LONG MUSEUM, SHANGHAI
When the Long Museum West Bund opened in 2013, many wondered how it would solicit repeat visits to the collection of Wang Wei and Liu Yiqian. Hosting visiting exhibitions is one strategy: Brazilian pop artist Vik Muniz was recently featured. Another would be remixing the ex- isting collection; artist Xu Zhen DJs “1199 People.”
As the title suggests, Xu chooses to focus on the museum’s large collection of portraiture, mostly oil paintings on canvas from the 1980s to the present. Over 300 works, featuring a combined 1,199 people, are ar- ranged in groups of four that climb the 12-meter walls of the museum’s ground f loor galleries. On the f loor above, foursomes are installed in frames that project out into the room, allowing them to fit under much lower ceilings.
Each foursome follows the same scheme from bottom to top, with works depicting first a woman, then a man, then a woman and a man together, and finally a group of people. Xu says this arrangement is both descriptive and normative. We begin in the womb of a woman and gradu- ally enter society; starting out alone, we should aim for the “paradise” of community.
While each foursome strictly follows this scheme, there’s little that connects the works within a foursome or justifies their arrangement. Xu doesn’t really perform the role of curator. Nothing is done to identify themes, contextualize the works, or maximize their impact. In- deed, many pieces are too small and hung too high to see clearly.
Arranging the foursomes in chronological order, for instance, would have allowed for simple inferences about how Chinese artists have depicted different subjects over time. There are still biases in representations of women, men, couples, and groups that transcend style and period; there are more female than male nudes, for example, but that’s all pretty banal, and beside the point.
In a discussion with Hans Ulrich Obrist, who sug- gested he curate the show, Xu said, “my approach is just a structure.” That’s correct. This is a conceptual art work disguised as an exhibition.
By hewing so closely to his structure, Xu refuses to engage with the individual pieces in the Long collec- tion. He isn’t circumscribed by the collectors’ tastes, and doesn’t have to create tenuous or tedious connections be- tween works. In fact, any paintings of people would do— that’s why, in a sense, it doesn’t matter that you can’t really make some of them out. That’s likely to frustrate viewers who haven’t already seen the individual works. Seen as an art work, however, Xu’s simple conceit could hardly be more obvious.
As is often the case with Xu Zhen’s work, it’s hard to say just how much criticism (of Wang Wei’s purchases in particular, and of super-wealthy art collectors in general) is implicit in his spectacularly dismissive treatment of the Long Museum’s collection.