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Last Updated: Friday, 11 March 2005, 12:53 GMT
Shanghai art attracts world's gaze
Zhou Tiehai
Zhou Tiehai's covers were a protest at Western ignorance of China
Much of China's contemporary art scene is based in Beijing - but recently, artists from Shanghai have been attracting major attention.

Exhibitors at the Shanghai Biennale art museum, started in 1994, are becoming increasingly influential and many curators based in Beijing and overseas are now becoming more interested in Shanghai artists.

"People are coming by now - there are museums, so it's better," Lorrenz Hebling, the curator of Shanghai Biennale, told BBC World Service's The Ticket programme.

"A few years ago, people saw Chinese are as tourist art, not serious. Now it's surely better - people are starting to remember the names of the artists, they're writing them down. They didn't do that before."

Freer to experiment

The city's art centre is in a warehouse district in Old Shanghai - one of the few areas of the city that has not undergone massive transformation in recent times.

The Shanghai Biennale is the centre for the contemporary art scene in Shanghai, with up to 40 studios working around it.

The gallery's works tend to be on the large side - one is a five-metre high picture of a screaming face; another features a large number of small terracotta figures climbing over each other.

Chinese art had begun to attract international interest in the 1980s, until the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 were dramatically put down by the government.

Shen Fan
Before, in China, art was not noticed - now it is just a job, like a teacher
Shen Fan
This ushered in a period of conservatism amongst Chinese artists. But now they are feeling freer to experiment again.

"When I was in school, China was quite closed," said Zhou Tiehai, a Shanghai-based artist who exploits both Western and Chinese traditions in his works.

"As a young artist, we didn't have a lot of chances.

"During that time, exhibitions would be closed by the police."

Tiehai has swiftly become very collectable, and known to art critics worldwide.

His most famous works include superimposing his face on Western magazine covers, and a portrait of former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani as a heroic Mao-type figure - with two balls of dung beneath.

Tiehai said he welcomed the attention from foreign collectors and art experts.

"In the early 1990s, artists didn't have a chance to show abroad," he added.

Shen Fan, described as the leading abstract painter in Shanghai, said the artistic boom in Shanghai had been incredibly rapid.

"Before, in China, art was not noticed," he said. "Now it is just a job, like a teacher."

Shen Fan experiments with traditional Chinese forms such as calligraphy and tries to change them into something more abstract.

"Some years ago, I had an exhibition in Germany - they asked me if my painting fitted in the Chinese traditional culture," he added.

"But my friends in China don't think so."

Diluting art?

This is an important point about modern Chinese art - and what concerns some critics who feel that Chinese artists are sacrificing tradition to attract a Western audience.

Zhou Tiehai's most famous works, for example, involve superimposing Joe Camel, the cartoon face of Camel cigarettes, onto images such as nude models.

Tiananmen Square
Chinese art briefly became more conservative after Tiananmen Square
"A lot of people use the symbols, like Mao and the cultural revolution," he told The Ticket.

"I think that's too easy - so I decided to use Western images."

But he dismissed claims that Western success diluted Chinese art, comparing it to football.

"A Brazilian player can play well for a football team that plays in England," he argued.

"It does not make much difference [to his performance] if he is from Brazil or from England."

And Ludovic Bois, of the Chinese Contemporary Gallery in London, said that certainly in England the hype about Chinese art is being overlooked anyway.

"The English are not really there as big collectors," he said. "They are missing the boat.

"The media has not really been covering this very well... most of the buyers are from Europe and America, and the English are not quite there."

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