Shanghai’s Rockbund Art Museum Contends with Its Colonial History

The Rockbund Art Museum (RAM), a contemporary art museum located in a restored plaster-brick Art Deco building overlooking Shanghai’s iconic Bund, has a history that dates back far longer than its opening in 2010.

Its building, erected in 1932 in the former European concession, was originally home to the North China branch of the Royal Asiatic Society (RAS), an organization of British and American expatriate scholars, explorers, and scientists. The RAS funded expeditions to uncover archaeological treasures, conduct ethnographic surveys, and catalog indigenous flora and fauna. Today, it would be termed an explicitly Orientalist endeavor that acted as a source of colonial knowledge production and extraction.

The Rockbund has never hid that history, but it has also not explicitly contended with it either—not, at least, until this spring, in a trio of exhibitions conceptualized by artistic director X Zhu-Nowell, a former assistant curator at the Guggenheim Museum in New York.

The exhibitions occupy the entire building and reimagine its historical functions. Museum spaces on the fourth and fifth floors are turned into a midcareer survey, “Mount Analogue,” by the Shanghainese artist Hu Yun; the library on the third floor is turned into an exhibition on the history of the RAS, “Shanghai Palimpsest,” told from archival research and oral histories.

Finally, the auditorium on the second floor—once the central place where RAS members presented their research—has been recast as AUUUUDITORIUM, staged with a fantastical opera set by Singaporean artist Ming Wong, who has long created disruptive and funny video works where he inserts himself into classic Western films. Here, AUUUUDITORIUM flips the old RAS stage on its head, with a year-round program of performances, lectures, workshops, parties, and karaoke that blur the line between installation, theater, nightclub, and study space.

Collectively known as “China Journal,” and part of the multiyear research initiative “Complex Geographies,” the exhibitions form “a collective resistance against hegemonic thinking,” as Zhu-Nowell has put it in texts related to the shows.

The question of knowledge production forms the basis for Hu’s show. While the exhibition is billed as a survey, Hu’s work is so intertwined with explorations of colonialism, history, and the Royal Asiatic Society that one might be forgiven for thinking it is all one project commissioned by the RAM, since Hu had already been researching the former well before this outing was conceived. (In fact, only about half the works were newly produced for the museum.) During a tour for ARTnews Friday, Zhu-Nowell acknowledged the rather unique link between Hu and the RAM.

“There are very few artists who, for the past 10-plus years of their practice, have been researching the Royal Asiatic Society. It’s a very small niche,” Zhu-Nowell said. “And when I wanted to use this building as the focus of a long-term research project, he was a very obvious choice, especially for this site and this museum. I like to work with artists who can generate new history and layers of meaning of the architectural space too. RAM is not a traditional white cube. He might be the only artist in the world who can do that.”

While the exhibition is meant to have no set route, the first work one is likely to see upon entering rescues those banished to the margins of history. In The Unknown Clouds (2021–24), Hu has embedded a broken porcelain teacup in a white wall and filled it with 376 grains of rice. Each grain is carved with the name of a Chinese laborer found on a list of workers drafted by Australian officials in the 19th century. Hu found the list while researching Chinese-dug mine pits in the country; it bears only nicknames, the only thing left of their identities or stories. A floor below, there is a companion sound piece, also at the entrance, called Wind Calls (2024). In it, a light flickers in synchronization as a recording of a 90-year-old man from Taishan, where most of the mine workers hailed from, reads the names. In a stairwell linking the two floors, hang 18 watercolor blocks that constitute Unregistered (2014), the colors of which have been extracted from plants growing around the former mining sites.

Installation view of Debris (2024), Hu Yun, “Mount Analogue,” Rockbund Art Museum, Shanghai.COURTESY OF ROCKBUND ART MUSEUM; PHOTO: YAN TAO.

The works set the tone for the exhibition, which is named after an unfinished adventure novel by French writer René Daumal. In the novel, a group of adventurers undertake an expedition to a mystical mountain that is both invisible and unreachable to the outside world, and serves as a conduit between Heaven and Earth. The novel, which is largely about spiritual self-discovery, helps guide Hu’s conception of history as being both cosmic—Zhu-Nowell described it as “Big Bang–centered.” But Hu also views history as being fragmentary and deeply personal.

“We are asking you to stitch together your own perspective of history because perspective in history is very important. There is no historical truth, and it’s always through a particular lens,” Zhu-Nowell said.

