A private US$164-million museum complex opens near Nanjing

The private Sifang Art Museum makes the most of its scenic setting in the Nanjing countryside and a specially curated show to mark its opening, writes Catherine Shaw

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 November, 2013, 4:42pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 November, 2013, 4:42pm

Private art museums in China are springing up in the most unlikely locations - most recently the Sifang Art Museum, nestled in the Laoshan national forest park about an hour's drive from the ancient capital, Nanjing, in Jiangsu province.

The museum, which opened early this month, is the centrepiece of a US$164 million art-architecture-resort complex established by developer Lu Jun, 58, and his son, Lu Xun, with a view to promoting the appreciation of contemporary art and design on the mainland.

So much in China is still taking shape. This could well become a very important museum, a place that can create a buzz. Then again, who knows?
Gabriel lester, artist

The inaugural exhibition, entitled "The Garden of Diversion" and curated by Antwerp-based art historian Philippe Pirotte, takes on the almost insurmountable challenge of diverting attention away from the museum's spectacular mountain setting and innovative architecture.

It is almost impossible to consider the art without the architecture, so closely are the two entwined. The 21,528-square-foot exhibition space designed by New York architect Steven Holl is a dramatic space-age structure with a distinctive rectangular light box "leg" cantilevered out over the grassy knoll below.

The design is so distinctive that even from within the interiors walking from the point of entry to exit (leaving via a surprisingly unassuming industrial-like stairwell), visitors are acutely aware of the form of the building affecting both the flow of movement and arrangement of artworks.

This powerful physical context can clearly be seen in the exhibition that marks the unveiling of the complex. According to Pirotte, the works "share a consciousness that their spatial and social relationships aren't necessarily bound up in the self-contained art object, but that their gestures are integrated within larger spaces of social realms".

Pirotte says he took inspiration for the show from a book by author Hu Fang, The Garden of Mirrored Flowers, a story of a young architect commissioned to build a theme park for venture capitalists where experience and memory become products to be consumed.

Esoteric origins aside, it is difficult to perceive the commonality behind the wide variety of site-specific works by artists such as Gabriel Lester and collective MadeIn Company (the latter presents Xu Zhen's Movement Field as a serene, outdoor, part memorial-part landscape installation), as well as local artists such as Nanjing-based Li Jingxiong.

Other works on loan and from the permanent collection of the Sifang Art Museum are by artists such as Marlene Dumas, Lucy Raven, Danh Vo and Zhang Peili.

Exhibition highlights include the ground-floor Lower Gallery's Wind Light as a Thief by Beijing artist He An, a site-specific installation created with materials found in urban construction sites and reflecting "the realities of a changing contemporary landscape". The artist's stated intention is to "work from the position of low-brow culture to create high-end art, which comments on today's look of China as a big building site". The concrete slabs that make up this work are an ironic reflection of the "Folded House", a nearby unfinished and rapidly crumbling concrete and steel villa designed by architect Liu Heng.

We the People by Vietnam-born Danish conceptual artist Danh Vo is one of the most dramatic and thought-provoking works on show. Vo, whose works typically reflect the cultural values of displacement (his family fled Vietnam following the fall of Saigon), has created full-scale, exact replicas of parts of the Statue of Liberty using copper plating. He says the parts will never be assembled and will instead be shown as "individual sculptures" at different locations around the world.

The scattered elements reflect Frédéric Bartholdi's intentions for the Statue of Liberty to spread democratic values. Here, Vo's use of ultra-thin copper reveals the monument's "conceptual fragility". It is notable that individual parts of the original statue were also exhibited prior to its final assembly in New York in 1886.

Shanghai-based Lester says he was particularly attracted to the show by Lu Xun and Pirotte's enthusiasm for the project. His ethereal eight-wall installation, Big Bang - made with the same translucent material as the walls of the museum's floating gallery - creates a journey for visitors to travel from the epicentre of an explosion (the Big Bang) through the walls of a stage, evoking a sense of animation.

"Although the actual installation might be immobile and static, the experience of it is almost time-based and full of motion," Lester says. "The work is inspired by stage design where forced perspective creates a dramatic dimension. The white or translucent materials of the piece also bring to mind early 20th-century stage design."

His installation's relation to the site and its materials are "extra important", the artist says, as a reflection "where the works literally grow out of the institute and as such transform its logic".

Smaller but just as powerful is Yutaka Sone's Movie Theatre, a white marble sculpture capturing the projection of light in a movie theatre. The intriguing work evokes the magical experience of cinema, expressing the "ephemeral" and "eternal" spectrums of time, the artist says. Expert stonecutters at Sone's carving studio in Chongwu, Fujian province, undertook the sculpture's intricate carvings.

Maurizio Cattelan's taxidermy horse lying on the floor rigid with rigor mortis and staked with a signpost that says "INRI" (an acronym of the Latin inscription which translates to "Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Jews") is difficult to ignore, mainly because one is obliged to literally walk around it to reach the crowd-pleasing Kinetic Sculpture Bicycle Wheel with Two Megaphones by William Kentridge.

The fantasy concoction of megaphones, bicycle wheels, sewing machines, bellows, tripods and drums is part of Kentridge's The Refusal of Time series and "is about taking sense and deconstructing it, taking nonsense and seeing if sense can be constructed from it", he says. Visitors are encouraged to pump the bellows to create their own cathartic kinetic experience.

The museum's Upper Gallery, suspended high in the air, culminates in a simple but striking outdoor terrace with panoramic views over the valley towards Nanjing. Further down the slope below is a sleek conference centre and contemporary stone garden by Japanese architect Irata Isozaki, home to the museum's permanent art collection.

Nearby, almost hidden within the forest of trees, is a collection of unique villas designed by 20 award-winning architects including British designer David Adjaye, Pritzker Prize-winning Wang Shu and dissident artist Ai Weiwei, and intended for artist residence programmes and visitors.

The sheer audacity of creating such an ambitious haven for art deep in the Nanjing countryside is so striking that it emboldens me to ask Lester whether he is optimistic for the future of the museum.

"Who knows what will happen?" he replies with disarming honesty. "So much in China is still taking shape. This could well become a very important museum, a place that can create a buzz. Then again, who knows?

"What is for sure is that this is not a safe bet, but given that art benefits from such brave moves, I believe it is important in any case."