The creative district M50, a contemporary art district in Shanghai
Shanghai is a very exotic city. There are some areas where you can lose the orientation and for a few seconds ask to yourself where you are; the encounter between Chinese architecture, food, smells and habits and foreign one, together with the richness of very local aspects and the exasperation of evolving metropolitan features, create an exciting sense of disorientation and curiosity.
There is a place that can emphasize this feeling more than others, especially considering that is the seat of art, design and creativity in general. It is called M50, a contemporary art district in Shanghai and, to me, it is the allegory of the flexibility of the urban Chinese cultural identity and its artistic expression and evolution.
The "M50 Creative Park" was born in 2000, after that in 1999 the Shanghai Chunming woolen factory was shut down and more than 50 edifices were left vacant. The old factory buildings were renovated into a creative park and more and more artists' studios, cultural and art institutions and design companies have settled there. Also, the Park often hosts art exhibitions and fashion events. There are about 300 venues every year, and the venues are located all over the park. What is most influential are the M50 art season series events and M50 annual creative cutting-edge selection activities. In addition to the art space, there are many interesting shops, bars, and cafés with a good offer of innovative and in many cases hand-made products and experiences, such as, for instance, you can directly DIY your favorite silver jewelry and print the photos you just took. M50 hosts some of the most renewed and prolific contemporary art galleries of the whole country, such as ShanghArt and you can breathe a vibrant intercultural mix of local, Chinese and foreign creatives and founders.
While walking in M50 you find yourself in a little district made of narrow lanes with their graffiti walls, you freely enter into buildings made of dark hallways shaped by rough walls, roaming in a surreal atmosphere of abandon and hidden beauty.
The whole place is filled with unexpected discoveries which seem to be actual manifestations of the human creative presence and life, rather than glossy, refined and perfect artistic demonstrations, which, in my opinion, seem to be the new drift of the places of creativity in the Western world and in high developed countries. The feeling of strong postindustrial and underground culture mainly expressed through art makes that this area is often compared with New York's SoHo, but in M50 we can still breathe the roughness and spontaneity of the new Chinese ferment towards a new start and identity, and we are overwhelmed by the typicality of some spaces, behaviors and situations.
For examples, you can walk into art spaces or design studios where people keep working or doing their daily activities without even considering your presence. You can feel that they are neither performing or selling a work style or philosophy. They are moving and acting in their raw operative chaos and visual redundance which are so intrinsic to the Chinese culture and which make it so real and dynamic.
You can often find yourself into spaces full of personal belongings, tools, artworks, remains of food, smoking cigarettes where there is nobody and nobody will show up for a long time even if you call for someone. For many of us, mainly for western people, this situation recalls a typical circumstance of a commune, where all the doors are open and everyone can enter and enjoy the space and everything it contains, without asking for permission. But we shouldn’t forget that this is China, and many habits and situations are still determined by socialist and communist principles. What is today an ideal for many cultural movements in different countries, it’s simply normal here. This makes the creative district so authentic.
Another example is provided by the same architectural and design details of the district: a sequence of doors with different styles, dimensions and materials, little creative interventions to solve practical problems, common, almost disturbing ugly objects (such as brooms) forgot close to art pieces or installations.
All these seem to be very typical features of trendy art spaces, made-up to give them a more original and artistic look; not in China, here you can find those same elements everywhere handmade by common people just to solve their simple daily issues or necessities.
Entering M50 is like a jump in a hybrid atmosphere of West and East, in a relaxed mood of open studios where you can find the artists working, preparing their exhibitions, sleeping or eating. This is the main aspect that makes this place so special and charming, so authentic, the fact that here things simply happen, as if nobody was watching or passing by with curiosity.