Photo from OCT Loft, the "Creative Culture Park" in Nanshan district that houses the contemporary art space OCAT Shenzhen. Photo: Samantha Kuok Leese
Photo from OCT Loft, the "Creative Culture Park" in Nanshan district that houses the contemporary art space OCAT Shenzhen. Photo: Samantha Kuok Leese

Shenzhen is a city known for fakes, from handbags to electronics and even works of art. At Dafen Oil Painting Village, visitors can buy skillful forgeries of masterpieces by the likes of Van Gogh and Monet.

Until recently, this might have been the only thing that came to mind when people spoke about art in Shenzhen. But the southern Chinese metropolis – which rose from a rural fishing village to become an industrial powerhouse with a population of 18 million in just two generations – is changing once again.

“I had never thought about Shenzhen as an art destination,” says Lauren Every-Wortman, curator of the Hong Kong Contemporary Art Foundation (HOCA). “Actually, there are quite a few contemporary art spaces that are well curated.”

At the center of these is the OCT Contemporary Art Terminal, known as OCAT Shenzhen, which has become a leading cultural institution in the Pearl River Delta since it opened in 2005. Every-Wortman finds the space to be especially interesting and impressive in terms of design and scale.

Adrian Wong, whose works were on show at the institution’s recent “Summer Triangle” exhibition, alongside two other “non-native Hong Kongers” in Jon Rafman and Lantian Xie, describes OCAT Shenzhen as “a grass-roots nonprofit on steroids.”

“Backed by a healthy budget and an incredible exhibition space, it nevertheless has a solid reputation for putting on experimental shows and being a launchpad for emerging artists,” he says.

Wong, a Chicago-born artist known for his sculpture and installation works, says the biggest draw for participating in “Summer Triangle” was OCAT Shenzhen’s new artistic director Venus Lau, who has ushered in a robust and prolific exhibition program following her appointment last September. “I jumped at the chance to work with her,” he says.

More than just fakes. Photo: Samantha Kuok Leese

Other highlights at OCAT Shenzhen in 2016 include the group shows Adrift, which dealt with the phenomenon of migration; and Digging a Hole in China, a thoughtful survey of Chinese contemporary land art featuring artists such as Cao Fei and Xu Qu.

Wong says the contemporary art scene in Shenzhen reminds him of Hong Kong’s when he arrived in the special administrative region a decade ago: “It’s quite vibrant, fueled by its pool of incredibly talented young artists, but it lacks the tether to the international art world that Hong Kong has.” Certainly, Hong Kong’s starry ascent in the past 10 years as a global commercial art hub has no doubt helped to overshadow the cultural scene across the border – not to mention a striking apprehension toward Shenzhen among that city’s tastemakers.

Wong reveals: “There was even a notable figure in the Hong Kong art world that comes to mind who wouldn’t travel to Shenzhen without a personal bodyguard!”

However, at a time when the state has made clear its ambitions to boost China’s soft power – and as Hong Kong’s failure to produce a world-class cultural institution has drawn mounting ambivalence – Shenzhen’s creative clout is strengthening both regionally and internationally.

London’s prominent Victoria & Albert Museum, for example, has collaborated with the Design Society in Shekou to create the important V&A Gallery. The 1,000-plus square-meter space will house a semi-permanent collection of the British museum’s artifacts, showcasing the value of design over the past 100 years. The V&A will also provide educational and curatorial input.

The Design Society is an innovative and inclusive cultural platform to be opened at Sea World Culture and Arts Center next year in Shenzhen’s Shekou. It launched its first public program during the London Design Festival and Beijing Design Week in September.

Contemporary art space OCAT Shenzhen will be located in the Creative Culture Park. Photo: Samantha Kuok Leese

The society is a collaboration between China Merchants Shekou Holdings and the V&A from Britain. It will show groundbreaking designs from the past, present and future, and will expand into other creative disciplines, encouraging dialogue and collaboration to reveal how design can be a catalytic social force.

The Design Society will be guided under the stewardship of Ole Bouman, who is formerly creative director of the Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism/Architecture for Shenzhen and Hong Kong.

Bouman says the new project will “tap into the creative power of Shenzhen.”

A commercial program will also be set up ensure the effort’s sustainability.

He cites the region’s economic energy and resulting social transformation as the driving forces of an innovative spirit that is now typical in Shenzhen, which is one of the world’s fastest growing cities and one of three special economic zones in Guangdong province.

Bouman’s comment echoes the observation of the V& A’s Sarah Green that an economy previously fueled by “Made in China” is experiencing a shift in agenda toward “Designed or Created in China.”

While Shenzhen has been recognized as a UNESCO City of Design since 2008, the Design Society, with the V&A Gallery as its cultural flagship, will surely boost the city’s reputation as a creative center with a global reach.

Bouman says, “We intend to create a strong, lasting institution that can play a role in the cultural dynamics of the Pearl River Delta for many years to come.”