A Meditation on History: Art Exhibitions in Shanghai in 2000

A Review of Uncooperative Contemporaries


Uncooperative Contemporaries, Art Exhibitions in Shanghai in 2000, exhibition histories

Uncooperative Contemporaries: Art Exhibitions in Shanghai in 2000


The curtain of “Bodies of Water: The 13th Shanghai Biennale” rose at Power Station of Art in early November, 2020. At the same time, European countries have again been caught by lockdowns due to the COVID-19 pandemic, introducing more uncertainties to this year’s struggling art events. In August 2020, on the 125th anniversary of Venice Biennale’s foundation, curators of the six artistic sectors (Art, Architecture, Cinema, Dance, Music, Theater) presented the exhibition The Disquieted Muses. When Venice Biennale Meets History in the Central Pavilion of the Giardini della Biennale. [1] Coincidentally, Power Station of Art curated in Summer the exhibition Shanghai Waves: Historical Archives and Works of Shanghai Biennale to warm up the upcoming Shanghai Biennale.

It is perhaps no coincidence that the Venice Biennale with a history of a century – as the Shanghai Biennale in its 25 years – has chosen to reflect on its history. It is worth noting that, while attempting to find clues about the relevance of these events, I noticed the new release of the “Exhibition Histories” series booksUncooperative Contemporaries: Art Exhibitions in Shanghai in 2000, published by the UK Afterall Books. I was hence endowed with the chance to have acquaintance with Shanghai at the turn of the century, and revisit the clues of past that were too subtle to be found.

Why Exhibition Histories?

In his book, Hans Belting, a German art historian, discussed and analyzed traditional art history, which tended to make classification according to the linear time, locations, ways of creation, genres, and even the biographies of artists. After people read the seemingly meticulous and detailed categories, they will perceive that the internal logic at the center of art history is constantly passivating. This also makes art history a kind of depicted framework that can have been painted into the cultural and social environment following our expectations. However, for artists and art practitioners, such a “natural” theoretical framework and narrative logic of art history are obviously not good enough as expressions of our society today. The “autonomous” art in the past three decades has been pursuing the same “autonomous” art history. As Hans Belting put it, the “picture” (art) was taken out of the “frame” (art history) as the latter no longer fitted the former. [2]


Installation view, ‘Mantic Exstasy’, BizArt, Shanghai, 2001,Courtesy Yang Zhenzhong, Art Exhibitions in Shanghai in 2000, exhibition histories

Installation view, ‘Mantic Exstasy’, BizArt, Shanghai, 2001,Courtesy Yang Zhenzhong


So how will we view the “picture” when we shake off the “frame”? “Exhibition Histories” provides us a different perspective: the investigation is more complex than a single interpretation of artworks or artists, demanding researchers to analyze and judge upon the historical context. Compared with the traditional discovery and interpretation, it is more like an “archaeologist” piecing together the threads of broken clues and asking questions constantly. This also became the purpose of Afterall’s series of books: They walk out of the “frame” and turn to public art events (usually exhibitions or art activities). Taking clues of historical archives as context, and artists and art creations as the object of study, they reconstruct the social context for the occurrence and existence of a certain art exhibition and build up a communication space for various discourses, ideas, voices, and views.


Shanghai, Art Exhibitions in Shanghai in 2000, exhibition histories

view, ‘Let’s Talk About Money: 1st International Fax Art Exhibition’ (‘Shanghai
Fax’), Huashan Art Vocational School, Shanghai, 1996.Courtesy Asia Art Archive


Compared with the single linear narration of art history concerning books, “Exhibition Histories” can be used to restore the scene of exhibitions from different perspectives, enriching the appearance of artistic events, which also makes it easier to detect logical errors in past narration and attract more attention to neglected historical clues. Such discovery and reflection can really help us to correct and dismantle the privileges in art history and exhibitions, and achieve the equality of artistic creation.

