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Issue 217

Meet Me in Shanghai: The Best Exhibitions in Eastern China

From Luka Yuanyuan Yang's video project on America’s Chinatowns to Yu Ji's investigation of forgotten histories in an unoccupied apartment, these are the best shows from the city 

BY Alvin Li, Maya Kramer AND Yuan Fuca in Reviews , Reviews Across Asia | 13 JAN 21

Last November saw Shanghai’s biggest art fairs – Art021 and West Bund Art & Design – surface across the city in tandem with the launch of Art Tower, a monolithic cultural hub housing 20 international galleries. In a time when most eye-fatigue seems relegated to screens, these sprawling, one-stop exhibition displays appear to be something of an anachronism. And yet, a plethora of simultaneous shows emerged, which spoke to the present moment – from a major retrospective by celebrated painter Zhang Enli to an uncanny world by the sculptor and investigative thinker Yu Ji. Here are just a few of the highlights.

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Luka Yuanyuan Yang, The Lady from Shanghai, 2020, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and OCAT Shanghai

Luka Yuanyuan Yang, OCAT Shanghai

By Alvin Li

Luka Yuanyuan Yang’s recent solo exhibition, ‘Shanghai Low’, has at once nothing and everything to do with the titular city. Nothing, in that its name is an homage to an eponymous restaurant in San Francisco’s Chinatown, as opposed to Shanghai proper. Everything, in that its diasporic yearning for the homeland is succinctly captured in the very act of naming. During a year-long research trip across the US in 2018, Beijing-based Yang was captivated by the rich history of migration and adaptation in America’s Chinatowns, and this became the central focus of her most recent and ongoing project, presented here in the form of videos, photographs and archives.

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Luka Yuanyuan Yang, 'Shanghai Low', 2020, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and OCAT Shanghai

While diasporic identity is not a novel theme among contemporary artists, Yang’s choice of subjects is exceptional: Coby Yee, Ceecee Wu, Cynthia Yee and the members of San Francisco’s Grant Avenue Follies are all Chinese-American female senior citizens, and all performers with varying levels of expertise. (Coby Yee, for instance, who passed away this August at the age of 93, was a professional burlesque dancer for over half a century.) Yang’s camera quietly follows her protagonists into their homes and onto the streets of San Francisco, granting them full space to authorize their histories. The self-orientalizing performance of Chinese femininity, as revealed in their accounts, is a strategy for survival in a still-racist America, to the point of obfuscating any sense of original identity.

As a series about the Chinese diaspora by an artist of Chinese nationality, shown in a homeland severed from the rest of the world by ongoing travel restrictions, the exhibition provokes a range of questions concerning representation. Who gets to tell whose stories? That the project feels so compelling is less due to any ostensible shared ‘roots’ between the artist and her subjects than a result of the copious care and love with which Yang treats them in lens-mediated space. As Coby’s partner, Stephen, observes in Coby and Stephen Are in Love (2019), looking piercingly, in tears, over the camera to the artist and her co-director, Carlo Nasisse: ‘We’ll be gone when the film still goes on. And that’s very much [because of] you two.’

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Zhang Enli, 'A Room That Can Move', 2020-21, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Power Station of Art, Shanghai

Zhang Enli, Power Station of Art

By Maya Kramer

Zhang Enli is renowned for his uncanny yet lyrical paintings of everyday objects and empty places, so the diversity of styles on view in his retrospective, ‘A Room That Can Move’, is unexpected. Curated by Hou Hanru, the exhibition traverses various stages of the artist’s career. In addition to Zhang’s muted still lifes from the 2000s, his more recent environments and abstract canvases are also displayed, alongside earlier, more expressive and surprisingly clunky figurative paintings.   

Introducing the show is an open door painted with a peephole and the number 101 leading to a corridor lit by naked lightbulbs. The hallway’s emptiness is accentuated by sparse details – a tiled floor, scuff marks – all painted by the artist. This self-reflexive use of the painting medium triggers an inquiry into the nature of perception, representation and reality, and exemplifies the best of what Zhang’s works do. The barren space feels liminal, between image and materiality, flatness and three-dimensionality, mind and matter.

