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A Tale of Three Cities: SHANGHAI (final installment)

Posted by on October 12, 2012 | Student Photography

Martyrs Park Statue P1130059
Photo: Statue in Martyrs Park, Shanghai, China, © Abby Robinson

SVA’s Digital Photo Workshop in Shanghai, China: Week 2

Week two of our workshop was show and tell. Wedged
in between a group critique on Monday and individual crits on Wednesday was a
jaunt to the M50 art district led by our informative Shanghai liaison,
artist/curator Zane Mellipe. Zane, originally from Latvia and a fluent Mandarin
speaker, has lived in China and been involved in the art world there for many years. Along with stops at Christophe Demaitre’s studio, East Link/Stage
, ShanghArt & H Space, we checked in with three perennial favorites.

At OFoto, the front gallery is
devoted to rotating exhibitions while the back space showcases images by the
gallery’s artists. Owner and photographer Huang Yunhe is always kind enough to
talk about each individual artist and put the work in context. OFoto has opened up an additional area
to show paintings and sculpture, usually small scale and often very witty.

M97, the best and most
international of the photo galleries, is owned by American Steven Harris.
Extremely generous with his time and information, Steven really knows the
workings of the photo world and describes its ins and outs in entertaining and
useful detail.

Last but not least, at M50 is the
unusual Island6, run by Thomas Charveriat (an ex-student). The gallery is
described as an “artist-founded, artist-run ‘art
first’ not-for-profit organization… with a production site and an adjoining
gallery for the cutting-edge, new media artwork “made by the tech-geek art collective Liu Dao.

Of note: as Chinese art becomes
increasingly well known and collectable, both M97 and Island6 are setting up
branches in Hong Kong because, as Steven Harris commented in a May 30 article in The Economist, “We can show [our artists'] work to a
wider and more diverse audience across the region.”

We finished up the day in another part of town at Ifa Gallery where we
saw the show Something in Common that
Zane had curated and where she had arranged for a talk with exhibiting photographer, Zhang Xianyong.

Thursday’s destination was the
always-worth-a-trip Shanghai Museum, a one-stop opportunity to see and learn
about ancient Chinese bronzes, sculpture, ceramics, jades, seals, calligraphy,
coins, paintings, Ming and Qing-dynasty furniture, and crafts made by China's
national minorities. After everyone dispersed to work on their individual
projects, I explored
what was once the Hongkou District’s
Jewish Quarter and the Shanghai Jewish
Refugees Museum
. During World War
II, Japanese-occupied Shanghai was one of the few places willing to take in
Jews fleeing the Holocaust. One of the reasons I was always keen to go to
Shanghai was because a cousin of mine had been one of the 20,000 who lived in
this unwalled ghetto, mingling with neighboring Chinese whose living
conditions were just as bad. The museum
maintains a database, but sadly nothing came up when I typed in my relative’s

Week 3

Mitch Paster @ the Great Wall P1120856
Photo: Mitch Paster at the Great Wall, © Abby Robinson

This year we added Beijing to our itinerary. It’s really easy to travel there now;
there’s a new high-speed train that makes the trip in a mere five hours (as
opposed to regular trains which take anywhere from 11 to 20 hours).  We checked into the Templeside Lian Lian Guesthouse in one of Beijing’s few remaining hutongs
(alleys). Ex-student Xizi Wang, who had been a freshman in my Photo Workshop
class during the 2011-12 school year, had graciously invited all of us for a
Peking duck banquet in a restaurant in the popular Houhai area. Getting taxis
in Beijing is an ordeal at the best of times and we were trying desperately to
get two in a downpour. My group managed to hail one in 20 minutes but it took my
colleague Eleanor’s group one very soggy hour. It was worth the wait, as the
dinner, with its seemingly endless parade of courses, was really delicious. The
only thing that wasn’t a big hit was the Chinese wine called baijiu. With
an alcoholic content as high as 60 percent and a paint thinner-esque bouquet,
it’s an acquired taste that we didn’t manage to pick up.

Guide @ Ming Tombs P1120840

Photo: Tour guide at the Ming Tombs, © Abby Robinson

On Wednesday, June 27 we took a tour to see ancient Ming dynasty tombs and the Mu Tian Yu section of the Great Wall, where you go up on a chairlift and down in a toboggan, a strange paring of history with amusement park. Mitch Paster summed up the experience in his blog post: “Climbing the Wall and being at this site has been the greatest thing I have ever done in my life.”  

