M50: The SoHo of Shanghai

Nathalie Sun spent the summer in Shanghai. She reviews a neighborhood there for Phillipian Arts. A six-lane street, hawking their wares. Beneath the fragile protection of tin awnings, fresh produce and steamed buns vie for attention with clothing, cigarettes and magazines. Taxis, trucks and private cars ramble on down the road, oblivious to the jewel that lies beside them. Perpendicular to this busy street in Shanghai is a budding art district—M50. No. 50 Moganshan Road, or M50, is the site of the most exceptional contemporary art in the Shanghai area. Compared to Shanghai’s more renowned art establishments however, such as the world-famous Shanghai Museum — M50 flies under the typical tourism radar. After turning off a busy intersection, one travels down a modest side-street lined with nondescript apartment buildings and one-story businesses. Further down the road and nearer to M50, the sidewalks are flanked by tall concrete walls, liberally plastered with layers of vivid graffiti. M50 itself is a simple complex of gray buildings which opens towards the street across from the locals’ laundry lines—hardly a grand entrance. And yet, the classic nature and uniformity of the low clusters of buildings is charming and undeniably cool. The galleries themselves are rather haphazard and disorderly. While some are private, air-conditioned affairs, the majority exists as small, self-contained entities lining sweltering alleyways. Grubby and oppressively humid, these alleys are hardly luxurious showcases of burgeoning talent. Instead, they depict the spirit and tenacity of both amateur and professional Shanghai artists, as well as their dedication to creating art. Taking a chance and exploring these passages is the only way to truly experience the art district. Shanghai’s vast artistic talent is realized in these rooms beyond the alleys of M50. From a single white-washed room hung with a few paintings, to chaotic mazes of murals, drawings and sculptures, the range of artistry is displayed in a very accessible manner. Every room houses a specific theme evoked in countless types of media. The artists’ work is mesmerizing, memorable and certainly surprising. In each piece, the color palette includes every rainbow hue, and mediums are mixed with seemingly reckless abandon. It is truthfully impossible to guess the substance of the next piece or the content of the next gallery. With every turn comes a new innovative surprise. A small gallery’s collection of pieces interpreting Communist China resides next to a room displaying art with a distinct Indian flair. Across the path is one with laughing Buddha paintings, and nearby there is a collection of prints in the Andy Warhol persuasion. Each piece is understatedly poignant and multi-faceted. As an encompassing set of themes, most of the pieces share elements of surrealism, nature, dark comedy and oriental pop. Allusions to Chinese roots and culture as well as other artists’ work quickly emerge. This scene is reminiscent of New York’s SoHo which draws cultural influences from international roots. M50 is a site to educate art collectors and passing tourists equally, encourage non-mainstream talent and empower fledgling artists. Besides M50’s somewhat haphazard mass of independent artists’ galleries, there are also a few complexes of large galleries combining the works of several different artists. One of the most well-known is the ShanghART Gallery. It was opened in 1996 by Lorenz Helbling, a man born in Switzerland who realized his vocation in art after working his way through the art scenes in Zurich, Hong Kong and now Shanghai. Countless Chinese artists have had their work exhibited in ShanghART, and, for many, the opportunity to showcase their work at ShanghART was the launching point in their careers. Helbling’s main role is to forge connections between the artists he represents and international buyers. Recently, interest in contemporary Chinese art has skyrocketed due to Western buyers’ notice of galleries such as ShanghART. Thus, the theme of international influences—east meeting west—ties into the development of copious artistic talent in Shanghai, as exemplified by ShanghART Gallery and Helbling himself. However, the district’s origins are far more humble than a thriving art spot. The buildings which now house art used to be a textile mill, called Chunming Slub Mill. The factory stopped production in 1999 and was lucky to escape the fate of many surrounding mills—dismantlement to make way for housing developments. M50 was saved due to the attracted attention of various Chinese artists; the low rent of the spaces in the mill provided artists with a cheap space to showcase their work. In 2000, the first galleries and independent artists began to officially utilize the empty spaces of the mill. Drawing from the expertise of established artists and the budding vision of aspiring artists, M50 is a force to be reckoned with in the international art world. Its reach will continue to expand beyond Shanghai due to the flowering culture and growing urban scene. M50 is truly a jewel and will hopefully prove to have the same longevity and international history as other reputable art establishments.