Monday, February 15, 2010

Shanghai - Art of the City at the Asian

One of my favorite pieces in the show is the "Landscape – Commemorating Huang Binhow – Scroll " by Shen Fan. Where else could you see a piece by a contemporary Chinese artist, recreating an ancient Chinese art form, using neon, a substance first identified in 1898 by the British chemists, Sir William Ramsay and Morris Travers. The screen is lit by electrified tubes, a 19th century discovery by the Frenchman Georges Claude.

Over the course of two hours, individual neon lights, evoking single brush strokes, light up. This is accompanied by individual notes on the qin (a zither-like instrument) to form a continuous whole. The length, shape, angle and location of the neon tubes decide the length and tone of the musical notes. The museum has thoughtfully provided a bench next to the installation for those who want to sit and experience the whole cycle. Joe Martin Hill in the December 2006 of Yishu Magazine commented that this work was worthy "to contemplate the weight of history and its contemporary reformulation."

Shen Fan describes the music.."There is no melody, no rhythm, no harmony. Who would care about the source of the music? Maybe, that is the sound of nature." (Shanghai, Art of the City, pp. 221).

 I asked one of the guards if the museum made them practice Tai Chi in front of the screen in time with the music produced by the installation. With a completely straight poker face, he told me, “No, they make us do yoga.”

In the context of Shanghai’s completely international status, well represented by this exhibit,  I could well believe it.

 Detail of the installation from the Asian Art Museum's blog:

Shanghai “at the Asian opened to a particularly negative review by Kenneth Baker, the Chronicle’s resident art critic.  According to him, the show is  “too little on too much.” After complaining that he saw better shows (i.e. more focused on 21st century Chinese art) in larger spaces, he concludes with the comment that "Here is the ultimate knock on "Shanghai": I left it less interested in visiting Shanghai than when I arrived."

Gee Kenny, why don't you tell us what you really think?

The show is ambitious and there is no doubt that trying to pack 150 years of tumultuous history into the Asian’s rather small exhibit space does cause problems. Most of us are used to viewing art separate from history. But in this show, history is the focus and art provides the context.  The art exhibited is not always beautiful, but that makes it more fascinating. For a museum to turn the usual focus of an exhibit upside down is a bit disorienting  for viewers to take in but it is a worthwhile and (mostly) successful attempt.

Yet, I suspect that if Asian had been less ambitious, they would have also been criticized for that. To compare the show at the Asian, as Baker did, with more thematically focused shows at the National Gallery or the Museum of Modern art is hostile and mean spirited without being insightful.

I will write more later as I process this complex show (you thought I was not going to be loquacious- HA!). But for those who want more background, I can recommend the catalogue on Shanghai. Written and organized by curators Michael Knight and Dany Chan, it is full of insightful essays filling in all the gaps that the exhibit didn't have the space to show.

Steven Winn:


No comments: