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Ocula Report

Shanghai Museum Shows: “Myth / History II” at the Yuz Museum and “Xu Zhen Solo Show” at the Long Museum

Sam Gaskin Shanghai 28 April 2015
Li Hui, Cage, green lasers and fog, 2006-2014

Two private museums beside the Huangpu River are celebrating their first birthdays this spring. The Long Museum West Bund, which opened in March 2014, is marking the occasion with a Xu Zhen solo show, while the Yuz Museum, which opened last May, has at last launched its second exhibition. Both shows are milestone moments in the institutions’ development. The massive museums—each with about 10,000 square metres of space—are learning to stand.

It’s been 11 months since the last exhibition at Yuz, entitled Myth / History, but the sheer logistical challenges of removing the work from that show make the break understandable. When we spoke to Yuz founder Budi Tek last month, we were staggered to learn that all of the past show’s mega-sized works, except for Sun Yuan and Peng Yu’s Freedom (2009), were being switched out. Works such as Adel Abdessemed’s planes required disentangling, Huang Yongping’s scaffolding snake skeleton uncoiling and Xu Bing’s 600,000 tiger pelt cigarettes boxing and carting off. In their place, the Yuz has installed new works that are just as large and almost as impactful for the new show, Myth / History II: Shanghai Galaxy, a sequel to the first exhibition.

Gone is the huge copper Buddha hand by Zhang Huan that greeted audiences on entering the former aircraft hangars, although the artist still has some skin in the game. His Know the Destiny (2013) is an eight-metre-tall figure made of cow skins placed over a steel, wood and polystyrene foam frame, a work that first appeared in the Power Station of Art’s exhibition, Portrait of the Times. The exhibition notes for the current show at the Yuz state that the work “expresses the absurdity of contemporary existence in highly personal terms”, though Adel Abdessemed may have done that even better with his cube of taxidermy in the museum’s prior show, a work that expresses the absurdity of a certain fad in contemporary art.

Zhang Huan, Know the Destiny, cow skin, steel, wood and polystyrene foam, 2013

Almost as tall as Zhang’s figure, is Italian humorist Maurizio Cattelan’s Felix (2001), an oil on polyvinyl resin and fibre-glass cat skeleton with its back up, tail pointed vertical, and shoulder blades flared behind the snarling head like rabbit ears. Despite the posture, Felix is at home in the Yuz, which given its size—big enough for brontosaurus and blue whale skeletons—and the scale and motifs of works, can at times feel like a natural history museum masquerading as a contemporary art museum.

Maurizio Cattelan, Felix (2001) 8 metres tall, oil on polyvinyl resin, fibreglass.

Other works in the museum’s Great Hall include Liu Jianhua’s porcelain detritus Regular - Fragile (2002-03), suspended from the ceiling, Zhang Ding’s wood, peacock and vase assemblage Game with Unclear Direction (2009), and Tommi Grönlund and Petteri Nisunen’s kinetic work Flux of Matter (2012). Hundreds of ball bearings rest on a see-saw in the Finnish duo’s work until its angle shifts ever so slightly, and a few begin to drift away from the group, like strands of hair drifting up at the crucial moment on a parabolic anti-gravity flight. When the rest of the balls begin to roll, the sound is like rainfall.

Foreground: Yutaka Sone, Tropical Composition / Banana Tree No. 2 and 3, rattan, metal armature and paint, 2008-2010. Background: Liu Jianhua, Regular - Fragile, porcelain, 2002-03

That ersatz downpour is a perfect accompaniment to Japanese-born, LA-based artist Yutaka Sone’s Tropical Composition / Banana Tree Nos. 2 and 3 (2008-2010). The lurid green leaves, made from woven rattan, metal armature and paint, continue to blur the divisions between natural and manmade ecologies, a practice thoroughly interrogated during Nicolas Bourriaud’s Taipei Biennial, entitled The Great Acceleration: Art in the Anthropocene.

One of the works that featured in Bourriaud’s biennial was Harold Ancart’s Bow, Ark and Buk (2014), and it now appears in the Yuz current exhibition too. The work uses wallpaper and images of tropical beaches aflame, as if after a napalm attack or oil fire. The Ultimate Very Best of Elvis album plays on a smartphone placed in a plastic bucket for amplification, and the only wildlife to be found are in 52 boxes, each containing 24 copies of ZvirataZblizka, a book about the animals in the zoological gardens of Prague. In the Taipei Biennial, Bow, Ark and Buk was like a paragraph in a tour de force literary essay on Earth, the environment and the apocalpyse; it suffers somewhat in this more helter-skelter show, where it’s literally in the shadow of Zhang's Know the Destiny.

Harold Ancart, Bow, Ark and Buk, wallpaper, smartphone in a bucket (the Ultimate Very Best of Elvis, 52 boxes of 24 books, 164 pages, ZvirataZblizka, zoological garden of Prague, 2014

As with the Yuz’s inaugural show, Myth / History II: Shanghai Galaxy, its sequel is curated by Wu Hung, a professor of art history at the University of Chicago. The theme is broad enough to accommodate the disparate works in the Grand Hall, and the subtitle, ‘Shanghai Galaxy’, gives context to the smaller gallery spaces in the museum that focus on artists living in the city.

There are works by Shanghai painter Zhang Jianjun made from 1978-1988 that incorporate natural materials such as sand and stone. A gallery of paintings by Zhang Enli illustrate his interest in certain visual motifs of the city, including the coils of excess black cable suspended above the streets, and the grids of small tiles found in bathrooms and on building exteriors, which he uses to give his works an almost polygon graphic three-dimensionality.

