A collective of talented Scots is inspired by the chance to feed China’s hunger for contemporary art , writes Susan Mansfield
AT THE opening, the buzz is palpable. There’s barely room to move inside the exhibition space on the top floor of the Shanghai Himalayas Museum, which is displaying work by Glasgow-based collaborators Poster Club. When the artists get up to speak, the air is thick with mobile phones taking photographs.
This is the opening of CURRENT, the first major showcase of contemporary art from Scotland in China, which got under way last weekend. The next 18 months will see a programme of eight exhibitions in Shanghai, featuring artists such as Ross Sinclair, Lucy Skaer, Bruce McLean and Corin Sworn, and video art from the 1970s and 1980s collected by the Rewind project.
It’s a significant achievement in terms of funding, logistics and curatorial diplomacy, and will be accompanied by symposiums, events and residencies. “There has never been anything like this in depth and scale in terms of showing of Scottish contemporary art in China, it’s very much the first of its kind,” says Sophia Hao, curator of Cooper Gallery at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design in Dundee. She is co-curator of, and the driving force behind, CURRENT, along with leading art curator, Wang Nanming, based in Shanghai.
In the past ten years, Shanghai has seen no fewer than ten contemporary art museums open, including the Power Station of Art, a $64 million conversion of a former electric power plant modelled on Tate Modern. The Himalayas Museum, designed by Japanese architect Arata Isozaki, is, like many of Shanghai’s new galleries, part of a development which includes a cinema, shopping mall and apartments. It claims to attract 500,000 visitors per year, and has hosted major shows by other British artists such as Tony Cragg, Sean Scully and Michael Craig-Martin.
Hao says: “Although Scotland and China are very different places, they share a common experience. Both countries are rapidly establishing new relationships with the rest of the world. What CURRENT brings is to see the impact artists and art institutions in both countries are having on this. Through showing contemporary artworks from Scotland in China, the programme brings two radically different experiences of the contemporary into proximity.”
In selecting artists for CURRENT, Hao and Wang aim to show the distinctive strengths of Scottish contemporary art, such as diversity, collaborative practice and grassroots initiatives, and have deliberately chosen artists from different generations.
The first two concurrent exhibitions feature Poster Club, made up of Glasgow artists Ciara Philips, Michael Stumpf, Nicolas Party, Anne-Marie Copestake, Charlie Hammond and Tom O’Sullivan – all of whom work as individuals as well as making print work collaboratively – and London-based Edgar Schmitz, who will continue his Surplus Cameo Decor project, which began at the Cooper Gallery in 2012. The latter work transforms the gallery space into film sets in which art world figures appear as cameo performers.
Poster Club got to know Hao after they took part in a symposium as part of Studio Jamming: Artists’ Collaborations in Scotland, the show curated by the Cooper Gallery as part of Generation last summer. Hao says: “I believe these artist collaborations are the most original and stimulating artistic practice in Scotland.”
Anne-Marie Copestake, who will do a six-week residency in Shanghai as part of CURRENT, says: “I think collaboration is very important in Scotland in art.” She took part in Studio Jamming, both with Poster Club and as part of another collaborative project, Full Eye, with Katy Dove and Ariki Porteous. “It feels like a natural extension of projects like Studio Jamming to take that overseas. It feels like a logical step, as opposed to always focusing on solo shows.”
Often working with moving image and sound, she has requested that the Shanghai Gallery find her a drumkit, and hopes to initiate jamming sessions with local musicians: “So far what they’ve found is some rather large traditional Chinese drums, so that could be quite intriguing.” Copestake said she is undertaking the residency partly as a tribute to Katy Dove, a long-time friend and collaborator, who died of cancer in January. “Katy had a very adventurous spirit herself. I wanted to do this thinking particularly of the project we did last year [with Full Eye], taking it forward to a new place.”
The wheels were first put in motion for CURRENT when Wang accepted the invitation to visit the Cooper Gallery in 2012 and take part in Edgar Schmitz’ exhibition. This led in turn to discussions with Hao. A key funder on the project is the British Council, for whom 2015 is UK-China Year of Cultural Exchange.
Artist Ross Sinclair, who will show as part of CURRENT in 2016, said he was impressed by Wang’s interest in getting beneath the surface of contemporary art in the UK. “It would have been easy enough for him to go to London, or approach the British Council, and set up a nice show of London art. It’s interesting that this came through a different route, and it’s a different show as a result.” Sinclair observes that the presentation is already international: Sworn is Canadian, Skaer English, and McLean has lived away from Scotland for many years. “The art scene is cosmopolitan and international, quite diverse, Scottish artists already come from several continents. Maybe there’s the idea that being Scottish is more a state of mind than a geographical imperative, an attitude rather than a place.”
Sinclair was part of a research trip to Shanghai with Hao, Skaer, Schmitz and Sworn last January. His impressions are of a vibrant, complex country: the sheer size of its cities (Shanghai has 23 million people), the sense of immense wealth and fast economic growth, alongside Communist-style posters (“People of China, work for a better future”); the influence of the West, beside the “otherness” of the East.
He said: “The idea of making work for China is challenging, but exciting as well. The whole relationship between art and public is very different there. China is such a mind-blowing context it would be crazy for me not to make work that explored that in some sense. I feel the work I do is often more about people than about art. I still don’t know who these people might be in China, but at least you can open up a dialogue and see if anybody is out there.”
CURRENT: Contemporary Art from Scotland Phase One is at Sindanao 2, Shanghai Himalayas Museum, until 9 August. CURRENT will run until the end of 2016