BREEDING ZOOS OF PEOPLE
AN INEVITABLE COMBINATION of charm and disenchantment coexists in virtually every culturally-implicated entity. The museums that rose to prominence in late-twentieth century China are no exception.
People are always trying to provide unequivocal definitions of what a museum is. But as carefully constructed cultural destinations, museums serve not merely to assert certain popular consensuses, but also to document divergences in worldview. The museum, like a crystal freshly withdrawn from a saturated solution, is strikingly incongruent with its environment. Contemporary Chinese art theory calls for culture to take roots in its native soil, but in practice, the results often seem barely rooted in this solar system. Museums are not so unusual in Western culture, and fine art museums are merely one subtype. But in China, the “fine art museum” connotes a special demographic and a special idiom, just as an ancient relic seems to take on a new hue once it is labeled a work of art.
The world outside of museums is invisible to the busy people in so-called art circles. Their field of vision is more or less restricted to self-examination. To apply that common expression, if they are not at the fine art museum, they are on the way to the fine art museum.
Twenty-two years of my life had passed before I found myself “on the way” to a fine art museum. That opportunity came during those heady years of cultural ascendance in China. I still remember the old Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA) on Xiaowei Hutong. Back on that frigid winter day, the trip from the Peking University campus in Haidian District to Wangfujing entailed taking a bus, transferring to the number 2 subway line, and then a short walk to the exhibition hall I wanted to visit. CAFA neighbored the Peking Union Medical College Hospital, which was founded by American missionaries in the early years of the twentieth century. The art school, designed by Zhang Kaiji, bore a resemblance to the hospital, which predated CAFA by more than 30 years. The building’s combination of Eastern and Western aesthetics was not completely in tune with its function as an exhibition space, but I must admit that the moment I stepped into the gallery, I felt for the first time that thing that since then I have felt in all sorts of fine art museums. The space had an unfamiliar feel to it: youths from the provinces and the elegant “hostesses” exchanged curious glances, but there seemed to be no possibility of interaction. Now and then, a passerby would step in through the cloth curtain. There was hardly any conversation. People entered in silence and left the same way. I flipped through the visitors’ book but did not see any comments on the art itself.
The road to the fine art museum is not without pretext; these visits are not mere coincidences. Before we end up on the road to the fine art museum, we must first ask ourselves: where is it? And what will we see when we get there? Most museums never possess any a priori identity. Prior to their hasty construction, or at least prior to our unexpected affair with them, most people had few psychological expectations of this kind of cultural space. For the majority of laypersons, viewing artworks is far less important than bearing witness to the present circumstances of art. Few contemporary artworks truly take root in their hearts. When they come to the museum, they come to see people, not artworks. The fine art museum has become a kind of motley theme park, especially in contemporary China. Or, in the words of Desmond Morris, it is a zoo with people instead of animals.
For visitors to unfamiliar cities, fine art museums are celebrated destinations. In most Western cities, they occupy prime central real estate. In the twentieth century, when Central Park gained greater independence from New York’s tightly-packed city grid— planned back in 1817— the only large building designated as part of the special park zone was the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Similarly, in Chicago, the Art Institute museum is the only building east of the Michigan Avenue lakeside Loop. And then there are the much older European fine art museums: it was King Frederick William IV who had the idea to build the Alte Nationalgalerie at the heart of Berlin’s old city. Art museums built more recently have not always been able to squeeze onto precious plots of central urban land, but even so, they remain important means of urban revitalization and gentrification. The New Museum in New York, designed by Kazuyo Sejima, has always been seen as a key part of the transformation of the shabby Bowery Street area.
But this location is a blurry one. A museum must become a certain kind of image in order to exist distinctly and find itself on visitors’ itineraries. According to the tenets of Western architecture, the image of a building is first of all determined by its façade. This kind of image is not equivalent to the concretization we speak of in art history. The major difference separating architecture from both naturalist and non-naturalist art is that the latter does not derive significance from resemblance. According to Kevin Lynch, image is the combination of identity, structure, and meaning. Images emerge from muddled environments; due to their picturesque quality and content, they disrupt urban homogeneity. In this sense, the art museum purveys more than contemporary and classical art. It goes further, intensely expressing disparate notions of “inside the frame” and “outside the frame,” and hinting at the fundamental presence of gaze.
Naturally, the design of contemporary art museums is no longer encapsulated by these concepts. At architect Peter Zumthor’s acclaimed Bregenz Art Museum, the architecture is deliberately obfuscated, but not completely closed. The semi-transparent, filter-like exterior of the structure asserts an image that seems to bridge the gap between what exists and what does not. Though it does not actually let you see anything, it changes how you see everything. In fact, this idea can be found in classical architecture too. Thus framing, and its successor, imaging, are both core concepts of the contemporary fine art museum.
Due to the charm of their incontrovertible images, art museums have themselves become works of art. As a consequence, we must re-examine our terminology: are they art museums or fine art museums? Each formulation comes with its own baggage, just as “looking” and “seeing” create different “views.” For a visitor, merely “looking” has no significance.
In China, only recently have people begun speaking of “art,” as opposed to “fine art.” In English, art museums are not lexically distinguished from other museums; in Chinese, the term “fine art” was more commonly used at first, reflecting the introversion and aloofness of the initial artistic discourse. Cai Yuanpei, one of China’s early modern pedagogues, advocated for “replacing religion with aesthetic education.” He believed aesthetic education, a fundamentally broader concept than fine arts, would imbue students with “reflections transcending the mundane world.” In a different vein, Lü Cheng stated that “fine arts” could only reveal the isolation of “the darker side of life,” while Wang Guowei believed that “fine arts are the religion of high society.” These perspectives reflected the limited popularity of fine art museums from the very beginning. And so, in China the term “fine arts museum” sounds closer to concert hall than it does the great amphitheater. Moreover, thanks to Chinese architectural tradition and the defects wrought by the big city, the museum lacks a clear façade, and the interior lacks the “transparency” generated by spatial clarity. Without having a solid understanding of how contemporary art has come to be,the majority of contemporary art museums designed by Chinese architects are little more than isolated fortresses smack in the middle of the city.
