RanRan project puts art to fore in Shanghai Xintiandi

Wang Jie
It is rare for a real estate developer to think of "painting a big cultural map" for a city, but Shui On Xintiandi aims to take on this mission.
Wang Jie
RanRan project puts art to fore in Shanghai Xintiandi

The launch ceremony of the "RanRan" project

It is rare for an owner of commercial properties to think of "painting a big cultural map" for a city, but Shui On Xintiandi aims to take on this mission.

Last week, Shui On Xintiandi announced its collaboration with UCCA, China's leading contemporary art institution, for a three-year program named "RanRan" in Shanghai.

The project endeavors to explore, nurture and support young Chinese contemporary artists via competitions, artist residence programs, art seasons and cross-over collaborations.

Merely a glance at the list of the cultural advisory committee members would reflect the ambition of RanRan. Big names such as Xu Bin, a world-renowned Chinese contemporary artist, Liu Qing, a popular political scientist, and Lou Yongqi, vice president of Tong Ji University, are included.

In fact, Shanghai Xintiandi, a landmark in Shanghai, already conjures up a unique atmosphere in its own community and neighborhood.

Over the past two decades, a variety of cultural and artistic activities including "Lumiere Shanghai," "World Music Asia," "Design Shanghai" and "XINTIANDI Festival" have been hosted in the area.

But given the pandemic and its impact on the industry, especially the two-month lockdown in Shanghai, Shui On Xintiandi and the launch of "RanRan" have surprised many.

"We have always held great confidence in, and a deep love for, Shanghai and know the pandemic situation will, eventually, come to an end," said Allan Zhang, chief executive officer of Shui On Xintiandi. "Since its opening, Shanghai has witnessed so many ups and downs, but will never lose its glamor."

In his eyes, the Greater Xintiandi will be on par with London's West End and New York's Midtown.

A graduate from Tong Ji University with a bachelor's degree in materials engineering in 2001 and a master's degree in materials physics and chemistry in 2004, Zhang has been with Shui On Group since 2004.

A lover of diving for years, Zhang reveals that this special experience under the sea is Zen-like. It inspired him to think of "painting a cultural map" – akin to building up an ecosystem where every creature lives harmoniously.

Zhang shared with Shanghai Daily the idea behind the art project.

RanRan project puts art to fore in Shanghai Xintiandi

Q: This "RanRan" program was initiated through a brainstorming meeting two years ago when you first proposed the concept of "Culture Deep Dive." However, the outbreak of COVID-19 in 2020 cast uncertainty about the future. What drove Shui On Xintiandi to think of "deepening" its cultural project?

A: How time flies! I remember it was two years ago when we were preparing for Xintiandi's 20th anniversary celebration and looking forward to laying the foundation for the next 20 years.

At that time, every individual and business was grappling with uncertainty and the unknown COVID-19 situation. However, to move forward, you need to find the inner resolve and determination to achieve what is rooted deep down in your heart. For Shui On Xintiandi, this inspiration is culture, which has been a fundamental part of our DNA for the past two decades.

In the past, "mercantilism" dominated the fast-paced development of the entire market in China for 40 years, but I believe cultural development will play a critical role in the next phase. For us, "RanRan" is not an abrupt decision, but the end result of our accumulated passion, experience, research and vision.

Q: The year 2022 is quite difficult for various industries in China, but Shui On Xintiandi still gave great financial support to the "RanRan" project. Why?

A: It is true that the whole industry seemed to be in a period of "self-correction." And of course, we also became cautious, slowed down our pace and implemented cost-saving measures.

However, we also viewed this as an opportunity for companies to "reinvent" themselves. Instead of wasting energy on those superficial, we are keen to focus on projects that would sustain our vision in the long run.

When I was talking to some of my friend about the lockdown in Shanghai, I had quite complicated feelings, which may provide another reason for RanRan's rapid launch. While this was a challenging situation, my pride and confidence in this city was never stronger and I realized that championing art as a language of expression would be a perfect way for young generation here in Shanghai to release their profound emotions.

Q: Inviting big names from home and abroad for a public art show is quite popular nowadays. Why did "RanRan" choose a different focus on the exposure and nurturing of Chinese contemporary artists?

A: While such exhibitions might be eye-catching and attract large audience, we felt that Xintiandi had never been short of crowds, hence we have not been only considering event-based projects. I am adherent of Lewis Mumford's saying – "build the cities for lovers and friends" – and that is reflected in our values of "heritage reborn," "embody experience" and "cultural curiosity."

We have developed an extensive "cultural map" for our community, the Greater Xintiandi which will continue to grow from its current size. The ambiance of the community will be characterized by culture and art, not the kind found only in art museums or concert halls but scattered throughout the environment as part of landscape.

As artist Xu Bing said at the launch ceremony of RanRan: "Contemporary art is about those things happening outside the art circle," and our goal is to see the intersection of various art forms within RanRan. As well, we also wanted to strongly emphasize the power of "created in China" and provide a deserving platform for young Chinese young artists to be shown and supported.

This three-year period is only our first phase, and this is not the end. We will continue to make adjustments to see how this program evolves over the following years.

Q: How many spaces does Shui On Xintiandi plan to provide for RanRan? It's said that an historical building and the former Lagrene Primary School have been retained and moved.

A: Along with a 4,000-square-meter cultural art center, there will be other public spaces and some galleries which we are inviting into Xintiandi. Shui On Xintiandi is also working with the Huangpu District government on an art and cultural venue as well. Unfortunately, I can't reveal more details about this at the moment.

You mentioned the historical Lagrene Primary School, designed by a German architect in 1935. Due to my background, I'm always interested in architecture. When I first saw this Bauhaus-style building, I was really touched. A big tree was standing in the courtyard where the lines and the shapes of both the building and the yard formed a striking contrast, reminding me of the principles of the Oriental philosophy. I found myself pondering over life and death, yin and yang. So powerful was its influence that my team and I convinced the government to keep the building and move to another location. The loss of such historical architecture would have been too painful.

As planned, this will be a main exhibition venue for RanRan, and I am excited to see its rebirth after the new design.

Q: What is the biggest challenge for RanRan?

A: Our biggest challenge is to make RanRan a sustainable project. To achieve this, we must abandon the practice of one-off or event-based initiatives and to nurture it into an intellectual property with the influential power and sustainability. This is the reason why we don't treat it as merely a young artists' exhibition, or an art season in Shanghai Xintiandi.

I prefer to relate this idea with my own diving experience. When I am 40 or 50 meters down under the sea, I hear nothing but become more attuned to my surrounding – it is such an utterly dazzling sea world in complete harmony!

My vision is for the cultural environment in Greater Xintiandi to be such an ecosystem, where each part plays a role: Shui On Xintiandi, UCCA, artists and visitors. The more enriching the content, the longer the ecosystem will last.

Q: Can you use three words to describe the future of Greater Xintiandi?

A: Greater purpose, vibrancy and sustainability.

Our goal is to ensure that Greater Xintiandi will not become a CBD area that could be found elsewhere, nor only a shopping destination.

We are on a mission to develop Greater Xintiandi into the top cultural and social community in Shanghai, in China, and around the world!

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