Hello Shanghai! Hello 100th post…

This is my 100th blog post and it has come at quite a significant time, just at the point when I move to Shanghai to start the next few chapters in the book of Rachel. Timing is incredible sometimes don’t you think? So hello Shanghai! It really is nice to see you again.

After the escapades of Saturday day and night, Sunday morning started with tired eyes, tired mind, and a very tired body. I still wasn’t on China’s clock yet, let alone any other, and it was now time to move onto Shanghai. I was lucky enough to fly first class. I have never, ever done that before. This was not my doing by the way…apparently, it was an offer ticket when my internal flight transfer in China had to be re-booked. All I can say is it was a very nice surprise creating very large Sunday smiles. It is rather nice travelling like this…

Joshua accompanied me on this flight as he had a few days scheduled in Shanghai before his return to the UK on Wednesday. As soon as we got off the plane, we had a very short window of time to drop my luggage off at Lisa Juen‘s apartment, as we were attending an afternoon contemporary art forum session. Lisa is a friend and teaching colleague at AIVA who is very kindly letting me stay with her until I find somewhere to hang my hat and call home for the next nine months to a year. A big THANK YOU to Miss Juen! After a very quick freshen up and repacking of a bag, I jumped back into the taxi and headed straight to the Shanghai Library for the Rockbund Art Museum (RAM) Forum 2011 ‘Opportunities and Challenges for Contemporary Art Museum’. I wanted to attend this event as there were some very familiar names presenting including Lewis Biggs, ex-Director of the Liverpool Biennial who I have spoken to recently about my PhD research, and Alexandra Munroe, Senior Curator of Asian Art at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, a previous colleague during my New York days. I just had to go and see them and say hello. The last time I saw Alexandra was at the beginning of my previous trip to China in 2010. I can’t believe a year has gone by so quickly! It was great to catch up with them both, even if it was very briefly.

The forum began with Fumio Nanjo, Director of the Mori Art Museum, Japan, who spoke about the ‘New Possibility of Museum Management’, largely referencing the work of the Mori Art Museum. Nanjo presented past examples of solo exhibitions including Yayoi Kusama ‘Kusamatrix’, Hiroshi Sugimoto’s photography show, Bill Viola, Odani Mitohiko, Ai Weiwei ‘According to What?’, Annetter Messager ‘The Messengers’, and Lee Bul planned for 2011-12 (Korean). He went on to say the curatorial premise is regional research based on themes or countries, where past examples include ‘Africa Remix: African Contemporary Art Now’, ‘China: Crossroads of Culture and ‘Follow Me: Chinese Art at the Threshold of the New Millennium’, ‘Chalo! India’, and ‘History in the Making: Retrospective of the Turner Prize’, ‘French Window’, and currently ‘Art from Middle East’ in planning and research into artists including Zena Khalil (Lebanon), and Amal Kenawy (Winner of the Cairo Biennale 2010). Other thematic exhibitions include ‘Happiness, A survival Guide for Art and Life’ (2003), ‘Medicine and Art’ (2009), ‘The Kaleidoscopic Eye’ including artists Los Carpinteros explosion of a wall within the museum walls, ‘Sensing Nature’ (2010) including artists Tokujin Yoshioka – exhibition installation designer who used to work for Issey Miyake; Taro Shinoda – water, and Takashi Kuribayashi – land and the trees made of rice paper). In addition to these kind of exhibitions, the museum curates exhibitions of Architecture, Fashion and Design. He concluded by questioning what kind of museum is appropriate to the here and now? As each type of city will have a different museum.

Next was Alexandra Munroe on ‘What is the Guggenheim Thinking Now: Towards a Transnational model of Art History’…very appropriate to my current PhD studies on the role of the “transcultural” curator. Munroe presented three curatorial models, all with an Asian component, that are currently in use at the Guggenheim Museum and will be going forward in the next two /three years. The Guggenheim exhibits experimental art, thought and culture, embracing the socially transformative potential of contemporary art. She references the planning and development of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi opening in 2015. It is to be a 21st century museum of transnational art, a platform and generator of new ideas, and the first museum to approach history from a fundamentally transnational point of view. For example, minimalism would be set within artworks that will represent multiple histories that represent how they were manifested by different global art practices so we can understand multiple critical perspectives. They act as basis for experimentation to disrupt and subverse history, and introduce radically different aesthetic, politically and theoretical perspectives.

