A continuing concern amongst artists and art professionals in China is the nature and role of the museum in the art ecosystem. Certainly I have concerns myself – the museum has become something of a catch-all term to cover a disparate set of spaces and activities that sometimes have little to do with a traditional understanding of the term. In my experience, the term “museum” can be a bit of a misleading one.
While this is a known failing with the art-institutional landscape in China which deserves deeper attention than I can give in this review, artists, curators and institutions nevertheless are addressing the issue. In recent months, I have visited (and reviewed in some cases) shows that reflect features of museum practice in part to critique it and its development, grappling with the ways in which museums and other art institutions are put into practice. These have included Little Movements (at OCAT, Shenzhen) and The Museum That is Not (at Times Museum, Guangzhou).
Nikita Cai, curator of the latter, included the group Museum of the Unknown-- their rambling presentation just one of a series of shows currently on display or planned by this group of artists. Vortex (at Central Academy of Fine Arts Museum as part of CAFAM Biennial: Super-Organism), Encounter (at Times Museum) and Pattern (at Space Station), are proposed to be followed by future shows entitled Disappear, Symmetry and Psychoanalysis of Geography. This set of six shows purport to present a broad-ranging engagement between art and scientific thinking. The group suggest they create investigatory installations into the museum and gallery spaces they occupy, leading to new approaches to practices contained and engendered therein. In reality I feel way they pose their questions leads to some problematic areas of knowledge production.
Entering Space Station, the sheer volume of material is striking: the room seems packed with objects that may or may not be artworks, with the importance placed on such a designation reduced in the process. Variously finished constructed objects; materials lying loose on the floor; pictures and paintings on the walls; drawings, diagrams, books and video projections all vie for form and attention within the space.
18 participant artists are listed, but—as with the loose approach to form—there is often no direct indication as to individual authorship. I could recognise Li Wen’s porcelain panels propped around the walls, but many works in their disparate media make identification difficult. The edges of He Yida’s strangely attractive arrangement of foil, paper, gauze and other objects are deliberately unclear and bleed into the other works. The scientific side of the presentation is the most clearly attributed part, as the many books and photocopied articles placed around the room display an author in every case. However some of the artworks reflect this appearance to make this clarity difficult.
This is playfully compounded by hundreds of ping-pong balls scattered throughout the space, collecting in drifts and blurring the boundaries between any works that might assert their individuality. These balls take on an active part of the installation as visitors disturb them, and a collection of upright fans create air currents pushing the balls around. As one walks between the works, the wind currents provide temperature changes as well as pressure variations that subtly affect the experience.
Superficially-speaking, these fans are a consistent motif for Museum of the Unknown, appearing in Guangzhou where the fans intersperse the space, while a small table is embedded with a large example and its metal grill. A larger table at CAFAM provides space for eight people, each with their own embedded fan.
Museum of the Unknown present this format as a meeting of art and science, arising from discussions between artists and scientists. But while elements from both sides are present, a particular meaning or resulting direction from this mass of material is difficult to discern. The point seemed to be to avoid these divisions altogether and create a situation where the ways of thinking bleed into each other perhaps to allow for leaps of insight between the two. However, in some respects this vagueness of purpose and definition led to an uncomfortable association of the material with magic and mysticism – a deliberate misreading of both art and science that leaves the impression of delirium and fantastical insights. Despite this reading, the experience of the show is certainly interesting and an antidote to the vast majority of superficial or superfluous shows.
-- Edward Sanderson
(All images courtesy of Space Station and the artists.)