IN MODERN CITIES, fine arts museums are no longer independent enclaves. Their relationships with cities merit detailed examination. Cities are complex systems in which a fine arts museum influences the surrounding area. It is both a lonely island in the sea of human sentiment and also a junction of urban cultural exchange. From the National Mall in Washington, DC to Berlin’s Museum Island, and even in highly privatized New York, major metropolitan museums are always surrounded by a smattering of art galleries. This is why art always likes to exist in “art districts.” Despite their individuality, artists always love to be “alone together.” Indeed, art museums sometimes seem to constitute cities rather than merely inhabit them. In addition to large art districts composed of multitudinous individual elements, such as Soho and 798, our ever-expanding contemporary cities are home to more and more large-scale “integrated” art districts. In the words of Koolhaas, the bigness in contemporary culture is both necessary and inevitable, and the exhibition of art is not necessarily its primary function. The above-mentioned premeditated culture of small-scale European cities is no longer practical; the new bigness does not seek synergy with its environment, because it constructs its own circumstances. And it is not a bad thing for a fine art museum to be large enough to become such an independent system. The more vibrant its image, the greater its contribution to the city.
It is not difficult for a visitor to find one such fine art museum amid the hustle and bustle of the metropolis. The difficulty lies in gaining entrance. From the perspective of the individual, the fine art museum is more than a place, a public image, and a destination (these are its collective aspects). It is also the ultimate space, a private space to be appreciated by the individual eye and soul. This space is not exclusive of its other attributes, such as its public image, which may carry hints of its private image. But a private image sounds like something that is not easily established. It reveals the identity conflict intrinsic to the fine art museum, which is partially a product of its much-heralded “publicness.” It is precisely this publicness that allows contemporary society to recognize individuality. But art’s capacity to catalyze human knowledge systems only works through methods of systemization. Due to its oscillation between collective and individual, the contemporary fine art museum is both a gentle mold and a loudspeaker on the boulevard. Its ultimate inclusiveness conceals the societal conflicts and contradictions it seeks to expose.
In addition to its ostensible severity and clamor, the fine art museum contains within its depths an invisible void. This void is a place for silence and contemplation; it is not the museum’s most spectacular aspect. I learned this in the moment I first set foot in the old CAFA exhibition hall on Xiaowei Hutong. Public contemporary art is in fact both bashful and private. There are some words between the art and the audience that can only be shared in glances over the shoulder, for they are inappropriate to mention face-to-face.
THE MUSEUM AS ROAD
ULTIMATELY, THE FINE art museum is itself a road, and we are talking about more than the long way we must walk before we get to it. Conventionally imagined, the fine art museum is a holy place at the end of a long and arduous journey. A typical example is the Miho Museum designed by I.M. Pei, to reach which one must take several modes of transportation, and even then can only be approached on foot. But in the contemporary city, people must constantly “penetrate” a fine art museum in order to break down the barrier between static exhibition and dynamic life. This seemingly unthinkable “penetration” takes a few forms:
—The fine art museum is not only an abstract locale but also a physical entity of certain scale, and in this way integrates “place” and “face”;
—The image of the fine art museum is not only external but also internal, and in this way destroys the barriers between collective and individual;
—The fine art museum is not only a special cultural space but also the general designation of a kind of cultural event, and in this way one can be both at the museum and on the way to the museum.
Peoples’ conceptions of fine art museums seem inextricably linked to paintings. In the Chinese language, they are architecturally categorized as galleries or “painting halls.” But contrary to the prevailing typology, galleries are unable to completely elevate the status of paintings, and the contemporary fine art museum is no longer a place for quiet observation. The perpendicular relationship between the museum visitor’s gaze and gait renders ineffective the illusory reenactments of traditional naturalist art. The fine art museum is no longer a personal temple or an overflowing cup; its winding paths have poked holes in its traditional significance.
The road is one of the most popular themes in art history. Distinct little trails run through early Roman frescos and da Vinci’s landscapes of light and shade. When space emerges from movement in classical painting, the audience can follow along its illusory path, whether it’s Van Gogh’s Avenue of Poplars in Autumn, Levitan’s The Vladimirka Road, or the all-too familiar Chairman Mao Goes to Anyuan. But the galleries that show these paintings pull the viewer’s body and mind off of these roads: the painted one before their eyes and the real one before their feet, the obscure one in their thoughts, and the one that is an unavoidable fact of contemporary culture. The special ceremonial places formed by manmade art have already diverged from the worldly path of humans, and the two roads meet and part at the whim of the wind.
Herein lies the circumstantial significance we mentioned above. People turn “artistic” art on their way to the fine art museum, but before they set out on that road, their lives are implicated in a bigger set of circumstances. You could say that these circumstances are those of the “nonmuseum”world, but you could also say that the road to the museum exists there already.
In addition to putting on exhibitions, a major fine art museum also has the following functions: meditation (the loftiest option), instruction (even the most democratic fine art museums will not do away with instruction), education (the equal kind, which is the opposite of instruction), and exchange (seen as the latest development in contemporary museums). The foreseeable future may hold a model of museum completely different from the prevailing trends of today, one that perhaps entails an intellectual supper at the museum equivalent to Breakfast at Tiffany’s. People will have no need to go look at paintings.
After all, most people who visit fine art museums simply walk past a few artworks and then completely forget them.