20 people burning up the Shanghai art scene

20 people burning up the Shanghai art scene

Art in Shanghai is all about creativity, and here are 20 people pushing the local scene to, and sometimes past, its limits
Liu Jian
After being expelled from school and joining the army, Liu Jian decided to record his love-hate relationship with Shanghai in music and prose.

1. Liu Jian (刘健)

With two novels about post-1970s Chinese youth under his belt, novelist Liu Jian has branched out, singing passionately about his love-hate relationship with Shanghai and his mother country in whose army he once served. Although struggling to gain recognition from the bigger literary world, Liu dwells prosperously on Shanghai's historical Wuyuan Lu. 

“I'm no longer the angry youth that published 'Rock Solider,'” says Liu. “However, I'm not a wenyi qingnian (art youth, 文艺青年) either, as I'm much stronger than that.” 

Editor's note: Want to know more about Liu Jian? Listen to his story in his own words.

Maleonn“Look at me, and remember me, before everything shrivels and turns into dust,” says Maleonn. We can't look away.2. Maleonn (马良)

“Look at me, and remember me, before everything shrivels and turns into dust,” says Maleonn -- and its hard to look away from or forget him and his creations.

Be it a naked man wandering in a glass case full of wild plants, a frozen youth in a light-filled post Cultural Revolution Shanghai apartment, or a man in an army uniform and clown mask in the middle of nowhere, Maleonn's photographic illustrations of memories, imaginations and stories are gaudy, mad and desolate.

3. Davide Quadrio (乐大豆)

Art historian and Sino-specialist Davide Quadrio is a non-stop force in today’s contemporary art scene. As co-founder and former director of BizArt Shanghai, China’s first non-profit alternative space for experimentation and free expression, he eventually spanned his talents into brainchild Arthub Asia, where he currently takes on the director's role. 

Since its inception in 2007, this organization, committed to the creation of modern art in China, has served as a lifeline for not only Asia but a worldwide community of artists, curators and art professionals. Known as ‘Dadou’ to artsy insiders, ever-busy Quadrio created Far East Far West (FEFW) in 2009, an Asian-based production company financing area artists.

“In China, the artistic community needs to think of whatever power art has got in the context of being part of a bigger picture; it needs to give up the ethnicity/nationalism to get to the roots of openness,” says Quadrio about the needs of the local scene. “This is what I hope for art practitioners and art organizations in China. To dare to move away from a simplistic ‘sufficient’ achievement and destroy the defenses built in making it.”

Li Xiaofei (李消非) Artist Li Xiaofei (李消非). 4. Li Xiaofei (李消非)

Hailing from Hunan province and educated at prestigious Guangzhou Art Academy, Li Xiaofei then turned to Shanghai’s art scene as his new home and has never looked back.

Formerly art director of Shanghai’s Creek Art Center, Li founded the Fei Contemporary Art Center in 2007 (where he now serves as art director). A non-commercial and contemporary art space, FCAC organizes experimental exhibitions and events for both the Chinese and international art scene.

Li is an experimental and versatile artist himself delving in painting, video, photography, installation and theater.

“Art is not a criticism of society; it has its own language, which is beyond imagination but charming,” he explains. “I’m convinced that as long as a problem can be analyzed clearly, then it will be a simple problem. On the other hand, art is imaginary, which can’t be demonstrated in a simple way.”

His works, often presented metaphorically, center around deep questions such as the universality of contradictions of today’s age and the dilemmas of individual existence. 

5. Cai Jun (蔡骏)

With 14 novels under his belt, Cai Jun, a 31-year-old thriller writer, continues to lure Chinese people to do what they are most reluctant to do, read, by offering them captivating stories incorporating myths, horror and fantastic tales.

Studying history, science and mythology and incorporating careful observations of the world around him, Cai creates a world outside the seemingly harmonious Middle Kingdom.

“With various settings,” says Cai, “it's the Chinese society my stories reflect, but they are also simply good stories as well.”

Guan Chun, Quail EggImage by Guan Chun, aka Quail Egg. Think cotton candy laced with arsenic.6. Guan Chun

Guan Chun, aka Quail Egg, left Wieden + Kennedy Shanghai in 2007 to pursue her own artistic vision. From her illustrations to toy-design and tattoo art, the Shanghai-born Guan’s aesthetic is like cotton candy laced with arsenic: cutesy with toxic undertones. The sugar-coated veneer makes it easier for Guan to get away with biting social and political commentary in her work.

