Every time I used to visit Shanghai while living in Ningbo for the past few years, I’d stay at a cozy hostel along Suzhou Creek near Xinzhua Station on Line 1. The walk to the hostel always took me along a stone-covered road by the river, South Suzhou Road, with a few quiet cafes and other sights along the way.
One thing that always caught my attention was a small space with gray brick walls covered in books with a wooden and wire staircase leading up to somewhere. That somewhere, I would eventually come to discover, was an art gallery.
Over the months I went back and forth between Ningbo and Shanghai the small exhibitions in the space changed, and all that time I never dared venture up the stairs to find out what was above.
The upper floors were separated into a few spaces, both had large exhibition halls to the right and artist spaces to the left, off-limits to the public.
The two floors were occupied by two separate galleries linked by the staircase, with photos of Old Shanghai on the walls leading up to the galleries, lit by skylight, to pass the time between spaces, and old metalworks and exposed yet worn phrases and writing (not sure if real or not) to keep the whole space a good fit for Moments and Instagram photos.
The first space featured an exhibition of contemporary Chinese art from art students at Anhui University. Most of the works dealt with surreal subject matter, with a few portraits and some nature thrown into the mix.
While no works among the bunch stood out as particularly groundbreaking, the surrealist works shined because they worked to flip the perspective common in traditional Chinese art. Namely, whereas traditional landscape paintings would have the focus on tall mountains and grand views of nameless rivers and flowers in bloom with birds and insects in flight or at rest, the paintings that stood out were the ones that brought the animals to the forefront, like the depictions of birds at rest in a foreground with mountains and trees in the back, or dancing dogs in an empty room with mountains jutting from them.
Also of interest were a few pieces that put the viewer directly into nature. Instead of looking from the river from above, we are transported into the depths of the water, watching fish glide through the turbulent currents and turtles skimmering and floating along in the gray waters.
The third floor had works of a different perspective. For Chinese New Year the gallery was hosting a special show on the work of a famous Chinese propaganda artist whose works, depicting happy children at work in villages or peasants eagerly listening during a visit with dear Chairman Mao, were predominantly used from the 1950s through the Cultural Revolution and well into the 1980s prior to China’s Opening Up and Reform.
Here instead of the more melancholy subject matter on the second floor the works were more colorful and grand in message. Little girls happily tending to plants in a well-stocked and maintained greenhouse; children in the Young Pioneers standing with the red flag and announcing their march with bugles; nannies hard at work in a communal daycare center; cadres meeting for supplies that have just arrived by airplane.
Everything, as the saying goes, was picture perfect. These idealistic scenes, meant originally as propaganda to conjure a sense of pride and national fervor about the grand new experiment that was the People’s Republic of China, were scenes of happiness and their pastel colored past contrasted greatly with the paintings below; depictions of melancholy and surrealism that also worked to deconstruct Chinese traditionalism in the arts.