Art walk in Shanghai

1 Nov 2006 by intern22

In spite of Shanghai’s money-grubbing reputation, it has a vibrant artistic side, says Brent Hannon who visits six of its museums and even picks up a charming papercut.

Nothing flies like a good cliché, and China, like most places, is full of them. One of the most common clichés is that Beijing is a city of art and culture, while Shanghai is only about money. There is some truth to this; Shanghai is a commercial city, and proud of it. But Shanghai has culture as well as cash, and its cultural assets include a clutch of excellent museums. Most of these are in People’s Park, where three fine museums lie within walking distance of one another, and a fourth, the Shanghai Museum of Natural History, is also not far away. Granted, People’s Park is not exactly the Forbidden City. It used to be a horseracing track, where swells bet on ponies in the Shanghai Race Club building. That regal structure is now the Shanghai Art Museum, and nearby are the Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA) and the Shanghai Museum, one of the top Chinese art collections in existence (the best is in Taipei).  The Shanghai Museum of Arts and Crafts is  also not far away, in the former French Concession, while the Shanghai  Science and Technology Museum is across the river in Pudong. And despite Shanghai’s money-grubbing reputation, the fees are very reasonable: a visit to all six museums costs just CNY136 (US$17).


Shanghai Art Museum

Like many of this city’s museums, Shanghai Art Museum is housed in a venerable building: this stately stone structure with its signature clock tower was once the Shanghai Race Club. The finely crafted interiors even retain some racing details, including horse-head motifs on the stair railings. The ground floor, formerly the betting hall, now houses rotating exhibitions, while the upper floors host the permanent collection. The permanent collection includes modern Chinese oil paintings and pop art, along with a handful of more contemporary works, including several striking examples of Julian Opie’s various walking women. These women, rendered in snaking lines of blue neon, or rows of blinking orange lights, or other media, are among the museum’s most popular works. Taiwanese and Chinese artists are also well represented, and overall the collection is eye-catching and modern, with signs in both English and Chinese. I especially liked a painting called Gone With the Wind-2, by Cody Choi, a haunting depiction of the fleeting nature of childhood and the end of innocence, made even more moving by the eerie industrial sounds emanating from a nearby installation exhibit. Then there was a sculpture called Yiwu Investigation, by Chinese artist Liu Jian Hua, featuring a huge pile of shiny new plastic toys pouring from the back of a truck. In a single swoop, this crazy, colourful sculpture highlights China’s central role in the global manufacture of cheap junk. There are many other notable artworks and artists, and the museum attracts big crowds, most of them Chinese and many of them young, who prowl the roomy galleries in search of entertainment and inspiration. The museum is also well known for its regular exhibitions, which are held on the spacious ground floor: a recent display of impressionist paintings created a lineup that snaked around the museum and deep into People’s Park. On the top floor is Kathleen’s, a continental restaurant that commands lofty views of People’s Park. OPENING HOURS: From 0900 to 1700 daily. ENTRANCE FEE: CNY20 (US$2.53). CONTACT: 325 West Nanjing Road, tel 86 21 6327 2829



Museum of Contemporary Art

The Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA) is the brainchild of the remarkable Samuel Kung, a businessman and art patron who opened it in September 2005. People say Shanghai is all about money, but MoCA is a non-profit institution that is entirely devoted to the arts. Kung, chairman and director of the museum, is an energetic man with a profound belief that art can enrich people’s lives. Now that Shanghai has achieved commercial success, he wants people to appreciate the finer aspects of life. MoCA sits in a leafy, wooded section of People’s Park, surrounded by pathways, trees and ponds filled with lotus flowers. The museum was once a greenhouse, and its glass walls are intact, a setup that allows a flood of daylight to light up the museum’s high-ceilinged interior space. The exhibits are mostly avant-garde, with a bias toward Chinese contemporary art. The display area is not huge, with just 1,800sq m of exhibition space, but the high ceilings and glass walls of the vaulting main exhibition hall make it seem more spacious. On the top floor of the museum is MoCA Caffé, an Italian restaurant that is a favourite with the gallery crowd. Like the museum, the restaurant is superbly designed. It is bright, as befits its rooftop location, and the windows are highlighted by clean lines of red, black and white. MoCA Caffé also features a rooftop terrace surrounded by a parade of buildings that can be found nowhere else on earth. Aside from serving Italian specialties like osso buco (braised veal shanks), risotto, linguini with clams and simple pizzas, MoCA Caffé has a cause: it helps support the Museum of Contemporary Art. Prego! OPENING HOURS: From 1000 to 1800 daily, except Wednesday until 2200. The museum and restaurant can be rented for private functions. ENTRANCE FEE: CNY20 (US$2.53). CONTACT: Gate 7, People’s Park, 231 Nanjing West Road, tel 86 21 6327 9900, www.mocashanghai.org  


