Museum of Unknown, Encounter, miscellaneous materials, 2011, exhibition view, »A Museum That is Not«, Guangdong Times Museum 2011

Museum of Unknown, Encounter, miscellaneous materials, 2011, exhibition view, »A Museum That is Not«, Guangdong Times Museum 2011

Nikita Yingqian Cai

*1978 in Guangdong/China, lives and works in Guangzhou.

Nikita Yingqian Cai is the curator of Guangdong Times Museum and a critic. She participated in the 2009/2010 curatorial programme of de Appel arts centre. Her selected curatorial projects include: »I’m Not Here. An Exhibition Without Francis Alys«, co-curated, de Appel arts centre, Amsterdam, 2010; »A Museum That is Not«, Guangdong Times Museum, 2011; »Jiang Zhi: If This is a Man«, co-curated, Guangdong Times Museum, 2012; seminars »No Ground Underneath«; »Curating on the Nexus of Changes«, co-organized with Carol Yinghua Lu, 2012 and »Active Withdrawal«; »Weak Institutionalism and the Institutionalization of Art Practice«, co-organized with Biljana Ciric, 2013. She is a contributing writer to LEAP,, ARTTIME and Yishu.


Liu Ding, Museum and Me, video installation, bench, paper with text, 2011, exhibition view, »A Museum That is Not«, Guangdong Times Museum 2011

Liu Ding, Museum and Me, video installation, bench, paper with text, 2011, exhibition view, »A Museum That is Not«, Guangdong Times Museum 2011

Wilfredo Prieto, Mute, stage lights, 2006, exhibition view, »A Museum That is Not«, Guangdong Times Museum 2011

Wilfredo Prieto, Mute, stage lights, 2006, exhibition view, »A Museum That is Not«, Guangdong Times Museum 2011

Museum of American Art in Berlin, Museum of Modern Art, reproduction of the exhibition »Cubism and Abstract Art«, 2011, exhibition view, »A Museum That is Not«, Guangdong Times Museum 2011

Museum of American Art in Berlin, Museum of Modern Art, reproduction of the exhibition »Cubism and Abstract Art«, 2011, exhibition view, »A Museum That is Not«, Guangdong Times Museum 2011

If There Were a Museum

by Nikita Yingqian Cai

»The biggest limitation imposed on artists by art museums is that artists want to exhibit their intent and ambition in museums«1, Huang Yongping made this statement for the project, »Away from the Art Museum« in 1988. At that time, no museums for contemporary art were available in China, except for those existing as imaginings in the artist’s head. It was a call for a museum yet to be realized and the critique of the institutions that were not there.

Let’s quickly fast forward more than twenty years. Are there more museums in China now? Yes, of course. We are experiencing a wonderful blossoming of them, with new museums popping up at the rate of at least a dozen every month and spread across different cities. In 2010, I curated my first exhibition, under the title, »A Museum That is Not«, in the Times Museum. The title was inspired by an essay by Elena Filipovic. In it, Filipovic probed into the quasi-curatorial approaches of Duchamp’s museum-related pieces, such as the famous »La boîte-en-valise«, and also looked at some of the settings from Duchamp’s own studio. But, in quoting the same title, my point really does not concern Duchamp. The majority of the local audience I’m trying to reach has no idea who Duchamp is and doesn’t really care about this crazy person, alias the ARTIST, who dropped dead several decades ago in some foreign country. Before the Times Museum popped up right next door to them a few months ago, a museum was probably somewhere they had never been to and had never thought of visiting. And for them, a urinal is just a urinal, no matter where it is or where the artist locates it, to say nothing of the so-called signature and authorship, object and context, artefacts and artworks… Here is probably the central conundrum for all curators who work in China: if they try to draw references from canons, or historic concepts and terms of modern/contemporary art, they might risk simply talking to himself or herself, or being seen as overly didactic and western-centric.  

In »2084 (a science fiction show) episode 1« by Pelin Tan and Anton Vidokle, Shuddhabrata Sengupta is an anonymous figure who talks about how the practice of socially engaged art was made possible in the west because of the welfare state, now that, after the all-encompassing collapse of the economy, »we are finally fair«. Are we? Are we ever fair? Or, are we heading towards some eventual future of more fairness? It is difficult enough to tell the story from the beginning all over again, let alone trying to tell a new story while the old one is still omnipresent. It cannot be claimed as new when the old remains unknown and its failure unrecognized; it is just an incarnation of the old in the disguise of the new.

