Has Shanghai Lost Its Artsy Edge?

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Zhao Chuan

Wu Meng's "Security, Sad Clown" performance at the Shanghai Expo in 2010

For the OV Gallery, a small art space on a leafy street in Shanghai, the problems began earlier this year when the Canadian curator, Rebecca Catching, put together a show that took a critical look at the city's makeover for the World Expo. Among the artists' pieces was a machine that blew bubbles inside a cage, the idea being that the Expo was like a utopian dream machine, but the dreams it created were constrained and fleeting.

In the run-up to Expo, the city government didn't take kindly to any criticism of the event — however playful. And since that show, the gallery has been dogged by the authorities. First, the city shut down an exhibition ostensibly because it didn't have a license to display the works of foreign artists. The next show faced a similar fate until Catching skirted the rules by moving two installations by foreign artists out of sight, displaying one in the kitchen, the other in her office. For the current show, the authorities confiscated one of the photographic works of Shanghai artist Wu Meng because it dealt with a woman in Hubei province who last year stabbed to death an official who tried to sexually assault her. "There are a million different, weird, random Chinese laws and you're always going to be breaking one of them," Catching says. "I feel like I've had my hand cut off, in a sense. I feel like I've been handicapped in terms of the things I can explore."

For a city that has ambitions to become one of the world's great financial and cultural centers, this is a problem. Forget aspiring to rival New York in culture; today's Shanghai is having trouble keeping up with Beijing, where artists enjoy considerably more freedoms and the art and music scenes are flourishing. Shanghai may be flush with cash and brimming with confidence — the number of luxury car dealerships being just one indication of its rising status — but culturally, it's still quite limited. The local government purports to support the arts but has instead made it increasingly difficult for artists, musicians and filmmakers to do their work, particularly if they push the boundaries. Soaring costs of living don't help; without government funding or a sizeable art-buying public, many artists have to give up their creative pursuits altogether.

It didn't used to be this way. In the 1920s and '30s, Shanghai was the undisputed cultural center of China — not to mention a hedonistic playground — and attracted writers, actors and artists from around the world. But its renaissance in the post-economic reform years has been far more measured — and controlled. Part of the reason, artists say, is that the powers that be in Shanghai remain staunchly conservative and are simply out of touch with contemporary art. "They don't have much of an idea what's going on with art," says Zhao Chuan, who runs an experimental theater company in Shanghai called Grass Stage with his wife, Wu Meng. "So they always fear something bad will happen."

This fear has never been as pronounced as it has been in the past few years, with the intense focus on the lead up to the Expo. Clampdowns have been as harsh as they have been arbitrary. In perhaps the most publicized example, the government first invited the prominent artist Ai Wei Wei to build a million-dollar studio in Shanghai and then abruptly ordered it demolished when he made political waves. The punk rock band Top Floor Circus was banned from performing for six months after a video of them singing a song mocking Expo went viral on the Internet. (They played in nearby Hangzhou instead.) Another gallery, Stir, was threatened with a $7,500 fine for not displaying the prices of works and exhibiting foreign artists.

Even when the government does back the arts, the results tend to be middling at best. Take the Shanghai Biennale: When the festival hit its creative peak in 2000 — the year it first included foreign and new media artists — critics raved and the art world began to take notice. Unfortunately, says longtime Shanghai art critic Lisa Movius, so did local authorities. "As soon as it was successful, it got hijacked by the government," she says. "Now they only want big-name artists and the curating seems to get worse and worse."

Shanghai's film industry, the most vibrant in China in the early 1900s, has suffered an even worse fate. In 2001, the government formed a new media conglomerate called the Shanghai Media & Entertainment Group to oversee the TV and film industries and make them more competitive. Instead, says filmmaker Peng Xiaolian, the opposite happened: Shanghai Film Studios largely stopped making its own films, funding dried up for independent filmmakers like herself, and Beijing became the new center of Chinese cinema. For her latest film, based on the true story of a disabled bike mechanic from the countryside who befriends a Swiss expat in Shanghai, Peng says she'll go to Beijing for the money. "It's really sad," she says. "Shanghai films had a 100-year history, but they destroyed it."

Still, the situation isn't entirely bleak. There's a lot of exciting and provocative art and music happening on the periphery of officialdom. Some artists, like Wu Meng, continue to explore contentious issues in their work — and defy attempts to stifle it. For one performance piece earlier this year, Wu wrote poems about social issues such as illegal land seizures on items of clothing and hung them on a bamboo pole, which she paraded up and down a Shanghai lane. When she was invited to perform the piece at the German pavilion on the Expo grounds this summer, the authorities ordered her to stay away, but the show went on anyway under the close watch of plainclothes police. "I wasn't worried because my work didn't go beyond the level of criticism you find in the newspapers," she said. "It's hard to talk about the lines and boundaries because they're always changing."

Mao Livehouse, one of Shanghai's few live music venues, has also taken chances while flying under the radar. Earlier this year, in fact, the notoriously lewd singer Peaches performed at the venue and the show went off without a hitch. Now, however, Mao will have to be more careful: it was actually courted by officials in the district of Luwan, a section of central Shanghai, to move to a new space in the same building that houses the district government offices. Yan Yang, Mao's floppy-haired manager, agreed because the space is bigger than his current one and he's so far had a good relationship with the Luwan officials. "The government wants to develop culture in Luwan," he says. "We just have to ensure the artists we invite are very clean. We have to choose carefully."