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Exhibition Review: Spectacle: 12 Presentations of Contemporary Museum Architecture in China

By Clare Jacobson
June 3, 2013
Photo © Cai Feng
View of Spectacle with “Unbuilt City” by Feng Lu and Liu Yuyang (foreground), “Future of the Museum in China” by China Megacities Lab/GSAPP Columbia University, directed by Jeffrey Johnson (rear left), “Bias” by Yu Ting (rear center), and “Museum of Unknown” by Qiu Anxiong (rear right).

Right as the quantity, quality, and scale of new museums in China are reaching an apex, Shanghai’s new Power Station of Art (PSA) is addressing this phenomenon with a well-timed exhibition, Spectacle: 12 Presentations of Contemporary Museum Architecture in China, which runs through July 18. The title comes from the curators’—Zhang Ming, Bu Bing, and Zhang Jiajing—contention that museums both present spectacles and are spectacles.

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The curators approach the topic through a lens of “presentations instead of representations,” intending that the 12 projects explore not only the design of museums but also “the social, cultural, and political transformations” they produce. Presentations include installations such as “B10 Upgrade Strategy—OCATEA/HQ” by Urbanus, an activity center to encourage the making of art; “Bias” by Yu Ting, a treelike collection of convex mirrors producing a purposefully distorted view; and “Art for Lease” by Qiu Anxiong, a display of contemporary Chinese art that will be loaned out to visitors. The included projects investigate ideas of participation, perception, content, and a museum’s connection with its site.

Still, architects being architects, there are many representations in Spectacle. Zhang Ming and Zhang Zi’s “Largeness-Smallness” consists of floating cubes displaying pictures of large museums and wooden models of small ones. The work comments on the differing scale of current state-run and private museums. “Future of the Museum in China” by China Megacities Lab/GSAPP Columbia University, directed by Jeffery Johnson, presents museum floor plans on a great expanse of wallpaper, representing the “scale, formal diversity, and iconic ambition” of new museums. “Buddha and Sentient Beings” shows films of two of architect Liu Jiakun’s built works, the Luyeyuan Stone Sculpture Museum and the Hu Huishan Memorial House, to emphasize history and memory. “Unbuilt City” presents models of unrealized museum proposals, which Feng Lu and Liu Yuyang collected through postings on WeChat and Weibo. “The unbuilt is a fundamental part of the architect’s work,” says Liu. “That’s very seldom discussed in China.”

Other representations are less concrete. Yuan Feng’s “Museum of the Future” uses a holographic projection, which Yuan sees as the four- or five-dimensional hyperspace of the future. Sheng Zhonghai’s “Elevation” inserts photos of the neighborhood surrounding Shanghai’s Rockbund Art Museum (RAM) onto a construction shot of the project. Small views of the streetscape, taken before and after RAM’s opening, suggest the changes the building has wrought.

Spectacle is the first architecture exhibition at PSA. A former power station located near Shanghai’s Huangpu River, the building was repurposed during Expo 2010 Shanghai China as the Pavilion of the Future. In October 2012, it was inaugurated as the PSA, China’s first state-owned museum dedicated to contemporary art. Zhang Ming, co-curator of Spectacle, and Zhang Zi were architects-in-chief of the PSA.

Two projects in the exhibition use the PSA itself as their focus. Zhang Jiajing’s “9 Pieces” cuts a metal model of the building into nine sections. “Once a building is sliced,” Zhang claims, “it loses its arrogance.” “Museum Watching” by Bu Bing and Chai Tao is a circle of television monitors playing videos shot throughout the PSA. The work acknowledges that the act of visiting a museum has become as important as seeing its art.

Spectacle complements other recent events in Shanghai dedicated to new museums, including The Future of the Museum exhibition at the HKU/Shanghai Study Centre and "MUSEUM? The Art Museum-ification of Shanghai” symposia at the K11 Art Space. These projects share Spectacle’s intention to investigate the changes that come with museum construction. In both presenting and representing new museums in China, Spectacle succeeds in exploring not only what these new buildings look like, but also what they mean.

Clare Jacobson is a Shanghai-based design writer and author of the forthcoming book "New Museums in China".

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