Another year, another SH Contemporary director. Berwin Song talks to Massimo Torrigiani, whose revamp has seen the return of several major Chinese galleries and a renewed focus on Chinese art
Since its debut in 2007, annual art fair SH Contemporary has had a checkered history, with changing directors, fluctuating sales, mixed participation and a string of attempted revamps. This year is no different with magazine editor and entrepreneur Massimo Torrigiani taking the helm as the fair’s fourth director in five years.
Even taking account of the fair’s tumultuous past, the Italian was a surprise choice given his lack of previous art-fair-directing experience, yet he is proclaiming a bold long-term vision for the event which could not only bring it some much needed stability, but also give SH Contemporary the international standing it craves.
The 45-year-old is intent on taking the fair back to basics, with a focus on local art, artists and galleries. ‘You need to have a local backbone,’ he says. ‘The strength of this fair is really Shanghai itself -- there is so much creative energy for an art fair here. Even in Beijing, the art capital of China, there’s a sense that Shanghai is more open -- and that SH Contemporary is China’s most important art fair and has its own identity in the wider Asian and international art scenes.’
And despite only visiting China for the first time last year when he was brought to the fair ahead of his appointment, the ebullient director believes his status as an outsider is an asset. ‘I like challenges and I’m independent. I’m here to deal with bringing all the pieces together, and I’ve had a lot of experience doing that in many different fields.’
Torrigiani went on an immediate charm offensive following his appointment – meeting with as many gallery owners, artists, museum directors and cultural groups as he could. The result is a renewed emphasis on local art and the return of several major Beijing galleries to the fair after notable absences in recent years. Red Gate, one of Beijing’s oldest galleries, is among those returning this year (its first appearance since 2008) to show new works from the island6 collective (including Shanghai Itch, pictured left) . Director Brian Wallace says that their break from the fair was in part due to the financial crisis, but that Torrigiani’s enthusiasm has contributed to their decision to return: ‘When Massimo came around to all the galleries earlier this year and introduced himself, it really wasn’t a hard sell.’
Torrigiani has also brought in a number of first time galleries, such as Don Gallery, whose director Cheng Xixing says, 'I think Massimo is taking the fair in a new direction; he has a lot of new ideas. In previous years, there wasn’t as much local representation, but this year there are more Chinese artists and galleries.’
In addition to the traditional gallery booths, over 20 artists, mainly from China, will present large-scale site-specific installations, which will be unveiled at the opening. These will include works by local photographers Birdhead (represented by ShanghART) and Jiang Zhi (M97) situated in specially-designated ‘hot spots’. Elsewhere, video artist Lu Yang (Art Labor), sculptor Su Chang (Don Gallery) and mixed media artist Liu Ren (White Space), each of whom held their first solo shows in Shanghai this past year, are among the artists given dedicated ‘First Issue’ showcases.
To further encourage participation, Torrigiani has made a simple, but important, shift in the layout of the fair’s space at the Shanghai Exhibition Centre by turning the main hall over to the galleries. The space is the first thing that visitors will see upon entering the fair and, although last year it was occupied by a specially-curated exhibition, Torrigiani’s idea is to return the focus to the galleries themselves.
Many of these individual gallery booths will feature local artists. Debutant Don Gallery will show works from both Su Chang and Liu Ren among others, while M97 Gallery, another first-time participant, will have two displays – a general booth featuring gallery regulars such as photographers Michael Wolf and a solo booth for Beijing-based artist Chen Wei. M97’s participation is, in part, due to Torrigiani’s inclusion of a special section for photography galleries and his creation of the Asia Pacific Photography Prize, with the winner to be announced at M on the Bund on Saturday 10.
Chen Wei's 'Some Dust'
Meanwhile, in an effort to attract younger, more experimental galleries, the new director has made smaller booth spaces available at a lower fixed rate for first time participants that have been around for less than five years. ‘I’m excited that we got many big Chinese galleries back, but also about the 20 small, young galleries participating for the first time,’ he says. 'They all believe in the project and they’re showing it by paying for a booth.'
Torrigiani himself is keen to show that he believes in SH Contemporary as an art fair of international importance and emphasises that he is in it for the long haul. ‘This is not a one year thing,’ he says. ‘Reconceptualising the fair is just the first step. Ultimately, I want the galleries to be happy, of course, and for them to be successful, which is necessary. But I also want the audience to enjoy it and to be excited. And of course, the critics too -- if all three groups think it’s good, then that would be a total success.’