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Interview

September 3, 2008

Christopher Phillips

Christopher Phillips, senior curator at New York's International Center of Photography, has been following contemporary Chinese art and culture for nearly a decade — befriending and supporting the best of the country's creative community. Drawing on his knowledge of the Shanghai scene, Phillips recently curated the Royal Ontario Museum exhibition Shanghai Kaleidoscope, which poetically portrays the architecture, urban design, contemporary art, and fashion of that booming metropolis. Artkrush editor Paul Laster caught up with Phillips before his next Shanghai adventure to discuss the latter's love of the city and his survey of its dynamic arts offerings.

AK:  What first took you to China, and how often have you returned?

CP:  I first went to China in the fall of 1999 and visited Beijing and Shanghai. At that time, I was an editor at Art in America, and I'd met some of the Chinese artists who had begun to show in the US. They all said, "China is crazy right now! You've got to come! You won't believe the things that are happening." So I went, and they were right — there was an incredible art scene that was just starting to blossom. It was a relatively small scene at that time, and there were only a few foreigners making the rounds, so it was very easy to meet everyone quickly. I've traveled to China three or four times a year ever since, returning primarily to Beijing and Shanghai, and I've watched the artists that I first met, such as Ai Weiwei, become international superstars.

AK:  How has Shanghai changed since your first visit?

CP:  It's been like watching a film in fast forward; the pace of change has been relentless and dizzying. Since my first visit, about 1,000 new skyscrapers have been built in Shanghai — more than in all of Manhattan. The local art scene has also expanded exponentially. The first time I went there, the only contemporary gallery was ShanghART, which was started by a young Swiss art historian, Lorenz Helbling, who had fallen in love with contemporary Chinese art. Back then, he was still transporting paintings on his motorcycle, strapping them to his back. He and his gallery partner, Laura Zhou, would take me for all-day video screenings in Yang Fudong's tiny apartment, where young artists like Yang Zhenzhong and Xu Zhen and many, many others would sit together drinking tea and presenting their new videos. Or we would go to Ding Yi's enormous warehouse studio on Suzhou Creek, which was completely undeveloped then, and watch him painting his minimalist canvases. It was all very relaxed and informal.

Today, that same area along Suzhou Creek is packed with nearly 100 galleries and artists' studios, and the entire surrounding area, which once was bare, weedy land, is now packed with 40-story residential high-rises. The artists all now have modern studio buildings, and collectors from around the world line up to visit them. Even Chinese artists who had been successful in New York in past years, such as Gu Wenda and Zhang Huan, have moved to Shanghai, because they wanted to scale up their production. Zhang's studio south of the city employs well over 100 people now, all skilled younger artists and technicians who work as a team to fabricate the works that he conceives.

AK:  What's the concept behind Shanghai Kaleidoscope, the exhibition that you curated at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto? Have you previously worked with any of the artists or designers in the show?

CP:  I think that Shanghai is becoming a kind of laboratory for new forms of urban culture. It takes the idea of a high-rise, high-density, fast-paced city to an extreme. Many of the younger artists, architects, and fashion designers who live in Shanghai today know each other and collaborate on projects together. I thought it would be fun to put together an exhibition that would give North Americans a glimpse of the culture that's starting to take shape in this extraordinary Asian city of the future. I already knew many of the local artists and architects, and I asked Sally Wu, a New York-based fashion designer who's an expert on the Shanghai fashion world, to recommend some of the best young fashion designers. The idea was to convey something of the energy and spirit of innovation that runs through all creative forms in Shanghai. Through a series of fortunate accidents, the Royal Ontario Museum, which is Canada's largest museum, heard about the idea and invited Wu and me to do the show there. For me, the challenge was to conceive an exhibition that could stand up against the highly stylized architecture of Daniel Libeskind's new museum addition. Planning an exhibition for a gallery space with no vertical walls proved an interesting puzzle. If you look at installation shots of the show, you can see some of the solutions we invented: use of freestanding sculptural installations, projections of video works onto the gallery's slanting walls, and fashion mannequins hung from the 30-foot ceilings.

AK:  How do Shanghai visual artists, such as Shen Fan, Shi Yong, and Yang Zhenzhong, express the spirit of the city in their work?

CP:  Shen is a painter who has started to make large-scale works using thousands of curving neon tubes to suggest abstracted landscapes. Each neon tube is a kind of brushstroke, and as they are all slowly illuminated, a landscape image becomes visible. This references not only the Chinese landscape tradition, but also the countless neon signs that illuminate Shanghai at night. Shi's work in Shanghai Kaleidoscope consists of a grid of photo lightboxes portraying snow on the summits of the city's largest skyscrapers. The photographs were made on foggy nights, which lend a hallucinatory air to the buildings. Yang's Light and Easy video uses special-effects editing to depict the artist nonchalantly balancing one of Shanghai's biggest skyscrapers on his fingertip. The idea is that the massive high-rises that are going up everywhere in the city are no more than oversize toys to be played with.

