No Man’s Art Gallery was pretty hard to find. Even after getting the address via email, I arrived at the exhibition, held at a disused warehouse somewhere along the Bund, more through sheer luck than anything else. In the weeks leading up to this show, whispers abounded amongst Shanghai’s artsy crowd. Apparently, an exhibition was coming to Shanghai that would be shown at a location yet to be confirmed. You needed to RSVP in order to get the address, and the exhibition would feature works by edgy underground artists from across the globe. In short, it seemed like the art world’s equivalent to that chap who you met in the toilets at Bar Rouge who was banging on about some after-party in an abandoned government building that was ‘like, sooo exclusive yaaaah, that nobody knoooows the location until like, right before the party… and you’re not invited.’
However, after stumbling upon the exhibition and meeting Emmilie Koster, the founder of No Man’s Art Gallery, it became clear to me very quickly that this project was no self-satisfied lunge for exclusivity: quite the opposite in fact.
No Man’s art gallery is a truly radical concept. This term does get thrown around a lot in these parts, but I think in this case it is justified. The gallery moves around the world, operating in different cities for no more than three months, culminating in an exhibition that may last only a week or so. Koster explains that the three months preparation time can often be intense; not surprising considering that the difficulties in finding local contacts, securing artists and an exhibition space, getting the word around, and making the myriad other preparations associated with organizing an art exhibition, are exacerbated by the fact that every three months she has to start from scratch and adjust to the local circumstances of an entirely new environment.
‘China has been particularly stressful’ reflects Koster. ‘The biggest problem has of course been the language barrier, but also there is the issue of the firewall here. At previous locations we would cast around for artists and contacts on facebook, but here we can’t do that. Luckily I had some good people around me who were able to use weibo and douban to find up-and-coming local artists.'
'Anonyme Nr.147' Bertrand Peyrot, 2013
This philosophy of engaging with the local community extends beyond merely exhibiting works. As part of a project in Mumbai, Koster set up a Slum Photography contest, giving 45 analogue cameras to children in Mumbai’s Dharavi slum, and challenged them to document their daily lives. The best pictures were exhibited at No Man’s Art projects across the world, and all the photos were made available for sale, the proceeds going into purchasing more film reels to allow more children from the slums to have the same opportunity to express themselves. ‘The objective is not only to bring the work of our European artists to a wider audience, but also to engage with the artists and wider community of our host country’ she explains. Far from being exclusive then, the premise of No Man’s Art seems to be far more about inclusion and participation than anything else.
Everything about the gallery space here in Shanghai is cutting edge. The dank, disused warehouse space appears the polar opposite of the 'White Cube' aesthetic so popular amongst Shanghai’s glitzier galleries. Beyond this, the show hosted a one-off ‘Art in the Dark’ event, where visitors were given torches with which to navigate around the darkened gallery. Not only did this make the gallery seem like the setting of an intense crime thriller, but it allowed the works to take on a whole different aesthetic. For instance, Bertrand Peyrot’s exquisite portraits, rendered through the oxidizing of metal, shimmer and pulse in a way that would be impossible to achieve in a white cube space.
Other works on offer were similarly chilling. Hu Xing Yi’s casts of faces in tupperware boxes, combined with the deformed figures in his paintings, provide a haunting reflection on how consumerism erases personal identity, whilst Fenk Zhang utilizes double exposure to conjure apparitions within his photographs. Elsewhere, Aixia Li's bizarre panoramas play with ideals of the real and the virtual, and Merijn Kavelaars’ street art works also proved a popular draw, all but one of them finding a buyer.
When asked how she felt about her time in Shanghai, she replies, ‘It’s been great here...A lot of the works have been very popular. It seems like here in Shanghai there are a lot of people who are willing to buy art, even from relatively unknown artists...It’s been a really enjoyable experience. It has been more challenging to operate here than in a lot of other locations, but I think people have responded really positively’. The next stop for Koster and No Man’s Art is Cape Town, South Africa. ‘I’ll be sad to leave Shanghai, but I’m looking forward to a new challenge’ she says. ‘I think three months here is enough for me.’
WORDS BY ARVIN MAHANTA
PICTURES BY MARCO DI NOIA