Saturday, May 03, 2008

Foreignized or Localized

Foreignized or Localized
– A Question for Contemporary Art Museums in Shanghai
Whether it is in the propaganda post center of Huashan Road, Moganshan 50, MOCA, or Shanghai Zendai Museum of Modern Art, you will find a strange phenomenon – there are far more visitors from abroad than local ones. Take M50 as an example, I got the wrong impression that they were small modern museums in some western cities such as New York or Paris when I first entered the space. Nearly all the visitors were foreigners. Meanwhile, hardly could I find Asian faces there, let alone Chinese ones. I had such a strong feeling that I instead of them was the real “foreigner”. What’s more, some of the above museums have become a must in the list of tourist destinations in Shanghai for foreign visitors, while most of them still hold quite low popularity among local residents. This phenomenon, I think, might provide a quite good perspective in understanding the current situation of contemporary art museums in Shanghai and its future management as well.
In the first place, the site selection of these museums catches my attention. When M50 was first chosen by artists, it was due to its low cost and natural large rooms for exhibitions since most of the buildings were wasted warehouses. Later on, however, more and more foreign artists moved there for the familiar stage M50 offers them for displaying contemporary art products just like abroad. On the other hand, MOCA, proud of its unique location in the center of the downtown area, was built on a former greenhouse in People’s Park, the once most famous park in Shanghai. Now, paired with the nearby Barbarossa (or Starbucks), it has become a perfect place for white-collars’ running away from the hurrying city. However, the day we went to MOCA, you could easily notice that there virtually no Chinese dining at Barbarossa. Also, the Zendai Museum of Modern Art was built close to a newer neighborhood known to foreign residents working in Shanghai.
Although site selection has been restricted by many other factors like capital input, surrounding environment, familiarity and advice from supporters, we find that they all locate themselves in places where foreigners most appear in Shanghai. As a matter of fact, foreigners have gradually found for themselves “Western Town” in Shanghai as well as other major cities in China, just like the China Towns in western world. As for this, GuMei is a perfect example. However, in pointing out this, we still meet with a sequence problem – whether the site selection comes after the foreign appearance or the opposite.
Secondly, the sharp contrast between the amount of the foreign visitors and local residents to some extent has blocked the development of contemporary art in China. Currently, what Chinese contemporary art or artists lack is not the interaction with the outside world (foreign artists and visitors), but the interaction with local art circle and local people. For one thing, most of the Chinese contemporary artists have the common experience of the Cultural Revolution. Also, many of them left for western countries in 1980s and were inspired by the contemporary art abroad. After the twenty years of opening up and reform, they flew back to China. For another thing, the giant Chinese culture with 5000 years of history has lately developed a kind of nationalism – protesting any kind of “profanity” towards the motherland. A good example is the recent safeguard demonstrations of Olympic torch worldwide. Thus, we are confronted with an embarrassing situation – the more eager the artists want to communicate with traditional culture by quoting or referring to classics in ancient China, the more violent refusals they would receive from their own culture. It is only time that could tell us the answer whether this kind of conflict between the two parties is good for the development of contemporary art in China or not.
Fortunately, some of the artists have realized this problem and taken measures for settlement. To some degree, Zendai is a bellwether in this field. Yet, seeing the rigid form of the discussion and the weird combination of the exhibition and discussion, the hope of settlement is still farther than we can see.

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