maintaining a small dark room in a little attic in the school. This had the same enlargers, development tanks, baths of developers and fixers. The kids spoke good English and we had a long enthusiasts’ chat about our first cameras which left The Family with glazed eyes. The kids had never heard of the camera models I started with. That’s a generation gap for you!
Back in the shop we saw some lovely prints. These are by the master photographer who is training the youngsters. We bought a couple of them: they seem to transfer the sensibility and aesthetics of chinese painting successfully into this modern medium. I would love to keep them on my wall and look at them again and again.