8 reasons to visit the Shanghai Biennale

8 reasons to visit the Shanghai Biennale

Weird. Unhinged. Doberman. It might not all make instant sense, but the art at this quirky event is never predictable

Despite some pre-show misgivings, including an anonymous declaration that Shanghai doesn’t need or deserve a biennale, the Eighth Shanghai Biennale has opened its doors and revealed some wild works.

The theme “Rehearsal” shines through in a number of pieces that are either still in the process of being made, or include documentation of how they were made.

Here are eight standout pieces.

Shanghai Biennale - Wang MaiWang Mai has built a deranged merry-go-round as part of his "Oil Monster" series.

1. Wang Mai’s “Platform for Observing the Astronomical Phenomena”

Just before the biennale opened, Shanghai-based painter Chris Gill said, “Usually [the Shanghai Biennale] is a very tight show, and this one sounds more like the Guangzhou one. Guangzhou was a big chaotic mess, but it was great because of that.”

One of the Shanghai show’s most chaotic pieces -- it's positioned inside the gate of Shanghai Art Museum -- is Wang Mai's deranged merry-go-round. It's part of his "Oil Monster" series.

The carousel’s central column is made up of one-armed bandits that flash and clang, promising payouts to people who hop on.

Fierce, baby-faced figures wearing eagle suits and wielding mallets ride bucking oil-pipe animals that spew forth Texas tea. It’s a fantastic rendition of oil as a moustache-twisting cartoon villain.


Shanghai Biennale - Liu Wei - “Merely a Mistake II”Look closely at the untreated wood and you can see places where latches of windows and doors have been removed.

2. Liu Wei’s “Merely a Mistake II”

Liu Wei’s huge wooden sculpture is made from timber recovered from demolition sites.

The artist hasn’t painted, sanded or treated the wood, and in several places you can still see where the latches of windows and doors have been removed.

Because the work is mostly made of moldings, window and door frames, you get the sense that the wood is asserting its status as art not only by abandoning its former functionality, but by framing itself.

"In the studio, everything is connected," says Liu. "It’s difficult to separate one piece from another; they are all linked together.”


Shanghai Biennale - JR’s “Wrinkles of the City”Look for artists JR's work in some of the more marginal spaces inside the museum.

3. JR’s “Wrinkles of the City”

"People who are over 80 years old have really seen their city change," explains artist JR about the people in his work. "Those people, they become like UFOs in their own cities, because it is changing so much.”

JR’s work is also being shown at 18 Gallery, where Magda Danysz is the director.

“One thing that is quite difficult to grasp with JR’s artwork is that it’s not only the result, the photos that you can see, it’s also the whole process: meeting the people, shooting the portraits, interviewing them -- because there will be a book on their lives," says Danysz. "So all this is part of what the rehearsal theme is about, to show that sometimes a work in progress is as important as the result.”


Shanghai Biennale - Mou Buoyan - Starving DogDriven by an air compressor, this realistic Doberman looks like it’s drawing its last breaths.

4. Mou Buoyan’s "Starving Dog"

Of all the artist descriptions mounted on the walls of the Biennale, Mou Buoyan’s is the funniest.

It reads, “Mou is always busy creating the lard bucket.”

His sculpture of an obese Chinese man falling into white liquid is expressive and dynamic, but his starving dog makes an even bigger splash.

Driven by an air compressor, the realistic Doberman looks like it’s drawing its last breaths. On opening day, several people were overheard exclaiming, “It’s real!”


Shanghai Biennale - Ma LiangMa Liang moved his studio from 696 Weihai Lu into the Shanghai Biennale exhibition.

5. Ma Liang’s Studio

Ma Liang’s studio has always been a highlight of the annual open days at 696 Weihai Lu. That's because the place is itself a work of art.

The curators of the Biennale obviously agree, as they’ve moved Ma’s theater of curios into the gallery as an exhibit.

The Biennale may be the last chance to see the artist’s surreal props in Shanghai. He plans to move operations to Xiamen, where he has rented a studio that overlooks the ocean.

Ma still has his space at 696 Weihai Lu, but says, “I want to keep it very empty and just use it for drawing.”


Shanghai Biennale - Verdenstreatret Verdenstreatret's performances makes for one noisy, yet enchanting experience.

6. Verdenstreatret’s “And All the Question Marks Started to Sing”

Right next to Ma’s recreated studio is an intricate, cacophonous electro-mechanical music installation.

Among the many aspects of the work: live musicians make music by "playing" flower-covered bike wheels; loud speakers spin on the ground; and artists manipulate projections and silhouettes.

Six computers are used in each performance.

"This art comes from a very Western philosophy. Chinese artists wouldn’t have thought of it, to mix art and science," says Ma of his neighbor. "In China, we study very separate paths. I’ve been trying to find some engineers to work on some machines, but engineers here have no interest in art.”

Verdenstreatret typically play their pieces to seated audiences in concert halls. One of the members of the Norwegian art group, Lisbeth J. Bodd, says that the change of context “is a new experience, and I think I like it better than as a pure performance.”


Shanghai Biennale - Liu Xiaodong - “Entering Tai Lake”Liu Xiaodong allows visitors to see his artistic process unfold with his notes and sketches accompanying the final work.

7. Liu Xiaodong’s “Entering Tai Lake”

Liu Xiaodong works like a documentary filmmaker, traveling to locations to paint subjects as he finds them.

He has two large paintings in the exhibition, both of which are exhibited alongside diary pages, sketches and photographs of his work in progress.

Whether or not these supplementary materials achieve the curators’ goal of making audiences more than mere consumers of artistic products, they afford an excellent opportunity to see how the artists work.


Shanghai Biennale  -- Qiu ZhijieVisitors are encouaged to try out Qiu Zhijie room of toys.

8. Qiu Zhijie’s “Qiu’s Notes on 'Colorful Lantern at Shangyuan Festival’”

The most interactive work at the Biennale is Qiu Zhijie’s room full of toys and tools on the second floor.

Pulling down on sets of weights makes birds’ wings flap; a great stone wheel is used to create images of constellations in white sand; and a clunky wooden wheelbarrow converts forward momentum into spin drawings.

During opening weekend, performers demonstrated these and other devices.

Wu Jingying, one of Qiu Zhijie’s students, described the job of operating the art as 'perfect'."

“It’s like our own little theater and we do our own work to develop it,” she says.

These performers have finished their work at the biennale, but audiences are encouraged to try out the tools for themselves.

The Eighth Shanghai Biennale runs until January 23, open daily, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m; adults RMB 20, students RMB 5; Shanghai Art Museum, 325 Nanjing Xi Lu, near Huangpi Bei Lu 南京西路325号, 近黄陂北路, +86 21 6327 2829, www.sh-artmuseum.org.cn
Sam Gaskin is an arts and culture journalist based in Shanghai.
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