Following the Chinese art market’s boom around a decade ago, and the unsurprising lull that has followed, practitioners in China have had to begin the arduous task of redefining themselves. Seemingly seismic changes in the landscape of cultural institutions are already taking place. With reportedly hundreds of new museums planned across China, art has become one of the prized symbols of globalization and the creative economy. However, construction of these museums seems to accelerate with little apparent visible questioning of the ideological approaches to institution-building and organizational practices, and so, perhaps inevitably, a critical examination of the conditions of practice and display has followed rather than led.
Artistic practice in China seems to have been profoundly influenced by this rapid expansion. Two recent group exhibitions are emblematic: ‘A Museum That is Not’ at the Times Museum and ‘Little Movements: Self-Practice in Contemporary Art’ at OCAT were timed to coincide in the neighbouring cities of Guangzhou and Shenzhen. Both shows presented numerous Chinese and international artists, including research-based projects that were intentionally speculative, even playful. The levels of institutional self-reflection on display made it clear that this new direction is also a curatorial one.
Designed by Rem Koolhaas and opened in 2011, the Times Museum is located in a high-rise structure, with its exhibition spaces on the ground and top floors sandwiching 17 residential levels. Although it is called a museum it has no plans for a collection, and so is closer to the criteria of a Kunsthalle. For this reason, ‘A Museum That is Not’ spoke of the vocabulary required for describing institutions. The works that curator Nikita Yingqian Cai selected were notable for their experimental and idiosyncratic approaches to thinking about the conception of art institutions. For example, Xiangqian’s Museum (2010–ongoing) is a project by Beijing-based artist Hu Xiangqian that envisages the fictional collection of his personal museum though a series of performances. Using a combination of basic descriptions and physical gestures, the artist (who is also the museum’s ‘sole employee’) lists these works, leaving their interpretations decidedly open. The mysteriously ambiguous institution The Museum of American Art in Berlin presented Museum of Modern Art (2011), a collection of convincing reproductions of canonical ‘masterpieces’ based on MoMA’s inaugural exhibition ‘Cubism and Abstract Art’ (1936). Rather than purely re-enacting this piece of exhibition history, the display is framed as ethnographic, deliberating notions of ‘the artist’ and ‘originality’ as well as the institutional processes of canonization through exhibition-making. This installation was particularly striking in a show that questioned the fetishization of Modernism, and in an institution at the beginnings of a journey of self-definition.
In ‘Little Movements’ at OCAT, curator and writer Carol Yinghua Lu (a contributing editor of frieze) and her collaborative partner, artist Liu Ding, brought together an intriguing selection of documentation from numerous projects that have all, broadly speaking, been self-organized in China as well as far beyond. Each of them was again guided by a belief in the experiment and a desire to engage with artistic discourse. Notably, all were driven by the sheer enthusiasm of individuals or small groups, whether as grassroots initiatives by artists or by staff in major institutions. Most of the projects exhibited were modest, even intimate, in scale, despite the size or resources of the collective that instigated them. Since 1994, the Libreria Borges Institute for Contemporary Art, founded by Chen Tong in Guangzhou, has stocked an eclectic selection of books that follow the interests of its founder, alongside books on contemporary art. A model of entrepreneurialism, the institute also organizes an ambitious series of events, exhibitions and residencies, all reflecting Chen’s interests in self-education, art and contemporaneity. Alongside a vitrine displaying print material produced by the Libreria Borges, a film was screened showing Chen in the role of a policeman interrogating his bookshop staff – a tongue-in-cheek mockumentary on conformity within the art system.
‘Little Movements’ seemed very much guided by the professional encounters that its curators have had with each of the 17 initiatives, outside of curating the exhibition, and avoided the pretence of being in any way comprehensive or even concise. Rather, it was about a shared fervour for unbridled criticality by individuals that can level institutional boundaries.
The artist Liu Ding played a significant role in both exhibitions. ‘Little Movements’ was very much inspired by his project, Conversations (2010–ongoing), in which Liu undertakes dialogues with invited practitioners about the status of value and criticality in art today. Each of the initiatives’ displays in ‘Little Movements’ included video documentation of the conversations that he and Lu had with each of them – an unusual level of curatorial transparency. As an exhibiting artist in ‘A Museum That is Not’, Liu’s contribution, Museum and Me (2011), considered the positive and negative relationships between individuals in the art system, and how institutions can dramatically shape these encounters. Comprising gifts, correspondence and furniture, it portrayed professional experiences of being an artist on a very personal level. A letter written by the artist in response to a request for a wedding gift from the directors of Vitamin Creative Space asks about the artificial status of ‘friendship’ in art, whilst specially designed wooden seating carefully situated around the institution offered quiet spots for reflection, on artistic life perhaps.
Both exhibitions possessed something greater than the modish draw of reflexive institutional critique, and aimed to redefine institutions less as purely physical entities and more in terms of groupings of people, relationships, practices and ideas. These shows were also more introspective, and carried a belief in creating the conditions that allow the convergence of theory with practice in order to rethink what institutional contexts can do for art. Whilst questioning whether Modernist formats for institutions, along with their supposed universalism, are the most relevant in China, ‘A Museum That is Not’ and ‘Little Movements’ acknowledged the global context of artistic production; but on a more localized level, post-boom, they looked to pursue latent conversations on the processes of self-reflection and prospects of artistic self-determination in China.