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Asia travel

How a Shanghai art tour by motorbike reveals city’s galleries beyond M50

Galleries in Shanghai are spread out and can be tricky to find, which is why Shanghai Insiders offers art tours by motorbike that visit a host of small galleries in a single day. The best bit? You get to ride in the sidecar

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 01 November, 2017, 7:15am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 01 November, 2017, 7:26pm

“A lot of people who come to Shanghai think the art scene is M50,” says guide Arthur Humeau, referring to an old industrial district of the city that has been transformed into an arts hub. To prove that is not the case, the Frenchman kicks his Chang Jiang 750 motorcycle into life as I clamber into the sidecar, and we roar off on an art tour of the city.

The tour has been organised by Shanghai Insiders, a group which offers city guides by motorbike for one or two people. The tours are tailored to what people want to see, starting from 800 yuan (US$120) for a one-hour ride.

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“Art galleries are quite spread out and can be tricky to find in Shanghai – it is difficult to get from one gallery to another,” says Catherine Ferguson, general manager of Shanghai Insiders and creator of the tour that I am on.

The meeting point for my tour is the Andaz hotel in the fashionable Xintiandi dining and entertainment district, from where we head into the lanes of the city’s “Old Town”. Being in the sidecar, you are much closer to the road and feel part of the street scene. People turn and look, drawn by the rhythmic chatter of the bike’s flat twin engine. As we zip through the traffic, the ride is surprisingly comfortable, devoid of the jarring I expect from the potholed roads.

Our first stop is a gallery tucked away on the seventh floor of a 1930s-era building a few streets away from the Bund. The gallery, called Around Space, would be difficult to find without an introduction. Neither is it a permanent stop on the itinerary: according to Ferguson, galleries visited vary depending on what exhibitions are currently underway.

When we dropped in, Around Space was hosting an exhibition called “Collective Individualism IV” – the name a play on Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious of mankind. The show, which has since ended, featured paintings in a contemporary Chinese style by 11 artists, including Swiss artist Alois Lichtsteiner.

“This is the first time Lichtsteiner’s work has been displayed in Asia,” says gallery owner Ming Ming, pointing at the paintings. “They are of the Alps, but there is a Zen-like relationship between each piece on display. East and West can contrast, but they can also match.”

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Such insight is what sets the Insiders’ tours apart, Ferguson says. “When you go to an art gallery in China, usually the only person there will be little more than a security guard to stop you touching the art, and will know very little about the pieces or artist. That’s why we make private appointments, to make sure there is someone to introduce the art.”

As we set off for our next spot, Humeau explains a little about the history of his renovated Chang Jiang 750 and its sidecar – the feature that makes Insiders’ tours stand out. Made for the Chinese army, the motorbikes are based on the 1956 Soviet IMZ, which in turn was based on BMW’s R71 motorbike from the 1930s. Humeau says his gleaming black bike came out of the paint shop just the previous day.

Our next gallery, Art+, takes us to within a stone’s throw of Suzhou Creek, whose banks are home to a number of art spaces. At the gallery, co-owner and director Agnes Cohade, from France, introduces us to an exhibition of works by Chongqing-based artist Wang Haichuan.

The pieces have a dreamlike quality with their juxtaposed collages of contrasting scenes. Wang uses various materials for his canvases, including old windows, but it is his use of Tibetan paper that really stands out.

“The paper has been used in Tibet for centuries and is made out of a poisonous root,” Cohade explains. “The reason they use this in Tibet is that it is not eaten by bugs so it has a very great longevity, making it suitable for documents such as religious scriptures.”

We take a short hop over the river and head past the Shanghai Sihang Warehouse Battle Memorial to reach our next gallery, ArtCN, a regular tour stop housed in the former Foh Sing flour mill building. Designed by Atkinson & Dallas, a historic Shanghai-based architectural practice, the building is listed as a rare example of an early 1900s industrial structure. The gallery preserves much of the feel of the original building, particularly with its internal wooden beams.

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The exhibition on display is “Land(e)scapes” by Nicolas Lefeuvre, a French artist now based in Hong Kong whose technique mostly focuses on methods he picked up while living in Japan.

“These are very personal works, sensual and exploratory, where gold in indigo triggers the lights of an unattainable city,” says Anne-Cecile Noique, the gallery’s French owner. Gold powder is typically used by the Japanese to repair broken ceramics, but Lefeuvre sprinkles it in indigo paint, which is applied by roller after it has nearly dried. (The gallery is now exhibiting the China photographs of former Police guitarist Andy Summers.)

Next up is Zhou Fan’s exhibition “Melt” at the Art Labor gallery. Born in Taiyuan, Zhou now lives in Shanghai, and he works with both canvas and new media such as video and light boxes. The paintings in “Melt” are from his new series, “Phobia”.

“They explore the interaction between people and the environment,” says the gallery’s Canadian owner Martin Kemble. “Brightness, stimulation and high intensity of colours, and delicate lines represent strong or subtle inner mood changes.”

Shanghai Insiders offer tours of Shanghai’s art scene every day except Monday.