Seeking collectors in Shanghai, not censors

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Shanghai Exhibition Center is a massive, Stalinist birthday-cake of a building surrounded by newly constructed glass-and-steel skyscrapers in Shanghai’s center. Originally know as Palace of the Sino-Soviet Friendship, from Sept. 6 to 9, the exhibition center had within its walls a new, capitalist friend, ShContemporary, a new art fair.

ShContemporary was organized by Bologna Fiere, a successful European fair organizer; directed by Lorenzo Rudolf, former director of Art Basel; and artistically directed by Pierre Hubert, a former Art Basel committee member. Two floors housed about 130 white cubes, of which 27 were occupied by Chinese galleries, 11 by Japanese and the rest divided among exhibitors from 21 other countries, mostly European.

Japanese galleries felt it was necessary to participate because of the need for engagement with the Asian contemporary art world. As Jeffrey Rosen of Taka Ishii Gallery in Tokyo’s Kiosumi district said, “Not having some sort of dialogue would be irresponsible.” Nearly all were curious about the growing mainland Chinese market and what artists there are doing. What they found were experienced Taiwanese and Hong Kong collectors strolling around and making inquires.

“The European organizers have experience in organizing this kind of event and connections to European collectors,” said Mutsumi Urano of ArataniUrano in Tokyo. “But we’re a little disappointed, as we expected more Chinese collectors. There aren’t that many here, except for the Taiwanese.”

Tsutomu Ikeuchi from Rontgenwerke AG echoed the sentiment: “The fair seems like a professional event, most of the visitors are professional here — gallerists, museum people — but there are not very many private collectors.”

“Chinese buyers are at a disadvantage as contemporary collectors, because they don’t have contemporary art museums,” said Hidenori Ota from Ota Fine Arts in Tokyo. “They need to be educated.”

Visitors to his booth were interested in the Japanese artist Tsuyoshi Ozawa’s conceptual works, but not necessarily enough to make purchases.

“It’s going to take a little bit of time for them to get familiar with what the Western influences are,” said German gallerist Michael Janssen of new Chinese collectors. Janssen had brought two artists’ works, of which his Japanese artist, Yoshitaka Amano, sold better.

A possible explanation for the low turnout was simply lack of substantial local collectors of contemporary art, or a low level of commitment to the fair by an unnamed Chinese partner, who did not do sufficient promotion in China.

Shanghai, with its growing economic status, has become a massive generator of capital for China’s rising business elites. In terms of Asia, it’s conveniently located between the Southeast and North, and boasts an energetic — albeit largely European-grown — art scene, making it arguably a solid choice for such an unprecedented art fair in China.

Another possible reason for the low turnout could have been the Istanbul Biennial, which opened that weekend in Turkey. Next year there is no such distant distraction. ShContemporary is planned to run parallel with the Shanghai Biennial, which itself is part of an Asian art tour that includes the Yokohama Triennial and biennials in Singapore, Gwangju and Sydney. Smart galleries will return in 2008, hopefully to a healthier, more fertile business environment.

Within limits, of course — during the course of the fair, China’s dusty demon, censorship, awoke. Galerie Chantal Crousel from Paris was asked to take down a collage of glossy magazine cutouts of naked women’s busts by artist Thomas Hirschhorn, which the gallery had provocatively hung in their cube, even though more classic-looking oil paintings of nudes were left unquestioned in other booths.

Art Asia Pacific magazine’s Andrew Maerkle was asked to cut out several pages from every copy of the magazine on display and for sale at the fair — ironically, Art Asia Pacific sells over the counter in China without any censorship.

Art Forum magazine’s booth was much less fortunate and disappeared from the exhibition center altogether due to images on the magazine’s cover and some of its interior content. People from neighboring booths, who asked not to be identified, described the scene, in which several censors arrived and asked the booth’s Chinese representative to remove her things and leave with them.

The woman did not come back.

Depending on how the Chinese collectors’ tastes develop — and the relationship between the market-driven organizers and controlling Chinese authorities — ShContemporary has plenty of room for growth and, thanks to the high quality of the fair, it is likely to have at the least a second installment.