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December 28, 2011

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New kid on art block: Taopu M50

TWO years ago super-size exhibition space Taopu M50 in distant Putuo District was a virtual art desert and a big question mark. Today it's an important venue. Wang Jie reports.

Everyone knows the well-trod art hub and tourist magnet M50 at 50 Moganshan Road, and now Taopu M50, a textile mill complex in Putuo District, is becoming another anchor of the art scene on Shanghai's outskirts.

It's a colossal venue for colossal installations; it's both a museum and a gallery.

When it opened at the end of 2009 in Taopu area - its huge airy buildings painted in bright colors - expectations were low. It was and still is remote, there's no art ambience in the neighborhood and building up another art hub after the success of M50 was a daunting prospect.

Once M50 on Moganshan Road along Suzhou Creek was a magnet for starving artists and it is considered the cradle of Shanghai's contemporary art scene. But soon it became too expensive for struggling artists. Today it's high-end, trendy and dominated by big galleries. The 24,000-square-meter M50 is Shanghai's answer to 798 in Beijing.

Compared with it, the new Taopu M50, covering an area of nearly 3 hectares, was almost an art desert in 2009.

"That doesn't matter. Who ever heard of Moganshan Road years ago?" Taopu M50 General Manager Caroline Zhou says. "We are confident that we can change this unknown place and obsolete factory into a dynamic art venue, just as we did the old M50."

Both M50s are operated by Shantex.

Seemingly Taopu M50 is on the right track.

Most of the buildings on the site are two-storied, simple and clean, lofty and spacious, mostly built in the 1980s, far different from the gritty old warehouses on Moganshan Road.

Zhou and her team hired Margo Renisio, the French exhibition designer who worked for Shanghai Biennale, to invigorate Taopu and give it a distinctive character.

Renisio painted each building in a strong color - red, green and purple brown.

Inside it still looks and feels like a factory; no major changes have been made; the space is awe-inspiring. The area has been landscaped, the roads repaved, the entrance gate renovated and there's a cafeteria.

"It's totally a different look, like bringing something new out from the ruins," says Jin Weidong, general manager of M50 on Moganshan Road.

All these moves were not enough to warm up the new M50.

Taopu M50 invited big names, including Liu Jianhua, Yang Fudong, Yang Zhengzhong and Xu Zheng, to open studios, paying low rent.

"At that time, I needed a big studio that could both function as a warehouse and a place for creation," Liu says. "I was so happy to find this, not to mention the good rent."

Now Liu can relax in his living room on the second floor and play table tennis on the first floor in the 700-square-meter private studio.

Some studios have enormous terraces for barbecue parties.

ShanghART Gallery, a major contemporary gallery in the city, opened a branch covering 28,000 square meters.

"It's a perfect place to showcase some installations and big sculptures in the gallery's collection," says Helen Zhu, a staff member from the gallery. "We hope that the venue will become a warehouse art museum in the future."

Using big names as a magnet is a regular practice.

Tian Zi Fang, an arts and crafts enclave that developed from a renovated residential area in the former French concession, initially provided spacious low-rent studios to late visual artist Chen Yifei and photographer Deke Erh.

And the idea for Taopu M50 is that big-name artists actually work here and don't just use it as a warehouse for enormous pieces that can't go anywhere else.

"That would make us a dead community," Zhou says. "Fortunately, it hasn't happened."

Through the strong network of these famous artists, Taopu M50 gradually gained recognition in the art community. It's frequently used as a backdrop for fashion shoots.

Even Wendy Deng, wife of Rupert Murdoch, shot scenes of the place in her maiden film "The Snow Flower and the Secret Fan" (2011).

The newly opened Metro Line 11 has shortened travel time to get to Taopu M50.

"Things are getting better and better, faster than we planned," says General Manager Zhou. "But that doesn't mean that the old M50 and Taopu M50 are in a competitive relationship. Perhaps the old M50 is more fashionable and commercial, and the new M50 is more dynamic and academic."

Today young artists, architects and designers bring their energy to the venue.

Fudan University's Institute of Visual Arts has chosen Taopu M50 as an off-campus education center.

"It's not so chaotic," says Yang Fudong, one of China's top video artists.

As cities urbanize, artists must move further and further from the downtown core to find affordable studio space.

"I hope that Taopu M50 won't turn out to be a place for the privileged class in the future, " says Su Hang, a young local artist. "Otherwise I have to move to Suzhou."

Artforum magazine, considered authoritative in the art world, praised a poster exhibition titled "My Communism" at Taopu M50, calling it one of the 10 most influential exhibitions around the world in 2011. That helped put Taopu M50 on the map.

Address: 18 Wuwei Rd

How to get there: Qilianshan Road Station of Metro Line 11


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