If there were a museum in China, it should be something that makes a statement reflecting its locality and that represents a certain order of things identifying that location. It must take art as its premise and try to imagine an audience. Things are indeed happening here and there; yet still, things are not quite right. Among all the other issues, there still needs to be a museum, one that is right, if there were …

Just a couple weeks ago, I scanned the bar code in the last page of de Appel’s journal, »The Shadow File«, and it immediately opened up the infographies of the alumni of de Appel’s Curatorial Programme. I spotted my own location, the city of Guangzhou, as the only red dot in Mainland China. For the purpose of cultural translation, Guangzhou is more commonly know as Canton outside of the Mandarin context of contemporary China. The spoken language of Cantonese and the famous cuisine »Cantonese food« characterizes its local culture. If there were a museum about this very locality and its cultural identity, it might be a museum about the traditions and customs of Cantonese food. Long before foods became relational in galleries and museums, restaurants have always been the most popular public spaces for the Chinese. People sit down and eat from the same plates, stories get exchanged and life experiences get shared. There is no need to pack all the »publicness« into the white cube and shut up all the chitchat. But let’s set aside the local perspectives and flip over to the contemporary part of the story – the globalization process going on in urban China and the blossoming of museums.

Hou Hanru came from here before he became well known internationally. Riding the wave of independent curators in the late 1990s, Hans Ulrich Obrist visited here with Hou and co-curated the 2nd Guangzhou Triennial in 2005. Rem Koolhaas was invited as a participating artist and proposed a conceptual project for a local museum. The Times Property, a private real estate corporation, had the money and the property to support the project’s realization. Quite simply, that’s how we started. Bells might ring for someone who comes from outside of China when we try to tell the above story, especially to a peer in the art field. It didn’t really ring any bells when it was finally opened to the public in a peripheral area of Guangzhou at the end of 2010, some 5 years after its conceptualization and 2 years after the construction of its premises. By that time, the downtown city had become easily accessible with the newly extended metro line 2. But as soon as a contemporary art museum inaugurated on top of one of the residential buildings in this relatively rural neighbourhood, the apartment prices took off. That was not because of the museum, for sure, but because of the bubble in the real estate market. The Times Museum is the beneficiary of the bubble, just like a lot of other museums run or funded by the private sector in China.

In the text I wrote for the publication of »A Museum That is Not«, I mentioned my early experiences of working in the museum: couriers and visitors had difficulties finding the museum, even though it was right in front of their eyes, yet all the while they always managed to spot the bank beside our building. The Times Museum is, in fact, a bit less prominent than those located in a separate building, but it does have an eye-catching sign of black and yellow; somehow people seem to be looking for it without seeing it. In the immediate context, a museum is such an abstract concept compared with the concrete existence of a bank, that it might even block one’s cognitive ability to identify its spatial existence. The gate of a museum appears to be exclusive and intimidating, its space too quiet and too neat to be regarded as a public domain, its exhibited items far too weird and suspicious. And that gate does lead to a journey into the unknown.

The unrecognizable location of the museum led me to ponder on a possible order of things. In the existing one, I do have to admit that banks rank a lot higher than museums. The leverage of the global banking system over our everyday life is indisputable, but the way they exercise their influences is far less visible. As Duchamp wrote on his studio wall, »Pay attention. The way things are exhibited matters«. However, to take a step back: what is exhibited and not exhibited matters even more. After two years of opening to the public and inviting people in by different programmes, we now can see old people walking around with their grand-kids in the air-conditioned exhibition space on a hot summer day, or young people at ease and taking pictures with their iPhones and posting images online to mark their weekend visit to a museum. It seems that the audience is both the subjects to an exhibition, as well as the objects that are being exhibited. Walking through the bright lights and the dark rooms of a museum, different kinds of encounters materialize: between people and people, people and space, people and objects.

Museums originated from a certain order of things: first came the colonial hierarchy, and then the human-centric, rationalized gaze. Now biennials and documentas, one after another, try harder and harder to break away from their origins by constantly reflecting on their own histories and the unfairness meted out to others. Around twenty-something years ago, a simple juxtaposition between a European conceptual piece with a tribal artefact from Africa was considered appropriate, even revolutionary. What do we have to do with this tradition? Shall we join in this flow of reflection about almost everything?  Shall we project our world upon the broken mirror and continue looking for answers for the same set of questions? Are there still things for us to redistribute? Shall we reproduce some sort of order of things? That one order of things? Or create a new order of things? If not, what kind of values should we represent?

To put Duchamp’s statement in another way, things matter only when they are exhibited. We are living in an era when the values of things are judged and determined solely according to how they look. Through the distorted mirror of the media and the shining surface of the market, art appears to be anything and everything but what the artists themselves claims for it. Middle-class urban dwellers will pay a special visit to the nearby Art Basel Hong Kong to gain their contemporary art education. It is not easy to tell the difference between the order of an art fair and that of a museum, especially when, sometimes, museums in China function like an art fair, where transactions go on under the table.

