About a year ago in a Shanghai shopping mall three young artist-curators opened an experimental exhibit called “Supermarket,” consisting of two spaces: a large one with a number of original works, including video installations and photographs, and a smaller “supermarket space” in which related works–“multiples”–were for sale. In a statement, the organizers declared that “commerce has become the predominant religion in Shanghai….Shopping centers…have become the city’s new temples. Everything is for sale.” Scheduled to last for two weeks, the exhibit closed in three days following a visit from the police. There were questions about permits, about whether a video showing a young man and woman sniffing each other was “vulgar,” about the selling of jars containing a paste made from human brains.

“China has become one huge market,” says University of Chicago art historian Wu Hung. He spent a year in China on a Guggenheim fellowship that ended just six months ago. “The whole society is changing,” he says. “Because of ambition or because they want to change the art system, artists are not satisfied to exhibit privately or to find a space on the periphery–they all try to get into the heart of the city.” The show “Canceled,” which runs through Sunday at the David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art, was curated by Wu and partly reconstructs another closed exhibit staged next to Tiananmen Square.

Wu–an art student in Beijing in the 60s–says that he and others “learned the Russian socialist realist style but privately tried to experiment in a newer style, something more adventurous.” But the “new” art they were doing then–primarily influenced by postimpressionism because the conceptual, minimalist, and performance art emerging in New York at the time was largely unknown–couldn’t be exhibited in public. Instead artists hung shows in apartments for a single day, where they were seen by perhaps a dozen friends.

In the 70s Wu worked at Beijing’s Palace Museum, where his interest in ancient Chinese art deepened. When the universities were reopened in the late 70s, he returned to school. The first unofficial public exhibit was in 1979: a group of young, untrained painters calling themselves “Stars Group” hung their work on a fence just outside the National Gallery–“literally an outsider position,” Wu says. There was no advance publicity, but “in the school everybody knew about it immediately and rushed to the spot. There was a great sense of something happening–it was not just an art show but had clear social implications.” The police closed it a few days later.

The 1980s saw many more unofficial shows, and even official exhibits began including nudity, long banned in China, thereby attracting huge crowds. By the late 80s numerous art “clubs” had formed, and many artists were doing avant-garde work. “Some very important artists emerged,” Wu says, but he thinks a lot of the art was “directly modeled upon Western precedents” and that the artists were creating not so much as individuals but as participants in a “mass movement.” The 1989 Tiananmen massacre led to another period of repression, but “there were still exhibitions in private homes and other exhibits supported by foreigners, sometimes in embassies.” By the mid-90s, Wu says, artists had begun to “explore more individual styles and newer media.”

In 2000 alone, he says, “There have been at least 50 unofficial exhibitions. Some artists in China have been doing very extreme experiments, using animals in outdoor performances. Of course there was an outcry. The artists say their goal is not to torture animals but to show how we are torturing animals every day by eating them and not feeling bad. ‘Once we kill them in public, you’ll feel bad.’

“In China now, the exhibition is itself the subject of experimentation. Some say we need a whole new system.” Fortunately “Supermarket” was exceptionally well planned, from the flyer seeking funding to the catalog (“designed like a sales catalog”) to a documentary video. On Sunday at 2 PM, Wu will show and discuss that video as part of a talk on experimental exhibitions in China at the David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art, University of Chicago, 5550 S. Greenwood. Admission is free; call 773-702-0200 for more.

–Fred Camper