Shanghai Museum

With its state-of-the-art displays, detailed English signs, audio tours and helpful staff, this is the undisputed empress of Shanghai museums. Here, China’s biggest collection of ancient art and artifacts is displayed in 11 cool, comfortable galleries. The building itself is new – it opened in 1995 ­– and is said to resemble a traditional Chinese ding, or ceremonial vessel, a visual leap of faith that requires much imagination. Chinese museums are like dinner buffets; visitors can choose from a variety of dishes. At Shanghai Museum, the main courses are bronzes, ceramics and paintings, with jade carvings, furniture, native art, calligraphy and coins for dessert. The museum’s collection of bronzes is second to none, so I started with those. The bronze gallery, like the others, contains a wealth of knowledge about the history, composition (tin and copper) and significance of the artifacts, all clearly labelled in English. The bronzes are not beautiful, but they are interesting in an historical-industrial kind of way. Then, I went for the entrees: paintings and ceramics. Specifically, I was searching for Song Dynasty paintings and Qing Dynasty ceramics, my two favourites. For my money, nothing matches the clean spare lines of Song-era paintings or the vibrant, day-glow colours of Qing-era ceramics. The museum’s paintings gallery, like the others, is arranged in chronological order, a thoughtful setup that allows visitors to observe artistic evolutions. It had only a single example of Song painting: a lovely hand scroll that richly displayed the elegance, style and simplicity of this remarkable era. In the ceramics gallery, I was struck by the Jun ware, a style popular in the 10th to 13th centuries. These attractive glazes, says the sign, were coloured with copper or iron to give sky blue, moon white, rose purple or crab apple red. Soon afterwards, following the blue-and-white Ming vases, I found –?and admired – the coral-red, turquoise-blue and mustard-yellow ceramics of the Qing era. But my favourites needn’t be your favourites: Shanghai Museum’s other offerings include calligraphy, jade carvings, Ming and Qing furniture, minority art, coins and more. The Tea Room offers a desultory collection of snacks like candy bars and sponge cakes, along with six kinds of tea, fruit drinks and bottled water. The gift shop has a pretty good collection of books, reproductions and other souvenirs. CONTACT: From 0900 to 1700 daily. ENTRANCE FEE: CNY20 (US$2.53) and CNY60 (US$7.60) with acoustic guide. CONTACT:  201 Ren Min Boulevard, tel 86 21 6372 3500, www.shanghaimuseum.net  



Shanghai Natural History Museum

This is what museums looked like a long time ago: dim, dark and fascinating. Of course, other museums have since changed, adding interactive displays, sound-and-light shows and the like, but not Shanghai Natural History Museum; it remains proudly retro. This is not the museum’s fault. In 2001, part of its collection was plundered by the brand-new Museum of Science and Technology, and is now on display in Pudong. The Science and Technology museum hopes to return the favour, by someday building a new home for the old Natural History Museum. But for now, Shanghai Natural History Museum is in the old Cotton Goods Exchange building, a neo-classical monument built in 1923. Busy cotton traders formerly stalked this once-elegant lobby, which features mosaic floors, wood-panelled interiors and stained glass windows. A huge Mamenchisaurus skeleton now dominates the dim lobby, peering skyward with its too-tiny head. These 25-metre giants lived in Sichuan province some 150 million years ago, where, presumably, the spicy food hastened their extinction. Sharing the lobby with Mamenchisaurus are several smaller dinosaurs, notably a Stegosaurus, plus a carnivore I didn’t recognise, although I told my daughter it was a Velociraptor; meat eaters always get her attention. She also liked the woolly mammoth skeleton, because of its dramatic three-metre tusks. The rest of the rooms and displays are smaller. The second floor is the anthropology wing, with a collection of dated dioramas, sculptures and other such items. The third floor has stuffed animals, ranging from the rare (pandas and pangolins) to the commonplace (horses and camels). Altogether, the museum has 3,000 rare animal specimens. OPENING HOURS: Daily except Monday. ENTRANCE FEE: CNY8 (US$1). CONTACT: 260 Yenan East Road, tel 86 21 6321 3548  