“Exhibition Histories”, therefore, isn’t so much a research work tracing back to history as it is a re-creation, where files, documents, pictures, manuscripts are no longer numbered files. In the texts, they develop intertextuality between each other, break the original time limits and construct a new narrative. This new narrative, starting from exhibitions, extends to art production, curatorial logic, exhibition design, art market involving artists, curators, art critics, gallery owners, institution directors and collectors, and provides us with another possibility.

Art Exhibitions in Shanghai in 2000

So far, Afterall has researched nearby 15 exhibitions with case study, such as: Arte Povera around 1960s; Conceptual and Land Art; in the context of Anti-Form, a revisit to two exhibitions in which the curator Harald Szeemann participated [3]; an investigation of the relations between Lucy Lippard and Conceptualism to Feminism [4]; a review of the Third Havana Biennial 1989, “Les Magiciens de la Terre”, and the global art market [5] ; and other studies. They have become important learning and research materials for students or professional curators.


Shanghai, Art Exhibitions in Shanghai in 2000, exhibition histories

Outside the third Shanghai Biennale, 2000. Photography: Hou Hanru. Courtesy Hou Hanru and Asia Art Archive


This study of the history of Shanghai’s exhibitions follows an Afterall publishing strategy, as the subtitle suggests: “Art Exhibitions in Shanghai in 2000—the study does not focus on a single exhibition, but take the year of 2000 as its investigation object”. Taking into consideration three exhibitions during that period, the third Shanghai Biennale, Fuck Off and Useful Life 2000, it shows a whole scene where official art museums, artists, curators, galleries, and other participants in the art industry at home and abroad respond to the problems faced by Chinese contemporary art against “globalization”, and raises questions to existing art history narratives: Were the Chinese art events of 2000 merely a practice to conform to the globalization of art? Is there a post-colonial vocabulary and connotation? Are artists embracing globalization with open arms, or are they trying to figure out their own strategies and practices?


Shanghai, Art Exhibitions in Shanghai in 2000, exhibition histories

Huang Yong Ping and Hou Hanru during the installation of Bank of Sand, Sand of Bank at the third Shanghai Biennale, 2000. Courtesy Hou Hanru and Asia Art Archive


Jane DeBevoise, Chair of the Board of Directors of Asia Art Archive, traced the distribution of Chinese art since the 1990s – starting with Shanghai’s art market in 2000 – and analyzed “commerce” and “gallery”, the neglected factors in former analysis for artistic creation and production. And it was exactly art spaces such as ShangArt and BizArt that promoted artistic creation and the flow of artworks. For example, Xu Zhen, who joined BizArt later, faced the local business environment directly in his Xu Zhen Supermarket and Useful Life 2000, and gave his own thoughts and responses. Later, MadeIn Company also conducted an exploration in this direction.

The governmental and public art systems are not the two sides of a coin full of estrangement and opposition. Actually, since the 1990s the economic logic of “de-politicization” also affected the governmental art system. In 1993, the Shanghai Art Museum transformed from a public institution with government funding into a self-financing enterprise [6]. Gaining more freedom for work and operation, it brought the Shanghai Biennale into reality in 1996. Therefore, it is difficult to clearly distinguish one from the other by the words “official” and “public”, “governmental” and “commercial”. The establishment of the Shanghai Biennale itself represents “coexistence”.



In Manifolds of the Local: Tracing the Neglected Legacies of the 2000 Shanghai Biennale, Mia Yu pointed out that in the past we were too used to view the third Shanghai Biennale as an epoch-making artistic event, that we neglected the “locality” and “globalization” complexity and multiple possibilities implied in the exhibition itself. Mia, grasping experience in curating, took Hou Hanru, an international curator focusing on global urbanization, Toshio Shimizu, discussing “Cross-Asia Dialogue”, and Zhang Qing and Li Xu, curators with Shanghai Art Museum, as her research clues. She analyzed the curating ideas, artists’ choices, exhibition and setting while reconstructing correlation between the three, presenting readers in the exhibition scene that multiple elements coexisted and worked together with each other but had long been ignored under the banner of “globalization”.

This interaction of multiple elements not only occurs in such a large artistic mechanism as the Shanghai Biennale, but also is an inevitable manifestation of social diversity. In the same period, the exhibition Fuck Off, curated by artist Ai Weiwei and curator Feng Boyi, enriched and clarified the meaning of this “coexistence”.



Liu Ding and Carol Yinghua Lu, taking Fuck Off as an example and another perspective for their practice to restore the artistic pictures of Shanghai—stressing self-organization and self-practice where all of these could never be finished in a single art activities but need different periods of evolution. The authors extend this clue, and formed intertextuality relations between The Wild: Starting from the Waking of Insects in 1997 and Fuck Off. The paper does not take art as a mere production output. In the exhibition Fuck Off, “participants and works are not the objects of choice, identification and judgment” [7], rather it examines the attitude of art itself towards self-practice, and emphasizes the independent and critical stance as the basis for the existence of art. Readers meet, in research, different artists in different states and approaches, and hear the individual voices of each one of them.

In 2004, Zhou Zixi published From Niuzhuang Village to BizArt. The artist speaks for the various groups of local artists from Shanghai. Zhou’s opinions were included in Uncooperative Contemporaries: Art Exhibitions in Shanghai in 2000, themed on globalization. Focusing on humanity, his participation makes the discussion more sincere and apropos. In the tide of the times seeing constant changes, artists like Zhou have the passion and enthusiasm for creation. Their works with genuineness show insipid empty free.

Curating and publishing

The book started by introducing the market outlook and background (Jane DeBevoise), and discussed about various roles, power, status and actions in “pictures” (Mia Yu, Lee Weng Choy, Liu Ding and Carol Yinghua Lu), followed by Zhou’s narration. The articles showcase a different Chinese art scene through a new narrative with progressive layers. Thanks to their contribution, reading the book feels like visiting an exhibition. Interviews with Anthony Yung, senior researcher of Asia Art Archive, relevant artists and curators make the scene built in the book more vivid.



As mentioned above, research on exhibition histories should be viewed as a creative knowledge production, while the editors of this book try to inspire readers with curating thinking and express narratives. This is not a blind definition to comprehend all problems in a universal rules of grand view, but a discussion showing respect for the individuals, which hit the nail on the head.

From my point of view, Uncooperative Contemporaries: Art Exhibitions in Shanghai in 2000 is exactly such a publication that breaks away from the mainstream binary opposition values and tries, through research, to endow readers with the right to make judgement by themselves.



  1. “The Disquieted Muses. When Venice Biennale meets History”, Venice, Italy. Curators: Cecilia Alemani, Alberto Barbera, Marie Chouinard, Ivan Fedele, Antonio Latella, Hashim Sarkis. Date of Exhibition: August 29-November 4, 2020.
  2. Art History after Modernism, Hans Belting (Germany), 2014, Gold Wall Press.
  3. Exhibiting the New Art: Op Losse Schroeven and When Attitudes Become Form 1969, Afterall Books in association with the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna and Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, 2010.
  4. From Conceptualism to Feminism: Lucy Lippard’s Numbers Show, Afterall Books in association with the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna, the Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College, and Van Abbemuseum, 2012.
  5. Making Art Global (Part 1): The Third Havana Biennial 1989Making Art Global (Part 2): ‘Magiciens de la Terre’ 1989,Afterall Books in association with the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna and Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, 2011.
  6. Uncooperative Contemporaries: Art Exhibitions in Shanghai in 2000, Afterall Books in association with Asia Art Archive and the Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College, 2020.
  7. Description by Ai Weiwei and Feng Boyi, in October, 2000.

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by Shuai Yin
in Letters from China

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