Is that even art?
Updated: May 27, 2019
I would like to dedicate this post to a piece of street art I once saw in Berlin at the East Side Gallery (formerly the Berlin Wall) where someone had sprayed the words: "Ist das Kunst oder kann das weg?" (Is that art or can it be removed?) This comment, or 'art' if we're being extra meta, has often popped into my head when looking at pieces of modern art around the world and especially during the last few weeks of my time in Shanghai.
It is difficult without studying the subject in great depth to say whether 'bad art' - if we can even coin such a phrase given how subjective it all is - has always existed on such a large scale or whether it is a recent development. Were there contemporaries of MichaelAngelo who thought it might be clever to splash some paint on a canvas and tell their friends that it was the next masterpiece? Perhaps there were people like that, but time has filtered them out.
Without wanting to be a massive Scrooge about it all, it does seem increasingly apparent that many contemporary/ abstract/ neo-(insert category here) artists have nothing to say but so firmly believe that they do. Is it part of the millennial condition? I hope not.
These thoughts were swarming in my head when passing through the art space called M50 near Zhongtang Road in Shanghai a few weeks ago and then again when visiting the China Art Museum. I enjoy art museums for two reasons: 1) if the art is to my taste, I can spend a few moments in my day transported into another world, another way of thinking, and sometimes if I am lucky I can even start to appreciate a new kind of beauty; 2) if the art is not to my taste, I can laugh at it and this is good fun too. Attending the Louis Vuitton Exhibition Volez, Voguez, Voyaez at the Shanghai Exhibition Centre (which is on until 2 February by the way) was definitely a case of the former, while my other experiences of art in Shanghai have been more hit and miss.
M50 is probably the closest to London's Shoreditch that you'll get in Shanghai. It's also somewhat hidden away, despite being just north of the city centre. The location itself is a converted textile factory and has a real rough and ready feel to it. The other Shoreditch element is the expensive (but cute) hipster coffee shops with untreated wooden furniture and eccentric decorations. Worth going to but just getting an Americano so the experience doesn't break the bank.
Inside M50, there were a variety of galleries, ranging from the bizarre to the impressive. One artist had painted in rough black letters a definition of 'mansplain'. As much as I love feminist activism, I was not a fan of the wall scribbles. For me, there has to be a purpose to art or writing, and I didn't really see it. It's a good thing everything was free to enter.
Pictured right is another piece of 'art' that we saw. It was constructed from a mix of cardboard, plastic, paint, and foam-textured material. It might have been by the same artist who wrote the definition to 'mansplain', but I'm not sure. Jacques and I had fun trying to interpret some bizarre abstract meanings from it, but as you might imagine, we didn't get anywhere.
There was another exhibition where all art was 500 RMB or under (that's around £57) and we thought the pricing was about right. The optimum adjectives to describe it would be 'cheap and cheerful'. The space had some interesting portraits of animals on display and some hand-stitched bags and purses.
Our favourite exhibition was probably Island6, which made us laugh for all the right reasons. Their niche was incorporating digital media into their art. Pictured left is a photo of a video they had running, in which a dog was jumping up and down in the direction of the bone. There were lots of other pieces that used sound, video, and other media effects. One had a sensor that let out a bear growl as you walked past. Another had a video of a woman walking up and down a clothes line. The exhibition gets you looking in all directions - up towards the ceiling for the cynical witticisms dotted everywhere and down to the floor for pieces such as the dog and bone. Again, this exhibition was free, but we probably would have paid money to enter.
In terms of other art spaces, from what I've read, Shanghai has so much to offer. Whether it's beautifully stunning or so awful it's funny, I still think everything is worth a visit. The China Art Museum was nothing special - mostly modern art with little intrigue, but next time Jacques is here, we plan on going to the Propaganda Museum in Shanghai. It should be an interesting insight into the country's history!