Zhang Enli, Washroom Ground, oil on canvas, 2009

Also experimenting with three-dimensional painting is Yang Zhenzhong, whose oil on wood Passages (2012-14) project out from the wall, filling your peripheral vision, the analogue equivalent of an Oculus Rift headset. The virtual reality theme is further developed in Li Hui’s Cage (2006-2014), a cell created from grids of green lasers and fog in a blackened room.

Yang Zhenzhong, Passage No. 8, oil on Wood, 2012

Even with other additions including concrete busts by Yu Ji, an elaborate installation by Shi Qing entitled Wuhan Climate (2014), and silk-cocoon-covered chains from Liang Shaoji’s Nature Series, Shanghai Galaxy is hardly representative of Shanghainese artists. There are many absences, the most conspicuous of which may be Xu Zhen, though he’s hardly hurting for exposure with a phenomenal solo show at neighbouring contemporary art institution, the Long Museum West Bund.

Liang Shaoji, Nature Series No. 79 - Chain: The Unbearable Lightness of Being, polyurethane colophony, iron powder, silk, cocoons, 2003

Like the Yuz, the Long Museum draws from its owners’ private collection, and for founder and director Wang Wei that’s predominantly Chinese paintings from the ’80s, ’90s and ’00s. Over the past year, the Long Museum West Bund has changed exhibitions more often than the Yuz, ensuring more press releases, more openings, and more reasons to return, but the shows at times merely reshuffled the collection, as was the case with 1,199 People, a show curated by Xu Zhen and which foreshadowed the current show to a certain extent.

For that show, Xu Zhen placed the Long Museum’s collection of contemporary Chinese portraits in vertical arrangements that, from lowest to highest, depicted a woman, a man, a couple, and a group of people, suggesting a social progression from birth through marriage and into society.

The museum faces a mismatch between its collection and its impressive architecture—paintings can seem lost in huge halls under 12-metre ceilings—but stacking them so high wasn’t a great solution. From beneath, the highest paintings were inscrutable.

In parts of the museum where the walls weren’t high enough to hang four works vertically, however, Xu created frames that stepped out into the galleries, applying the vertical scheme while allowing the paintings to be seen more closely, albeit from an angle. This technique is echoed in an entirely new work exhibited in the current exhibition, Xu Zhen Solo Show, which opened on March 29.

European Thousand-Hand Classical Sculpture sees 19 classical Western sculptures arranged on rising steps that stretch back through the museum’s main hall. Viewed front on, only the face and body of the first sculpture is visible but the arms of each can be seen. The effect is to suggest Guanyin, the mythical bodhisattva of compassion given 1,000 arms with which to help others.

Xu Zhen, European Thousand-Hand Classical Sculpture

The exhibition’s tag line “witness the creation of history” isn’t just marketing hyperbole; it also zings on Xu’s willingness to appropriate art works in order to create something new and ahistorical. His gambit is not the tired project of remixing high and low culture, but to muddle drastically different art traditions. He does the same in other works, Eternity — Northern Qi Standing Buddha, Amazon and Barbarian and Eternity — Sui Dynasty Gold Gilded and Painted Standing Buddha, Venus de Vienne, joining statues at the neck to create new forms.

Xu Zhen, Eternity — Northern Qi Standing Buddha, Amazon and Barbarian, glass fiber reinforced concrete, marble grains, metal, gold foil, 2014

Stretching back even further than Xu’s interest in cultural confusion is his antagonism towards art world bullshittery and the delusion that art for sale somehow transcends commerce. Since establishing his MadeIn Company as a corporate means to “produce culture”, Xu has, among other things, parodied the appeal of luxury materials by covering foam rubber in gold leaf, priced paintings by the square metre, and sold pairs of branded underpants in a gift shop he installed in place of a booth at Art021.

For his solo show at the Long Museum, Xu installed several collector starter kits of his works already packed in shipping boxes. One contains a Physique of Consciousness exercise video, an Eternity-Poseidon, Pigeons sculpture, an Under Heaven painting, a curved vase, a speared Nikon camera, a Dollar Man fabric sculpture, cans of Coke and Pepsi and a Pimo T-shirt. As if the kit-set display didn’t undermine the aura of the works enough, all five editions of it are displayed together. The series is called Arrogance.

Xu Zhen, Arrogance, assorted Xu Zhen art pieces, 2010-2015

All of the exhibition’s works are displayed like this, facsimiles of editions lined up neatly, each with an identical wall plaque giving its name, materials and noting the number of copies that have been produced. Even the European Thousand-Hand Classical Sculpture, which would be a powerful work all by itself, is treated the same way, shown in triplicate, side-by-side in the main hall.

The conceit is ingenious, not only making a mockery of the dubious relationship between scarcity and art market value, but feeding the ravenous Long Museum enough work to fill it up. It’s a wonderful show and an artist’s triumph over the super-sized architecture.—[O]

Exhibition Details

Myth/History II: Shanghai Galaxy, at the Yuz Museum, Shanghai
March 17-July 12
Tel +86 21 6210 5207
35 Fenggu Lu, near Longteng Avenue, Xuhui. Tickets 60RMB. 
徐汇区丰谷路35号, 近龙腾大道 

Xu Zhen Solo Exhibition, at the West Bund Long Museum
March 29-May 24
Tel +86 21 6422 7636
3398 Longteng Avenue, near Fenglin Lu, Xuhui.  Tickets 50RMB
徐汇区龙腾大道3398号, 近枫林路

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