Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Museums & Shanghai

Helena Zhang / Museums & Shanghai

What I like about the Shanghai art world is that it is less pretentious than New York. In Shanghai the gallery atmosphere is so much more relaxed. We don't feel intimidated when we enter a gallery, and the physical conditions are also more modest, not squeaky clean and white. When I visited a gallery here called Andrew James Art, the owner, Andrew James, chatted casually with me, about the current showing artist, the upcoming ones, his gallery, etc. Would this happen in New York? Hell no.

But I wonder if this friendly atmosphere will change as the art world here develops more, and the art community expands. Is it only that Shanghai is smaller that it's friendlier? Will Shanghai in the future lose sight of showing art and become more and more commercial? Perhaps with more competition between artists and galleries it will, but I don't think it's impossible to balance the two.

In general I am not very fond of art institutions such as museums and galleries (though it is probably inevitable that they develop) because I believe art is so much better when it is surprising, when we don't expect it. The gallery setting is too expected (the image of a perfect framed painting comes to mind). I understand that gallery spaces provide a place for artists to show their work, but when it is in that space it means that someone else with artistic authority is declaring that what is being shown is art, so we are looking at something that is already filtered. This is a bit like a friend sharing with you something that he likes, except here the curator is not your friend but an authority. So there is a limiting quality to galleries. However, we can also view the curator as an artist; as the artist selects his images, the curator selects his artists. From this point of view then, curators are not so bad. It seems it all boils down to one question: is the artwork being shown good art? This is of course problematic because everyone has different standards on what is good.

Another reason I don't like galleries is because they shows shows in a set place and a set time. This means that only very few people are able to see the show. It’s as if the idea is anchored to one place, unable to move. So is there a better means of showing work? This is precisely the strength of the internet, as we can access websites from anywhere, at anytime. Of course you need to have access to the internet first. The only problem with this is that we lose the experiential quality of physically being confronted by the work; experiencing something through the internet is totally different from experiencing it in "real life", for example a painting or sculpture in a gallery. But seeing something on the internet is better than seeing nothing at all, right? Perhaps we should let the medium determine where the work should be shown: videos and digital stuff on the web; sculpture, painting, and more traditional modes in a gallery. But this raises yet another question: is painting and other traditional modes dead? Since they are unique objects and not mass-produced or available to be widely shown like videos, what value do they have other than being a nice object? What if we only saw the painting as a reproduction on the web? What sort of effect would that have?

In any case it seems to me that discussion is just as important (if not more so) as the art itself. If art just sits there what good is it? Everything is better when shared. Discussion brings the artist's inner conversation outward to the audience. The internet can be a great place for discussion, through forums, blogs, etc, even youtube. There is a lot on the web to filter through, but this comes with the advantage of accessibility. Still, the best conversations are probably the ones face to face, in real time. I was surprised so many people spoke and came to listen at Zendai's Cultural Forum, that there was so much enthusiasm. Even though a whole day of discussion is tiring, there were some stimulating speakers, especially the ones in the morning. It's good as well that the speakers were not only limited to ones from the art world but also came from philosophy, history, etc backgrounds. The forum (re)raised for me many ongoing questions I’ve had about art: why make art if it can only “poke small holes”? Why be abstract with art when you can be direct with words? Doesn’t it just increase the distance? (Usually you walk into a gallery and it’s so abstract you don’t absorb anything.) What is the function of art?? Can anything be done about the vast disparity between the intellectual/artistic elite and the masses? Is it just inevitable? What about the never-ending tension between the formal and conceptual? These questions are ones that frustrate me constantly.

More and more, I find that discussion is so much better than the artwork itself. (Do we even need the artwork to incite it?) This is especially makes sense if we consider art as a conceptual practice. But if art is conceptual, what’s the use of making anything? Why not just share your ideas? Only if art is at least some percentage formal/visual can it hold any value. But then where does the concept fit in to the puzzle? Is a concept absolutely necessary?

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