Jul 02 2014

Opening of the Yuz Museum: “Myth/History: Yuz Collection of Contemporary Art”

by Xhingyu Chen

HUANG YONGPING, Snake Tower, 2009, aluminum, bamboo, steel, 1189 × 1128 × 660 cm. Installed in “Myth/History: Yuz Collection of Contemporary Art” at Yuz Museum, Shanghai, 2014. Courtesy Yuz Museum. 

Back in 2006, the government of Shanghai ambitiously declared their mission to build 100 new museums by decade’s end. Now, nearly ten years since, it has unsurprisingly not reached this lofty goal; yet the city has nonetheless seen a significant museum boom in recent years, thanks mainly to the proliferation of private institutions. In less than a decade, Shanghai has averaged a new museum per year, with even more to come. In May, the city welcomed its newest addition, the Yuz Museum, which houses the extensive collection of Indonesian-Chinese art collector Budi Tek. 

The Yuz Museum has been years in the making, with its opening delayed and its location changed various times since it was announced almost six years ago. The building itself is still a work in progress (they have yet to finish the media center/ library and other public areas), but it seems they did not want to delay its opening any longer. For its inaugural show, guest curator Wu Hung brought together key pieces from the Yuz collection in “Myth/History: Yuz Collection of Contemporary Art,” which explored how these narratives—myth and history—inform art making. It was a neat categorization, with installations and sculptural works falling under “myth,” and paintings and photography under “history.” Chinese artists represented a majority of the show, though there were also key pieces from acclaimed international artists. 

ZHANG HUAN, Buddha Hand, 2006, copper, 450 × 670 × 140 cm. Copyright the artist. Courtesy Yuz Museum, Shanghai. 

When talking about the Yuz, it is tempting to compare it to the new branch of the Long Museum (the second to open in less than two years), its contemporary-art neighbor just down the road. Both house an impressive roster—a who’s who of Chinese contemporary art—and are monumental spaces (the Yuz a former airplane hangar redesigned by Japanese architect Sou Fujimoto, and the Long Museum a part of an extensive railroad and industrial area redesigned by local architect Liu Yichun), and both are situated along the southern edge of the Huangpu River, in an area dubbed the West Bund. But even a cursory view of “Myth/History” revealed the Yuz collection to be the more scholarly and progressive of the two. Staples of the recent Chinese contemporary art market, powerhouses like Zhang Huan, Yue Minjun, and Zeng Fanzhi, all made appearances, but so did artists like Yang Zhenzhong, Xu Bing, and MadeIn Company—artists whose works defy categorization. Also included in the Yuz show was Xu Bing’s Tobacco Project (2004), an immense undertaking (as are many of his works) consisting of installations large and small that utilize a total of 660,000 cigarettes. This piece sat alongside other monumental works in the Great Hall, such as Zhang Huan’s Buddha Hand (2006) and Huang Yongping’s Tower Snake (2009).

ADEL ABDESSEMEDTaxidermia, 2010, taxidermy, steel and wire, 170 × 170 × 170 cm. Copyright the artist. Courtesy Yuz Museum, Shanghai. 

XU BING, Tobacco Invention, 2004, 660,000 cigarettes, 900 × 700 cm. Courtesy Yuz Museum, Shanghai. 

Beyond the Great Hall were three, cleanly laid out galleries (one required visitors to don shoe protectors before entering to preserve the whiteness of its floors) that featured provocative works rarely seen in Shanghai. Taxidermia (2010), a piece by French artist Adel Abdessemed, is a cluster of taxidermied animals, many caught on hunts, packed into a dense cube. Certainly the site of such violence alone is enough to provoke a reaction, but it is its odor—musty, fetid and pungent—that awakens the mind to the notion of death. Palestinian-British artist Mona Hatoum intensified this atmosphere with Impenetrable (2009), a barbed wire installation with a dizzying effect that evokes feelings of conflict and suffering. 

In smaller galleries throughout the museum, viewers were able to familiarize themselves with the history of contemporary Chinese paintings. The lower galleries featured many major artists from various avant-garde movements of the 1980s, such as Zhang Peili, Geng Jianyi, Li Shan and Mao Xuhui. The works in the upper galleries spanned from the 1990s to the present day, anchored by Ding Yi’s The Appearance of Crosses 2013-11 (2013), a large-scale drawing in chalk and charcoal that is a sober departure from the neon canvases he is generally known for. The relative lack of younger artists in this section, however, was indicative of the current scarcity of talented new Chinese painters. Aside from a small corridor of photographs from Zhang Huan, Yang Fudong and Luo Yongjin, video and photography were underrepresented in this exhibition, which was a shame, given that the best new talents in the country are largely working with video and animation. But as a first show, “Myth/History” revealed a thoughtful attempt at creating a new canon for contemporary art in China. 

Installation view of "Myth/History: Yuz Collection of Contemporary Art” at Yuz Museum, Shanghai, 2014. Foreground: MONA HATOUM, Impenetrable, 2009, black-finished steel and fishing wire, 300 × 300 × 300 cm. Courtesy Yuz Museum. 

Myth/History: Yuz Collection of Contemporary Art” at the Yuz Museum, Shanghai, runs through November 18, 2014.