Where a textile mill once stood on the banks of Suzhou Creek in Shanghai, there is now a blossoming art district known as M50 (for 50 Moganshan Road). Warehouses have been converted to artist studios, galleries, and graphic design and architecture firms. On its outskirts are buildings with sanctioned graffiti, as seen above. Hundreds of artists work here, and I spent hours exploring the galleries, even though more than half were closed for the holidays.
The amazing thing is the apparent artistic freedom these artists have, compared to official government-run museums. You can see overt politics here, like a gallery full of propaganda poster-style paintings of Chairman Mao and others, except everyone other than Mao has a pacifier in their mouth. It wasn't really my cup of tea, but it's notably more overtly critical than the typical kitschy faux-propaganda posters I saw all over town of Workers Uniting with Coca Cola or of Chairman Obama.
There's some of that commercial stuff here, including a photography shop that had some pretty nice photos of Shanghai until I started seeing the same exact photos everywhere; it's apparently a chain. Most of the art seems quite original, though. There is some traditional art, but the majority is modern, and of all styles, photo-realistic and abstract, Gothic and manga, creepy and cute. A few of my favorites:
A painting of leaves on water where the paint from the leaves are all 3-dimensional, so that they lift off of the painting and look real. Really neat.
A series of realistic paintings of city road scenes, with cars driving back and forth, except that there are traffic lights hanging above (all red), and there's a modern person sitting casually on top of the traffic light: a business woman on her laptop, a business man eating lunch, a hip young kid just leaning back. I liked the vague surrealness, and I think the idea was that these people are actually in quite a precarious position, but they don't even realize it. I felt its social commentary was much more subtle and effective than that in-your-face Mao-and-pacifiers stuff.
There was a room with a series of 25 giant head-shots of people laughing, all shot in identical poses in the same studio. (Even though they were posed, you all know how much I like photos of people laughing.)
If any of you plan to go to Shanghai any time soon, I highly recommend swinging by M50. I don't think this kind of art scene has existed in China, out in the open, until recently. And if you're stuck here in San Francisco, there are open studios the next two weekends! I've been to some a few times, and they're often a treat; very similar to what I was just talking about, just less surprising because it's not in China.
Sadly, it's not clear how long the area will last. All around M50 are far more lucrative residential high-rise apartments. I think a mixture of city planning and existing landlords have kept it going for now, but some of the nearby warehouses have already been demolished to make way for new development. So try to go soon! On the flipside, the only reason I even heard about it is because I have relatives who live right across the street. I made the following panorama from their stairwell, and you can see the more typical scene in the area. M50 is off-screen, just off the right side.