The Shanghai 21st Century Minsheng Art Museum (known as M21) has something distinctly otherworldly about it. Across the Huangpu River, away from the city’s bright lights and constant buzz, M21 is an imposing, translucent block in the otherwise desolate landscape of industrial Pudong. The gallery, which opened its doors in November 2014, is located in the former French Pavilion of the 2010 Shanghai World Expo and was developed by China’s Minsheng Bank as part of a programme of cultural regeneration in this now largely disused district. Its 40,000-square-metre area is currently home to its opening exhibition, ‘Cosmos’; a title that alludes to the vast exhibition space as much as to the works within it.
M21’s sprawling size enables ‘Cosmos’ to house hundreds of pieces from 52 artists across the world, including several massive installations. Shen Ruijun’s Dropping Mark (2010) is an entire tiled floor that the artist had transported from an ancient house in Guangzhou and installed in the museum. Visitors are invited to walk across the time-worn tiles to the next room, reminding us how art can aestheticize what was once purely functional. In an adjoining space, containing two large armchairs, the title of Yang Zhenzhong’s piece instructs us: Please Sit (2014). The armchairs, containing intuitive orientation devices, move when sat on and in relation to their position in the room, raising the question of who controls the piece – artist or participant. The theme of control is repeated throughout the show in works such as Hu Weiyi’s Low-Class Scenes (2014), in which images are projected onto a screen by the arbitrary movements of a roulette wheel below.
Zhou Xiaohu’s intelligently conceived Detective Project (2011), an installation comprised of TV screens that form an inward-facing cocoon, explores the idea of visual control. Stepping inside the circular arrangement of screens, we see that each screen is showing CCTV footage of someone being followed on foot. It transpires that the artist has orchestrated this piece so that each person being followed is a private detective who is, in turn, tailing another private detective, all of them oblivious of this fact. Xiaohu’s installation formally re-creates the claustrophobic impact of constant surveillance, while also commenting on its senseless, circular operation.
M21’s open design means that certain sounds can be heard throughout the gallery. One constant reverberation is the sound of singing from ‘Complaints Choir’, a project conceived by Helsinki-based duo Tellervo Kalleinen and Oliver Kochta-Kalleinen. Displayed here are a series of videos from some of more than 70 different Complaints Choirs founded in cities around the world. The melodies sound enchanting from afar but, as we get closer, we realize the song lyrics consist solely of complaints submitted by people from each city. The compositions act as a type of aural cartoon, politically charged and instantly communicative without taking themselves too seriously. The Complaints Choir operates as an outlet for personal frustrations (‘I constantly feel fat!’), disillusionment with living and working in the city (‘Transport is expensive and my wages are too low’), but also as an effective tool for political protest: complaints choirs were used during the Arab Spring and by students in the 2014 Hong Kong protests as a means of peaceful political expression.
The biggest limitation of ‘Cosmos’ is its underlying lack of cohesion. While there are nuanced strands drawing certain pieces together, the sequence of the exhibition seems slightly arbitrary at times. Given the volume and scale of the show, this can feel disorientating. But perhaps this is the fundamental drawback of M21: it’s almost too large to house a cohesive exhibition. Nevertheless, ‘Cosmos’, with its wealth of powerful, eclectic pieces, makes a valiant effort at holding its own in this formidable museum.