Moganshan Road is the beating heart, the throbbing brain, and the big brass cojones of Shanghai’s and China’s art world all rolled into one. The fact that it is only a single street should illuminate the current priorities of the country and its people. It is among other things though, quite an exceptional street. It has been recognized by Western Media; called one of Shanghai’s ten best spots by Time Magazine, and in typical New York Times fashion called “The SOHO of Shanghai.”
Once the dregs of Suzhou Creek, the fluorescent green waterway that winds through the Northern Puxi district of Shanghai, among the bones and wreckage of early 20th century capitalism, a Swiss born expat, Lorenz Helbling founded M50. Raising the flag of modern art the street and the contemporary art scene grew around him. The remains of that era still linger however, and provide what I think is the most interesting facet of the Lilliputian art kingdom.
When I made the turn onto Moganshan road the entire left side of the street for a solid three blocks contained a vacant lot with what looks like an abandoned construction project, or maybe the burnt wreckage of a tycoon’s flammable indemnity. The hollow concrete husks are overgrown with vines that grew along the collapsed ceiling tiles of the multi-story buildings. More importantly though an ashen concrete wall runs down the length of the site, and on that wall I was almost startled at the sheer volume and complexity of its graffiti.
I won’t say that there aren’t any criminal gangs in Shanghai, but I will say that there isn’t anything resembling the warrens and networks of crime that exist in the major cities of the United States. All the graffiti, ranging from Japanese cartoon characters to metallic looking science fiction drawings are accompanied by the e-mail address of the artist. Most of the words are written in English, probably because the letters lend themselves more easily to augmentation than Chinese characters do, and the array of colors is dizzying.
To the artists that come to Moganshan Road from the distant and remote parts of China, this veritable sea of graffiti looms like a lighthouse beam radiating its silent call into the night.
The idea of these enclaves of art, this camaraderie of expression, also merits discussion. M50 might have been the catalyst to the multitude of abandoned warehouse cum art galleries on Moganshan Road, but there are other similar enclaves in Shanghai. A huge band of artsy black and white photography studios dominate Taikang Road for instance(called the Taikang Creative Area).
But whereas Taikang Road may have the overtures of communist planning, Moganshan Road grew up completely organically. One gallery opening followed another until there was no space left for new galleries. In the United States the starving artist is usually a solitary introspective figure, but the United States prides itself on individuality. China’s education system, while churning out reams of skilled technicians and engineers, is dominated by rote memorization and standardized testing. Standardized tests often even determine whether or not one will even go to an art school. So maybe it is this climate of conformity which creates a desire for artists to seek each other out, or it could be that art and artists are so undervalued (5 years ago 80% of Chinese contemporary art was sold abroad) that the only way they can survive is by huddling together.
The most important thing though is not how many artists reside there, or even who those artists are, but the fruit of their creative endeavors. As I strolled through all the galleries on a surprisingly warm day in early March the range of art that swam through my head, from the horde of graffiti to the abstract sheets of monochrome color, to the mixed material landscapes peaked that desire that all poets have to be painters, and in the end provided quite a bit of inspiration despite my total inability to scrape a brush against a canvas. What I can do with this experience though, is try to convey the sense of mystery I feel associated with the process of painting with words:
Questions about Art
When I lose myself among the lines on the canvas,
am I finding the artist? Who is reaching out to whom?
Does the artist lurk somewhere behind the frame,
their shifty eyes waiting like a haunted house portrait?
Are they waiting for the knowing smirk of the passerby
to light a post coital victory smoke?
Is the search for meaning through these slashing brushes
always in vain? Is it just a matter of excercising
some yet undiscovered muscle? Or a creative masturbation,
an urge the accountants tell us to repress until
in the lonely hours of the night it explodes, often
against the first white surface it can find
When explorers are only found on decorations
for the holidays that bear their name, has art
become simply a way to ward off claustrophobia?
Or boredom? Some are bored of trees, and mountains;
tired of the sky and its menagerie of lopsided horses
and upside down fire trucks. Weary of people
in their various poses, their clothes or their nudity.
Some have even grown tired of colors.
What does the artist have left, but a brush and a scream.
After the canvas is abandoned a dozen times
and then finally toted to a gallery in desperation
all I really have left is a question.
Art galleries are often quiet affairs
inaudible facial tics and the shuffle
of feet lay a backdrop for whispers
to neighboring patrons – or nobody
what is the sound afterall of a mind
searching for a memory. And how
does one translate a sigh. But
in the relative silence of stone
or freshly mopped concrete
there are screams without number
Is that a face? Are those people
in pain? What were they saying
when the flag of a nameless country
tore through their living room
while they watched a forest burn
on their forever TV? At some point
the questions crescendo and answers
aren’t forthcoming. Black spaces
cover the mind’s retreat from words.
And the room focuses all of its sound
into the tiny scratching of a brush
dancing somewhere on a canvas
This painting doesn’t speak to me,
unless spending a few thousand,
upon hanging it on my wall, it’d say
You should have just painted
The whole wall blue – and saved
Your money. Maybe slashed
a few lines of red horizontally
for that feel of manufactured angst
No I don’t think modern art speaks,
or snickers. It is not composed of words
taking form. More of echoes trapped
inside a frame. Viewing these pieces
makes me feel like a vampire, staring
into an empty mirror, or whistling
into the wind waiting for the breeze
to accompany the tune. That is to say
there are no familiar symbols, hidden
halos, bewitching smirks, no fire,
no flowers, rent flags, or melting clocks.
So we walk past them quicker, the mind
and its invisible tentacles unable to grab
or suck the image closer to a memory
And so when my feet want to move
I sit down until I can see the vibrations