Eleanor Oakes Tobagganing down from the Great Wall & being photographed by Michael Schmidt and Mitch Paster P1120872
Photo: Eleanor Oakes tobagganing down from the Great Wall, © Abby Robinson

That evening I was invited to Three Shadows’
fifth anniversary celebration. The Ai Wei Wei-designed building twinkled with
candlelight; the outdoor event and sit-down dinner took place in the lantern-illuminated
courtyard where local and foreign photographers, curators and collectors had
come to honor founders RongRong and Inri. The soiree also doubled as the
unofficial opening of Nobuyoshi Araki’s very large exhibition, Sentimental Journey/Decadence in Paradise
, the first big show of the Japanese photographer’s work in China.

Inri and Rong Rong P1120891
Photo: RongRong & Inri, © Abby Robinson

Even though the Araki show didn’t
officially open until Saturday, I was given special permission to bring my
class to Three Shadows on Thursday, June 28. Afterward, we went to 798,
Beijing’s best-known art district, and headed for Pace—a giant-sized branch of
the New York gallery—to see Sugimoto’s first Chinese solo show, with works from
his diorama, theater, seascape, lightening fields, portrait and conceptual form

 Three Shadows Courtyard P1020619
Photo: Three Shadows Courtyard, © Abby Robinson

Our last group jaunt in Beijing
was to Stefen Chow’s studio near the Forbidden City on June 29. Stefen, a
Malaysian photographer working out of Singapore and Beijing, jumpstarted his
career by documenting a climbing expedition up Mt. Everest. Since then he’s
successfully forged a career blending commercial assignments with personal
work. Stefen, who was featured as One to Watch in PDNedu's Spring 2011 issue, is a most energetic and
engaging photographer; he spent several hours with us talking about his varied
projects and then another couple of hours with us at lunch. He’s very
inspirational and his enthusiasm for photography is infectious; the students
understandably loved him.

At Stefen Chow's Studio P1120939
Photo: Stefen Chow’s Studio, © Abby Robinson

 After that, class members were on
their own, with most choosing to stay in Beijing until Sunday. Their
sightseeing included the Forbidden City and, over the weekend, Xizi and her
friends took them out to local clubs. 

Before leaving Beijing, I had one more social
visit to make. Zhang Feng, whom I’d met in Korea with her husband, photographer
Wang Qingsong, had invited me over to their home for tea. They live in the art
enclave Chaochandi in a large house where Wang Qingsong has a sizeable
workspace. While I was there, he was busily working with several assistants,
getting materials ready for the large-scaled piece “Competition,” that he was
installing at the Watermill Center out on Long Island in late July.

Week 4

On Monday, July 2, we went to Beaugeste
, where Jean Loh, its very informative director, talked with us about
Chinese photography: its history, its growth in the marketplace, and what he
views as the nascent state of photographic writing and critical thinking. The remainder of our last week was
geared to finishing up projects and preparing final presentations, along with
last-minute shopping and packing. We had a farewell banquet on Friday night and
then, on Saturday, July 7, everyone went their separate ways: Eleanor and her
mother went on to Cambodia and Thailand, Dogon to Turkey (although he’s going
back to Shanghai to teach English), Sora to Korea, Mitch back to New York and
Michael and Ariel on to the Woodstock area to teach photography at a summer
camp. Nova returned to Hangzhou, her hometown, taking Patricia with her.
Patricia then went on to Japan (and spent a very nice day being shown around
Tokyo with yet another of my former students) before returning to New York.
Dhita stayed put in Shanghai to continue photographing food (a bit differently
now) and to work on a project about Shanghai dogs. There was one great last-minute piece of news from Michael,
who e-mailed as he was en route home and changing planes
in Moscow: he’d been accepted into the prestigious Eddie Adams workshop for the

Me? I stayed in Shanghai for a few more days to say goodbye to friends. On
my last morning, I got up early for a last glimpse of the incredible exercise
scene at Martyrs Park not far from our apartments on Tianyaogiao Road.

Exercising @ Martyrs Park P1130055Photo: Early morning exercises in Martyrs Park, © Abby Robinson

Then I went to Paris where, yes, I saw another former student plus a
former intern. And I saw a totally kickass Atget show at the Musée Carnavalet.

Abby Robinson