Research Log | Guide to Museums in Shenzhen: South China’s New Cultural Centre?

When Michelle Vosper of the Asian Cultural Council in Hong Kong invited me to join a group of 20 ACC Friends and Grantees on a day trip to visit museums in Shenzhen (their first in a series of trips exploring culture in the Pearl River Delta), I knew the time had come to stop delaying and make the journey. I say, stop delaying, because Shenzhen is one of these places, close enough to where you live, yet far enough, that you keep telling yourself you will visit next week…. and then next week.

What is astonishing about Shenzhen is that due to Deng Xiaoping’s economic and social reforms in this area, it has grown from a fishing village of about 50,000 people to a metropolis of approximately 7 million people in just 25 years. Our tour guide, David, who joined us on the bus once we had crossed into ‘China, China’ (as opposed to ‘Hong Kong, China’), was quick to point out that while people would risk their lives jumping into shark infested waters to escape to Hong Kong just 20 years ago, times had changed drastically and you would be hard pushed to find somebody in Shenzhen willing to swap places. For one, according to David, the air in Hong Kong was just too polluted. Ask anybody on the street in Hong Kong as to the reason for our constant state of haze and they will point in the direction of Shenzhen. Good to know that when it comes to regional stereotyping things just don’t change.

While Shenzhen is a favourite destination for shopping and eating among Hong Kong’s population, it is not somewhere one immediately associates with the arts. On the way to our first visit of the day, the He Xiangning Art Museum, we passed a mammoth construction which we were told was Shenzhen’s new cultural centre, costing the government 780 million RMB and set to open in September. With its’ goal of being the best of its kind in Asia, it was interesting to once again see how ‘culture’ has become the new buzzword and currency used by cities on the periphery to position themselves in the region.

At the He Xiangning Museum we were met by the Director, Yue Zhangwei and Assistant Director, Zheng Zhanliang, who briefed us on the history of the museum. One of China’s few national museums, alongside Beijing’s National Gallery, the construction of He Xiangning by the government was completed in 1997. With a floor space of over 5000 square metres, a large part of the museum is dedicated to showcasing the paintings of He Xiangning (1878-1972), a revolutionary and close ally of the Chinese Communist Party.

The walls of the entrance to the exhibition spaces are adorned with black and white photos of the life of Mme. He Xiangning, which then lead into 2 rooms of ink paintings from different periods of her life. What is exceptional about the museum is that it provides a venue for both official and more experimental works by contemporary artists. Currently showing on the second floor of the museum is “Ideals of a New Generation”, an exhibition and competition of oil paintings by younger generation artists from around China. A number of the ACC members commented on their surprise at the range of work being shown at the museum, from gentle scenes of Chinese landscapes, birds and flowers to the loud and at times brash works of China’s younger generation of painters. While the museum has to be commended for offering a space for contemporary art, the current exhibition of oil paintings, while well presented, did not break new ground, in that the majority of works on display adopted the same vocabulary and style that has become acceptable and popular on China’s museum circuit over the past 5 years.

The He Xiangning’s initiative of bringing art outside the walls of the museum is something to be applauded. “The Fifth System: Public Art in the Age of Post-Planning” is the fifth in the series of “The Shenzhen Contemporary Sculpture Exhibition” organised by the museum in the gardens of OCT (Overseas Chinese Town). Currently on show until the end of 2005, the exhibition, curated by Hou Hanru and Pi Li, includes the works of 19 Chinese and international artists (Chen Shaoxiong, Chu Yun, Fu Jie, Gong Jian, Jiang Zhi, Liu Chuang, Liu Wei, Sha Yeya, Xu Zhen, Yan Lei, Yang Jiechang, Yang Yong & Peng Pai, Zheng Guogu, Olafur Eliasson, Michael Lin, MVRDV, Marjetica Portc, Bert Theis and Rirkrit Tiravanija). In the context of Shenzhen as a boom city and an exemplary model of urban creation and expansion in China, “The Fifth System” attempts to look at questions that arise out of this situation: How does contemporary art face and intervene in such a novel reality? How is contemporary art redefined in such an urban environment?

After a delicious lunch at “Springtime on West Lake”, recommended by Hong Kong’s art and food critic, Lau Kin- wai, full bellied, we waddled onto the bus and drove onto the second stop on our list, the Shenzhen Fine Art Institute. We were welcomed by artist and President of the Institute, Dong Xiaoming, who introduced to us its’ history and set up with a video and slide show. Situated in the Silver Lake district of Shenzhen and located between a curious development of luxury housing, the Shenzhen Fine Art Institute was established in 1987 as a ‘professional creation and research organisation’ sponsored by the Shenzhen Municipal Government. The 5000 square metres of facilities include an exhibition hall, meeting room, library, artist studios and production studios. What is most striking about this organisation is that it gives studio and board to a select group of well established artists, for what I understand as an ‘indefinite’ period of time, or until they retire. In return they produce works for the Institute’s collection and must share with the Institute any sales from their art work. The Shenzhen Fine Art Institute has become respected for its work in fostering and encouraging new and experimental ink painting with “The International Ink Painting Biennial Exhibitions” held in 1992 and 2000, and the next one planned to open in December this year. The Institute’s step towards furthering the understanding and research of contemporary ink painting can also be seen in the programmes they have organised, in particular, an international symposium held last year on ink painting in a global context.

Thanks to the carefully planned itinerary by the ACC, our trip coincided with the opening of China’s most famous and important wood block printer, 80 year old, Zhao Yannian. A striking record of China’s historical, social, and economic development throughout the 20th century, this is a show not to be missed and will be on until the 8th June 2004.

The Shenzhen Art Museum was our final stop of the day where we were welcomed by Director, Wang Xiaoming, the wife of Dong Xiaoming. A small museum in a charming location overlooking the East Lake, SZAM was established in 1976. Currently on display and the main exhibition occupying SZAM’s 1000 square metre exhibition space, is a beautifully presented exhibition of young contemporary ink painters from around the country, “Pointing to Tradition”. One room of the museum has been designated to show the museum’s collection of China’s ink masters, all of whom were commissioned by the museum to make these works. The museum was then able to record the painting process of these works which are shown on a television in the entrance hall. Less remarkable is a room to the side of the building in which the museum’s collection of contemporary oil painting are being exhibited. It is a predictable collection of paintings by some of China’s most famous oil painters, displayed and hung in a way where each painting looses its individuality.

As we sipped tea in the East Lake Hotel before making the journey back to Hong Kong, China, one thing that struck me was that apart from the ACC group, the He Xiangning Museum and SZAM were relatively deserted (something we are accustomed to in Hong Kong museums.) This was not the case I had encountered in cities like Beijing and Shanghai. Realistically, perhaps, in cities where an obsession with economic development becomes all consuming, people have little time or interest in art. At the same time, however, for a city which conjures up associations of everything but art and culture, the museums and cultural facilities that exist were impressive and a very pleasant surprise. As Shenzhen becomes more accessible for Hong Kong commuters, and vice versa, in the future, with the loosening of border controls, there will be growing potential for exchange and cooperation between our cultural institutions. For the time being, however, museums in Shenzhen, should aim at making their programmes and exhibitions more visible in Hong Kong, as they have much to offer the visitor aside from the endless shopping centres and theme parks.

A big thank you to the Asian Cultural Council for organising the trip. Catalogues and more information can be found at the Asia Art Archive.

He Xiangning Museum:
Shenzhen Fine Art Institute: Tel: 82438392



Claire HSU, 徐文玠

Tue, 1 Jun 2004

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