Jan 10 2019

Field Trip: Wuhan’s Donghu Shan Art Museum

by Wei Hao Qi

Installation view of SHEN AIQI‘s Vines in Early Spring, 2016, ink on paper, 245 x 622.5 cm, at the artist’s solo exhibition, Donghu Shan Art Museum, Wuhan, 2018–19. Photo by Gao Yu. All images courtesy Donghu Shan Art Museum.  

Depending on which source one reads, there have been over 5,000 museums built in China in the past decade. In 2018 alone, 2,000 new institutions have sprung up across the nation. This staggering growth has been driven by a number of factors: the Chinese government indicated in 2011 that it expected the private sector to shoulder the responsibility and cost of developing the country’s museum sector. Since then, companies seeking a smoother path to official approval for their property developments have included a museum within their plans. This, coupled with a burgeoning middle class and the desire to quickly acquire cultural credentials among China’s newly minted billionaires, goes some way to explain the boom. Rarely, however, does filial piety get mentioned as a motivation.

Exterior view of the Donghu Shan Art Museum and SHEN AIQI‘s Over the Cloud, 2018, ink on paper, 1935 × 300 cm, at the artist’s solo exhibition, 2018–19. Photo by Gu.

On the site of a former pig farm, nestled among grand sequoias overlooking the East Lake in Wuhan, the newly inaugurated Donghu Shan Art Museum began its life as a project dedicated to Chinese ink artist Shen Aiqi. His son, Shen Zhou, secured the land from the government and received permission to build a modest, single-level museum, designed by architect Zhang Meng, who also contributed to the funding for the project. Friends and family provided additional financial support, while the nearby Hubei Museum of Art is a strategic partner. The result is an example of the nascent private-public museum partnerships that now make up a growing majority of China’s arts platforms.

SHEN AIQISpring Water Sound, 2018ink on paper, 360 x 145.4 cm.

The inaugural exhibition of the Donghu Shan Art Museum was, of course, something of a devotional to Shen Aiqi, featuring his magnificent ink-on-paper works. Nevertheless, the new museum is determined to embark on a broader program of contemporary art exhibitions, putting Shen within a wider artistic context.

Born in Hubei Province in 1941, Shen has been engaged in the exploration of traditional ink since his youth, and by the late-1950s was already a dedicated student of great Hubei master Xu Song’an. However, he rarely showed his work to anyone outside of his family, and it was only after he turned 71 that he was exhibited, with a solo show at the Wuhan Art Museum. Titled “Attitude” and comprising boldly energetic shanshui ink paintings, that exhibition caused a sensation among local art circles. Pi Daojian, a Wuhan art critic and the exhibition’s academic director, described Shen as one of the eccentric art geniuses of Hubei.

Sitting squarely within the tradition of Chinese landscape, Shen has led a somewhat hermetic life of studying Hubei’s mountains and lakes, with a singular focus on the minutiae of water, fauna, as well as the movements of the wilderness. Shen has always believed that it is crucial for artists to walk their own paths. ln the 1980s, when the Reform policies were first instituted in China, many people became obsessed with escaping the scarcity they had endured and sought every means possible to improve their material well-being. By contrast, Shen’s concerns at this time were anchored by the idea that “man and nature are as one.” Although this concept is fundamental to the Chinese philosophical tradition, it has been largely forgotten—even rejected—by Chinese people today. 

Shen’s continued belief in the philosophy was reflected in his recent compositions, on view at the Donghu Shan Art Museum. Executed en plein air, his scenes of uninhibited growth, ghostly trees, overgrown forests and distant mountains took up entire walls at the exhibition. Elsewhere in the show, tangled vines and roots, splashing fish and wading birds, all captured in Shen’s rapid, freestyle method, similarly reflected his local environment before the rampant construction typical of Wuhan today.

SHEN AIQIInfatuation of the Forest, 2018, ink on paper, 137.7 cm x 69.7 cm. 

SHEN AIQIPlum Trees in the Mountain, 2018, ink on paper, 138.5 x 70 cm. 

There is a sense of nostalgia, both in Shen’s paintings and the mission of the Donghu Shan Art Museum, which seems born of a desire to capture a particular moment in Chinese art and cultural history before it is paved and modernized, alongside the simple wish to promote filial affection and admiration. While China sees the exploration of many different museological models, the Donghu Shan Art Museum stands out as a humble example against a landscape of commercial, blockbuster driven institutions. 

Shen Aiqi’s solo exhibition is on view at the Donghu Shan Art Museum, Wuhan, until February 1, 2019.

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