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Heavenly Culture, with Product Placement: A Tour of the National Museum of China, Part One

By Shelly Kraicer

The gallery of Ancient Chinese art in the National Museum of China may be the new highlight of anyone's visit to Beijing.

Beijing’s new National Museum of China opened in March 2011. It’s been steadily expanding inside since, opening more and more galleries to the public. Recently, the galleries of ancient art were finally opened, so I decided it was time to make a thorough visit (I’d been once before in early May just to take a look at the building) and see how the Chinese nation choses to present itself in a grand museum setting.

First of all, the setting. It is very grand. Super gigantic-grand. Reports in Western media describe an amusingly direct series of phone calls by planners of the National Museum of China (NMC) to western museum experts. Sample questions: “What is the floor space of the Louvre?” “What about the British Museum in London?” Clearly, the architects’ brief included making this the Largest Museum In The World (to match Beijing Capital Airport’s Terminal 3, the Largest Building In The World; the Great Wall, and so on). Apparently they succeeded, and out of the shell of two older museums on Tiananmen Square, the Museum of Chinese History and the Museum of the Chinese Revolution, the National Museum of China is being born, a giant monument to China’s fabled 5000 year history, and as we shall see, to the faithful guardianship of this immense history by the Chinese Communist Party. “Is being born” because the NMC is still a work in progress. Vast swathes of the building are still uninhabited, forthcoming galleries uninstalled. But I would estimate that at least half of the Museum is now open, more than enough for a full day of provocative and sometimes entrancing museum-going.

Newly minted Chinese haute bourgeoisie find a place to see their own aspirations reflected within the Museum.

One enters either in enormous long lines from the main entrance on Tiananmen Square, or without lining up at all from the building’s north side. At first I was told that the North Entrance was a sort of VIP entrance, and on my first visit I managed to talk my way in by appearing stubborn and obtuse and pretending to know no Chinese. At least I thought that was happening. This time, it seems that the only difference between the two entrances is the price of admission. It’s free to enter by the long lines; one pays (a nominal 10 RMB, about $1.50) to skip the line. And that 10 yuan includes admission to the German Enlightenment temporary exhibition (a disappointing assemblage of second rate paintings around one great Watteau masterpiece, Party in the Open Air, and some characteristically brilliant and chilling Goya prints from his Caprichos and Los Desastres de la Guerra series). Not included is the Louis Vuitton “exhibition” installation-advertisement, which would cost another 10 RMB. I opted to skip paying to see an elaborate showroom for luxury products, though not without wondering what sort of deal LV managed to negotiate with the Chinese museum authorities that allowed them to co-opt four large galleries in the nation’s foremost museum to mount what is essentially a PR show-cum-product exhibition.

This is not unlike, I imagine, renting on-screen time in contemporary Chinese blockbuster films (Feng Xiaogang’s being the most notorious in this respect) for prominent product placement: even the current propaganda would-be blockbuster The Beginning of the Great Revival, in its own way the NMC of contemporary propaganda films, managed to place a rather prominently branded antique Omega wristwatch into its story.

After entering the Museum, I was searched and frisked by airport-style security people, though none of my beep-eliciting and obviously bulky electronics were inspected (photos of the museum that follow are the results of my semi-surreptitious attempt to document my visit for this piece, apologies for the rough quality). Then on into the main hall.

Visitors as ants in a vast cultural space. It doesn't just look like a classy airport terminal; you could fly a small plane in here.

I felt tiny. Most of NMC’s floor space is taken up by an enormous main entrance hall, fronting Tiananmen Square. It’s designed to make you feel minuscule and insignificant (in the face of those 5000 years of history, perhaps?), and it works. What doesn’t work is the gigantic scale of the building: though galleries and a series of balconies (hello Musée d’Orsay) afford vantage points over the hall’s various cavernous wings, you never know quite where you are (and I’m good with maps, and can get you from the Louvre’s Winged Victory of Samothrace to Chirac’s African sculpture court in three minutes flat). Follow the crowds.

