Visiting the Shanghai Biennale Retrospective at the Power Station of Art Museum in 2020
The thing that always gets me at Chinese contemporary art museums is not the art (which is often excellent) but the descriptions of the artwork. The English translations, at least. I live in the hope that maybe the Chinese versions are more layered and complex. I don’t think I ever noticed art (mostly painting) descriptions in the West, but I can’t help but zero in on them here because they strike me as bizarrely simplistic.
The descriptions really take their name literally. Half of the space for the description is describing what is going on in the painting, even if the painting is just a portrait or a landscape. Not explaining the painter’s point of view or the socio-cultural relevance but literally describing the colors and the details of what someone is wearing. Like the subtitles that describe sounds for a hearing-impaired person watching Netflix. Epic music. Gentle whispers. For a visitor to a gallery, quite redundant.
Another strange feature is the simplistic analysis. For example, a painting of a woman by a female painter Xia Junna states that she “as a female artist…brings romantic femininity into her poetic works”. Sure, because all works of art by women will by definition be romantic and feminine. A slice of the 1950s in 2020.
A different description opens with what looks like an apology for the work being unworthy: “It is difficult to paint, yet there are so many good painters, which is desperate enough to think about,” says Ji Dachun. Perhaps this is a cultural thing, like a cook disparaging her best dish in front of her dinner guests only to expect protestations of the opposite as a reply. An artist shielding themselves from the art critics by saying they did their best.
For contrast, in Western galleries, the descriptions of contemporary and conceptual art strive to be as complicated and replete with pretentious academic jargon as possible. The goal is to sound smart and make the visitor feel dwarfed by the artist’s supposedly superior intellect. Art is supposed to be obscure and confounding, not approachable. To the visitor as well as to the critic. If it’s too simple, it’s not good. Not in Chinese museums. Here, some of the descriptions seem clearly autobiographical and even feature the “I” of the artist. The artist describes the idea or the process in a simple, matter-of-fact way.
Perhaps this has to do with the make-up of the visitors to these places, by which I mean major city museums rather than smaller galleries. Although the museums tend to be well-visited and even packed on weekends, and not only by tourists, many of the visitors come primarily to take selfies with interesting art so they can post them on their social media. Museums are selfie magnets. Sure, they walk around and read the descriptions, but they keep their eyes peered for that perfect photographic opportunity. Just look at Tinder in China. Everyone (or at least the women) seems to have amazing selfies because practice makes perfect. Because it is a priority. And art makes for great backgrounds.
If this is who the descriptions are for, then maybe the simplicity makes sense. There could be other, culturally specific explanations that I, a foreigner with limited Chinese skills, am not privy to. Allow me to generalize for a second, but Asian cultures have traditionally been fans of simplicity in art. Chinese or Japanese traditional paintings are not the Renaissance jumbles of Western Europe. They know when to put the brush down. Less is more. Maybe the descriptions are reflections of that. Or maybe it’s just bad translation.