SINCE ITS EVOLUTION in 2000 from a local museum show to a self-consciously international exposition, the Shanghai Biennale has functioned as an index of the contemporary art scene in China and the institutional system that has come to undergird it. That year marked the third biennial, the first with any foreign content, as Matthew Barney appeared alongside a slew of local ink painters to demonstrate Shanghai's, and China's, emergence onto the world stage. It is no secret that most of the international biennials and triennials founded in the 1990s flurry are ridden with chamber-of-commerce localism, a disposition made more obvious in China, where hometown interests cannot but wear a cloak of party rhetoric. And so the Shanghai Art Museum, which organizes the biennial, has over the years given us a string of titles that serve more as barometers of municipal political discourse (which is only sometimes consistent with the national one) than as purely artistic statements. In 2000, the theme was "Spirit of Shanghai," a celebration of the city's unique ability to blend East and West and a veiled apologia for its disproportionate economic development. Two years later, "Urban Creation" hinted at the technocratic dreams behind all those new skyscrapers and argued obliquely that tearing down the old buildings might not be so bad. This year's theme of "Hyper Design" (divided into the subsets "Design and Imagination," "Practice of Everyday Life," and the overtly political "Future Constructions of History") carries on this conflation of art and ideology. It speaks to the state's current and overwhelming emphasis on the "creative industry"--a vague term, originally popularized by Tony Blair, that suggests how design and art can ground commercial growth--as the path to overcoming China's status as the workshop of the world and thereby to climbing the value chain.
Climb it has, at least judging by the museum's evolving self-presentation. This year's catalogue lacks the entertaining spelling errors of years past, and at the exhibition's opening, a giant white mechanical backdrop outfitted with Jumbo Trons rolled aside in sync with confetti fireworks to welcome visitors into the museum, which is housed in the former British jockey club. Shanghai being Shanghai, those invitation-bearing visitors included people like the MOMA Junior Associates and the Israeli consul general, while major local artists such as Yang Fudong and Xu Zhen (not to mention countless other relevant Chinese scenesters) were left invitationless outside the iron gates, prompting in one case a fistfight with the security guards.
Inside, the exhibition, though nicely installed, cannot shake the impression of having been curated by committee. This is hardly surprising, given that the team comprised six curators--Shu-Min Lin, Gianfranco Maraniello, Huang Du, Wonil Rhee, Jonathan Watkins, and Zhang Qing--whose sensibilities were not always mixed to good effect. Pride of place in the main entrance hall is given to a grouping of wooden models of Suzhou temples by a team of mid-century artisans, a presumably subversive gesture asserting the relevance of PRC tradition to the contemporary art system. This curatorial agenda of resolving a perceived contradiction between tradition and modernity, between East and West, seems to underlie most of the Chinese contributions (selected mainly by Zhang and Huang), such as Shen Fan's neon-and-zither-music homage to the landscape painter Huang Binhong (1865-1955); Shi Jinsong's stainless steel Harley Davidson-cum-peasant tractor, Halong-Kellong No. …