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Ai Weiwei Snubbed at Shanghai’s Answer to Tate Modern

Shanghai Power Station of Art
A detail of a photograph by Cang Xin, taken by the artist circa 2002-2004. It is part of Xin's "Identity Exchange -- China" series. Photographer: Frederik Balfour/Bloomberg

Oct. 22 (Bloomberg) -- Shanghai’s Power Station of Art, housed in a former electricity plant on the waterfront, is meant to be the city’s answer to London’s Tate Modern.

The museum, open just 12 months, is staging its first self-curated show, a 30-year retrospective of Chinese contemporary art, assembled in less than half a year on a budget of under $1 million. With no collection of its own, it sourced works from more than 90 museums, private collectors and artists’ studios.

For anyone who frequents Hong Kong auctions by Sotheby’s and Christie’s International, the exhibition will feel familiar. Paintings by top-selling artists Zeng Fanzhi, Zhang Xiaogang, Yue Minjun and Liu Ye are prominently displayed.

While curators have split the displays into five thematic sections, the placement feels arbitrary.

The show does a poor job explaining the progression of Chinese art, from the Stars paintings in the 1970s, the 1980s New Wave and cynical realism of the 1990s through to today.

What’s more, the headsets don’t come with English translation and the catalog provides little more than thumbnail artist biographies.

Still, it is well worth visiting on the strength of many individual pieces. Liu Qinghe’s “Sepat” (2007) is a dark and brooding image conjuring up the afterlife and measuring 4.9 meters by 9.6 meters (16 feet by 31.5 feet).

Fan Bo’s “Black Friday” (1997), an oil portrait of fellow painter Chen Tong, captures a loneliness that’s a welcome respite from the ubiquitous toothsome characters of Yue Minjun.

There are fine woodcuts from the late 1970s by Ma Desheng, who originally painted during the cultural revolution and was an important member of the Stars group.

Underwear Workers

Photographs are the strongest element. Rongrong & Inri’s images evoke nostalgia in the face of urbanization. In Cang Xin’s “Identity Exchange -- China Series,” he photographs himself next to people in their underwear whose identities he appropriates by donning their work attire, representing himself variously as a nurse, a female opera singer and a chef.

A work by Shanghai artist Zhang Huan, commissioned especially for the show, takes full advantage of the central museum foyer. Standing eight meters high, his sculpture is of a human that barely emerges from under a heap of animal hides.

When the state-backed Power Station of Art displayed “Andy Warhol, 15 Minutes Eternal” during the summer, his Mao portraits were excluded because of political sensitivities. It’s thus not surprising to note the conspicuous absence of Ai Weiwei (whose Sunflower Seeds installation is part of Tate Modern’s permanent collection.)

I’d rather see it charging admission and putting some of that money into organizing better curatorial expertise.

“Portrait of the Times: 30 Years of Chinese Contemporary Art”, runs through November 10. Information:

(Frederik Balfour is a reporter-at-large for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include Farah Nayeri on film, Ryan Sutton on food and Amanda Gordon’s Scene Last Night.

To contact the writer on the story: Frederik Balfour in Shanghai at or on Twitter @frederikbalfour.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at

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