Lined with Plane trees, the boulevards of Shanghai’s former French Concession retain a distinctly Parisian character. The colonial home-away-from-home was established in the late Qing dynasty, and even harbored its own police force until World War II tensions brought about its demise.
In a new concessionary spirit, the Parisian Centre Pompidou has arrived in Shanghai for an initial five-year tenancy. Named the “Centre Pompidou x West Bund Museum Project,” the intricate designation results from the intention to use the building, designed by British architect David Chipperfield, to do more than just flaunt French collections abroad; it will also disseminate “expertise in cultural programming.” Described as “’a vector of significant influence for France,”’ the museum’s importance was even endorsed by the presence of France’s President Macron, who appeared at the opening.
With an understated design and a terrific waterfront aspect, it joins a string of private museums along the riverbank. To the north are the Yuz Museum and the Long Museum, owned by entrepreneur Budi Tek and rags-to-riches collectors Liu Yiqian and Wang Wei, respectively. To the south, also new this year, is the art center TANK Shanghai, owned by the city’s king of KTV, Qiao Zhibing.
The self-assured professionalism of the Pompidou approach and the quality of the works at its disposal have cast the local private museums in a harsh light. Collections built around personal tastes cannot match the long-standing acquisition program of the foreign national gallery, and even the deepest pockets do not always yield generative public engagement programs.
The Shape of Time, the Museum’s first 18-month-long exhibition, presents a chronological approach to documenting the changing appearance of art through a truncated view of modernism from the 1930s to the 70s, followed by a selection of more recent ideas and approaches. The first part includes major artists such as Pablo Picasso and Marcel Duchamp, who have very rarely been shown in China previously.
Attempts to shoehorn some Chinese figures into a narrative that is otherwise about conversations across the Atlantic will probably annoy their neighbors, who (rightly) do not consider Chinese artists as incidental to the story of modernism. Director Bernard Blistène has already raised some hackles by stressing the contribution of Chinese émigrés to France. Artists Zao Wou-ki and Shen Yuan feature in the exhibition, as do Shanghai-based Ding Yi and Zhang Huan. At a conference on Art and Value at NYU Shanghai, coincident with the inauguration, Kejia Wu of Sotheby’s Institute of Art noted that some Chinese collectors, particularly those who grew up when schools and universities were suspended during the Cultural Revolution, can be suspicious of foreign intellectualism. Their tastes are not shaped by the art history and theory that underpins canonic status and inclusion in the Museum’s collection.
Some Shanghainese regard the arrival of the Museum as the return of an imperious influence, out of touch with local interests and values. Indicatively, the Chinese censors rejected four of the 100 works destined for the opening displays — a decision met with circumspection by the Pompidou’s President Serge Lasvignes. The rationale for the decisions has not been disclosed, though it is known that the censors are traditionalists, strict on erotic images, and averse to questions of national unity.
By contrast Observations, a concurrent thematic new media exhibition was apparently unchallenged. The topics of surveillance and individuality might have been expected to draw reaction. Cui Xiuwen’s “Underground 2” (2002), a covert recording of an unknown passenger on a subway train, suggesting that everyone is being spied on, and Zhang Peili’s “Uncertain Pleasures” (1996) — where, on a festoon of dismantled cathode screens dislocated patches of skin are scratched unremittingly — provokes reflection on the experience of being watched or of being coerced, concerns relevant both in and outside of China.
By the example of these opening shows, the Museum’s “exemplary cultural programming” seems a bit inconsistent at best, and clumsy and unadventurous at worst. The intention to collaborate with Chinese artists and institutions needs to be enacted with greater sensitivity to oust colonial attitudes. With this collaboration, the French has a foothold in Shanghai and should focus less on disseminating “expertise” and more on opportunities to learn.