Shanghai’s Long Museum West Bund
Childhood nostalgia is a powerful thing. When Disney and Pixar recently announced a sequel to the animated feature film The Incredibles, the response was overwhelming. The teaser trailer amassed more than 30 million views on YouTube within a week of release, stoked by millennials, who, like myself, had watched and loved the original film as primary schoolers.
Perhaps for their aesthetic antithesis to my deeply uncool tweenness, I was drawn to scenes involving the villain Syndrome’s lair, which was built into a volcano on a tropical island. It was a subconscious entrée to minimalist architectural design, with its sleek, curved concrete tunnels and the exaggerated austerity of an oversized, lava-lit dining room. The devil was in the details: the walls of the control centre were shaded like water-stained cement, their cavernous scale echoing footsteps just the right amount. The association has stuck, and modernist fortresses and supervillainy are inextricably linked in my mind.
It is for that reason I feel a mix of unease and awe while visiting the Long Museum West Bund, a privately owned art gallery in Shanghai. The waterfront museum is an imposing monolith of industrial chic, with vaulted cement arches and metal grilles and beams forming, if not 50, at least several shades of grey. It’s one of a handful of museums that have cropped up in recent years in the West Bund, a once-industrial riverside district that a friend describes to me as now “painfully hip”.
On a midmorning visit with my mum, I’m struck by how quiet it is, even for a weekday in a city in which a population greater than Australia’s fits into an area roughly the size of Perth. At any given hour in Shanghai, the equivalent of a small nation is on the move on the Metro, and yet as we arrive at the Long Museum, the building’s forecourt is empty but for a toddler zipping a remote-controlled ute around, his mother following to film him.
Two young women in matching furry slippers meander across the concourse towards the remnants of the coal-unloading bridge that separates two wings of the museum. The site was formerly a wharf for coal transportation and the industrial grunge of the bridge’s cracked and rusting pillars clearly appeals to those shooting next season’s lookbooks. Close to the river, a model is trailed by a photographer and his lackeys, including one whose sole job seems to be holding a speaker from which Alicia Keys’ “If I Ain’t Got You” is blasting. In the shade of the old bridge, a fifth member of the entourage waits beside a trolley full of bags and outfits, tapping away at her phone.
To see an exhibition of old Dutch masters – Rembrandt, Vermeer, Hals – in one of the basement galleries Mum and I pass through security. We have to store our bags in automated lockers before descending sets of steps into a windowless concrete atrium. It’s austere and echoey, the high walls gridded with boltholes. The impression is not unlike that of a nuclear bunker, and I’m reminded of the spiral entry staircase to MONA’s dim sandstone crypt in Hobart. In the expansive but unventilated space, the thick odour of wet paint, source unseen, hangs about the air. Mum wrinkles her nose and motions towards the galleries while I film the place on my phone, trying to capture the soaring immensity of scale.
Near the entrance is a trio of visitors, one wearing a turquoise velour tracksuit. Another taps on a bronze sculpture mounted on a plinth. As we pass them, a public service announcement echoes around the vault, difficult to hear clearly now but which will be all too audible in the quiet of the galleries, where for the duration of our visit it will be jarringly broadcast several times every hour.
“Dear valued guests,” greets a saccharine female voice in Mandarin, before listing a series of demands: watch your personal belongings, keep your children under control, don’t run, don’t touch the art, try to be quiet.
Decades of poverty and the sheer density of the country’s population have contributed to a dog-eat-dog mentality that has only given way to such civility in recent years. As a teenager, I dreaded family trips to China: instead of queues, people shoved others to get to something they wanted. Yelling matches broke out in the middle of the street and on public transport.
But as living conditions have improved and the ranks and waistlines of the middle class have swelled, courteous behaviour has been newly emphasised. On this visit to Shanghai, five years since my last, I find the city as busy as ever but less chaotic, full of orderly lines, bourgeois cafes, art galleries and public bicycles.
But the civic training wheels haven’t entirely come off yet. In addition to the Long Museum’s PSAs, nearly all of the Dutch masters’ works – delicate self-portraits and imposing biblical scenes alike – are mounted in cases or framed behind a layer of glass. Awkward signs that read “Don’t take pictures” and “Don’t touch painting” are dotted throughout the exhibition.
The Long Museum’s mission is to educate the Chinese public about art, the gallery’s billionaire owner Liu Yiqian told The New Yorker recently. The West Bund gallery is one of three he has built to display his personal collection, with a fourth to open this year in Wuhan. But the public Liu refers to is but a subsection limited by wealth and education. The Long Museum’s privileged – albeit refreshingly young – audience is a world apart from the hordes of tourists traipsing up to the Bund to gaze upon the famous Pudong skyline.
At the ticket desk, I’d passed a group of university art students on excursion, with dip-dyed hair and digital SLR cameras. After paying, one commented that the prices, which I thought expensive by Australian standards, were “pretty cheap”. My tickets cost 300 yuan (roughly $60), which would have set back a minimum-wage worker in Shanghai more than an eighth of their monthly income.
The physical scale of the gallery is breathtaking, I realise as I wander through a visiting exhibition of British artist Antony Gormley’s work. The centrepiece, Critical Mass II, comprises 60 life-sized bodies made from cast iron, which take up the better part of an entire floor, some hanging from the vertiginous ceiling, others crouching or bent in uncanny shapes. The effect is both confronting and calming.
And yet there’s an ersatz quality to the museum, a sense that aspiration has fallen short in execution. Portable air-conditioning units rest conspicuously against gallery walls, whirring loudly. In an exhibition of Chinese calligraphy, shoddy workmanship is discernable: the rust-coloured walls are painted unevenly and a switchbox is partially exposed.
The goal of the whole enterprise feels uncertain. Is the museum trying to cultivate a space that provokes, questions and reflects contemporary Chinese identities and values, or is it a giant showroom for the myriad purchases of a billionaire? Perhaps both.
Before we leave, Mum and I wander into an exhibition of paintings of China’s national flower, entitled: “One Hunderd Species of Peony”. The devil’s in the details.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 3, 2018 as "Long hall". Subscribe here.