Hong Kong & Shanghai – a new landscape for contemporary art

Although known today as vibrant centres of contemporary art, the entrepots of Hong Kong and Shanghai have very deep, traditional artistic roots, stretching back to the Song Dynasty and earlier. Curator, academic and gallery director Dr Mikala Tai gives us a snapshot of the contemporary art scene in each city, and explores the visual and philosophical connections to much older art.

When I finished school at the turn of the millennium, a sign was erected on newly reclaimed land in the harbour of my home town of Hong Kong. The sign, big and bold, read ‘The West Kowloon Cultural District’. In the years that have passed, the sign has weathered the sticky humidity of the city and, as the city continued to grow around it, the land stayed vacant. But, later this year, the city’s long-awaited museum of contemporary visual culture, M+, will open and cement Hong Kong as a global city of art.

M+ museum in West Kowloon Cultural District – pictured is the mirror-clad pavilion that cantilevers out of a hillside

Art, however, is not new in Hong Kong. While the British claimed Hong Kong as a ‘barren rock’ just after the planting of their flag in 1841, it was far from it. The city, and the town before it, was always a place of creativity and exchange. A collection of islands clustered around a southern trip of China with a deep harbour and plentiful water, the area has always been an entry point for the north. Salt, pearls, fish and later opium marked the islands as critical to regional trade and there are early works of art from the region that have captured these embryonic moments of commerce. However, it has been the fast-paced speed with which Hong Kong has, in the last two decades, become one of Asia’s premier cities for art that has captured international attention.

A turning point occurred in October 2004 in the auction rooms of Christies in Hong Kong. It was the first international sale of contemporary Chinese art and it ushered China’s art scene onto the global stage. The auction recorded unprecedented and, largely, unexpected results and suddenly contemporary art from China became one of the most exciting things to hit the global market. In 2008 the precursor to Art Basel Hong Kong, ArtHK, carved out a space for Hong Kong as an important base for a regional art fair. Despite the financial crash of late 2008, the fair continued with little more than a blip in sales and it was clear that not only was contemporary art of the region a growing force but so was the art fair itself. In the years that have passed, commercial galleries have spilled out of the fair and put down permanent roots in the city, opening Asian flagships that showcase leading international art. Accompanying this development has been the proliferation of arts organisations and private museums that have opened in quick succession. The culmination of these developments has meant that Hong Kong is now an exciting and formidable city for contemporary art.

Gallery space at Art Basel in Hong Kong

Further north up the eastern edge of China lies Shanghai, a city that, despite the Cultural Revolution, retains its reputation as the ‘Paris of the East’ – a city forever changed by its Art Deco cosmopolitanism that sculpted its stunning architecture that stretches the western banks of the Huangpu District. Like Hong Kong, Shanghai has been an important port city for China and for centuries played a critical role in trade, fishing and shipping in addition to being a naval base since the 12th century. These waters have ushered in international sojourners from Russia to France who, together with the local Chinese, created one of the earliest multicultural cities. As a result the city exudes a feeling of familiarity at once very Chinese but, at the same time, the tree lined streets and the wider boulevards feel distinctly recognisable to Australian visitors.

Shanghai is home to one of the richest collections of art deco architecture in the world

It is unsurprising to find art imbued in such a city. In old family photographs of my grandmother in Shanghai there is a portrait of her with some of her siblings in their lounge room where, on the wall behind them, hangs a Picasso print and next to it a reproduction of a great Song Dynasty Shan-Shui – or Mountains and Streams – painting. The two of these hung together have always for me signified the city’s great love of art and culture and the interconnected nature of artistic traditions.

Shanghai has always been a place where East meets West. Song Dynasty meets Picasso

In contemporary Shanghai the continuation of ink traditions and calligraphy remain central to some of the most complex and intelligent works being crafted from within the city. The death of Mao in 1976 has led to the re-emergence of the arts and crafts traditions of China that fundamentally anchor the nation. The Literati painters, as they are known, began in the 10th century where they sought, through the act of painting, to examine the world around them through personal investigations of perspective. These traditions continue to this day where the early Song dynasty painting ideals remain fundamental to the development of contemporary work. Shanghainese contemporary artists such as Yang Yongliang, with his technical photography, immersive video and virtual reality works, are implicitly connected to these early painting movements.

Mountains or metropolis? Yang Yongliang’s layers are reminiscent of traditional Chinese paintings

So embedded in China are ideas belonging to these Literati traditions that many contemporary artists like Yang find their works intimately connected to works centuries before them. Perpetual questions of humanity within the landscape continue and, for museum goers in Shanghai, it becomes easy to trace these age-old questions through historical national museum collections to the cutting edge works in the new monolithic private museums. And in Shanghai, one is never short of museums.

The museums have grown in tandem with the city. As the skyscrapers of Pudong transformed the muddy fields into an economic powerhouse, museums designed by some of the world’s most lauded architects have taken form all around the city. These stunning spaces are home to some of China’s most in-depth collections that are now publicly accessible. They are also the sites of large-scale ambitious commissions that have seen artists respond to the architecture of these impressive spaces. As a visitor to the city, there is never enough time to see all the museums.

The China Art Museum – the new incarnation of the China Pavilion – is one of the many museums on offer in Pudong, Shanghai

Artists are in every nook and cranny of Shanghai. Outside the colossal museums they can be found occupying the city on a much more human scale. The warehouse complexes of M50 have outlasted all expectations to continue to operate from the inner north, but there are galleries and studios tucked into all corners of the city. Up winding stairs of Art Deco buildings surrounding the Bund it is no surprise to find galleries and studios but they are also in the shiny new skyscrapers and down tiny narrowed laneways. Australia’s Lindy Lee revisits Shanghai on a regular basis, fabricating her large-scale sculptural works in the city and utilising the great studio services available in the creative heart of Shanghai.

As the global art world becomes increasingly international the old centres of New York, Paris and London are seeing new cities join the ranks as important locations for art. In Asia both Hong Kong and Shanghai are proving to be entry points to complex traditions of art, showcasing some of the world’s most compelling artefacts and artworks. For the first time visitor both cities promise a deep dive into extensive historical collections and the chance to encounter immersive contemporary installations. An opportunity not to be missed!

Dr Mikala Tai

Dr Mikala Tai

Mikala Tai is the director of 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, Sydney. As a curator, researcher, and academic specialising in contemporary Asian art, she has collaborated with local, national, and international organisations to strengthen ties between Australia and Asia. Tai has taught at Monash University, Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT), and the University of Melbourne in both undergraduate and postgraduate programs. Tai’s writing can be found in several exhibition catalogues in addition to periodicals such as Broadsheet Journal, Art Monthly Australiasia, Photofile, Vault, and Ocula. In 2015, Tai received her PhD, focusing on the influence of the global city on China’s local art infrastructure.

Upcoming tours led by Dr Mikala Tai

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