Sunday, 4 May 2014

The Chinese mall that thinks it's an art gallery

K11 art mall, Shanghai 

The K11 'art shopping mall' opened in Shanghai in 2013 with ten artworks by mainly unknown artists except for a 2004 bronze by Damien Hirst, Wretched War, clearly purchased at great expense (one sold in 2012 for £325,000) and intended to grab some headlines and attract visitors. Staggeringly, the mall also currently appears to be hosting a Monet exhibition - eat that, Westfield.

Wretched War by Damien Hirst, lit pretty badly and displayed incredibly awkwardly at K11 Shanghai. Photo by Eleonora Pallavicino

The flashy Shanghai outpost follows on from the first K11 in Hong Kong and its hotchpotch of 23 artworks (which nevertheless included works by Olafur Eliasson and Yoshitomo Nara). In Shanghai the building has been designed by Kokai Studios to include a nine-storey artificial waterfall and an 'urban farm' where they keep pigs and grow tomatoes, aubergines, mushrooms and chillis hydroponically. So far, so cutting edge. But while this may be a mall with art in it, sadly it looks like the opportunity for the architects to design in collaboration with artists has been missed. Instead artists' work is dotted around the place, sometimes looking rather out of place and second rate next to the building itself, like many of the artworks in Hong Kong.

K11 Shanghai

Inside K11 Shanghai

Photo by Helen Morgan for Inhabitat (read her article on K11 Shanghai here)

(Not sure why they are growing grass but there must be a good reason)

I am intrigued by the approach that uses art as an attraction for shoppers to encourage sales. This is really quite different to how art has been commissioned in new UK shopping centres in recent years. For a start UK developers are usually required to provide artworks through section 106 monies, rather than providing them spontaneously, and in many cases the community has some involvement in the development of the artworks, which are new site-specific commissions rather than works purchased off-the-shelf for display.

The K11 concept began in Hong Kong in 2009 and was founded by Adrian Cheng, who then founded an art foundation and 'built two artist villages in Wuhan and Guiyang'. The K11 website includes an 'art statement' which commits them to 'create an ongoing benefit to the growth of local art circle' - which reminds me of many a badly translated sign I read while I was there teaching in 2012/13.

A more cynical person than me might raise an eyebrow at a shopping centre with 'values' (theirs are apparently Art, People and Nature) but the gimmick must be working at least on a financial level as a third K11 mall is under construction in Beijing. From a curatorial point of view the selection seems to be improving - the first work at Beijing K11 is by Yinka Shonibare - but they still appear to be mainly buying works instead of commissioning them.

Chinese Wall Painting by Yinka Shonibare, 2011

When I was teaching English in Shanghai back in 2012/13, I met many artists, including Li Liang from Eastlink gallery who organised Shanghai's famous anti-Biennale show 'Fuck Off' which was shut down by the police and co-organised with Ai Wei Wei. I went on one trip with a friend who worked at Eastlink to a tower block in Pudong the business district, where artists lived on all floors and we got in and out of the lift visiting them.

As one of Shanghai's many expats, it struck me then as being a city of huge divides, accommodating both the incredibly wealthy populating the fancy bars and restaurants, and those coming in from the countryside to sell strawberries from baskets by the roadside and work on building sites. On a street corner near the school where I was teaching, a small shed one day appeared in which at least 8 men clearly slept for weeks, presumably without any form of heating or lighting, in the cold winter nights while they were erecting a new building at astonishing speed nearby.

I doubt very much if the streets of dusty old villas I wandered down one day in the shadow of the elevated expressways are still there. Shanghai felt to me like a city with commerce and style (perhaps slightly emptily) at its beating heart, and there's no doubt it's a city which has undergone huge development in the last ten years. The nature of the artworks at K11 mall are a perfect reflection of this focus on commerce and style, particularly given how art is used as a commodity - but what a missed opportunity that some of the city's more exciting artists have not been commissioned - although whether the mall would want to show that work - or whether it would help them sell more to their customers - would be another matter entirely.

To read more about K11 visit 


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