Facing the entrance hall is enormous Central Hall Number One, now devoted to a display of gigantic (I’m running out of words for “really big”) historical paintings chosen to celebrate the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party. The display was a bit dutiful, paintings crammed in together, hung above each other in study gallery style, around a vast empty middle. The famous revolutionary paintings in the collection of the Museum were somehow missing (I’d seen them years ago in the great Guggenheim show on Chinese art). The whole installation looked a bit perfunctory, as if sending a curatorial message that “we have to do this, but our heart’s really not in it”.

What the curators hearts are into, clearly, is ancient Chinese art, especially from the Neolithic times through the Shang, Zhou, Qin, Han, and Tang dynasties. These galleries, newly opened, are spectacular. Louvre spectacular. British Museum spectacular. Every tourist who’s come to Beijing looking for masterpieces of Chinese ancient art (and told to go to the Shanghai Museum to find them) now has someplace to satisfy his or her art desires. I was in heaven.

Right off the bat, we can admire a neolithic erotic/devotional sculpture, anatomically detailed (it’s hermaphrodite), prominently placed with helpfully explanatory caption. The prudish Chinese curator is extinct, at least at the NMC. You’ve seen Chinese bronzes before, but nothing this spectacular: profusely detailed four animal-headed cauldrons, vats large enough to bathe an entire court. Masterpieces sit in their own beautifully lit cases in the middle of large galleries, and intelligent thematic groupings (family life, economy, transport) as well as smaller works are gathered in cases around the walls.

Ranks of Han dynasty soldiers

But bronzes are just a warm up show. The Museum’s Qin and Han sculpture collection is glorious. The two terracotta warriors from Xi’an seem a bit lonely off with their horse in their heavily protected corner (word is that NMC used its institutional heft to requisition many masterpieces from regional museums all around the country), but facing them, the vast battalion of metre-high Han dynasty pottery warrior statues, arranged in ranks from spear-carriers to cavalrymen, is a spectacular show of art and might. Then there is a Han dynasty sculpture masterpiece gallery that I will keep going back to. It includes the famous laughing drummer curled up on one leg, an ecstatically gesturing female Han dancer, arms describing hyperspace, and a magnificently snarling stone lion.

An arched stone gate from the Northern Wei Dynasty is one of the few architectural installations in the museum, but it’s beautifully detailed, and unprotected (there’s glass around almost everything other than the large scale stone objects). NMC’s other architectural materials take the form of large elaborately detailed wooden models (a temple hall, a pagoda), which seem to be a specialty of Chinese museology, and do in fact attract the close attention of many Chinese museum goers.

The Tang galleries continue to maintain this high level of presentation and display, forgoing the usual multicoloured flamboyant statuary for substantial but less familiar pieces. But there is a surprising and somewhat disconcerting drop off in quality from the Song dynasty on, although there is much to look at and enjoy. I’m not sure why. Is the Ancient Art Department at NMC divided into two sections, pre and post-Song? Perhaps artifacts of the highest level just weren’t available at installation time.

All of these galleries are in the museum’s sub-basement, but lofty ceilings, sumptuous materials, and sophisticated lighting make you forget you’re underground. In a giant upstairs gallery, Central Hall 2, is the NMC’s other pièce-de-résistance, a Buddhist sculpture gallery full of beautifully installed Northern Wei masterpieces, a supremely suave Tang dynasty Bodhisattva, and important Song and Ming sculptures, in wood and stone.

The same can’t be said, unfortunately, for the new Porcelain gallery. I hope this atrociously tacky glass and plastic installation is only temporary. It feels like a jewelry show in a HK emporium designed for mainland tourists’ quick-hit look-and-buy visits. It’s crowded, the works are jumbled in what seems to be (but this can’t be) an order based on colour (beautiful simple monochrome porcelain on the left, blue-and-white in the middle, multicolour on the right). This is just weird, but does concentrate some wonderfully elegant, luminously pale Ming monochromes together, away from their more famous blue and white cousins, who always steal the show. Fortunately, hidden in the appalling display are a decent number of my favourite Qing dynasty Yongzheng period porcelains, of perfect proportion and astonishing refinement (the Yongzheng emperor himself may have been sadistically repressive, but his artists were something else).

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