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The Secret Exhibit of the Shanghai Museum of Contemporary Art

At first, visitors to Shanghai’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA) may find themselves slackjawed in amazement, without words, staggered, even laughing – almostas they meander through the gallery’s two floors. Almost laughing, mind you, for its current exhibit, COUPLES, seems to sink below the realm of quality so far that it nearly (but not quite) swings back up into a new category of hilarious kitsch trash. As it is, skidding to halt at the bottom of the arc, the collection of artwork is just plain bad. The handful of Chinese art-viewers sharing the space with us preferred to admire the paintings, sculptures, and experimental pieces through the one-square-inch pixelated screens of their cellphones as they snapped quick shots and sent them off to friends. These works, it seems, are not worth seeing in person.

But our reaction – repulsion – is precisely the intended reaction. Despite first impressions, there is genius to be found: in the employment of the ancient tactic of diversion to make one of the most profound statements in modern art since urine splashed upon Duchamp’s toilet. As we contorted our faces in attempt to banish all sense of aesthetics from our minds so as to appreciate the sloppy strokes, the first-grade glue jobs, the haphazard perspectives, cursing the forty kuai forever gone (how many dumplings could we have bought? 300?), we nearly missed the point – the real exhibit, the secret, peering at the gallery-goer from the peripheries, a cutting declaration – no, denunciation – of the current state of a booming culture.

Consider the MoCA’s location: constructed within Shanghai’s famous People’s Square Park, just a few blocks from the Bund and only a short sprint from its more prestigious counterpart, Shanghai’s Museum of Art. Within a one block radius of the square, one can book a room at the Marriott, purchase a shiny new Bentley, drape oneself in all the choicest foreign-designed finery, and swing by a throbbing night club to cap the day off with a Cosmo that would drain a peasant’s fortune. Visitor’s are meant to marvel, but most of all to spend. And where would you expect to find the most current and fashionable of the local art scene but right in the heart of that upscale bubble? Museum visitors enter as though stepping into a giant greenhouse, a suited doorman opening the door set within a transparent walls. In other words, you can still see out, out into the surrounding world of clustered towers, giving every piece of work inside a backdrop beyond the stale blank walls.

And there, within that prime piece of real estate, they have built a sort of looking glass. More precisely, what they have done is this: put together so awful a showcase that the viewer is tempted to look away, up, down, anywhere but at the presented “art,” and in this response we may see the truly brilliant exhibit that exists all around. Below the curving ramp that leads upstairs, where one could potentially aim their irrepressible vomitus, we found a sight to behold: garbage! Piled, stacked like firewood, garbage of every imaginable form, filling space, pushing virally out against the walls – heaps of unsold museum merchandise, plastic, metal, cardboard, perhaps thirty-five chairs, and even a gas-powered barbecue (in China?), all stuffed with uncanny lack of order into an area the size of the maze hanging pointlessly on the other side of the ramp.

Looking around, we saw again the many attempts at capturing our modern age, the plight of humanity, the hypocrisy of progress, attempts at pinning down some understandable sense of culture – twisted metal and doctored soft-focus photos; applications of glitter, beads, and sequins; looped screensavers in curtained rooms and paint-splattered squares of silk on white walls – and we got it:

Garbage, garbage, everywhere.

Always there, if you care to look, shoved and dumped to the sides, out of view, as if to clear a space – but for what? More garbage. What a statement it was! Art as garbage; garbage as art. And then we did laugh. Laughed our way out of that two-story bubble and into the streets of Shanghai, out into the world to revel at the heaps of garbage all around, towering, looming, growing; to the glimmering new skyscrapers upon which bored guards relieved their bladders; to fetid, overflowing drains; to crumbling side-streets being shoved further and further out of the way, piling up and scrapping together in ways more creative than anything hanging on a wall, making way for more, more, more.

One Response to “The Secret Exhibit of the Shanghai Museum of Contemporary Art”

  1. NickL says:

    i dunno, that flying clam above the maze looks pretty cool…

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