When I was little, I lived with my grandparents. My grandfather was a Chinese painter, and he usually had a Thursday gathering with his friends, who were painters, calligraphers or poets. Sometimes, they even formed a small orchestra to play Cantonese music. I loved those Thursday nights, partly because all my grandfather’s friends liked playing with me. In my child’s eyes, there seemed to be a repertoire of commenting on each other’s works, and everybody involved looked genuinely happy. From today’s point of view, none of them were professional artists, they were at best amateurs and connoisseurs, mostly retired and with the time and interest to develop their talent for art as their hobby. In retrospect, the gathering is probably some oriental analogy of a salon; it provided an opportunity to share, appreciate and discuss art. Art was part of their lives, the fun part. But they never took it seriously, not seriously as a profession or a career. I remember they organized some exhibitions here and there and probably sold some of their works at modest prices. But that was it.

All that was in the early 1980s, just a little bit earlier than when Huang Yongping and Xiamen Dada made their statements and public gestures about museums. The means of achieving personal financial and social success were not available until the 1990s, while in the 1980s there was nothing to fulfil one’s ambitions besides his/her daily job allocated by the state. Art was a luxury for those who had the time and the inclination. My account of my grandfather’s gatherings indicates a private sphere of art and its subjective value, which circulated among a relatively small group of acquaintances. It had nothing to do with the ideological vibes of Socialist Realism and would never be recorded as part of the modern/contemporary art history of China. It came from the legacy of Chinese men of letters and was interrupted by the tough life in the first few decades of the 20th century. This revival of art, as a spiritual aspiration for individuals, in the early 1980s then ended abruptly when the values of the market kicked in several years later and soon became overwhelming.

Art used to be recreational for someone like my grandfather; it did serve some kind of social value, but only for a few people. The transformation from the private sphere to the public sphere was never fulfilled, but very quickly replaced by the fantasy of personal ownership, of a luxurious product when, in the last analysis, it took on the form of objects, and of commodities. So, when museums responded belatedly to the outcry from Chinese Avant-Garde artists and opened their doors to the public, they were responding to private desires for money and fame – and for power as well. There are a lot of pressing demands on the Chinese people and on the State of China right now, but none of those relates to art. How does one justify a leisure activity, enjoyed by a few, as something that might be beneficial to all? Since art functions so perfectly on the booming market, and artists don’t seem to be starving, why should any individual or the state support it?

China now has a middle-class, and that is the main development from the past twenty years of economic development. Its members are also the major consumers of the limitless amount of fast- moving commodities on the supermarket shelves, of recreational activities, such as holidays, sightseeing and travelling, of real estate apartments and private cars. More recently, they have finally been able to afford an indulgence in cultural products. There are so many things to crave for in such a short period of time that resisting the instant satisfaction of one’s material desire is almost unthinkable. Some commentators might have realized that the middle-class resembles a cheap version of a classical bourgeoisie, yet one deprived of its cultural tradition and glamorous lifestyle. That is why the collapse of the bourgeoisie in the west could never shake the Chinese resolve to become just that. It is the beginning of the end. We should try to go even faster so that we can catch up with the amazing finale of bourgeois existence... who cares about what is lost on the distant horizon?

The funding of art museums in China by the private sector mostly comes from the financial and real estate industries. And what does prosperity of these industries rely on? It relies on the strong consuming and moneymaking urges of the rising middle-class. Companies that benefit from the middle-class commit part of their profits to open up a museum, mostly for the purpose of good publicity beside the gesture to public service. The middle-class is the patron as well as the audience of private museums, yet they cannot take on any representative forms within the same structure. Viewed cynically, that means they have no influence on how their money ought to be spent. If they had the chance, they probably would prefer a discount on the real products they are buying. So how a museum funded by the private sector mediates its programmes, how it envisages its audience and reaches out to it, all that becomes totally contingent. It is a mixture of personal taste and vision, the need for self-sufficiency, and the preoccupations and obsessions of those who are actually running it. If these museums can be called institutions, or at least can be considered as a form of institutionalization, the famous claim of Andrea Fraser may then appear particularly relevant.

»Every time we speak of the »institution« as other than »us«, we disavow our role in the creation and perpetuation of its conditions. We avoid responsibility for, or action against, the everyday complicities, compromises, and censorship-above all, self-censorship-which are driven by our own interests in the field and the benefits we derive from it. It's not a question of inside or outside, or the number and scale of various organized sites for the production, presentation, and distribution of art. It's not a question of being against the institution: We are the institution. It's a question of what kind of institution we are, what kind of values we institutionalize, what forms of practice we reward, and what kinds of rewards we aspire to.«2

So, if there is an audience, an audience I’m eager to talk to and engage with, she is probably the little girl that steps in our museum after school, our museum as a place where different encounters can be experienced, different worlds can be imagined, different futures can be projected. She could have stepped in twenty years ago – but only if it had been possible in those days, or if her own world had been something very different.

1 Huang Yongping, »Away from the Art Museum«, p. 78, One Step Forward, Two Steps Back-Us and institution/Us as Institution, edited by Biljana Ciric, published by the Times Museum.
2 Andrea Fraser, »From the Critique of Institutions to an Institution of Critique«, p. 278, Artforum. New York, Sep 2005. Vol. 44, Iss. 1.