This second part of yesterday's Shanghai Diary 2005 entry by Justin O'Connor continues to consider the place of arts and arts centres amidst Shanghai's redevelopment.
The Creek Art Centre was set up by a Norwegian-Chinese and Norwegian couple. He's a wealthy businessman but wants to do something cultural. My friend at Park 19 says there is a sense that some of the wealthy are now beginning to think about things other than money. Quality of life. But they are still few and far between. So they rented the place and set up a not-for-profit (which at present is not making any money, so it's a good job) gallery. It is also hard to find - something to do with an eccentric address system. And it is situated right next to a very poor area of housing. The door stands like one of those Neapolitan medieval palaces right on the narrow street, with washing and locals hanging out. We arrived early - well, early for 'arts time' (10.30) - Monday morning. There was a blue carpet going from the road beside the river to the door. Last weekend there had been a conference organized by the LSE - with Rem Koolhaas, Richard Sennett, Saskia Sassen and others in attendance - it sounded much better than the one I went to. As we left they were rolling up the carpet. Families lived in two roomed shacks on the road. Chickens and geese ran about. Toilets were outside, as were the sinks and cooking stoves.
Inside the aesthetic was post-industrial minimalism. Walls stripped down to the brick, joists exposed, original features, like the old lift, retained. In this case the factory has been classified as a historical building, which shows how Shanghai is accelerating through the decades. First the Bund, then the French Quarter mansion, then the Art Deco, now the factories. The couple who own The Creek aren't always around. He gets around on business; she comes over now and then. It seems that she lived in Shanghai and had a studio at Moganshan Lu. As did the guy who is Director on the exhibition side. A graduate of Guangzhou Art Academy (just behind Park 19) he's moved from painting to time-based media - I saw a complex mix of traffic shots and fractals on his computer. The focus is on little known Chinese artists, though they had the Warhol exhibition and some other international ones. Two of its six floors have commercial space. There's a café and a restaurant. The restaurant was fully staffed - at least four waiters beside the woman who seemed to be running it - but empty. It was 12 noon on a Monday. They run music events and such parties. The guy who runs this side is a fluent English speaking Chinese guy who spent time in Singapore. He certainly looks businesslike.
These places will continue to pop up. What goes in them? The cities are picking up that - despite how it might appear - it is art as much as popular culture that seems to make a city's name; something condemned to the margins 10 years ago is being brought back in. But the focus on contemporary art and its spaces is also linked to the internationalization of contemporary art that has seen it become a huge and complex field of institutes, commercial galleries, auction houses, art academies, government-led capital projects - oh yes, and artists. These have become incredibly mobile in the last decade - and their mobility is at a more 'grassroots' level than those producing popular culture. DJs and bands travel, some of them, sometimes. But the producers of popular culture - as opposed to the consumers and the products themselves - are not as mobile as it might be assumed. Communication is done through the internet, products, magazines and so on. However, artists are very mobile and they meet others, physically. It makes 'contemporary art' much more influential at a global level than might first appear. This can have good and bad effects. These encounters make some real connections between people and places. But it is also easy for the international art world to demand a specific set of themes, a specific way of doing art, a specific language and comportment which will make this art recognized as 'art', as it circulates between the heavily curated and critiqued spaces of international art. The Bund is being transformed in this way though new galleries, which take their place next to the Armani shops and the designer bars and restaurants.
But the audience we are talking about is very small, even in a place like Shanghai. The question is, to what extent does this new art world have to drive a wedge between it and the local population? Not between it and the poor families living on the doorstep - this is too easy a contrast to make - but between it and other spaces of local culture. Where are those fermenting spaces of popular culture? Where is the work being done to transform the wave of new cultural images and ideas into something meaningful? This is just imitation otherwise, whatever they say about creativity and business and entrepreneurialism.
Of course opposite The Creek we can see what is more likely to happen. Two warehouses are being refurbished. One - Shanghai Tequila - has a ground floor full of ridiculously expensive 'French' fashions - way, way beyond most people's budgets. A girl sits there, waiting for the occasional drop-in. Like Shanghai needs another designer fashion shop. Next to it, in a 1933 Art Deco building, is another development. This one of interest because it was the warehouse of the famous gangster from the '30s, a man who sort of helped to make all the different foreign concessions hang together. It's not clear what it will be as yet. Not an art centre, I don't think.
This impression of Shanghai is by Justin O'Connor. All Shanghai Diary entries.