Installation view of LIU JIANHUA’s Blank Paper (2009), for “The Making of a Museum” at Aurora Museum, Shanghai. Courtesy Aurora Museum.

The Making Of A Museum

Aurora Museum

In the growing hype surrounding Shanghai’s new museums, one particular institution tends to get overlooked: the Aurora Museum, which opened in 2013 and focuses on the venerable collection of Chinese antiquities owned by the Taiwanese corporation Aurora Group. The museum also hosts specially curated shows and touring exhibitions. Its most current show, “The Making of a Museum,” which coincides with the latest Shanghai Biennale, gives an intriguing look at what is in store when the museum’s expansion opens next year.

What exactly is “Chinese art?” It is a query that seems to be an underlying theme of conversations that discuss the topic in question. “The Making of the Museum” provides what is possibly the clearest examination of the issue. Past and present are connected, not through casual references but via thoughtful considerations of how contemporary practices are informed by tradition and history. Curator Davide Quadrio asked seven artists to reflect on the Aurora Museum’s collection of antiquities, some of which are considered the most exquisite pieces in private hands. Rather than go the obvious route and create jarring side-by-side juxtapositions, the commissioned pieces are exhibited seamlessly within the museum’s permanent collection, some providing the subtlest of nods to history and others playing off the architecture of the space itself. In order for an exhibition like this to succeed, it cannot just be about respecting the collection and what it represents. The contemporary artworks must find inspiration in (and not merely reproduce) classical pieces and provide new ways for viewers to see the collection through a fresh perspective.

LIU JIANHUA, Bone, 2009, porcelain, 12 × 182 × 10 cm. Courtesy Aurora Museum, Shanghai. 

QIU ZHIJIE, Unicorn, 2013, Murano glass, dimensions variable. Courtesy Aurora Museum, Shanghai. 

LI SHURUI, Wave, 2014, acrylic on canvas, 200 × 300 cm.  Courtesy Aurora Museum, Shanghai. 

Several pieces by ceramic artist Liu Jianhua embody the exhibition’s concept in the most beautiful manner. A long bone made from celadon (Bone, 2009), placed nonchalantly on a bench in one of several galleries devoted to classical ceramics, recalls the traditions of pottery-making while simultaneously referencing the principles of archeology—namely, the uncovering of buried history and the revealing of humanity behind ancient artifactsElsewhere, installed among antique Buddhist sculptures, is Liu’s Blank Paper (2009), which consist of crisp, bone-white ceramic sheets that embody the Buddhist notion of Sunyata, or “emptiness” in which nothing is added or taken away. Meanwhile, artist Qiu Zhijie, whose practice involves bridging traditional practices with contemporary concepts, also contributed several pieces that were originally displayed as a solo project at the Fondazione Querini Stampalia in 2013. One of his works, Unicorn (2013), a sculpture rendered in Murano glass, provides a point of reference for a nearby figure of a Bixie (a winged, divine beast in Chinese tradition) from the permanent collection. Mythologies are linked across cultures and add another layer of understanding to viewing the Aurora Museum’s antique collection.

Also in the exhibition is Li Shurui, who has contributed a work that is an homage to the museum itself and features an optical illusion that unsettles the viewer’s sense of space. In a painting entitled Wave (2014), fuzzy dots rendered in the same soft grays as the museum walls appear as a dizzying pattern that makes the walls seem alive. The effect is all the more remarkable considering the artist’s decision to keep the piece unlit. Here, artwork and wall become one breathing, symbiotic unit.

Meanwhile, Taiwanese artist Michael Lin stepped outside the quiet, hallowed halls of the main museum, choosing to pay his respects to the kitschy exterior architecture of the building. Indeed, the Aurora Museum complex is a mixture of jarring contrasts, with its golden exterior that lights up with projected images at night, faux-Baroque interior of its vast lobby and subdued galleries in the museum—all of which perfectly encapsulates the nouveau-riche aesthetics of contemporary China. Lin created a large-scale carpet installation inspired by Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret’s designs for the capitol buildings in India during the 1950s. Entitled After Chandigarh (2014), Lin’s work references the modernization of India in recent years, while also providing a parallel to the similar situation taking place in today’s China. The piece is enhanced by another of Lin’s work, Smashed (2014), which has transformed the massive windows of the museum’s halls to have a faux stain-glass look, by applying colorful bits of vinyl to them.

View of MICHAEL LIN’s carpet installation After Chandigarh (2014) and faux stain-glass windows Smashed (2014), for “The Making of a Museum” at Aurora Museum, Shanghai. Courtesy Aurora Museum.

Not surprisingly, out of all of the exhibited works, the video pieces seem to have the most difficulty in connecting with the museum’s space and collection. The works of Kan Xuan, who is known for her minimalist performances and multimedia works, are presented on old-fashioned TV monitors—their bulk and harsh geometry contrasting too bluntly with the rest of the exhibition. Her videos The Sutra of Perfect Enlightenment (2009), which depicts the artist “writing” calligraphy with melted sugar and wiping hardened pieces of it away, and Object (2003), in which items are dropped into water to the sounds of a soothing voice, both highlight the notion of ephemerality. The impermanence of objects explored in these works is poetically paradoxical to the museum collection, which celebrates the preservation of antiquities.

KAN XUAN, The Sutra of Perfect Enlightenment, 2009, still from video: 42 hours. Courtesy Aurora Museum, Shanghai. 

YANG FUDONG and LING YUN, Monkey King, 2014, still from video. Courtesy Aurora Museum, Shanghai. 

Yang Fudong, another filmmaker, collaborated with fellow artist Ling Yun for a 21st-century spin on the classic Chinese novel Journey to the West. The collaborative project, Monkey King (2014), reimagines the tale’s iconic character of Sun Wukong (the Monkey King) as a cat presiding over the Huangpu River, who spouts bon mots on wisdom disguised as commercial statements. The video is projected on the exterior of the museum building, a spot usually reserved for paid advertisements. While viewing Ling’s work, the gaudy glare of the museum building is hard to miss, especially at night, as it has become an indelible part of the Shanghai skyline. Also, Wukong is traditionally an audacious character, who is brash and overconfident; and to see him as a timid cat is doubly unnerving.

This jewel of an exhibition tackles questions surrounding Chinese art more confidently than many of the better known museums in Shanghai. While some of the new-media works demonstrate that there’s more to be done in terms of bridging contemporary art practices with that of the past, the rest of the show offers intriguing resolutions to a complex challenge.