AK:  Filmmaker Yang Fudong is one of Shanghai's most internationally celebrated artists. What work of Yang's have you included in the exhibition, and why did you choose it?

CP:  I included Yang's three-channel video Flutter, Flutter... Jasmine, Jasmine, which I happened to see when it was first exhibited at the 2002 Shanghai Biennale. He's rarely shown the work abroad because I think what he was trying to do with it proved hard for people outside China to grasp. Flutter presents highly stylized vignettes about a young Shanghai couple. Often, they address the camera directly, fearing that their intoxicating, all-consuming love for one another won't survive. At the close of the video, Yang shows them on the roof of their building, and as the camera pans around the city's dizzying horizon, they sing a love duet based on a famous Chinese pop song. To a lot of viewers, it seemed alarmingly schmaltzy. But Yang has explained that he was trying to see if he could make images that were so pure and clear, they could stand up to the cloying sentiment of the love song. I think he succeeded.

AK:  The work of Crystal CG, the graphic-design firm who created the scroll painting in the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics, as well as other Olympic visuals, is brilliant. How did you discover them, and what did they contribute to the show?

CP:  Crystal CG is China's most inventive producer of computer graphics and computer animations for architectural firms. It's a very young company — the average employee age is 26. Wu and I visited their Shanghai facilities a few years ago, and we discovered that the head of Crystal CG Shanghai, Ji Fei Chong, was very knowledgeable about contemporary art. We asked him if Crystal CG would create a video animation for Shanghai Kaleidoscope, imagining what the city will look like in the years ahead. He agreed, and the resulting video has been one of the most popular works in the exhibition.

AK:  You also present the work of non-Chinese artists Greg Girard and Olivo Barbieri in Shanghai Kaleidoscope. What points of view do they bring to the exhibition?

CP:  Perhaps because China has had such a bumpy historical ride for the past two centuries, many Chinese don't want to look back at the country's recent past — they're totally fixated on the idea of a wealthy, powerful, 21st-century China that will provide the world with a spectacle of cultural splendor. To a surprising extent, it's been foreigners working in China who have become fascinated with the vanishing traces of the country's recent history and who have made the effort to record what they've discovered. Girard, a Canadian photographer who's lived in Shanghai for a decade, has systematically photographed the older residential neighborhoods of central Shanghai — areas that are rapidly disappearing to make way for new developments. I found Girard's book Phantom Shanghai very moving, and I wanted to include a selection of his images in the exhibition. Italian artist Olivo Barbieri, who has been traveling to China for almost 20 years, recently made a great video portrait of Shanghai, which he shot from a helicopter flying over the city. I was struck by the way he purposely avoided all of the city's recognizable monuments and famous buildings. What comes through is a vision of a monstrously swollen blob of a city that's nevertheless pulsating with energy and spilling out in all directions. That image is also one of the facets of Shanghai that I wanted the exhibition to convey.

AK:  Shanghai was a vital cultural capital in the '20s and '30s. How much of the physical presence and spirit of 20th-century modernism still remain?

CP:  Basically, it's gone. It's been bulldozed and replaced by a hypermodern city. A few older buildings survive, and the lineup of splendid European-style '20s and '30s buildings along the riverfront, the Bund, has been spectacularly restored. But if you want to really get a sense of what Shanghai in the '30s looked like, when it was called the "Paris of the East," you have to rent some of the movies shot there in those years, when it was the filmmaking capital of China. That's why we presented a selection of Shanghai films, both old and new, in a screening section of Shanghai Kaleidoscope.

AK:  What is on the cultural and economic horizon for Shanghai?

CP:  Economically, Shanghai is already China's largest and richest city. And it's long been China's most cosmopolitan city — a port city, actively engaged in international exchange. In terms of culture and especially contemporary art, however, Shanghai is still in the shadow of Beijing, which is the home of China's great museums, universities, and art academies. Beijing is also still the home of China's most active contemporary-art galleries. I think that in the years ahead, Shanghai's phenomenal wealth will allow it to emerge as a more serious rival to Beijing in the arena of culture. New museums, a new gallery district, new art academies, centers for digital art, and international residency programs — everything is possible.

Shanghai Kaleidoscope is on view at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto through November 2. Christopher Phillips and Sally Wu sign Shanghai Kaleidoscope catalogues and moderate a panel discussion at Shanghai's Timezone 8 bookstore on September 10 and hold a session with the city's emerging stars of art, architecture, and fashion at ShContemporary 08 on September 12.

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