MANY Chinese museums open with a fine first exhibition, but are soon as empty as swimming pools without water. Museum founders are good at what they do, so good that for the past few years a new museum has opened every day in China. But keeping them going, they say, is more difficult. Putting together collections, training curatorial staff and planning inspired exhibition programmes all but defeats them.
That historic weakness is about to be challenged by two new private museums of contemporary art in Shanghai. One is the Long Museum, the brainchild of Liu Yiqian and Wang Wei, a billionaire couple who develop property and buy art. The other one is the Yuz Museum, inaugurated on May 18th by a wealthy Indonesian-Chinese businessman, Budi Tek.
Both museums are based on extensive collections amassed by their founders. Both are in an area of urban regeneration known as the West Bund Cultural Corridor, the old industrial port area on Shanghai’s Huangpu river, which is being given a new lease of life thanks to the efforts of Sun Jiwei, formerly an architect and an energetic district mayor. West Bund is already home to an architecture biennial and a music festival. Earlier this year DreamWorks Animation announced that a $2.4 billion entertainment district would open for business there in 2017.
Mr Liu and Ms Wang are best known for their world-class collection of ancient Chinese scroll-paintings and their mid-20th-century communist art, displayed at the original Long Museum, which opened across the river in Pudong in 2012. They began buying contemporary art in 2008. Since then they have acquired some representative pieces for the new Long Museum in West Bund, including an interesting example of one of Yue Minjun’s paintings of grimacing, pink-faced men, “On the Lake” (1994), and a large yellow triple portrait from Zeng Fanzhi’s “Mask Series” (1996), both of which sold for a hefty price at auction in Hong Kong in 2010. But the Long’s founders started too late to build up a comprehensive collection of important Chinese art from the mid-1980s.
To plug the gap, brand-new works, such as Gao Weigang’s sleek staircase made of stainless steel and titanium, are complemented by a selection of paintings going back to the early 20th century. Viewers seem to like the mix. Despite a 50 yuan ($8) entry fee, high by Chinese standards, the halls are often crowded with Chinese couples taking selfies against the best-known paintings, and groups of foreign tourists following professional guides lecturing to them in German and Dutch.
A mile downriver on a corniche walk planted with ginkgo trees is Mr Tek’s Yuz Museum. Set in a disused military aircraft hangar, it is smaller than the Long Museum, but possibly more interesting. The Long’s holdings of early 20th-century paintings by Chinese artists who trained in Paris are a reminder of the artistic connections that used to exist between China and Europe. Mr Tek, by contrast, has chosen to exhibit monumental recent works from the Western canon alongside pieces by Chinese artists. Traditionally the two are exhibited separately or, in the case of Western pieces in China, mostly not at all. Far from being completely different, though, they have an obvious common humanity.
The Indonesian museum founder is a close friend of François Pinault, the French collector and owner of Christie’s. He admits that he has been influenced by Mr Pinault’s taste. Like the Frenchman, Mr Tek has acquired several pieces by Adel Abdessemed, a French-Algerian installation artist, and by Maurizio Cattelan, an Italian. Wu Hung, a thoughtful art historian from the University of Chicago, has called Yuz’s first show, which he curated, “Myth/History”. He has made some clever choices from Mr Tek’s collection. Thus Mr Abdessemed’s coiled installation, built from aircraft cones and tails, “Telle Mère Tel Fils” (pictured), has something of the Chinese dragon in it, and mirrors Huang Yongping’s massive “Tower Snake”, which has been placed right beside it.
Mr Tek maintains he is not interested in politics, and he has been careful to display nothing overtly political in Yuz’s first show. There are, for example, no works by Ai Weiwei, who designed the Bird’s Nest stadium for the 2008 Olympic games in Beijing, but whose criticism of the government led to his detention by police for nearly three months in 2011. (Mr Tek says he prefers to show his Ai Weiwei works in his museum in Jakarta.) Yet it is hard for visitors to ignore the sensitive subliminal messages in some of the pieces on show, especially the Chinese works.
In “Calm”, an installation completed in 2009 by MadeIn Company—led by a Shanghai artist, Xu Zhen—broken bricks are laid out on top of a water mattress that is invisible to visitors. The bricks seem to be breathing, a nod to the Sichuan earthquake, which killed 87,000 people the year before this piece was made (many of them perishing as a result of shoddily built schools and other buildings). Xu Bing’s “Tobacco Project”, a “tiger rug” of 660,000 cigarettes (pictured) was first made ten years ago for a museum in North Carolina, but the overwhelming smell cannot help but remind visitors of China’s big smoking problem—not to mention the tigerskin’s obvious association with the South China tiger, which has been hunted so aggressively it has not been seen in the wild for 25 years.
But it is “Freedom”, a high-pressure water hose installed in a metal tank by Sun Yuan and Peng Yu, a controversial pair who are based in Beijing, that makes the strongest impression. The hose bucks and kicks as the water jet smacks onto the sides of the tank, threatening to break its windows. As Mr Tek calmly explains: “China as a dragon cannot be contained. This is a symbol of a rising people.” But for the VIPs invited to the museum’s opening night (much of China’s artistic elite and the French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius), the feeling was more of being a protester facing the water cannon. One of the biggest conundrums confronted by the Chinese government is how to keep control of a society that is being flooded with information. The first Yuz show will remind people that sleeping dragons wake up.