Munroe goes on to reference the current solo exhibition of the work of Korean artist, Lee Ufan, as the first curatorial model. The artist attempts to decentralise world order of the post-colonial and post-modern to beyond the binaries and hierarchies of East and West, a manifestation of dispersed reality. The second curatorial model example ‘Being Singular Plural’ curated by Sandhini Poddar (I miss Sandhini so much, a great inspiration) was exhibited at Guggenheim Berlin in Summer 2011, and will be on show at Guggenheim New York in Winter 2012. The exhibition creates a “network paradigm” (coined by Alexandra Munroe), devoted to seven practitioners of film, video and sound-based work from artists living and working in India today. In a shift away from an institutional framework, the exhibition is grounded in collaborations, networks and frameworks, and focuses on the gaps in these networks and collaborations. It aims to encourage the audience to move from away from being a passive spectatorship to an active participant, questioning how we can rethink the process of creativity itself – exploring this network paradigm of artistic production. Munroe sees the curatorial process as facilitating research and assembling a community of practitioners, manifesting itself within the materiality of the art itself as well as being part of the production process. In a move towards collectives and the network paradigm, the job of museums today is to capture this new dynamism. The third and final example if the Guggenheim’s BMW Lab, a 6 year programme of activities across the globe. It is a mobile laboratory and “urban thinktank”, engaging new leaders in art, architecture, design, science and much more. It is to specifically address the challenges of cities today and tomorrow, in an innovative moveable structure to move from city to city to bring together thinkers. In the panel session questions included:

Q (by Huang Zhuan): Is there any other way or model, other than a curatorial model that we can articulate or use to create concepts? and as concepts change, there becomes a new way of writing about art history. Does China have a share in this art history? how would you construct a concept of art history?

AM: Guggenheim is fundamentally a Eurocentric institution. I am trying o fight…it is political and intellectual. I am encouraged that the board and Director are supportive of my initiative however it ultimately has to live within the logic of the Guggenheim Museum. I wasn’t to make more space for Asian art to live within Asian art history which lives within the Guggenheim art history. My ideas are bigger than that…the Asian Art council at the Guggenheim, established in 2007, is the network of global thinkers working in different institutions, academies and as artists. This is where we can discuss our revolution. It is going to take time, but it is already underway. The Guggenheim can never consider its own history of American art in the same way again.

Following Munroe was Wang Huangsheng, Director of the Central Academy of Fine Arts Art Museum (CAFAM), Beijing with his presentation on ‘Intertextuality between art museum knowledge system and contemporary culture’. He opened his talk by saying ‘I don’t know how to face these issues and deal with them in Chinese art museums that Munroe and Nanjo have spoken about. The structure of the art museum in China is very different’. He speaks of the relationships and conflicts that are within the Chinese art museum, and how one of the key priorities is to overcome these in the development of a contemporary knowledge generating mechanism. Museums in China are free to the general public, but what can we provide to the public? This reflects the role and function of art museums in China’s cultural sector. Are we ready for this knowledge production? Art museums globally are facing a tough challenge today. By focussing on the system of the Chinese art museum and their relationship to society, we know that the knowledge system was constructed during the classical period and evolved into the modern era. So from the outset, in the West, people took on the concept of the museum. When it initially happened, many museums focussed on government and private collections. When museums emerged, they emerged from collections and the presentation of objects. It is fair to say that art museums are first of all about objects, or the collections of objects. Museums started as a place to collect and present objects, where now it has been extended to the appreciation of objects, or to the person who curated the object. In China, we have also set up departments to this knowledge system within museums. In this way, museums have been playing their historical part where research preserves cultural heritage in the traditional knowledge system. In the mid-20th Century the system started to be challenged as museums then started to include the relationship between the object and the viewers. They questioned the validity of the object-centred concept and started to discuss the problematics of this system, and the concept of the museum of a white box. The importance of space to the appreciation of an object is a difficult concept to challenge as part of the conventional knowledge system of museums. Museums are reinventing the relationship between space and the object. How do museums interact with society to generate social discussions to become a space for exhibition, space for action, space for practice? There is now a transformation from the appreciation of the object, to the intervention of concept, perception, an idea. Artworks have transcended the physical form of the object, which has posed further challenges to the traditional knowledge system of museums. Furthermore, the use of language as part of knowledge systems is creating inter-textuality and new discourse.

