TRAVEL: Long Mu­seum, Shanghai.

The gal­leries of bil­lion­aire art col­lec­tor Liu Yiqian’s Long Mu­seum West Bund, in Shanghai, are pre­sented with a chic in­dus­trial grandeur, writes Donna Lu, but some of the rough edges are un­in­ten­tional.

The Saturday Paper - - Contents - Donna Lu

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-eat­dog 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 min­i­mumwage 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 Hun­dred Species of Peony”. The devil’s in

• the de­tails.

Antony Gorm­ley’s

Crit­i­cal Mass II,

ex­hib­ited at the Long Mu­seum West Bund, Shanghai.

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