Sharks, Art and Games in the Elevator

Samantha Jonscher walked into a bar (and an art gallery).

Samantha Jonscher walked into a bar (and an art gallery).

White Rabbit, Sydney’s contemporary Chinese Art Gallery, sits in the suburban shadow of Sydney’s Central Park, in a building that was once a Roll-Royce service depot. It’s on a block of once-weres: once factories, once brothels, once mechanics. Central Park’s own once Carlton brewery can be seen from the gallery’s doorstep.

Currently showing is a six-item photography series by Yang Fudong that captures scenes that seem to also be relics of the past. They are firmly Noir: black and white stills, images framed by grand marble staircases, limousines, champagne, entourages, cigars, expensive whisky. In the series, two pin-striped men shoulder for the affection of the collection’s femme fatale—opal earrings, cigarette holder, silk, floor-length gown. But Fudong’s series, Ms. Huang at M. Last Night, is set firmly in the present. The collection’s namesake, M. (the in-the-know shorthand for M1NT), is an elite Shanghai nightclub.

M. is on the 24th floor of a lavish high rise—marble, art deco details, contemporary art in weird shapes—and is in prime position to survey the infamous and sprouting city across the river. When you exit the lift you are greeted on one side by a line of concierges and on the other by a 15-metre low lit shark tank. Stepping out of the elevator, I was already drunk off of cheap Chinese beer that I had consumed in a take away joint across the street. The sharks moved slowly and deliberately, I was trying to do the same.

We had gotten in off of the back of my friend’s genius. The F1 was in town and he phoned twenty minutes prior to our arrival, dropping his name adjacent a famous driver’s saying that we were on our way and wanted to give the club a shot. We showed up as seven very middling (appearance, wealth, Mandarin ability) youths. They were skeptical as they led us around the line and up the lifts but never questioned us—I think I was wearing a dress from Cotton on.

M. has a Jacuzzi, several nine-meter Swarovski crystal chandeliers, possum skin leather furniture, internationally renowned DJs, international models and a world renowned mixologist. It is a shareholder club, the second in the world only to its twin in Hong Kong. To attend more than once you must buy in and to buy in you must apply, be vetted and then be accepted. Annual individual membership is about $1400. Apparently Kanye has one.

A White Rabbit gallery assistant I spoke to about the series said that though she had never been to M., Fudong’s photographs held a truth for her—she was born in China to Chinese parents—“going out in China is a game with its own rules and its own wins”.

Most nightclubs in China require attendees to book and pre-pay for tables. These tables come with drinks, fruit platters and attentive service.

I had the bizarre fortune of sitting next to an off duty waitress from M. on a flight from Shanghai to Chengdu. As we picked at our airplane grade fried rice (rice, oil and sickly sweet salted pork) she explained there was an unspoken competition between tables to spend the most, to leave the most undrunk but paid for alcohol behind. “People make and break their careers at clubs” she said, “In the west you used to golf to land the big deals. Here, now, you go to somewhere like M. and you show the person you are negotiating with what you have”.

We managed to make friends with a group on a table; in front of us were litres of Belvedere and crystal jugs of chilled green tea and whisky (a mainland staple). Our hosts were a pair of Irish business partners with a mineral business in Guangzhou, they were being hosted by hopeful Shanghainese investors. They asked us why we were here; “these places are never fun”. They were not wrong, the only people moving with any real vitality were wait staff, costumed dancers and the imported Swedish DJ himself. The bar was packed—every seat full and every inch of floor occupied—but most people were straight backed and milling between bouts of fake laughter, serious, low chat and chinking glasses. People danced, but it was more often than not that awkward shuffle dance that fills pauses in conversation. As my friend from the plane was quick to point out, most people at M. are there with their bosses and don’t want to get too loose. “Sometimes things get crazy, but that’s usually only if we have a seriously big event on, like New Years Eve” she told me.

White Rabbit’s current exhibition is curated around the games we play—social games, physical games, games of self-deception. Fudong’s photographs are about the very game that we saw unfold before us, 24 floors above Shanghai.

It’s unclear if Fudong’s glamorous Ms. Huang is having a good time. She looks “exuberant”; that very specific appearance of joy, life and vitality that comes with the knowledge that people find “happy women” more attractive. But then, that’s the game. M. isn’t about having fun, its about winning—M. is its own game with its own rules.

We didn’t stay very long, leaving only after a couple of hours around 1am. On our way out in shifts down the lift, my friend tore down a two-metre poster from the elevator’s display and slid it down his pants leg hoping no one would notice. He was almost out the door before security tried to chase him down, but he made it out anyway. The poster is still hanging on the wall where he left it, in his old dorm room three hours south of Shanghai.

I was already stuck into a cheap local beer at the takeaway across the street when he made his great escape from M., playing his own little game to show the club how he felt about it. Another game that night that mattered only to the people playing.