The tricycle is the only king of the road in the Middle Kingdom – more metaphor than means of transport.
Ridden only by the capable few in view of the hazards, tricycles whizz through the busy metropolitan streets, cruising casually past skyscrapers and trundling heavily laden through crowded alleyways, the embodiment of the daredevil and anarchic driving style of Mao’s people.
These small, three-wheeler carts, known in Chinese as sanlunche, are the perfect choice for any situation, from collecting street rubbish to DIY removals, transporting chickens and even becoming a welcome retreat for the rider’s nap. In Shanghai, this object can also acquire added dignity and, in the finest Marcel Duchamp ready-made tradition, be transformed into something else. In Shanghai, the tricycle becomes art gallery.
With its metamorphosis complete, the 70 x 40 cart has the look of a different and new art venue, hosting gypsy exhibitions in an ad hoc interior. A mix of punk and pop art, the Little Victories mobile gallery jaunts around the districts of the Paris of the East and every evening exhibits works by a different artist, shifting the fine boundary line between the art worlds
The place of encounter is the M50 district, the artistic heart of Shanghai at 50 Moganshan Road. It is a SoHo of the East featuring a network of more than 150 artist studios and galleries. Every evening, the mobile-gallery sets off from there with its exhibition, heading for some of the countless city streets along a route that changes every time, depending on the guest artist.
“The name refers to the little victories with which we conquer the frustrations of everyday life. There are plenty of little victories, from those related to the language difficulties, seemingly insurmountable in China, to those of the artistic profession. After discovering the tricycle in a grubby district near the city centre, we asked a blacksmith to build the box/exhibition space on three wheels”, explains one of the founders Katie Surridge, a 28-year-old London artist who studied at the Slade School of Fine Art in London.
“After the grand opening, Little Victories started travelling around – it is art that is on the move, you don’t have to go anywhere. Although China is teeming with barriers and censorship, in this art-on-the-edge there are none. Moreover, we’re on a bicycle and can go anywhere, even where there’s no freedom.”
Katie is now in Shanghai, as are many others like her, after being selected for an artist residency at the Swatch Art Peace Hotel on the Bund. As well as luxury rooms, the hotel offers hospitality to 18 young talents chosen by a commission (members include Francois-Henri Pinault and George Clooney), who are given the opportunity to spend three-six months on the Shanghai art scene.
“Compared with other free art forms that are born out of the people, I believe that we have created a really intense energy here. It is great to experience the reactions of the Chinese people,” continues one of the three founders Julian Palacz, an Austrian media artist born in 1983 and who studied at Vienna’s University of Applied Arts, “they are curious, amused and they interact. Some offer to pedal the tricycle, others offer a few Yuan to buy a work. Of course, you realise the context they live in and you can sense they people are afraid of breaking the law. They almost censor themselves and it all harks back to the Cultural Revolution.”
The street gallery held its grand opening on 17 July and every evening exhibits a different artist, chosen by the gallery trio on the basis of critical appraisal and selection parameters. The project is, by its nature, contagious, with artists from Moscow, New York, Germany and even some from China. The exhibitions are not held for art’s sake alone, they are also a business operation. Little Victories is conducted just like every other gallery on the planet, with contracts and sales commission.
The next step is to travel – and get lost – around the world, riding the tricycle. After China, the intention is to remount the gallery in London and trek all over Europe, eliminating and reducing the distance between artist and public, creating a continuous space with no fixed limits.
Stefano Ogliari Badessi, an Italian visual artist who studied at the Accademia di Brera, is one of the three founders. He had been offered a well-paid job in Shanghai but turned it down to pursue his irrepressible artistic urges. He has plunged himself into the world of the large Chinese metropolis, where he sculpts all day and fights his small everyday battles. “Everything seems incredibly and totally different in the Chinese culture, from the unique cityscape to the people, who walk around the streets in their pyjamas. This incongruity between East and West has greatly influenced my installations.
Shanghai also has a strange feeling, like a clear demarcation line, even in the art world. The Orientals go to exhibitions by oriental artists and the Westerners go to those by Western artists. Little Victories breaks through this concept. It has no limits and is a bridge between the two worlds.”
Many artists aged between 28 and 35 exhibit here between the two worlds, such as Saoirse Higgins, a Dublin artist who exhibited at the Thessaloniki Biennale, the Science Gallery in Dublin and Exit Art and Location One Gallery in New York; Alec Von Bargen, who has presented works at the Venice Biennale, the Victoria & Albert Museum and Les Recontres D'Arles, passing from Basel to Miami and Mexico City.
Evgeny Bondarenko, a Russian artist who has exhibited in Moscow, Rostov-on-Don and Shanghai; Luca Bray, an Italian painter from the Accademia di Brera who has participated in exhibitions in Mexico, where he currently lives and who will exhibit a work entitled Ghosts in the gallery; Willy Chyr, an American artist whose works are a mix of art and science; Kathryn Gohmert, an American performance and installation artist who spends her time in Texas, UK and China.
There are also great expectations for some Chinese artists who have been inspired by the gallery on three wheels and will attempt to cross the bridge between East and West.