K11 Shanghai is a seriously upmarket property development in the Xintiandi district of the city; an unholy alliance of offices towering above, a mall sandwiched in the middle and a contemporary art space stuffed below, into the basement. If you're idea of sophistication is shopping for luxury brands followed by art and international dining, this might just be your sort of heaven. As an artist, however, I found it a not so very seductive, soft cell version of hell.
First stop on the tour were the videos. This Warholian homage by a Korean artist was introduced to us by our guide, a youngish lady with an acne problem bubbling away under a thick layer of foundation. Her commentary was brief and she kept to the script. I started to have the sinking feeling that neither the art nor the tour were going to be quite as good as the shopping opportunities.
We wandered past a few China flagship stores then came to these two works: an oversized bronze pillow on the floor and a series of wall mounted ceramic drips by the same artist. She explained how it was the artist's idea that his art could also be practical thus the pillow functioned not only as a sculpture but also as a public seat, not that many people were using it. When I asked why, then, was there a rope in front of the other piece, she was unable to answer. I wasn't particularly trying to be a nuisance, I simply wanted to see if she could come up with an answer that was not part of her script.
We left that one hanging and went up to the centrepiece of their collection, the Hirst. The main thing that she had to say about it was how expensive it was and how, in spite of the price, they insisted on not having it under glass as it is important to be able to really see the work and feel close to it. The last time I saw his work live was a few years ago at the opening of his diamond skull folly at White Cube in London. That occasion struck me as being primarily about the aura of money and the free bar. This statue was a throwaway budget version of the scull, of which many, many thousands now litter private collections and museums around the world, the sub-prime of the art world.
We stopped at a bed of conspicuously planted herbs where Louis Vuitton handbags should rightfully have been on display. I am all in favour of organic farming and re-connecting with nature instead of growing foodstuffs in toxic slurry, as can happen. What is a pity is that this should be a luxury taste one acquires in a high-end mall and not a more general strengthening of food safety across the board. While practices have to start somewhere, when they start so very high, how long will it be before they make their way down to the everyday lives of common people? Touring the art of K11, I felt I was in a bubble far removed from normal life: what happens here stays here. I felt distant, even, from K11's own backstage, which is very carefully concealed. The nearest I got to seeing the backstage workings of the place was in the Family Mart supermarket round the back of the building, where some of the staff eat their lunch while playing on their phones.
Onwards and upwards we went till we came to an interactive video installation. It showed a young woman out shopping, her hands full of bags bearing brand names. The video invited me to call her and, when I did, the number rang and the woman in the video looked for her phone. I then received a message on my phone, "What is it, darling?" The best thing I can say about this piece is that it was well matched to K11.
A final decorative video piece waited for us in the lift. This seemed to be how K11 liked its art: a catalyst to consumption and status symbol of a luxury lifestyle. This tour, it slowly dawned on me, was about grooming the next generation of art loving consumers. The guide told me that the tour is frequently given to children, hence, I realised, the simplistic content matter of her explanations. I'm guessing the commercial logic underpinning it is, once the kids become accustomed to the mall they will return with mum and dad (and wallet and purse) in tow. No doubt, there is some genuine love of art behind this collection and public display; if it were purely commercially motivated then every mall would feature art. The infuriating thing is the financial hubris that drips off the artworks and second-rate nature of the collection. That would not matter if K11 were just a rich person's plaything but they are significant players in promoting Chinese contemporary art nationally and internationally. Last year, for example, they were behind Zhang Ding's appearance at the ICA in London for Frieze.
Stepping out of the lift and saying goodbye to our guide, I looked back at the directory on the wall from which it was not hard to see that this place has some serious money flowing through it. The next day we received a phone call from K11 asking about the tour. Naturally they asked about the quality of the guide, the comfort of the tour and such things and fortunately for them it was my wife who took the call and not me so the answers remained civil. At the end came the most important question, "Did you spend more time shopping around K11 afterwards?" They were smart enough not to directly ask, "How much money did you part with during your visit?" but the meaning was clear. They got the polite but vague answer they deserved but the real answer, which they didn't receive, was this, "Not a single RMB. I couldn't get to the exit too quickly!"