Top 5 Shanghai Biennale Art Pavilions by Global Cities From Detroit to Tehran

Haleem Rasul II, "Untitled street performance," video still, 2012
(Courtesy of Shanghai Biennale)

SHANGHAI — One of the standout art events in China in 2012 was undoubtedly the ninth Shanghai Biennale, which opened in October and runs through March 31. Although reaction to the event overall has been mixed, artist-curator Qiu Zhijie’s device of presenting independently curated city pavilions, representing 30 diverse urban communities from Amsterdam to Ulan Bator, has been both a critical and popular success.

Some of the cities set up their presentations at Shanghai’s new Power Station of Art, the city’s new public contemporary art museum, while others made use of beautiful dilapidated buildings near the Bund, along Nanjing Dong Lu and Yuanmingyuan Lu. The city pavilions contributed greatly to the diversity of the biennale — whose overall theme is Reactivation” — without wallowing in too much nationalistic noise. Most of the pavilions have now packed up and gone home (though a few are still showing at the Power Station). 


Below, ARTINFO China presents a look back at the city pavilions that stuck in our minds.


In a prime location on the ground floor of the Macmillan building, which has wide windows looking onto a bustling shopping street, the Dusseldorf pavilion’s sculptures were a fine advertisement for the city pavilions. Thomas Stricker’s large polystyrene sculpture was a magnificent, coral-like formation, while Qi Yang’s armless, faceless figure Nothing Happened and wall-mounted grubs made of paper lampshades were as strange as they were elegant.


One of the most enjoyable pavilions was also, in large part, one of the most short lived. Curated by the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit's Rebecca Mazzei, the vaudeville-themed show Voice of the City included performances by jit dancer Haleem Stringz” Rasul Ar-Rasheed, physical comedy by The Hinterlands, and music on instruments invented by Frank Pahl. After two weeks or so the performances concluded, leaving only a dressing room, a floor-to-ceiling mirror where audiences can practice dance moves shown on video, and mix tapes of tracks by Detroit musicians.


The Iranian capital’s pavilion was a group show of contemporary calligraphy, which sensibly exploited a commonality with Chinese art. Curated by Nina Moaddel, the show was named Point (or ‘?’ in Chinese) in reference to the simplest calligraphic mark. Works included Shahrzad Changalvaee’s photograph of a textile draped over sculpted words, and a monochromatic red canvas by Alireza Astaneh, where raised letters created calligraphy in relief. 


Cetology,” the plastic lawn chair whale skeleton created by first nations artist Brian Jungen, was one of the Biennale’s show stoppers. It was exhibited in a windowless room that was dark as the depths of the ocean, except for where spotlights threw dramatic shadows on the wall. Working with the most generic chair imaginable, Jungen’s work hinted at the extinction of both species and cultures as globalization advances. Images of traditional Native American masks remade out of Nike Air Jordans were also on display.


Perhaps the most ambitious pavilion was Sydney’s The Floating Eye exhibition. Six artists showed largely unrelated work which benefited from being spread through several rooms. Pieces included a mini polar ice cap made with refrigerator elements in water by Shen Shaomin, photos documenting early encounters with aboriginals reworked by Brook Andrew, and a disorientating piece by Shaun Gladwell entitled Pacific Undertow Sequence (Bondi),” which shows a surfer sitting under his board as waves crash by.

To see images of the city pavilions from the 2012 Shanghai Biennale, click on the slideshow.