A projection on one side of the room shows the artist Hu Xiangqian, dressed smartly in white shirt and black trousers, stepping in front of a lone microphone on the raised metal walkway in front of the Guangzhou Times Museum. In the process, he inaugurates the opening of the Xiangqian Art Museum, which had previously “opened” as part of the Asia Triennial Manchester 2011 in the UK, and in its first outing, as part of Taikang Space’s excellent series of solo shows under the umbrella title of 51m2 (referring to the area of the space for each of the sixteen shows in the series).
In each case, though, this “museum” is not a physical structure, or at least not a building: the institution of Xiangqian Art Museum is embodied by Hu’s own body, in which the artist describes himself as the sole employee. In each of the three instances of the Art Museum on display in Taikang Space’s upstairs room, Hu demonstrates the real and fictional objects in his Museum’s “collection.” This is done through his own movements and simultaneous verbal descriptions. In this way he performs the museum, taking on its duty of public display through the contortions of his body.
Appropriately enough, the realisation of Xiangqian Art Museum in Guangzhou (mentioned above) took place as part of curator Nikita Yingqian Cai’s A Museum That is Not exhibition, an impressive undertaking that I reviewed previously on ArtSlant. Cai’s show dealt with various approaches to the work of the museum and its legacy (and potential futures). Hu’s performance within this show disembodied the traditional structure of the museum as building + collection, removing all extraneous aspects leaving the artist as storyteller and performer of the institution and the works.
This act of embodiment is one of the consistent elements in Hu’s work. The artist uses his body to perform the subjects with which he deals. An early performance (Flying Blue Flag 2004-2005) saw the artist canvassing to be Village Head of his hometown, in the process becoming a somewhat hapless embodiment of the political process. In Sun 2008 he exposed his body to the suns rays until he tanned to the same shade as his African friends, as a way to experience how that would affect his life.
Another consistent aspect of Hu’s work is an absurdist sense of humour. His performances never take themselves too seriously, although sometimes it is not clear if this is by chance or design. Hu’s extravagant writhing in parts of the Xiangqian Art Museum reflects another work by the artist of two performers in one-piece costumes, spotted with large red or green dots, performing a stylised combat routine, akin to the acrobatic Capoeira martial art. The seriousness with which the performers “battle” becomes comedy through their costumes and location in what appears to be the middle of a road.
The embodiment seen in the three examples of Art Museum brought together at Taikang Space make clear that the activity is not so much about Hu’s phantom collection of artworks, nor the artworks themselves as part of a museum. The performance very specifically plays on the educational aspect of museums in general, the privileging of the creation and passing on of knowledge. Of course, in this case this is not done through a direct experience with the artworks themselves, but by an experience of the people who staff the museums and act as go-betweens, between the object and the audience.
What the artist’s efforts leave us with is the realisation that interpretation (by the educator or the audience) is a fraught task, the distance between object and understanding infinite, with neither holding any absolutely communicable meaning. The artwork for Hu Xiangqian exists as inextricable from its context, created by the way they are presented by and through the museum, in this case the Museum of his body, his body as critical analysis of museums in general.
(Image at top: Hu Xiangqian, 51m2, 2010; Courtesy of the artist and Taikang Space Beijing)