The core project of virtually every private museum in mainland China to open over the past few years has been the codification of a historical background for the collection at stake, and glaringly obvious missteps have been many. Shanghai’s Minsheng Art Museum has brought a multi-pronged strategy to the table; their first official opening exhibition presented 30 years of Chinese contemporary art through painting, a show that managed to borrow, buy, and otherwise obtain access to a number of truly brilliant works rarely in the public view. This year sees something of a sequel to that blockbuster, an attempt at working through the 20-odd years of video art in China. Examining the failures of this particular exhibition may offer a telling glimpse into how the museum system operates today: working with high-profile and reclusive collectors--even other museums--is a simple task, but the promise of an open field (this is the first comprehensive survey of Chinese video art within China) proves too much to handle for the limited research and ethical capacities of the institution.
Leaving aside a separate first room to the side of the lobby (which we will return to shortly), the exhibition starts with a promising set of monitors and projections: Zhang Peili, of course, is given pride of place with his mirror-repairing and chicken-washing performance pieces, as is a rarely exhibited early video from Yan Lei involving a 15-meter string ingested as noodles. In a similar space to the opposite of this first wall, key Zhu Jia, Lin Yilin, and Li Yongbin videos occupy an interesting position, albeit both with widely viewed pieces (Zhu’s airplane takeoff that never takes off; Lin’s mobile brick wall that moves across a street; Li Yongbin’s reflected faces). Then everything comes crashing down. Half a dozen videos in, the viewer is just meters into a single massive hangar space that contains dozens upon dozens of screens, some in the form of wall-hanging monitors with headphones, some projected on walls seemingly at random, and some in the museum equivalent of private dining rooms. Some of the work is highly exciting and incredibly important; much of it is not. Some is impressively installed, as with Qiu Zhijie’s painted face projected on a reconstructed tile bathroom backdrop; most is not.
Installation and scale aside, the exhibition is most severely hampered by an inability to actually make any claim for this history. Minsheng, as an organization, claims leading curator Guo Xiaoyan and artist Zhou Tiehai, as well as fund manager He Juxing, all of whom bring their own expansive networks into most corners of Chinese contemporary art; it also has the financial wherewithal to bring together almost anything it could devise. And yet this exhibition is so obviously planned through checklists: rather than tell an historical story of influence, evolution, argumentation, and aesthetics, we end up with a long list of work from artists who happen to have made one or two videos, but who clearly stake a claim to importance in the current moment. The most egregious inclusion here is Yang Fudong. Naturally, his unforgettable older videos are included in the exhibition, but so is a brand new piece otherwise premiering this month in London, an historically unnecessary and aesthetically questionable “think piece” that nevertheless acts as the first work visitors to the exhibition will view.
The problem continues to the rear of the main hall and upstairs. In one corner, it would seem that all of China’s female artists who have ever picked up a video camera are herded together in their own special hell of flowers and cloth: Cui Xiuwen is rightfully here, but so are a host of others who seem to be bracketed off from the narrative at large. Liu Chuang, certainly one of the most brilliant young artists working in Beijing today, has done little to warrant inclusion in a survey of video art, except for the fact that he produced a single moving image piece last year. Likewise, Jiang Pengyi is a strong photographer, but has never been known for his video. Huang Ran, who premiered a compelling if not yet historical short film on high-definition projectors just last year, here sees his piece reduced to the quality of a YouTube video. If such exceptional artists are included for unexceptional video, what of the unexceptional artists who accidentally made screen history? That story is not told here; ultimately, this is a political grouping that safely involves precisely one Hong Kong artist (Ellen Pau), precisely one Taiwanese artist (Tseng Yu-chin), a handful of women, and the same club of boys and men that dominates the gallery circuit.
All of which would be forgivable, if only the curators had made the slightest attempt to string it all together, to place the emphasis on the history of a medium and set of techniques. Instead, the audience learns simply that these are the names that constitute the field of Chinese art today, and several of them have made passable works on video.
-- Robin Peckham
(All images courtesy of the Minsheng Art Museum and the artists.)