It’s not often you see a mammoth thermometer on the skyline. Yet this landmark sits atop China’s first state-run contemporary art museum, the Power Station of Art (PSA) in Shanghai, which opened in October. The chimney of what was once the Nanshi Power Plant is lit up with the daily temperature in lurid red and white. It’s a striking beacon for this 41,200 sq metre monolith overlooking the gently lapping Huangpu river.
With breakneck Chinese efficiency, the Shanghai Municipal Party Committee transformed the 19th-century industrial site into mainland China’s premier public art museum at a cost of Rmb400m (£40m). The time taken? Nine months. “This decision reflects an attempt to situate PSA within Shanghai’s historical and cultural context, and it is in accord with the international consensus of transforming characteristic urban architecture into contemporary art spaces,” is the Orwell-esque party line.
“It is a prestige object for the city, to have a museum that, at least in scale, can compete with Tate Modern in London or MoMA in New York,” explains Jens Hoffmann, co-curator of the Shanghai Biennale. “The Shanghai Art Museum was also looking for a new home for the Shanghai Biennale [until March 31] in which it could expand and triple in size. The building was used as a pavilion for the World Expo 2010 in Shanghai, and was sitting empty on a very attractive piece of land that will be redeveloped into a larger cultural area.”
But how to fill this colossal seven-storey exhibition space? Step forward the Centre Pompidou in Paris, which has loaned 119 works for the exhibition Electric Fields: Surrealism and Beyond (until March 15). This intelligent, tightly curated show, displayed across the top floor, examines the profound influence of the 20th-century movement on contemporary art through six sections such as “Collage” and “Automatism” (the latter part features superb pieces by Gerhard Richter, Frank Stella and Georg Baselitz).
Even though there were some grumbles about PSA’s remote location – it is 4km from People’s Square, the cultural centre of Shanghai – the launch of the Pompidou show was striking for the number of visitors aged under 30 poring over works by Marcel Duchamp and the Shanghai-based artist Yan Pei-Ming (“We never get to see his art,” commented a young female Chinese artist). The Chinese authorities have realised that shipping in prestigious collections may help them gain leverage with local artistic communities and a growing stream of western tourists, bolstering their diplomatic credentials at the same time.
The advantages are even more marked for the French museums who are dispatching a flood of loans to China. The Musée d’Orsay in Paris has developed a strategy of raising income by organising worldwide tours for works drawn from its collections. Eyebrows were raised in the art world when the museum loaned major impressionist paintings for a 2010 show at the Fundación Mapfre in Madrid. The show then travelled to two US institutions. Although the loan fees were not disclosed, the borrowing venues reportedly paid about €1.5m each, which helped fund gallery refurbishments at the Paris museum.
Orsay declined to reveal how much China paid for 87 works on show in Millet, Courbet and Naturalism in France (until February 28) at the China Art Palace, another former Expo building that sits on the opposite bank of the Huangpu river. This striking red and black structure, which houses classic pieces charting the development of modern Chinese art, also launched in October. Many works have been transferred to the China Art Palace from the former Shanghai Art Museum, located near People’s Square.
Alain Seban, president of the Centre Pompidou, acknowledges that his Beaubourg gallery has received “substantial fees” for the PSA loan show. The Shanghai project has special resonance for the Centre Pompidou as previous attempts to establish a base in the city have backfired. In 2007, the then president Bruno Racine said he expected a museum carrying the Pompidou’s name to open in Shanghai before 2010. The location chosen was a former fire station in Huaihai Park in the Luwan district. But the scheme never materialised; one obstacle was the lack of a legal framework enabling a non-profit foreign institution to operate in China.
“When the last [Shanghai] project fell through, we retrenched. We now have a strategic interest in this project: we have teamed up with a new ambitious, global institution,” says Seban. Crucially, the dynamics of these international partnerships have changed. “Four or five years ago the French government would subsidise cultural projects abroad. But now there are emerging institutions that negotiate directly with us,” he adds.
At the press conference marking the launch of the Pompidou show, the French curator Didier Ottinger shifted in his seat when asked about restrictions placed on the works by Chinese officials. Nonetheless, he later showed me a series of challenging pieces in the exhibition that reflect, to a degree, a new level of acceptance. There is, for instance, an explicit work by Malcolm Morley (“Cradle of Civilisation with American Woman”, 1982) along with a searing indictment of genocide by Erró (“For Pol Pot, Tuol Sleng S21”, 1993).
The real eye-opener though is an installation by Chen Zhen, a large-scale table incorporating a United Nations human rights declaration (“Round Table”, 1995). The Centre Pompidou confirmed that the Chinese authorities considered some of the Man Ray works “too erotic”, so a series of gelatin silver prints by Hans Bellmer were used instead (a strange decision as the 1930s pieces, depicting splayed, naked mannequins, are nothing if not graphic and disturbing).
Hopes that a more liberal regime would be ushered in under Xi Jinping, the new head of the Communist party, seem to have been dashed with the news that Andy Warhol’s silkscreen-ink portraits of Mao Zedong will not be included in a touring retrospective organised by the Warhol museum in Pittsburgh, due to open at the PSA this year and later in Beijing (Bloomberg reported that the Mao work had been rejected by the Chinese Ministry of Culture).
Another pressing long-term issue is whether the PSA intends to build a collection of contemporary art that could have an impact on the city’s art scene and the international market. This question was gently batted away by Chinese officials at the inauguration, although a PSA representative who preferred to remain anonymous revealed that a sculpture by Japanese artist Nishino Kozo, on show in the Shanghai Biennale, has been bought by the museum. PSA planned to buy works by Chinese and international artists, he added, though culture commentators were largely unconvinced. “I doubt there is money for a collection at this point,” says Hoffmann.
Rival museums in the city, which are all backed by private funders, do not seem particularly perturbed by the newcomer. Larys Frogier, director of the Rockbund Art Museum, says that his Bund-based venue stands out by commissioning works and through its emphasis on research and education. Seban, meanwhile, strikes a note of caution. “The issue of becoming [permanent] partners depends on whether the Power Station of Art builds up a reference collection of Chinese contemporary art. Other institutions may move ahead in this field, such as M+ in Hong Kong.”
Such concerns were swept away at a farewell dinner for the Centre Pompidou staff hosted by PSA officials. Over fried fish and duck spring rolls, washed down with numerous toasts, an informal contract declaring long-term co-operation between the French and Chinese institutions was signed. The general consensus around the table was that this could be a successful arrangement for all concerned.