First day in Shanghai.

Lorenz Helbling, a Shanghai art dealer, displays his wares on the mezzanine of the posh Portman Hotel. "There is nothing special to see in Shanghai," he touristically guides London. "Only Chinese City is worthwhile," he continues in a deadpan delivery, "the rest you can see anywhere, in any city."

Chinese City?  In Shanghai?

"Yes, that's what everyone calls the old quarter. It's pretty much unchanged since the 1930's."

Memories... Shanghai Express with Rita Hayworth, a story of missed love and colonial intrigue? Maybe London will down one too many nightcaps and be Shanghai'd.

Helbling, along with Karen Smith and Hans van Dijk in Beijing, have important but precariously defined roles in China. They deal contemporary Chinese art, nearly exclusively to foreigners. Chinese citizens only buy traditional art and realist paintings, the art forms sanctioned by the government. China, now in an "emerging" phase of development, looks to its historic roots for self-understanding. Art that falls outside state-defined parameters only gets shown in homes or in unpublicized fringe venues.
Contemporary artists in China are marginalized, not suppressed. As quoted in the Economist  article of Sept 6, 1997, China's New Cultural Revolution, "we are not underground artists as such," says Wang Gianwei, "but we are overseas artists." Much of the problem lies in China's antipathy to foreign influence, which during colonial times sought to dominate the country. When China gains self-confidence, there is reason to hope that these artists, now pariahs, will be heralded as pioneers who led China into the supranational art world.

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