The premise put forward by curator Nikita Cai for A Museum That is Not favours a broad engagement with the idea of the museum, the related social and material effects of such an institution, as well as the point at which it becomes other than a museum (or—to view it from the other direction—the point at which the other becomes a museum). What we are presented with is a show that, while somewhat disparate, includes tangential approaches that refresh the overall theme while avoiding proscription of its meanings.
Guangzhou’s Times Museum inhabits the ground and top floor of an urban residential block in the north of the city. Rather than housing a collection, its programme focuses on research, temporary exhibitions and related activities. It nurtures its place in the local community – the Museum’s programme and the situation of the physical space in the residential block working well to promote their attractions and outreach. This show in particular includes a broad range of elements and possibilities for engaging the community, from the static exhibition, through interactive archives and external events.
The title of the show and its occurrence within a museum suggests a step towards institutional critique, but this reading is made uncertain in the very first sentence of Cai’s introductory text. She emphasizes this particular Museum’s “site-specific” nature in amongst “the bank next door, the shop nearby….” Cai settles on the museum being “deferred,” as a subversion with “unexpected encounters between a museum and a non-museum.” In tandem with the Museum’s own remit, the curator leaves space for a more expansive understanding of the museum, the artists and artwork within society.
For instance, announced with some vibrant signage on a section of their street frontage, Xiangqian Museum by Hu Xiangqian stands waiting for the artist to perform to the world in a piece originally shown in Beijing’s Taikang Space/51m2 project space. Hu’s work always displays a sense of the surreal, and here he will be fleshing out his imaginary museum by performing the artworks for the audience. The awkward contortions the artist assumes as he tries to convey the nature of the artworks suggest the artist as direct embodiment of the museum.
The ground floor spaces entered from the street are occupied by Encounter, a collection of works installed by Museum of Unknown. Museum of the Unknown are a fluid group which act as facilitator for artists’ projects, providing an umbrella organisation within which the works are displayed. There their subverted furniture and objects with a common theme being the incorporation of fans, display ingenuity and add a light touch to A Museum That is Not. They set a playful tone for the audience who awaits the lifts nearby, providing a buffer zone before the more austere spaces on the upper level.
Upstairs, artist and curator Liu Ding develops his series of critiques of the institutions of art, with a set of seats and tables hewn from logs with short stubby legs and lacquered on their top surfaces with bright yellow paint. For the artist these are a commission as part of his relationship with the Museum, and for the audience these practical additions act as mediators between them and the spaces. In another piece he conducts one of his trademark conversations between himself, Nikita Cai and his partner Carol Lu, with the Museum staff filmed as the audience. He undertakes this activity to communicate an understanding of his works in this show so that the staff can then communicate this with the general public.
Next door, the Museum of American Art in Berlin has taken up residence, presenting a collection of painted reproductions of Modernist “masterpieces” related to MoMA New York’s founding exhibition of Cubism and Abstract Art. This presents what seems to be a simplistic effort to jog our understanding of these works’ place in art history and the development of Modernism, by having the originals reproduced and resituating their histories by changing their dates.
As well as these and other installations, side projects address parallel interests and surrounding communities, with lectures and open studios, an open archival room based on the material for the show, and a discussion between the curator and “a senior movie fan.” The Beijing group HomeShop are in the process of creating a newspaper for the show, which will report events on a particular day in the future (the 9th of October). On that day the staff will realize all the predicted events in the areas surrounding the Museum. On October 23rd, the Chart Contemporary team, known for their temporary, offsite presentations will curate artist Zhang Xiangxi’s Second Hand Shop in a vacant store space nearby.
I think A Museum That is Not is an interesting presentation, its lack of specificity opening up valuable opportunities for discourse with many audiences. The curator shies away from directly associating this show with the consequences and legacy of institutional critique, however, and as a consequence the show perhaps feels a little unfocused. The participants display a good selection of positions in relation to a critique of the museum in general, and this show seems to be a more down-to-earth approach to the task, connecting with a wider audience where appropriate. Described as “a reflective journey,” The Museum That is Not is an ambitious proposal, a difficult show to evaluate, but nevertheless provides an interesting set of encounters with the institution.
-- Edward Sanderson, a writer and curator living in Beijing.
(All images courtesy of the Times Museum and the artists.)
[Note: Edward Sanderson’s visit to A Museum That is Not was hosted by the Guangzhou Times Museum]