Shanghai Biennale 2000

Shanghai, China

Eyestorm, November 2000

intro, day 1, day 2, day 3, day 4, day 5, last word


Another Biennale?

It seems that everyone wants a biennale these days - a vast art exhibition every two years, luring the international artworld to whichever city is reaching into its pockets to host the event. Everywhere from Liverpool, Johannesburg, Havana, even St Kitts in the Caribbean, have started their own biennales. And judging by the kind of international attention that Venice enjoys when the entire artworld converges on the Italian lagoon, who can blame them? But among this proliferation of biennales, which are the most interesting? Well, in terms of cultural importance, the 2000 Shanghai Biennale certainly looks promising.

There have been two previous Shanghai Biennales, but never one like this. For the first time, the state-run Shanghai Art Museum has invited international artists to exhibit as part of the event, ending the previous set-up whereby only Chinese artists were shown. What's more, the team of four curators responsible for the event includes two curators based outside of China, emphasizing the seriousness of this attempt to avoid the biennale's previous isolationist stance.

And this is why the 2000 Shanghai Biennale is particularly important: it is the beginning of a cultural interchange between China and the West. Chinese economic barriers may have gradually been removed over the last decade, but Communist state officials have, up until now, been reluctant to allow foreign cultural influences into the museums. There is a difference between economics and politics, and under the Communist Party culture has been firmly tied to politics, and hence rigidly controlled.

Of course China is the most populous country in the world, containing well over 1 billion people, and it is widely regarded as having the potential to dominate the 21st Century in the way that the US dominated the 20th. So if the 2000 Shanghai Biennale turns out to be an indicator of whether the Communist Party proceeds with their liberalization of official cultural events, it certainly warrants global attention.

Why Shanghai?

It's fitting that such an event should take place in this city. Shanghai has always been the Chinese city most ready to assimilate Western influences, even to the extreme of its infamous 'foreign concessions', which were in force until the early part of the 20th Century. These concessions allowed different countries to run their own zones within the city under their own laws. This openness allowed trade to prosper, both legal and illegal, and made Shanghai a glamorous city for the elite few who reaped the profits.

As post-war events changed the country, the political climate swung against the very internationalism that had made Shanghai a boomtown. For half a century it was left behind, missing out on the aid that other cities saw. However, as trade with the West has opened up again over the last decade, Shanghai has been the recipient of a Special Economic Zone, which has seen the wasteland on the east of the Huangpu river turned into a forest of contemporary skyscrapers, including plans to build the world's tallest building. Spirits are high.

A True Cultural Hybrid

Emphasizing the city's desire to step forward into a new global role, the whole biennale has been titled 'Shanghai Spirit'. And what exactly does that mean? Well, the two-day conference that has been organized for the opening week is subtitled 'A Special Modernity' - suggesting an attempt to play a global game by local rules. It's a hybrid notion that is likely to prove complicated, chaotic, fractious and, ultimately, irresolvable. Seeing as though these are exactly the qualities that appeal to contemporary artists, this could prove to be quite an event...

The biennale will not only be bringing non-traditional art into the state's foremost contemporary art museum - with work by international artists like Bernard Frize, Huang Yong Ping, William Kentridge, Tatsuo Miyajima, Mariko Mori, Pipilotti Rist, Marlene Dumas, Anish Kapoor, Anselm Kiefer, and Lee Bul - but the exhibition is also going to leak out into other areas of the city with various off-site projects. These include a local cinema showing Matthew Barney's Cremaster 5 film (the only one in the series that would get past the numerous cultural committees that each artwork had to be presented to), and the great conceptual artist On Kawara will be showing a series of paintings in a nearby kindergarten. At least that is the plan. As one of the international curators, Hou Hanru, told me, 'we won't know what projects will happen until we arrive in Shanghai and try to install them'.

These 'small' decisions, involving which artists and artworks are exhibited may well - like the proverbial butterfly of chaos theory - influence much larger decisions later on.

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