Shanghai's new contemporary art museum, the Power Station of Art, opens on October 1 with the 9th Shanghai Biennale art festival appropriately titled "Reactivation." It runs through March 31, 2013.
The Power Station of Art is China's first government-aided contemporary art museum, housed in the former Urban Future Pavilion from the 2010 Shanghai World Expo. The pavilion itself was the renovated Nanshi power station, built in 1897 and symbolizing the city's industrial might at the time. Since it burned high-sulfur coal, it was a major polluter and was gradually converted to gas starting in 1997; it was decommissioned in 2007. It was at the heart of an area containing the city's first steel company, water company and other industrial giants.
But the old plant has turned "green" and artistic, today emblem of creative sustainable development.
The new museum replaces the old Shanghai Art Museum as the biennale's venue near People's Park. Many art lovers are nostalgic for the old colonial-era horse racing club and its historic ambience.
"But the space is too limited for an international biennale," says Zhang Qin, the former curator of the Shanghai Biennale, "We had to squeeze in some pieces at the last minute and even the outdoor space was not enough."
However, this year's chief curator Qiu Zhijie has space to burn.
After a half year of renovation, the space now covers nearly 41,200 square-meters with 12 exhibition halls and fills the void in the city for a major contemporary art museum.
The enormous size allows enormous-sized works and installations to be exhibited.
The municipal government hopes that the new museum will eventually take its place alongside renowned contemporary art institutions, such as Pompidou Center in Paris. An exhibition on loan from the Pompidou will open in December in the Power Station of Art.
Besides Qiu Zhijie, the curating team includes Boris Groys from Germany, Jens Hoffman from Costa Rica and Chang Tsong-Zung from Hong Kong.
Around 98 artists from 27 countries and regions will participate the biennale and some pieces are daunting.
Examples of super-sized art include the 18-meter high "Transformer"-like installation "Infinity Column" created by Chinese artist Ouyang Chun and the "Thousand-hands Bodhisattva," a tower of iron fingers created by Chinese artist Huang Yongping.
"It will be a long process for the Shanghai Biennale to mature and become one of the top events on the international stage," Qiu said. He said it faces difficulties in attracting sponsorship, in being operated by a regular art foundation and in building up a professional biennale working team.
When the theme "Reactivation" was announced several years ago, many people said it was not original and seemed a token reaction to the venue being a former power plant.
"I don't think so, this is a perfect theme," Qiu retorts.
In his view "Reactivation" isn't about a makeover or renewable energy. Instead, it prompts visitors to think about how they live. When the sit of the power plant becomes active again, it doesn't generate physical electricity. Instead, it creates spiritual pulses that would activate the inherent energy within a community, he says.
The biennale, of course, does explore energy use; it features categories titled Resources, Revisit, Reform and Republic.
"Energy collection in the pre-industrial period was restrained by geographical locations, climate and limited resources. Today we dig deep into the earth or ocean to find resources for energy," Qiu says. "To address this issue, we need to look at other ways to obtain energy and find energy from collective action."
"On cold winter days when we were kids, we would not use a stove to keep us warm, instead, we would cuddle with each other," the curator observes. "Energy is not some hidden treasure waiting to be discovered. It comes from collective consciousness. That's why we are interested in artists who are able to 'do work'."
For example, an art team from The Philippines uses waste plastic soda bottles for an installation. They mix phosphorus powder with water and fill the bottles so they radiate light in the dark.
Qiu says this piece resonates with the concept of reactivation and using energy for environmental protection.
Apart from the Power Station of Art, the biennale will feature satellite projects and exhibitions. One is "Rescue: Shanghai Ark," an exhibition of photos of Shanghai taken by Jewish refugees in World War II and paintings by a Jewish artist, showing how people survive in disasters by supporting each other. During World War II, Shanghai opened its doors to Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi persecution in Germany and other countries. Most other countries refused to accept them.
More than 30,000 people fled to Shanghai. This exhibition in the Republic section is a tribute to Shanghai.
Another project is the "City Pavilion Project" that invites important international art cities to take part. Each city's ministry of culture or major art museums will curate a city pavilion. Thirty cities will be chosen, 10 of them holding exhibition sites in the Power Station of Art, and the other 20 holding exhibitions in pavilions at various historical sites between Waibaidu Bridge, Sichuan Road N. and Nanjing Road E.
"I can't say that this year's biennale will be the best ever since its establishment (16 years ago), but surely this will be the most unforgettable one," says Hua Yi, a member of the biennale team.