Wang cites a recent example, the CAFAM Biennale ‘Super-Organism’ (2011) which attempts to challenge the Chinese knowledge system. The exhibition has four facets of politics, super-city, super body, super-machine, and exhibited 30 Chinese in relation to 19 Western artists. I spoke about this exhibition in a previous blog post here. Remarks to this presentation by Huang Zhuan included Museums should be about the human way of thinking, our human legacies and histories. For every practitioner, we have a duty to reconstruct his or her society into the museum. Museums don’t have a spirit or set of values to give inspiration, they have not expressed their sense of existence very well. In the panel session questions included:

Q (by Huang Zhuan) How can a Chinese museum have a better ability to learn new knowledge with our limited resources?

WH: The system is inadequate and incomplete, so the behaviours are unstandardised, and there is no consistent way of producing knowledge. In things like promotion and staffing, as Mori said, need logic and philosophy. Due to these inadequacies, the Chinese museums need to be more open, they are able to work with the new generation of practitioners, artists and curators to work together, so new possibilities might emerge from that collaboration.

Q (by Jiang Jiehong): What is the role of the offsite exhibition?

WH: To make the museum more accessible to the general public and create more knowledge for the general public. I, as a Director, should think about this. It is how to make exhibitions more relevant, to trigger more interaction with the public.  There are different choices in the simple organism of the exhibition. There are summits, conferences, talks, forums, lectures in other universities, face-to-face discussion with artists and the general public, and community events. We need to learn a lot from the onsite museum, the diversity and richness of the onsite museum. We have to give the audience a very deep experience onsite at the museum to create a strong relationship. Inspirational function. Translation of knowledge, or a translation of ideas into something they could truly understand, I think this is a very important aspect of the museum.

Q (public): There are so many Western curators in China, curating artists. How do you view the foreign Western curators in China? Are they a problem?

WH: You only talked about part of the problem, as an international curator he or she does not necessarily involve the Chinese symbol. I don’t think this is a big problem. The Chinese artists are using the Chinese symbols. The International curators are trying to understand the Chinese symbols as part of Chinese culture, which is very normal, but of course as part of the artist expression or the curators  approach or understand, the deeper they understand the Chinese context, the better they can curate exhibitions.

Finally, Lewis Biggs presented ‘Branding – the Art Museum, the City and the Other’. Biggs began by discussing the importance of emotion, and the need for artists and curators to think much more about emotion where from this production of knowledge will come. He states China is about to take over from the USA in the consumption of luxury goods where branding is a powerful communicative tool. Repeated recognition creates trust and loyalty. Contemporary art is a minority interest, yet we want to share it with a wide audience. Is branding a mechanism consistent with contemporary art systems? Biggs talks about his personal experiences when working at Tate Liverpool and the brand value of Tate to create a permanent cultural activity for young people in the local area. He then focuses on the development of the Liverpool Biennial and the importance of it’s branding, again in relation to local and regional communities. He concludes by questioning the fundamental differences between how we view contemporary art as a luxury product or as an instrument of thinking about culture. How much does it cost? vs. How does it affect me in my city? Art museums will stop be “for all” and will begin to address themselves more towards intimacy, to the individual and the family. For Biggs, he believes in art that challenges you and requires you to think new thoughts, and embodies new learning. Remarks by Huang Zhuan included the aesthetic and critical functions of contemporary Chinese art have been limited and cut off, is it possible to strike a balance between artistic and commercial value?

LB: Yes they should be different. It comes down to the differences between the citizens and the consumers. The world is asking us to take on the role of the consumer all the time, but we are also citizens. A person is responsible for themselves, their own needs and their responsibilities to society. Needs as a consumer are dictated from outside. It is someone else’s choice. We need also to have our lives as citizens addressed by somebody. Museums, educational institutions and the state have a responsibility to treat us as citizens. It should be branded as an interaction with the public to take responsible choices. Are we doing the right thing by the consumer ecology? We must take responsibility in relation to our own worlds and to society. Museums take on this responsibility to make us look at ourselves in a different way.