7. Xiao Longhua

A member of China’s Cult Youth collective of artists, Xiao Longhua’s work depicts the evil villains and superheroics so often associated with comic book culture, injected with so much detail that it’s hard to know where the depiction of characters from his “real life” ends and the fantasy sets in. One thing that keeps Longhua’s work so fresh is his openness to experimenting with different mediums and styles, from comic book art to minimalist line drawings to sculpture. 

8. Wang Qin (王沁)

Glass artist Wang Qin started out in ceramics and those techniques still influence his glass work. His works also capture the essence of Chinese calligraphy, using sweeping movements of the glass as a replacement for the ink and brush. The Shanghai-based Wang Qin says he respects glass as a material and tries not to control it; instead he interacts with it, understands it, and merges it in “an utterly harmonious connection between my heart and the material.”

Twocities gallery director Eva Ting said that Wang Qin is a master at creating beauty out of simplicity. “I love his work because it's beautiful, simple in form but heavy in meaning."

Wang Xieda (王燮达)Artist Wang Xieda (王燮达)9. Wang Xieda (王燮达)

Surrounded by bamboo trees, a vegetable garden and geese that he raises, Wang Xieda sculpts not only modern bronze figures but also an interpretation of the ancient Chinese intellectual wisdom.

“Seeking balance in the world of yin and yang, and looking for simpler ways to express myself” is not only the meaning of his name -- Xie (燮) Da (达) -- but it explains Wang Xieda's philosophy about life and art too.

10. Chen Hangfeng (陈航峰)

A versatile and increasingly regular member of China’s (and the international) modern art arena, Chen is constantly reaching out for that next thought-provoking piece making statements from super subtle to in your face.

Standing up with big names and even bigger money, Chen has even taken on the Olympics and the big C (Christmas) expressing his own take on the destructive forces of the world’s materialism, over-consumption and waste using themes including everyday rubbish and a free range chicken’s final meal.

Chen is well known for his Logomania works, a mastery mesh of corporate logos and the traditional art of Chinese paper-cutting.

As with his wide variety of works, Chen doesn’t limit himself to convention (in this case, bamboo and rice paper) branching out his message to a variety of materials like wood, wool, embroidery, acrylic and even digital printing, to name a few.

“Being an artist in Shangha is very lucky, I can experience the speedy change of the society, weird new things happen all the time, and all sorts of information you can get," says Chen. "This is extremely inspirational. But I feel the loss of identity and the struggle for finding myself makes it hard to keep the balance.”

Lu Yang (陆扬)The Shanghai-born Lu Yang (陆扬).11. Lu Yang (陆扬)

Shanghai-born Lu Yang, 25, is finishing her new media art masters in Hangzhou this year.

“She will be making some of the more important art to come out of China of her generation in the next few years,” says Martin Kemble, the director of Art Labor, which will host her first solo show in October.

Lu’s new media works have strong connections to biology. In one installation, she sketches an experiment using mice. Their brains are stimulated by electricity when they push pedals, which are connected to an electronic music generator. The result is “music of life and death controlled by the desire of animal instincts,” writes Lu.

12. Wang Qing

Shanghai native Wang Qing spent 18 years studying and painting in Japan before returning to his hometown in the early 2000s. Each one of Wang’s canvases reflect his international outlook, mixing cultural symbols and styles to depict cluttered urban landscapes that could represent anywhere from Tokyo to Shanghai to Paris or New York.

Fans of Wang’s 2009 Art Labor Gallery exhibition, Coming and Going, will be pleased to hear he’s planning another Art Labor exhibition in 2011. Wang tells us he draws on his overseas experience to develop “a new style of Oriental modern art: neither Japanese nor Chinese, but a mix of the best elements of both.”

13. Yang Yongliang (杨泳粱)

Shanghai's fastest-rising artist depicts phantom landscapes of the mega-city where he grew up. The countless high-rises, cranes and suffocating patches of gray are turned into an illusion of traditional Chinese ink and wash Shanshui painting that embodies perfect harmony. However, a closer look reveals the state of an urban setting in the middle of fast economic growth and turbulent transitions.

“Vitality on surface, great peril inside,” Yang cites scholar Gu Zheng, “bright on surface, and dark inside.”

ShxpirKunming-born Shxpir.14. Shxpir

Kunming-born Shxpir discovered photography quite by accident when he needed to take some promotional shots of his handbag designs. The pursuit turned out to be much more than a passing fancy, and last year Shxpir relocated to Shanghai to pursue fashion photography full time. With his provocative work, Shxpir lampoons both vacuous consumerism and high-minded art photography.

In an interview with NeochaEDGE, the bard summed up the philosophy behind his work: “To me, fashion photography is the same as pornography. Fashion is just foreplay and it’s not long before you’re both standing face to face naked…”

15. Biljana Ciric

Shanghai-based, Serbian national Biljana Ciric has been active in the non-profit art scene since her university days at East China Normal University.