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Zhang Enli, 'A Room That Can Move', 2020-21, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Power Station of Art, Shanghai

These tensions are similarly at play in Zhang’s two-dimensional paintings. His renderings of coat-racks and tables are painted with striking economy and convey a presence akin to portraiture. They also confront, in that haunting way attributed to minimalist objects. In Tablecloth (2007), olive and umber tones eat at the picture plane until they reach the cloth’s silhouette – a raw canvas. The object’s dimensionality is displaced to the warm/cool shifts in the background, and traces of turpentine in the thinned paint read as erosion and time. A pencil grid, not uncommon in works from this period, creates distance, enhancing our awareness that the image is constructed.

Other bodies of work are brought together by certain affinities: palette choices and a tendency towards portraiture – in the case of his abstract works, titles, such as A Surgeon (2020), reveal this proclivity. Yet Zhang’s brilliance is obscured in this unruly show. Perhaps a more precise selection with stronger transitions between styles would have made the case; or, alternatively, editing and then expanding with more of his best-known pieces (the catalogue teases with numerous examples of stunning canvases that are conspicuously absent). While ‘A Room That Can Move’ showcases Zhang’s more restless, experimental side, the resulting dissonance is at odds with the quiet lure of his best works.  

'Zhang Enli: A Room That Can Move' is on view at Power Station of Art, Shanghai, until 7 March, 2021. 

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Yu Ji, 'Forager', 2020, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Edouard Malingue Gallery, Hong Kong; photograph: Zhang Hong 

Yu Ji, Avenue Apartments

Yuan Fuca

Yu Ji’s latest solo show, ‘Forager’, captures a transitional moment in the life of a building. Unoccupied and unrenovated, 314 Avenue Apartments on Tongren Road in Shanghai – new home of Lu Xun, director of the Sifang Art Museum in Nanjing – is temporally being used as a temporary exhibition space, which has hosted solo projects by Shanghai-based artists such as Zhang Ruyi and Su Chang. Here, Yu continues her investigation into how the body demarcates and redefines space by undertaking a field study of the remaining traces of the original apartment.

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Yu Ji, Flesh in Stone - The Moving Feast NO.2, 2020, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Edouard Malingue Gallery, Hong Kong; photograph: Zhang Hong 

A selection of sculptures, furniture and green-glass screens create an ostensibly familiar living environment. Closer inspection, however, reveals that all is not as it seems. The dining table tilts on the uneven floor, while the half-drunk glasses of water, cement cauliflowers and small clay figurines scattered about its surface are all in the process of disintegrating (Forager – Lunch, all works 2020). Some items have even fallen to the ground, such as Half Peel Half Pulp, a metal cast of what looks like fruit peel. Once-decorative house plants are shrivelled, half-dead; an undrained bathtub filled with stagnant water stands tilted in the middle of the space (Forager – Sleeping Pill). Like the rudimentary clay figurines that recur throughout Yu’s work, two nearly life-size cast-concrete sculptures of male and female figures installed behind the lunch table do not have feet, hands or heads. However, smaller concrete figures twist themselves around free-standing lengths of rusting rebar, which seem to almost vibrate as you approach them (Flesh in Stone – The Moving Feast NO.2) – a vitality echoed in the image of a child screen-printed onto a curved piece of stainless steel (Refined Still Life No. 6). Through these shadowy glimpses of life, the artist whispers of forgotten history and suspended time in this pandemic year.

Main image: Luka Yuanyuan Yang, Coby and Stephen Are in Love, 2020, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and OCAT Shanghai

Alvin Li is a writer, a contributing editor of frieze, and The Adjunct Curator, Greater China, Supported by the Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation, at Tate. He lives and works in Shanghai, China.

Maya Kramer is an artist, freelance writer and Clinical Assistant Professor of Arts at NYU Shanghai, China.

Yuan Fuca is a writer and curator based in Beijing. She is the co-founder of curatorial studio Salt Projects and the magazine dedicated to artist writing Commonplace.