Two years ago, when Shanghai first announced its five-year plan to develop into a cultural capital, many people were dubious about plopping museums into a metropolis overnight. But now that the West Bund Development in the Xuhui District is well under way, it appears that the two museums anchoring the site—the Yuz Museum and the Long Museum—may well become recognized as operating at international standards. This March the Yuz presented the largest-ever retrospective of the Swiss artist Alberto Giacometti, and the Long Museum opened “Olafur Eliasson: Nothingness is not nothing at all.” The two shows could not be more different.
Although Giacometti is well known among Chinese artists, his work had never been shown in China. This retrospective is extensive, including more than 250 works, ranging from paintings by the artist’s father from the early 1900s to Giacometti’s monumental sculptures slated for the Chase Manhattan Plaza in New York City at the time of his death in 1966. The exhibition was the result of an agreement between Chinese-Indonesian businessman Budi Tek, the Yuz’s founder, and Catherine Grenier, director of Fondation Alberto et Annette Giacometti, based in Paris. Both hope that the sculptor, best known to Chinese audiences through his astronomic auction prices in recent years, will now be appreciated for the power of his works, which may serve as a doorway to modern art for those less familiar with movements like Surrealism and Cubism.
Laid out on two floors of a former airplane hangar, the show is rife with revelations. One gallery is filled with miniature Giacometti busts that demonstrate a range of abilities extending well beyond the delicate strength of Walking Man (1961), which fetched over $103 million at auction in 2010. That work is on view here, along with many of the artist’s fanciful plaster casts, which amazingly survived in pristine condition. Speaking about Walking Man, Tek said, “He seems to move forward, against all misfortune, toward an unchartered territory of which he is not afraid…. It’s that wide freedom of movement that Giacometti’s Walking Man conveys to me.”
The exhibition was designed by Adrien Gardère, the Louvre’s leading designer. The layout allows viewers to survey the monumental sculptures filling the grand hall on the first floor from the balcony on the second floor leading to the galleries holding the early works. The show also features a re-creation of Giacometti’s tiny studio at Rue Hippolyte-Maindron, with films demonstrating the artist at work and photographs taken of him throughout his career by such leading photographers as Man Ray and Richard Avedon. Costing more than $3 million to produce, the exhibition is entirely underwritten by the Yuz Foundation, which is also contributing to research at the Giacometti Foundation.
At the Yuz opening, the crowd walked quietly and appreciatively through the exhibition, in contrast to visitors at the Long Museum who interacted noisily with the massive installations of Olafur Eliasson that span the course of his career. Many works were made specifically for the vast spaces of the museum, difficult areas to work in. The show includes The Open Pyramid (2016), four triangular sheets of mirror suspended from the two-story-high ceiling at the museum’s entrance. They prismatically reflected the comings and goings of the throng below.
While the Danish-Icelandic artist has shown in China before—he is represented there by Vitamin Creative Space—he has never been the subject of such an extensive survey. “I wanted to amplify the feeling of the cavernous museum galleries by installing artworks that invite visitors to look inward, to question how their senses work and to dream up utopias for everyday life,” Eliasson said.
Answering to that aspiration are his installations Happiness (2011), a blue sea of floating bubbles seen through a slit in the wall; All your views, (2015), in which a circle of hundreds of mirrored disks provide an opportunity for selfies, as visitors line up to photograph their reflections in the work; and Still River (2016), a series of mammoth ice cubes, made specifically for the show. But Beauty (1993), a fine mist reflecting an array of colors, demonstrated how early in his career Eliasson knew how to mesmerize.
Nevertheless, “Nothingness is not nothing at all” falls short of museum-quality in one respect. Nowhere in the museum can you find a wall label explaining the work or the social concerns of the artist. This is certainly needed in a country where Eliasson’s key issues—global warming and pollution—are at the forefront of public concern. In contrast, the Yuz Museum provides a timeline and scholarly inscriptions at the entrance to each gallery, calling attention to Giacometti’s innovations and concerns.
There was a time when the only museum in Shanghai equipped to handle shows like the Giacometti retrospective would have been the Shanghai Museum. As the country’s foremost institution of antiquities, with strict standards for climate control and art handling, it often receives loan shows from foreign museums. Today, it seems private museums are trying to meet those same standards. If they are successful, this would presage an optimistic future for the art scene in China and would have long-range benefits for China’s emerging artists.