From a leopard tip-toeing through 3,000 cappuccino cups, to goldfish flying to New Zealand on a plane - Milan-born multi-media artist Paola Pivi's work is instantly recognisable for the way it plays with the confines of reality. Enigmatically titled 'Share, But It's Not Fair', her first major solo exhibition in China - at Shanghai's Rockbund Art Museum (RAM) - offers a fascinating snapshot of her experiential playground through four large scale installations, two of which were specially created for the show.

The artist, who lives in Anchorage, Alaska, produces a wide range of paintings, installations, performances, photographs and videos. Unsurprisingly, her subversive representations of objects, animals and materials in provocative settings has brought her the most attention, making her one of the world's leading contemporary public sphere artists at the relatively young age of 41.

Although undeniably provocative, Pivi avoids the sensational-for-the-sake-of-it approach: the visually striking large scale installations on show at RAM are deeply thoughtful works and have been deliberately arranged in a sequence where one artwork subtly adds to the next, says the show's curator, RAM director Larys Frogier. The mesmerising 'Share, but it's not fair' is one of the artist's favourites, comprising 400 intertwined red and yellow pillows hung from the ceiling. 'The show is all about numbers,' explains Frogier: 'It is about thinking about the individual and collectivity - how to be an individual in a mass.' 

Pivi's 'Untitled' - a 3.5 x 124 m enlargement of a drawing depicting a real scale aeroplane turned upside-down - makes an appearance on Huqiu Road. Created with New Zealander Dylan Horrocks, the drawing features new scenes which have been added especially for the exhibition. Closer examination shows passengers living their lives drinking, enjoying a picnic, practicing yoga, doing the laundry or walking the dog. 'All depict the global world made of differences and are a powerful critical allegory about how our global world is turned upside down with strange and absurd situations,' says Frogier.

RAM's interiors are perfect for large scale pieces like Pivi's 'It's a cocktail party,' a work from 2008 with different liquids such as red wine, orange juice, black ink, espresso coffee and facial tonic, pumped through nine 16ft-tall steel electrical pipes and then jettisoned loudly into a basin. Visitors, wearing protective raincoats, walk around the installation. 'The structure as a whole is also a rather impressive spatial installation, radiating massive power,' explains Paris-based Daphne Valroff of Galerie Perrotin (the gallery hosted Pivi's first solo exhibition in 2001). 'The artist creates improbable situations, to be experienced and experimented with. With her work, anything becomes possible.'

RAM is housed in a narrow six-storey Art Deco building in Shanghai's The Bund area. Restored by David Chipperfield Architects, it was originally home to the Royal Asiatic Society and China's first public art museum. The building forms part of an ensemble of architecturally diverse historic buildings on the northern Bund, called the Rockbund Project, and David Chipperfield Architects is part of a team of international architects commissioned by the Rockefeller Group to revitalise the area and restore the museum, among ten other buildings.

Inside the museum, with simple white walls and ceilings to form a calm backdrop, the design respects the dignity of the original Art Deco style: the elegant beige coloured terrazzo floor and black terrazzo wall panels in the historic staircase, and delicate black steel framed windows, have been meticulously restored. The original 1932 facade has been restored and a new building to the east provides an additional main entrance accommodating a range of different functions. The volume and natural lighting of the upper floors was also enhanced through the creation of a new atrium space across three floors.

Elegant signage throughout is by Hong Kong-trained graphic artist Alan Chan, while specially developed track lighting enables objects, images and walls to be illuminated according to specific exhibition needs. Meanwhile blackout window blinds provide low-tech control of daylight. 

In this context the exhibit is a striking arrangement of shape, colour and lighting, without narration. Pivi says she prefers to give 'no direction on how to look at my work because I believe in total freedom of thought.' Instead images are more real than reality with fake bear rugs, pillows, liquids, sounds, drawings, lights, or dense collections of pearls conjuring a powerful tableau.

It is in this intense series of contradictory and complementary experiences that this tightly edited exhibition excels. Pivi's inspired perspective, combined with technical precision, leverages a magically compelling aesthetic that confirms she has her finger on the pulse of current concerns about life. Happily, the visual language she uses is not deliberately obfuscatory: most of the pieces are quirky yet intelligible, and always with a humorous touch.

We caught up with Pivi about Boeing 747s, Eskimos and everything in between.

How would you describe your work to someone who has never seen it before?
Usually I make grand things.

You've lived in China before. How did that experience affect your work?
Yes, in 1998 and 1999. I loved China. I probably know the Chinese culture intimately because I grew from a girl to a young woman while there.

There seems to a theme of alienation in your work. Do you feel out of place in your own world?
Only decades of experience have allowed me to find places where I do not feel alienated.

What do you think about before starting a project?
To live a life properly.

What do you want Chinese visitors to the exhibition to take away from this experience?
Great art.

How did you come to be an artist?
Lots of coincidences when I was 24 made me realise that what I am is defined by society as 'artist.'

If you weren't doing this, what other form of creative expression do you think you'd choose?
This is it.

What's the biggest professional lesson you ever learnt and how has it shaped your artistic career?
All is relative. Alighiero Boetti did not have enough shows before passing away and Mondrian took a break of eight years before the Boogie Woogie paintings... freedom...

What was the last thing you saw or experienced that got you creatively excited?
I am always creatively excited.

Name a designer or artist you admire and explain why?
Maurizio Cattelan, who just had a great show at the Guggenheim, and my husband, Culture Brothers.  He is never scared.

What is your favourite medium or material to work with?
Boeing 747 airplane.

Is there any one thing that is common to all your work?
The only thing I can think of is an analysis of what we can do, of our power, in and out, like the power to handle a truck or to shape our thought.

How does the Alaskan design community differ from other places you have lived and worked? What made you decide to move there?
Inuit, Yupik, Inupiat, Athabascan, Aleut, Tinglit, and Eskimo: they are the best artists, dancers, story tellers and people.

What else are you working on at the moment?  
A huge show at Castello di Rivoli and Witte de With.

TAGS: MUSEUMS