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An Interview with Larys Frogier on Knowledge Production at Rockbund Art Museum

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An Interview with Larys Frogier on Knowledge Production at Rockbund Art Museum
'Phillipe Parreno: Synchronicity', exhibition view, 2017

Museums and contemporary art are two concepts originated from the West that have evolved in their own ways. In an increasingly interconnected and globalized world, it is of utmost importance to reconsider the museum model and commit to develop a cultural institution that is relevant in the 21st century. This also means to be able to imagine and create different types of museums according to different contexts and communities. Be they in China’s coastal or interior regions, they must come together to exchange their experiences and share the advantages of their various regions, promoting the development of private art museums as a field. Museums are changing, and the conventional model of museum is no more applicable. The question is not what type of museum to be copied, but what kind of museum is meaningful here and now. 

The Rockbund Art Museum is a private contemporary art museum founded in Shanghai in 2010, as an important part of the Rockbund Urban Renaissance project. The museum boasts of an incredible history and heritage as it is housed in the original building of the Royal Asiatic Society, home to one of the first modern museums in China. As an institution, the Rockbund Art Museum is well acclaimed for its focus on knowledge production and its role in fostering public education in contemporary society. We speak to Mr Larys Frogier, Director of the Rockbund Art Museum about the role of the museum and the challenges of art world collaborations in China.

'Phillipe Parreno: Synchronicity', exhibition view, 2017 

The museum has a long history of evolution, but also of major changes and disruptions. From the Royal Asiatic Society to the architectural renovations by George L. Wilson and David Chipperfield, from the Shanghai Museum to the Museum Road, what is the role and relevance of the legacy that the museum's past has left?

As a contemporary art museum, it is very meaningful the use of this building as it was one of the first museums incorporating a Western model here in China. Its significance is related to colonial history but also to museum studies, as the British people brought here an encyclopedic knowledge and approach to categorization of objects. They travelled throughout China, collecting plants and animals, writing scientific records and ultimately making a representation of the country, which wass of course not a natural one; encyclopedic knowledge is always an artificem a construction. This building was very interesting in the 20th century as it used to be very active culturally. At that time, Victor Sassoon was developing projects in Shanghai and invited several intellectuals, writers and artists to come. The area thrived of theatres, place for literature and Jesuits gathering, and built a reputation of Shanghai that is still alive today. But the challenge now is to reactivate this cultural dynamism. Although Shanghai's bund today is still characterized by historical buildings, it is now mainly occupied by banks. Moreover, there is also an extreme opposite that is mass tourism.

'Phillipe Parreno: Synchronicity', exhibition view, 2017 

The museum can boast of an exhibition program that sheds light not only on Chinese contemporary art, but also on the oeuvre of internationally renowned artists, who have been presented in solo exhibitions for the very first time in China or in Asia, as in the case of Philippe Parreno, Felix Gonzales Torres and Ugo Rondinone. What have been the main challenges and responsibilities involved in staging these kinds of exhibitions?

Actually for us, the challenge to show international artists arises not because they are international, but because of the context of Chinese private art museums. When we started in 2010, we were only in 2 private museums. Now, there are a dozen of them in Shanghai, some of which I don’t even know but they name themselves as museums. The context is now stronger as many collectors of the new generation, like Qiao Zhibing are setting up their own spaces. But we still need to professionalize the scene. So for me, as the director of the museum, there is a challenge to bring international artists here because most museums just want to invite artists to realize a ground breaking or signature exhibition, or to brand the museum. I can perfectly understand this, and we are also doing this to a certain extent. However, we don’t want to “deposit” an exhibition in the museum as we care about how it could be a discovery process for the audience, and how it confronts with the proposal of the artists we invite. Thus we always ask the artists to consider the context of Shanghai and the specificities of the building in order to fully conceive a project that can relate to their own research and to how they feel about the city and the Chinese context.

If the idea of a museum is still that of a place to be “taken”, then a colonial type of relationship would still be in place.

This is very different from other museums that buy a ready-made exhibition. Sometimes they work with guest curators who have already conceived an exhibition outside of China, or work with commercial galleries that invite a very famous artist who has already realized a project abroad. But we don’t want to compromise with this. I mean, it is important for Chinese museums to show to the international community that we are fully capable to conceive, produce, exhibit and promote. If the idea of a museum is still that of a place to be “taken”, then a colonial type of relationship would still be in place. This format can be spectacular in the short term, but the audience isn’t stupid as it constantly learns and adapts its own expectations. I believe we should try to understand and work from this, but it takes time.

