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Beautiful Museum, Ugly Art

· 亞洲藝術 Asian art

By Laura Shen

This article was first published on a.m.post, Hong Kong, Jan 2016 issue.

The newly-opened museum is fulfilled with grandiloquence and ugly art. A carnival of renowned artists and curators is incapable to blot out “Isn’t that disgusting” strategy contemporary art has relied on. The mystified concept reveals how affectation is often accompanied with desire for cash and fame. Ugliness is not wrong, how and why ugly is a question.

A giant spider trembled in the centre of the space, I am afraid to come close in case of being stabbed. Black rubber balls awkwardly quivered inside a frame, the guard beside warned me not to touch: “It is art!” It was a dismay to be forced into a rubbish field full of rusty steels, watching the dread dust discharged from the wall, or sculpture inviting me to associate it with excreta. Yang Art Museum, the one that neighbours “the biggest Asian city park, embassy district and Canadian international school”, collects uncomfortable art inside its beautiful bright space.

The location, architecture and interior design entitle the museum to be a flawless property project. Designer’s stress on details starts from lift where green and blue in geometric forms are reflected in multiple layers of mirrors, stimulating magic and imagination. Blue and green are the signature colours embellishing white space, and the interior is elegant and comfortable with its wooden floor. Even lavatory is daintily devised by diligent cleaners. Guards in uniform are part of the property’s image. It’s no wonder that its property management is high grade, considering the reality that real estate is fanatically worshiped in the current age of this country, an industry Chinese are expert in. The property is surrounded by embassies of America, France, Japan, condos and international schools for diplomats and their families. Beside the museum are Chaoyang Park and SOLANA where middle class do sport and shopping. It is much closer to the hands of bourgeois, investors, foreigners speculating Chinese art, comparing to 798 or Cao Changdi in far northeast.

It is interesting to learn bourgeois and elites’ taste fall on ugly, offensive, even disgusting works. “Entities piled up” referred to rusty iron, or pink stuffing resembling cankered skin. Those called “Fluid” mimicked excrement or thick ink. The chapter of “Dynamic” contains spider and black balls. The work under title “Admixture” reminds viewers of the hazardous haze.

Art is not necessarily beauty. Ugliness has already become the theme of art. Actually the major works of 20th century art world are ugly. Many classic works were criticized as ugly art in the beginning, including Impressionism, and Cubism in particular. Some masterpiece is accomplished by its ugliness. One of the most famous is Hieronymus Bosch’s triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights, depicting rotted morality in Medieval Age. Ugly art is usually more interesting than beautiful art, as it has more space and range to play, and is closer to genuine humanity. It is a dangerous but astute game, it could convey higher aesthetics than pure beauty, but could also turn to disgust, or boring, the saddest moment when spectators would rather spare their complaints and keep away. There is no clear line between beauty and ugliness, but there exist good art and bad art. Good ugliness is beautiful.

It is gratifying that Chinese artists have started discussion on ugliness. Gaudy art and cynical realism were successful practices. The totalitarian celebration of beauty has passed away, but artists are not ready enough to drive the waves of business, urbanization, globalization and Internet today, they gradually fall into the state of weightlessness and loss of ego. There’s no doubt that artists endeavored to create new concepts and forms in this exhibition, however, they run short of ways to accomplish expectations. The works were rather soliloquizing than communicating with their audience, the genuine exchange between art and audience was minimized. Audience could not make sense from the works, while the works were proud of being incomprehensible. If art is not able to be understood, it often discloses rather the artist’s lack of cognition than that of the audience. Artists are not clear of what they want. Pursuit for concept and form cannot conceal inner emptiness. Concerning the age we are living, artists have too many choices, and every choice is right as well as wrong. There is a big gap between artists and viewers. It is not clear if audience’s taste is overestimated or underestimated, but a trembling spider can hardly stimulate imagination, black rubber balls are incapable to arouse reflections on motion. Connection between muddy ink and “Admixture” is too reluctant, and lines under papers are unconvincingly relevant to “Power”. Ultimately, the creators resulted in a hypocrisy of the “emperor’s new clothes”, misrepresenting aesthetics through deliberate ugliness, demagogy and bravado, despite what it originally aimed to convey. For the audience, the exhibition was a sick joke hard to react to, economizing efforts for understanding is wise, it is worthy of leaving it aside and keeping indifferent. Tour in the museum is a journey of expectation for beauty from the start, confusion for ugliness in the process, and spotting duds in the end. Museum witnessed the detachment between art and its lovers.

Whereas I would save my worry for either the museum’s business or sales of those works, because there are always those people favouring them and willing to afford the price. The new rich is a big and diverse group, if there is cold-shoulder, there must be sweet talk. Someone loathes, someone discovers cash. After all, it is a time when beauty of art is unimportant, cash derived from art products is significant. Speculation spreads to art besides stock and real estate. Investors spare no bet for opportunity, and artists understand that social skill and entrepreneurship can better qualify an artist than mere painting capacity. Art is often achieved through appreciation from a tycoon collector or celebrity. In November 2015, Chinese buyer afforded the second highest price in auction history to acquire Nu Couché by 20th century’s Italian artist Amedeo Modigliani. The magnate couple Mr. Wang Yiqian and Ms. Wang Wei bid $170,405,000 via telephone in 9 minutes since the auction began. Art is not only investment, it is a tool satisfying new rich’s desire to build fame and taste.

Contemporary art is never short of perfect business model and sales channel, it lacks good art to fill in the frame. Artists have started to realize the power of ugliness, while far-fetched to understand what is ugliness, how and why to be ugly. The birth of a museum is granted by venting, soliloquizing, sales and Vanity Fair. It is unpredictable how many Yang Art Museum will be born in the future.

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