So here are the RAM Forum participants from left to right: Lai Hsiangling, (Director RAM), Samuel Kung (Director of MOCA Shanghai), Huang Zhuan (Professor at Guangzhou Academy of Art/Director of OCT Contemporary Art Terminal of He Xiang Art Museum), Alexandra Munroe (Senior Curator of Asian Art at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York), Lewis Biggs, Wang Huangsheng (Director of Central Academy of Fine Arts Art Museum (CAFAM)). After the forum, I was chatting to many international and local professionals involved in the Chinese art scene here in Shanghai who I hope to get to know over the coming months. It is always fruitful going to these kind of events just to maintain relationships or “guanxi”. Joshua and I were both shattered by the time the event had finished, so I headed back to the apartment in the French Concession area of the city to meet Lisa, her partner Barry and their cat Freda for chats, a nighttime wander, Samsonite suitcase buying (Lisa), Sichuan dinner with a tasty fresh ginger drink, chats, smiles, laughter, cups of tea, more chats and a well-needed catch up. I hadn’t seen her for nearly a year…

When I woke up the next day on Monday, this is the view that greeted me from their lounge window on the 25th floor…pretty phenomenal right? Hello Shanghai. Let’s begin, well continue our adventure.

It was time for my first day at school as Lecturer in Visual Arts (Fine Art and Visual Communication) at AIVA. I was nervous and excited. To be honest, I didn’t really have any need to be nervous as I was familiar with Shanghai, the school and the staff…just not the new students as it is a brand new academic year. To get to work I got a ride on the back of Lisa’s scooter. I remembered the last time I did this, I broke one of the foot plates (sorry Lisa). Since then, she has got another scooter…at some stage I’ll try and take a film of a journey. On the way to work, we stopped off to get coffee, or in my case a red bean milk tea. Note to self this stuff actually contains caffeine, you’d think the word “tea” would have given that away…not to me! So my body went a little crazed as you can imagine. I don’t think I’ve had proper tea or coffee for years now so it felt a little odd…the drink tasted so, so good though it made me want to start that habit again…I’m not sure if my system would appreciate it though.

Teaching began with the ‘Introduction to Fine Art’ week where I gave an introduction to the concept of “appropriation”, artists on artists as such, citing examples of past and current contemporary practice by artists from all over the globe. I then asked students to choose from four artworks/objects – ‘Noah’s Ark’ by Yue Minjun, Marilyn Munroe by Andy Warhol, Coca-Cola, and Fei Yue – to create an appropriated artwork of their choice, where sketchpad research and the documentation of the artistic process/development of the artwork(s) is integral. We are really pushing the importance of research this year on the pre-BA and pre-MA courses…and critical discussion skills through presentations. The first session was for the whole afternoon on Monday and it went incredibly fast. I think students just about understood what the week was to entail. It is early days in their English classes, as it is for me and Mandarin! So communication can be a bit hit and miss. Lunch was from a local eatery…no matter how many times you say “vegetarian” and “no meat” it still appears…like small slices of ham on top of your egg, rice and pak choi. I’ll have to get used to this.

After work, Lisa and Barry went to Jujitsu Brazilian training, so I spent the evening treading concrete for over an hour around the French Concession area of Shanghai. Lisa marked a route on a map for me that ended up being 3.6 miles. The run took me so much longer as I had to stop and check the map so many times as I was likely to get incredibly lost otherwise. When I was running, it felt like I was in a computer game as I was jumping, spring stepping, ducking and diving round cars, trucks, pedestrians, cyclists, rubbish, you name it…trying to avoid an altercation with the general chaos on the streets of Shanghai. I think if I went running a little later it would be less hectic so I hope to get my time down next time I go out. Whilst running all I could think about was sushi…so I found some for dinner. Looks good right? I was slowly getting into the rhythm and routine of Shanghai…R&R…not rest and relaxation that’s for sure.


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