Lyle Rexer, New York–based independent writer and critic, author of the upcoming Aperture title The Edge of Vision: The Rise of Abstraction in Photography (May, 2009), is currently traveling in China for the Shanghai Biennial and reporting for Exposures.
September 6, Shanghai
If this is Saturday, it must be an ordinary night at Pearl Lam’s penthouse on Hengshan Road in the elegant French Concession district: cocktails and sit-down dinner for 60, at a table she designed herself, art by Zheng Huan, Zhan Wang, and other Chinese blue chips, all orchestrated by a woman who has mastered the ability to run at full speed in 4 –inch heels.
It’s the first in a series of events hosted by Lam around the opening of the Shanghai Biennial and the SH Contemporary Art Fair here. Lam is the design maven and gallerist, raised in Hong Kong and London, who is using her considerable wealth to make China the center of the global art world and push an agenda of cultural hybridization. Not global, but not local either. The penthouse is her command headquarters and indoctrination center. Everyone, it seems, has to pass through, and once you are processed by Pearl, you may be ready to see things her way. After all, from up here, Shanghai seems to go on forever.
Is it working? Form the crowd, you had to believe it could. To a person, everyone in the crowded apartment (crowded? at 10,000 square feet?) was relentlessly bi-continental, with multilanguage business cards and dual addresses. There was even a 30 something would-be novelist from Park Slope (amend that: as my wife informed her, 20th Street and Sixth Avenue is not Park Slope. She was crestfallen to hear it, having just moved from Manhattan. Philip Dodd, head of Made in China and sometime BBC correspondent (he had just done a long interview with Philip Roth that was punctuated with many “next question” responses, although it might interest some to know that Roth’s two favorite pieces of American literature are Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms) insisted that he had no fixed address and spent his entire life “on airplanes.” We suspect this phrase will be right up there with “How’s your Mandarin?” in the new millennium. Really. I’ve never felt so out of it since I arrived at Oxford without having read Jane Austen.
Jin Hua, a press officer, professor (?) and writer from Beijing was here working with SH Contemporary Art Fair, was seated next to me and seemed to have an easier time working with the chinaware than I did. My plate was precariously balanced on a porcelain server in the shape of two open hands designed by the superstar Peter Ting. The sight of 60 plates offered up by 60 pairs of white hands was uncanny, to say the least, like a Cocteau film. I expected them to seize my food and not let go. To take my mind off that, I asked Jin Hua what he thought about the American election (as if Shanghai were, say, the upper west side). He looked at me with a puzzled expression then smiled. You know, in Beijing no one cares. The United States is so far away.”
A brief note to scholars: As Philip Dodd mentioned to me, the great next task of photo historians is to write a real history of Chinese documentary photography. There are unusual caches of material but most is yet to be discovered and outside of Rong Rong’s pictures of Beijing’s “East Village” from the 1970s and 80s, nothing has been done. Based on the incredible wealth on display among Shanghai collectors, funding would be available for a lifetime’s work.
And the art? More about that to come.