Admittedly not an artist herself but well worthy of an honorary rank, Ciric serves as a key independent curator on a variety of art projects citywide and abroad. She established the curatorial department at Shanghai Duolun MoMa and currently serves as both artistic director of Ke Center of Contemporary Arts and executive curator for the Intrude Public art project presented by Zendai MoMA. She’s also a frequent contributor to several Mainland and international art publications.

And if that didn’t keep her busy enough, in 2009 she established ‘Mommy Foundation’ in support of young artists and just this month launched the first in a series of three books mapping the contemporary art practices of Shanghai: "History in Making: Shanghai 1970-2009", "Artists Interviews" and "Work Archive."

"Throughout the decades, Shanghai was the base for some of the most important artists, writers and cultural producers. It is the same with the contemporary art field today," says Ciric. "I think some of the most interesting minds are living in this city. Without a strong commercial background, the Shanghai art scene, to a certain extent, has kept it's independence from the commercial boom that happened to Chinese art in general, but at the same time, new generations are facing a lack of infrastructure and exposure so it is making it a challenge to reinvent working strategy in this city like Shanghai."

Tang TingImage of isolation from Tang Ting.16. Tang Ting

Whether snapping glossy fashion spreads, gritty rock-scene images, or quiet country roads, Shanghai-born photographer Tang Ting’s compositions are full of stunning colors and textures. His photos have a stillness to them that falls somewhere between serenity and desolation. 

“I think loneliness is beautiful and I want to show that,” says Tang. “But now I’m kind of tired of that soft atmosphere after I bought a kitchen knife and found myself really enjoying the feeling of cutting through stuff smoothly.”

Tang Ting still shoots with film, resisting a move to digital helping to focus on the details in each how. “It’s hard to define my style. At first glance, my photos may not appear outstanding to you, but one or two small details will get you think and wonder once you take a close look. I pay a lot of attention to details,” says Tang Ting.

17. Anxiong Qiu (邱黯雄)

Chengdu-born Anxiong Qiu works with video and ink-style animation with history as his frequent inspiration.

“I look for a suitable way to show the world as I understand it because it’s so wonderful, mysterious and unfathomable,” he says. In “The New Book of Mountains and Seas,” he creates dreamlike renditions of animals and landscapes using ink drawings then links them together in an animated form.

The work, which critics say depicts the absurdity of the world around us, uses ancient Chinese mythology as inspiration. “While not everyone can be an artist, everyone has creativity,” the now Shanghai-based Qiu says. “Let your creativity bring this world more warmth, communication, and help, and less hostility and conflicts.”

Su Chang (苏畅)Artist Su Chang (苏畅).18. Su Chang (苏畅)

Sonjiang-born Su Chang’s art reflects his attempt to understand the world and society’s imagination. Some of his favorite recent pieces are miniature sculptures of everyday life such as a bathtub, a stained toilet and a pot of plant leaves. “There is life in the ordinary things,” he says.

In another recent work, Su Chang documented the deterioration of a freshly baked cake over the course of a month. OV Gallery director Rebecca Catching says the work can be seen as symbolic of the 2010 Expo: “It’s a big party, but it will fade over time. What will be left?”

19. Christina Shmigel

American installation artist and art professor Shmigel followed her husband to Shanghai with the promise that she could work in the studio full time. Six years later, her pieces reflect her distinct surroundings.

In one installation, Shmigel, a blacksmith, welded together the first 400 Chinese characters she studied and hung them throughout a room.

“That piece was my experience of being inundated, but also seeing the beauty of the calligraphy,” she explains.

Shmigel’s now working on an installation that uses a traditional Chinese medicine cabinet filled with her own fleeting relics of life here, each housed in a special way. “It’s advanced nostalgia -- I want to preserve the moments in Shanghai,” she says.

20. Gao Mingyan

An active contributor to Shanghai’s art scene, Gao Mingyan’s works often call attention to questions of today’s society with a specific focus on war in its many forms (live ammunition war, cultural, economic and political).

“I feedback my experience with the hopes to arouse more people’s curiosity on these topics," says Gao. “Actually the whole world is at the state of war now. This is where the modern life has taken us. And not only for Chinese, I believe humans the world over are experiencing this abnormal, social environment, which I represent in my art.”

Gao is also an active player in the Shufu Collective and is currently working on SHIFT, a cooperative of contemporary artists with the goal to both display and ultimately provide the constant and ever–needed support to locally based art projects. Their group space, a work in progress and far from typical in the gallery scene, will consist of two shipping containers serving as both a mobile office and showcase with their first event pegged for mid-June.