What’s to be done with SHContemporary?
Back in 2007 when the fair was first launched there was some pretty high talk: look out Singapore, Hong Kong and Tokyo, SHContemporary will put Shanghai at the centre of Asia’s art market.
Sadly it’s not really turned out that way. After a fairly strong first couple of years the fair has gradually faded, something not helped by haphazard organization and the strong appeal of Art Basel Hong Kong, which has lured away many of the big-hitting galleries.
In an apparent attempt to halt the slide this year SHContemporary was handed over to Bologna Fiere, an Italian events company better known for healthcare and auto expositions. What better than a little Italian chic to add glamour to a waning star?
The new organisers certainly seemed to have big ambitions. The four-day schedule, which began last Wednesday, included a long list of satellite events, exhibitions, talks and workshops with partner museums and galleries all over the city. Moreover, with the roaring success of Photo Shanghai just the week before SHContemporary could trade on plenty of art buzz. So how come the opening night was such a squib?
A chat with a colleague at China Daily was revealing. According to her source all participating galleries were told in the run up to the opening they could not sell works at the event, which sounded pretty odd for an art fair. A closer look at the promo posters and leaflets was telling, where the official description was of an ‘International Contemporary Art Exhibition’. No mention of art fair — although this didn’t deter all galleries from adding prices to their labels.
Most disappointing, however, was the number of galleries that didn’t turn up on the night. Perhaps as many as a quarter of exhibitor booths were empty but for a lonely scatter of tables and fold-out chairs. So where was all the art?
The reaons for both could well lie with China’s tangled and sometimes lethargic bureaucracy. Had the organizers secured all the necessary permits and licenses? How many artworks, I wondered, were still languishing in customs warehouses on the opening night? Could Bologna Fiere have underestimated the intricacies of doing business in China? They wouldn’t be the first.
It may also be that the organiser’s ambitions worked against them. Unlike Photo Shanghai, which was concentrated in the mail hall and adjacent balconies, SHCont sprawled throughout most of the exhibition building. Providing more space to roam may not be a bad idea in theory but the effect was to spread the opening night crowd thinly. The result, as one collector said, was that parts of the event felt abandoned. Funereal was another comment. Certainly there was not the excited, buzzy feel of Photo Shanghai.
Perplexingly, the main hall contained virtually no art at all and at the grand opening was given over to a somewhat echoey cocktail party. Another contrast with Photo Shanghai was the total lack of champagne, which even by SHContemporary standards must mark some kind of new low.
Happily the Shanghai continent made a decent showing. ShanghART, which supports most of the art fairs in the city, self-declared or not, dedicated its space to the spare ink paintings of Wu Yiming.
M97 again showed Wang Ningde’s 3-D photos, as it’d done the previous week at Photo Shanghai. But more interesting for me were the elegant black-and-white abstract exposures by Adou. The artist has come a long way since he won Best Newcomer at the Three Shadows Photography Awards in 2008 with his series of atmospheric portraits of the Yi ethnic minority from Yunnan province in southern China, entitled Samalada. Wang Xieda’s intricate steel and rice-paper mobiles at James Cohan were also worth lingering over.
Perhaps not surprisingly I’ve heard that Bologna Fiere will not be returning next year. Instead, well-placed sources report that in 2015 the entire event will be folded into Photo Shanghai and the two fairs will be presented simultaneously by one of China’s largest ‘privately’ owned publishing groups. This should certainly clear up a lot of bureaucratic botheration. Whether or not it will persuade the gallery crowd to give Shanghai another chance is less certain.