ShContemporary on Solid Footing, Despite Setbacks

SHANGHAI—Even ShContemporary's new director, Colin Chinnery, says he was surprised at how well this year’s fair went off. After all, there were plenty of factors working against the Sept. 10–13 show, such as the economy, the recent departure of founding director Lorenzo Rudolf, competition from the sprightly and young Hong Kong fair Art HK, and the specter of last year’s rather moribund edition still giving dealers and buyers pause.

Zhan Wang's "Artificial Rock" (2007) was on view at Beijing's Long March Space. 90 x 45 x 85 in.

One of the major objectives for this year’s edition, Chinnery says, was simply adjusting people’s expectations, which were overblown by the exploding Chinese art market before being squashed by the recession. “The expectations are different now than before,” he said, “but they are based on solid reality. The hyper-commercial or expensive work is nowhere to be seen. There are a lot more experimental works, lots of younger work. People are going to realize that art doesn’t appreciate 100 times in five years.”

James Cohan was showing tapestries at his booth, including this one, "Carioca" (2008) from Beatriz Milhazes, at 79 x 79 in.

To give ShContemporary new energy, Chinnery, formerly of Beijing’s Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, reorganized the show with a revamped collector’s program, along with a curated portion put together by Anton Vidokle, Mami Kotaoka, and Wang Jianwei. While last year’s curated section focused on undiscovered artists from Asia, this year’s, titled “Discoveries,” had no regional boundaries and pulled in works from Anri Sala, Martha Rosler, and Marina Abramovic from such high-profile international galleries as Marian Goodman (New York and Paris), Christian Nagel (Cologne and Berlin), Sean Kelly (New York), and PMK (Seoul and Beijing). For the conference program, the curators were able to draw such speakers as critic Hal Foster, artist Martha Rosler, and curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, who all lent the fair some much-needed critical heft.

One notable absence was that of Shanghai gallerist and social doyenne Pearl Lam, who in past years has almost single-handedly shepherded the fair’s collectors program. Her nightly dinners during the event — including one extravagant, 250-person affair each year — were always the most coveted invitations. This year, her absence — and the lack of openings at any of her four Contrasts galleries in the city — was strongly felt.

To make up for that loss, the fair mounted an ambitious Collectors Development Program, which hosted a major dinner at the Swissôtel in addition to organizing talks and programs that were geared toward attracting visitors. Some notable events outside of the fair included a show of Chinese and Belgian art, “Fantastic Illusions,” at the Museum of Contemporary Art and another show, “Stolen Treasures From Modern China,” which featured work by Zhou Tiehai, at ShangART’s new space in the Dunhill Villas, a pair of gorgeous 1930s mansions that the Richemont Group renovated as homes for two its brands, Dunhill and Constantin Vacheron. Still, there was a slight reduction in the number of events overall, although some people enjoyed the more relaxed tone.

In terms of the sales, ShContemporary seemed to have found a healthy lifeline this year, with firm if not spectacular activity reported, thanks to a strong showing of collectors from such countries as the Philippines, Taiwan, and South Korea. (The U.S. and Europe, meanwhile, had fewer to show for themselves.)

On fair floor, artworks and prices seemed to be more on the moderate side, with few galleries trotting out really expensive work. A few notable exceptions included Ota Fine Arts of Tokyo, which presented a solo offering of Yayoi Kusama, with works in the $200,000–$320,000 range, and sold on the third day one of her pumpkin sculptures. “We took the opportunity to understand the market for Kusama,” said Yoshiko Kogi, assistant curator at Ota. “We see potential in China.” Curiously, the gallery had sold mostly to female collectors from the Philippines and Taiwan.

The Long March Space of Beijing brought along a wide range of pieces, with prices ranging from $10,000 to $300,000, according to director David Tung. “I think people are looking for things that are a bit different in terms of medium this year,” he said, noting that Long March's main draw continues to be work from the Chinese artist Zhang Wang, which sells in the $200,000–$300,000 range. Tung told ARTINFO the gallery had sold “close to 10 pieces” for a total of almost $1 million.

“One reason we came is that Colin has emphasized the community that’s here,” said Tung. “This fair not only serves Shanghai but is also a platform for southern China. Beijing is the major art destination, but in terms of art-buying the mentality is different. Here, in Shanghai, it’s a lot about meeting new clientele.”

While a majority of the 50-some galleries participating in the fair's main section were China-based, there was a smattering from Asian neighbors South Korea, Hong Kong, and Taiwan and a few representatives from the U.S. and Europe.

“We participated in the Beijing fair last year, and it was very successful,” said Kerimcan Güleryüz, director of Istanbul’s X-IST, who had clearly chosen to come to ShContemporary over the contemporaneous Istanbul Biennale opening. “After my observations of the show, we realized that big painting and monumentality seemed to be what the collectors were looking for, and that’s why we’re in Shanghai.” Among the works Güleryüz had brought were large portraits by Serkan Adin and Mehmet Güleryüz, on offer for €6,000 to €85,000.

“Shanghai is a very good position in Asia,” said Berlin dealer Michael Schultz, who has been in the show all three years. “This year there was a very good mix here. There was not so much big business, but enough.” One of Schultz’s main draws was a Berlin-based Korean artist named SEO, who had a work sell for $110,000.

Perhaps the most unusual selection of work was over at the James Cohan Gallery, of New York and Shanghai, which had brought a range of tapestries from such artists as Gary Hume, Kara Walker, Fred Tomaselli, and Gavin Turk, priced between 50,000 and $100,000. The choice was unorthodox to say the least — most gallerists agreed that paintings and sculptures seemed to be the most sellable media, but “there was a great response to the tapestry from the locals,” said Cohan Shanghai director Arthur Solway. “I’ve learned something this year,” he added. “We should always be doing things that keep people off-kilter. Tapestry is a lost art form, but merged with the contemporary way, it makes people wake up and take notice.” When he spoke with ARTINFO, the Turk had already sold, and several others were on reserve.

Overall, galleries seemed to be relieved that the fair wasn’t a total bust and, in fact, reported that business was pretty satisfactory overall, at least good enough to keep marching forward. However, there were certainly detractors. “The end result of the fair was more middle of the road,” said Marcello Bardi, a collector and managing director of the Ferrari Group, a fine-arts logistics company in New York. “But there were a few great surprises that you didn’t expect.”

Bardi was seen giving a visitor a tour of the entire presentation from the OV Gallery of Shanghai, which he said had the most covet-worthy works at the fair, including several by Shi Jing, a painter who creates monochromatic landscapes using a subtle mix of glossy, matte, and raised textures. Also on view was an arresting series from Jiang Guozhe that showed symbols of childhood — a carousel or playground, for example — gradually sinking into water.

For his part, Chinnery was upbeat. “Next year we will be braver and bolder,” he said. “I want to build a solid foundation step by step. I think we are getting there.”

By Andrew Yang
Published: September 16, 2009
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