There is something deliciously transgressive about rifling through other people’s notebooks, the experience mediated only by a pair of cotton gloves and a hovering student volunteer from Tongji University here.

Permission to snoop comes courtesy of Detour: The Moleskine Notebook Experience, a traveling exhibition of Moleskine-brand notebooks that has recently made its way to Shanghai after traveling to London, New York, Paris, Berlin, Istanbul, Tokyo, and Venice, collecting new additions from various creative types along the way. The Shanghai stop features 50-odd notebooks, almost all of which visitors are free to thumb through as they please. The exhibit is hosted on Shanghai’s historic waterfront, in a charming 1923 neoclassical building that was once the national headquarters of the Chartered Bank of India, Australia, and China and today is home to a high-end shopping arcade featuring Cartier and Zegna flagship boutiques and a few of the city’s swankiest nightclubs and restaurants.

It’s a fitting space to showcase Moleskine, a brand whose identity relies heavily on tenuous claims to a historic pedigree. Launched in 1997 by Italian company Modo and Modo, Moleskine owes its success to a clever marketing campaign associating the “legendary” notebook with iconic artists who reportedly carried similar pocket-sized journals, including Picasso, Hemingway, and Van Gogh. “It’s an exaggeration,” Modo and Modo spokesman Francesco Franceschi told the New York Times in 2004. “It’s marketing, not science. It’s not the absolute truth.”

Expertly curated by Rafaella Guidobono, Detour affirms the brand’s bona fides as the notebook of choice for the creative classes by association with living, breathing artists, from China’s beloved bad-boy blogger Han Han to Swiss art critic Hans-Ulrich Obrist to the Italian cellist and composer Giovanni Sollima.

The artists involved are not confined to mere scribbling or sketching, and the exhibit strikes an excellent balance of participants using the notebooks to varied ends. The designers Jenny Ji and Tord Boontje sculpt delicate paper cuts from their notebooks. Joep van Lieshout encases his notebook in a cream-colored sponge. The Moleskine peeking through the sponge resembles the yolk of a rotten egg. Lyndon Neri and Rossana Hu scallop their notebook to resemble grooves in a vinyl record; the view from the back page evokes the view from the top of a steep staircase.

The most gratifying notebooks to flip through are the ones that give the illusion that their authors produced them for use in “real life,” not to shill for Moleskine. The architect Kazuyo Sejima’s notebook, which contains just five pages of hasty amoeba-like pencil drawings, seems flagrantly phoned in. In contrast, film director Jia Zhangke filled up two entire books with his jottings, and the industrial designers Carl Liu and Giuseppe Amato filled their notebooks to the brim with technical drawings and calculations. It seems a miracle they were willing to hand them over to the curator. Of course, sometimes less is more: The contribution from Icelandic post-rock band Sigur Rós is just two pages long, but with its velvety black and periwinkle inkblots so perfectly capturing the movement of birds in flight, it is one of the exhibition’s most

striking works.

There is one conspicuous absence at Detour: the work of Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei, who is listed as one of the 28 Chinese artists to have contributed to the exhibition. Despite having designed Beijing’s famed Bird’s Nest stadium, Ai is persona non grata with the government for his vocal criticism of its response to the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan (for which he was reportedly beaten by police, resulting in a cerebral hemorrhage) and of the “fake smile” propaganda surrounding the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Most recently, Ai was placed under house arrest last month, reportedly to quell a planned protest over the demolition of his Shanghai studio. The official line from Moleskine is that Ai cancelled his participation because he wasn’t able to complete his notebook in time for the opening, but one has to raise an eyebrow at this.

Censorship notwithstanding, Detour has been a masterful branding exercise: The logos are unobtrusive; the content compelling; the experience interactive. And for all the talk about the notebook’s historic connection to Western artistic elites, Shanghai may be the perfect place for the brand to get in touch with its roots. After all, the majority of Moleskine products are made in China.

Abigail Lavin is a writer in Shanghai.

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