In our case, we are invinting the artists to produce new body of works, at least 50%. In the case of Ugo Rondinone, the works exhibited were 100% new and site-specific. For me it is the only way to work in a museum as well as the only way to connect with the audience, who might like it or not. But it is important to create this kind of contradictions, with each project being very different from one another.

'Ugo Rondinone: Breathe Walk Die', exhibition view, 2014

'Ugo Rondinone: Breathe Walk Die', exhibition view, 2014 

Can you describe Rockbund’s collaboration with players and institutions from the academic world in China? Taking on a wider national perspective, do you think there are current gaps in the relationship between Chinese art institutions and the academic network?

There are some gaps, I would say also in Europe, but not in the same way. The relationship in Europe is quite traditional, with tons of visiting students or teachers who try to bring in groups of students to the museums. Here it is very different, also due to pragmatic reasons since many universities are located far away, and authorizations may take a long time. But I believe it shouldn’t be an obstacle, we need to reinforce such collaborations. Another difference, compared to Europe, is the fact that most of the institutions there are public, and thus there is a natural connection between the universities and museums. Here, the majority are private.

With Rockbund, we are trying to work in a more specific and targeted way. For example, we created a research platform, and started to connect with academies where some professors or students were interested in research topics that could connect with what we are doing in the museum. Four years ago, we started to collaborate with NYU, which has a department here in Shanghai, on the topic of creativity and urbanism. It related to Shanghai’s development and how the latter brought changes into the life of the people. It was very interesting for us since it opened the museum to something beyond the exhibition and closer to the city of Shanghai. We also collaborated with CAFA in Beijing and the Art Academy in Hangzhou through a 1-year seminar and then a public symposium on contemporary art and social changes in China. We were considering projects from artists that are happening today in different cities in China, anywhere except in museums. It was interesting for us to support this kind of research since it brings us also to discover some projects that maybe we cannot host due to the nature of the project, but at least we can connect to understand and question how we position ourselves, not only as a space but also as a museum outside the institutional walls, and to gain a deeper understanding of the contemporary art scene here.

Now the challenge, in spite that we know we can succeed on this kind of small-scale projects, is to further reinforce our links to universities and pursue a more systematic way of working. It’s a long and difficult process, perhaps due to the complexity of the academic system here or the fact that museums are not enough connected to it. But I believe it will happen.

Rockbund Art Museum, Shanghai

Finally, what is your consideration and view of the landscape of private art museums in China, seen as a plurality of individuals?

In China, most of the museums are related to urban development. The businessmen behind these museum projects somehow need to demonstrate or justify their investments to the government, whether through the setup of a school or museum. At the moment, the trend in vogue is that of contemporary art. Some of these museums are only business related, with more or less striking architectures but nothing to operate the museum and no programs. In Shanghai, there are many businessmen who are very engaged not only in the city’s development but also in providing a museum with a non-for profit purpose and that can connect with the local community.

They were at the forefront of building a contemporary art history and system in China, something that the public institutions still haven’t done, since they lack a proper public collection like in Europe.

Following a period of “art for investment” at the beginning of the 2000s that had seriously damaged the perception of Chinese contemporary art abroad, a new generation of collectors has emerged. This new generation not only seeks to invest, but also to fully engage with the artists, to understand the changes of contemporary art, and contribute to these changes. Some support the artists or museums, others directly setup their own structure. We have different private collectors, who might have their own collection or vision of Chinese contemporary art, and we need to be thankful to them. They were at the forefront of building a contemporary art history and system in China, something that the public institutions still haven’t done, since they lack a proper public collection like in Europe. The landscape might look at bit scattered, but at least they initiated it.

The next step is to build a coherent way to work if we want to contribute to the art scene and the city through a networking process. There are already a few museum associations, through which we connect on education programs, but not on exhibitions yet. I hope we will achieve this, and I believe that the way to reinforce this interconnection is also a way to reinforce the way people can have a better access to arts and culture.

 

 


Any views or opinions in the post are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the company or contributors.


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