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Shanghai Biennial breaks the speed limit

China’s imminent Politburo change and a vast new venue were just two of the challenges facing the organisers

John Rubin’s The Lovasik Estate Sale, 2012, in Pittsburgh’s pavilion

On 1 October, China’s National Day, holidaying farmers and families walking along Shanghai’s packed Nanjing East Road stumbled across interactive art installations that had taken over the shop fronts. Featuring 29 international cities, the Inter-City Pavilions satellite project is a new addition to this year’s Shanghai Biennale, which is seeking to rebrand itself after 16 years with the new theme of “Reactivation”.

The main biennial (2 October-31 March 2013) is being held 5km south in the new Power Station of Art (PSA)—a converted factory used during the 2010 Shanghai World Expo. The ninth edition of the event, which was previously staged in the Shanghai Art Museum, opened to a quieter sort of chaos. The installation in the 41,200 sq. m venue was not finished by the opening and the disorganisation was as outsized as the PSA itself. The fact that it opened on schedule was remarkable given the staff and budget constraints experienced in the opening of the new state-funded museum. “Because it is a new museum and a ‘new’ biennial, these things together created a lot of trouble,” admits Li Xu, the deputy director of the PSA’s planning office and the curator of previous editions of the biennial.

“I have places where I’m satisfied— [with] the result and responses—and places where I’m not,” says the biennial’s chief curator, Qiu Zhijie. “I’m dissatisfied with the process: the museum is too new, it was too busy [and] there were not enough resources, from the funding to the team.”

The main exhibition, sprawling over five floors, impresses in scale if not consistency. A conceptual map of the biennial’s theme, drawn by Qiu, adorns the atrium’s main wall. The rest of the space is filled with Huang Yong Ping’s Bodhisattva with a Thousand Hands, 2012, and Chico MacMurtrie’s silver Citroen DS-cum-giant robot, Totemobile, 2007.

Although this edition has added more international artists, the Asian dialogue remains—apart from the pavilions—the most vibrant aspect of the event (even as one Indonesian work was removed for appearing too pro-Japanese). “Contemporary art is important as it is the most effective space in Asian society for addressing the cultural and social situation. Where the meeting of Asia is concerned, Asian cultures need to be visible to each other, not just to the West,” says the biennial’s co-curator Johnson Chang Tsong-Zung.

Traditionally, unofficial shows staged to coincide with the biennial have enlivened the event, with controversial works providing a contrast to the state-vetted museum offerings. “I’ve always said it must not just be the Shanghai Art Museum Biennale, but the Shanghai Biennale,” says Li Xu, adding: “This time [the] curatorial [team] was independent.” After the “Fuck Off” show co-organised by the artist Ai Weiwei in 2000, “the government felt [external art] was dangerous”, he says. However, given the biennial’s new location, “we had to use the Expo spirit somehow. But we did not want to talk about national issues because that would cause trouble, [and] we still wanted to do something different from the Venice concept.”

Political distance was maintained for the pavilions project by outsourcing it to a team that included Davide Quadrio, the director of the non-profit ArtHub Asia. “Spreading shows around the city before the biennial was ‘illegal’; now they look illegal but are actually official. It is a very important moment for Shanghai and China, and takes the process a step further,” Quadrio says.

Li says the biennial’s budget was around Rmb24m to Rmb25m ($3.8m-$4m), a third less than the Chengdu Biennale. The slow approval process prompted staff to loan up to Rmb100,000 ($16,000) to ensure things happened on time.

“The rush was because the Expo was over, [and] Shanghai’s leaders are changing, and so are China’s with the 18th Politburo approaching,” Li says. The government was unwilling to wait until the PSA was ready before moving the biennial. “The speed was terrifying. What should take eight to ten years [to plan], we did in one,” Li says.

The organisers of the new pavilion section had even less time to prepare: less than five months. “That is insane anywhere, but in China it can be possible,” Quadrio says. Political machinations and shortsighted priorities are frustrating, but “you must accept and deal with it, or stay out of the game”, he says. “In China, the future doesn’t exist. Even one year is too far removed.”

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