Shanghai Museum of Arts and Crafts

Modern China can be unexpectedly fascinating, and the Shanghai Museum of Arts and Crafts is a perfect example. The museum building sits in a century-old, neo-classical mansion in the heart of the old French concession. Unlike most of Shanghai’s graceful old mansions, which can only be admired from afar through iron fences, this rare jewel is open to all. With its high ornate ceilings, spacious lawns, stained-glass windows, marble staircases and sculpted fishponds, all far removed from the noisy streets, the building itself is a special treat. But so is the quirky little museum, which opened in 1960 and hasn’t changed much since then: the displays, the atmosphere, and even the staff are frozen in time. The atmosphere is curiously captivating. I walked up the winding exterior staircase and through the iron-and-glass doors. The museum opened as a workplace for craftsmen, and many of them are still here, tucked away in distant rooms, polishing their lacquers, carving their jades, and perfecting their papercuts. The rest of the museum is a gallery showcasing these crafts, many of which are for sale. Some of the items are genuine period pieces: needlepoints and carvings and papercuts depicting forward-looking peasants glowing with vigour and filled with determination. There was a late 1950s hand-knit woollen cheong sam, looking very Jackie O, and soon after, I stood chortling in front of a giant needlepoint portrait of Princess Di, perfectly rendered in little tufts of wool. How ’90s is that? Some of the art is beautiful, though, and some of it is touching. Standing in front of the embroidery, slightly askew and less-than-perfect, I realised: these crafts are handmade, and therefore charmingly flawed. Consider the white-jade Buddha in the main room: they want US$100,000 for this, and it looks like cracked glass. As for the papercuts, suffice to say that I fell in love with one of them – an intricate, rainbow-hued rendering called Four Seasons Song –?and bought it for a cool CNY3,000 (US$375). That’ll teach me to go wandering into these places. OPENING HOURS: Daily from 0900 to 1100 and 1300 to 1600. ENTRANCE FEE: CNY8 (US$1). CONTACT: 79 Fen Yang Road (at the intersection of Fen Yang and Tai Yuan roads), tel 86 21 6431 4074  



Shanghai Science and Technology Museum

Among Shanghai museums, the Science and Technology Museum is unique. It is in Pudong, not Puxi, and it is ultra-modern: it opened in 2001, just in time to host the APEC leaders conference. It boasts high-tech exhibits in a buzz-worthy building with a high “wow” factor, and it has four theatres (including two Imaxes and an Iwerks), broad grounds, spouting fountains, vaulting glass-and-steel ceilings, and other touches that are simply not found in the museums of Puxi. Because of all these high-tech bells and whistles, my two daughters love the place. But taking them there is a problem: I always want to read the detailed English signs and absorb the information, while they want to watch the exploding volcano and the robots (especially the robot dog that responds to clapping), climb into the giant hearts and brains, shoot laser guns, dig for fossils, play ping-pong with a robot and buy tickets for the Imax 3-D. They could spend all day in Children’s Technoland, while I prefer to wander through Earth Exploration (magma, tectonic plates, earthquakes) or Light of Exploration (quantum theory, gene splicing and laser technology). Finally, I solved the puzzle: bring other parents, hand off my kids, and explore the museum by myself. This takes a long time, because of the size of the place: it has 12 huge galleries, spread over five floors, and a surface area 65,000sq m. It is so big that I’ve never seen the venomous spider display on the fourth floor, a sure-fire winner that would interest parents and kids alike. After two or three hours of high-speed gallery hopping, we always seem to end up in the cafeteria, eating East-meets-West food: deep-fried pork chops, sweet red spaghetti, hard crunchy French fries and the like. OPENING HOURS: From 0900 to 1715 daily, except Monday. The museum welcomes meetings and conferences. ENTRANCE FEE: CNY60 (US$7.60). CONTACT: 2000 Century Avenue, Pudong (Metro Line 2 has a Science and Technology Museum stop), tel 86 21 6854 2000, www.sstm.org.cn/english/index.htm  
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