Installation view of The Force Temple at TANK Shanghai (all images courtesy of TANK Shanghai)

SHANGHAI — On a long weekend that began on September 12, ten thousand people in Shanghai flocked to a four-day art festival that brought together a curated group show, live DJ performances, an international art book fair, natal chart readings, sneaker repair service and much more. Held at a private art center founded by Shanghai collector Qiao Zhibing, the TANK Art Festival proved itself to be an art fair unafraid to embrace consumerism and unburdened by academic formalities. Having just opened its doors to the public in March 2019, TANK Shanghai is a young institution pushing against traditional boundaries in a museum setting, proposing and practicing a way of curation that is fun, flexible and thought-provoking for the public.

Converted from a small airport by the west bank of the Huangpu River, TANK Shanghai is quite the opposite of a white cube, using five aerial tanks as its gallery space. At the heart of the festival was a group show titled “The Force Temple,” which brought ten artists together in a cylindrical space. Placed right next to each other, artworks egged each other on, creating a field of energy in which the works competed with but also lent force to each other. A promotional article  sent out on WeChat dubbed the show “an exhibition, a performance, also an amusement park.” In the press release, curators Tang Dixin and Kate Yuying Yang emphasize the importance of “playing” at  the core of the creative drive: “In children’s games or untrained minds, art actually begins with whimsical thoughts.” On opening night, two artists fittingly broke out into a boxing match that embodied the creative and competitive energy between their works. Outside, another featured artist, Tian Mu, projected laserline drawings onto a large screen, while a crowd gathered to celebrate and dance en plein air. 

Curator Tang Dixin, artists Hu Xiangqian and Li Liao at a boxing match on opening night

The Art Market section reinvented the traditional art fair by inviting artists, galleries, and creative brands into a light-hearted kind of artmaking. “I feel like contemporary art can be quite tense at times, and the artists are actually in need of a release. The Art Market provides exactly that space to let their creative energy flow freely,” remarked Qiao. Artist Song Yuanyuan, whose paintings blur the line between the classical and the abstract, built a Roman bathhouse-themed booth filled with soap sculptures, hand towels, and recent paintings. Lin Ke, who is mainly known for his digital work, hung sketches placed in water-filled pouches that floated like icons on a desktop. Overtime, the images would dissolve like old digital files corrupted and rendered illegible by new technology.  

Bustling crowds at the Art Market.

In this space, the line between art and product became ambiguous — though the line was probably artificial to begin with. Moving through the market crowds, I felt a sense of curiosity, joy, and playfulness. In unabashedly presenting art as a consumable good, the Art Market demystified the aura of contemporary art, making artist creations affordable and relevant to the public. Artists were given the freedom to translate the thesis of their art practice into something humorous and unserious, unburdened by the expectations of traditional art marketplace.  In turn, by buying wearable and functional art, festival-goers simultaneously embodied and contemplated the act of consumption in relationship to art. One could question the meaningfulness of this contemplation, though I believe embodiment to be an effective way to examine a social phenomenon.

The festival’s setting also provided a platform for creatives who don’t usually have a place in a museum. Outside an exhibition hall that exhibits graffiti, artist River Lin sat at a table blindfolded, creating a nearby attendee’s “blind portrait” through conversation with his subject. On the wall behind the artist, Lin had hung a spread of ink portraits, reflecting his impression of his interlocutor. At a booth downstairs, local barbershop Homie offered haircuts all weekend, and at some point, a professional sneaker repair service booth was even set up. Tattoo services, DJ sets, dance performances, and artist talks were just a few things among the activities that popped up over the span of the entire festival.

From Li Ming’s performance “Curating Master” during the opening night of The Force Temple

The TANK Art Festival was a landmark event that both encapsulated and defined the unique art scene emerging in Shanghai, achieving social criticism without shying away from our age’s obsession with consumerism and entertainment;  rather it used both to invite the public into a conversation about art. Riding on the rampant consumerism of Chinese society and the indulgence of entertainment adopted by the Chinese govermentality, the TANK Art Festival does not provide an escape from these beguiling and overwhelming phenomena; instead, it carved out a space within consumerism that uses dark humor and more serious play, thought-provoking entertainment, and corporeal inquiry as alternative forms of criticism — a witty and brave act when such space has been collapsing, due to institutional and self-censorship, all around the world. What now seems strange is not that art and commerce should be so closely partnered in such an open way, but rather that the link between the two should be so secretively tucked away elsewhere.

The TANK Art Festival took place in Shanghai, China from September 12-15, 2019, at TANK Shanghai. 

Tina Shan is a writer and translator based in Shanghai and New York. Follow her on Instagram.