The personal nature of Hu’s work comes through with repeated references to his grandfather in Everything Is Possible in the Dark (2016), Escape (Revisit Memory 1914-2013), and Lift with Care (2013), among others. Hu’s grandfather left his hometown in 1941 at the age of 14 to pursue his revolutionary fervor with the Communist Party. He never returned. In each work, Hu chases his grandfather’s ghost, attempting to reconstruct history in the particular. Lift with Care features his grandfather’s open suitcase with various items inside, while Escape plays slides on a projector depicting Hu’s travels back to his grandfather’s hometown, reconstructing the key moments of his life based on stories his grandfather told. But perhaps most poignant is Everything Is Possible in the Dark, 10 pieces of gelatin silver photo paper. This presentation is the third version of that piece.

“Every time I re-exhibit the same work, it will never be the same because the context changes, the space changes,” Hu told ARTnews. “I always think I should develop it more. I always revise work to turn it into another piece.”

The first iteration of the work featured photos from his grandfather’s personal collection, hung with their backsides facing forward so only the small bits of information scrawled on the back—a date, a place, or sometimes a name—can be seen. Then, because the negatives were lost, Hu rephotographed the pieces. In the darkroom, he decided not to place the prints in fixer solution, thus allowing the images to dissolve into a permanent haze that grows darker with each viewing. History, even when preserved, fades into oblivion.

This shearing off of historical context is mimicked in Debris (2024), which is hung opposite the photographs. In it, he pairs various pieces of space garbage fallen in Northwest China with cut-outs of newspaper clippings and terrarium that older Chinese generations once carried to keep beautifully chirping insects as pets. All of it has been painted completely black, rendering them simple, unknowable forms.

The works centered on his grandfather are linked, like everything else, with the Royal Asiatic Society, its exhibitions, and its construction of China’s natural history. In Lift with Care’s suitcase lies a machine-embroidered survey map by British naturalist Arthur de Carlo Sowerby, the president of the RAS. Alongside it is a rubbing by Hu of the Xi’an stele, which documented early Christianity in China, but was later buried due to religious suppression. Over a thousand years later, Sowerby led an expedition to Xi’an in 1911 to rescue foreign missionaries during the Xinhai Revolution. Meanwhile, Hu’s grandfather’s journey, documented in Escape, largely follows the trail once taken by Sowerby and American art collector and philanthropist Roger Sterling Clark, among others. That expedition appears in Journey without a Destination (2017), which restages a photo of Hazrat Ali, the expedition’s Indian surveyor, riding atop a horse before the trip started. Ali was later killed by locals unnerved by his yoga practice, ending the expedition. In the restaged photos, Hu sits on the saddle. The symbol reappears in an untitled 2016 work for which a saddle is hung in the center of a room, atop a stack of yoga mats.

Sails of black fabric rise from the former vitrines that once held taxidermy.
Installation view of The Hollow-Men (2024), Hu Yun, “Mount Analogue,” Rockbund Art Museum, Shanghai.COURTESY OF ROCKBUND ART MUSEUM; PHOTO: YAN TAO.

The exhibition is inextricably intertwined with the building itself. Occupying much of the fourth floor is The Hollow-Men (2024). In the work, sails of black elastic mesh extend toward the ceiling like tree canopies and—like pieces in Debris—echo objects of the past while erasing their original meaning. The sails mimic and explode the former specimen cabinets that once lined the hall with taxidermy of the animals “discovered” by RAS members. In one of these poetic black fabrics lies Escape Ladder (2024), another commissioned piece in which Hu strings together a ladder of palm leaves shaped like Buddhist pattra-leaf scriptures. (Palm leaves are a recurring motif in Hu’s work, both for their natural beauty and their history as an “exotic” object of colonial fascination.)

On the top floor, above the exhibition—which will soon be a reference library—is There Is No Exhibition (2024), in which Hu has reconstructed a floor plan of the tiny one-room apartments that librarians once inhabited after the RAS’s closure in 1952, when the building operated as a warehouse of the Shanghai Library. The plan was constructed with input from Mr. Wu, one of the former librarians, whom Hu met during his research. Hu placed the plan alongside other personal objects of the Wu family, as well a drawing made by Hu’s son.

During press previews, the Wu family was able to see the work and relive their childhoods. The floor below was once the repository of banned books taken by the government from the ’60s to the ’90s. The books have since been returned, Zhu-Nowell said with a laugh, but not always to the right person. The records were not kept well.

“History in this country is constantly flipping the pages. You just don’t know how to really negotiate and deal with it,” said Zhu-Nowell. “That historical perspective that Hu and other Chinese artists have are really dealing with that change.”

A circular wall hangs with paintings and images and text.
Installation view, Shanghai Palimpsest: Restaging the RAS Library, Rockbund Art Museum, Shanghai.COURTESY OF ROCKBUND ART MUSEUM; PHOTO: YAN TAO.

The layers of the building peel back furthest in “Shanghai Palimpsest,” in which artist Zhang Ruyi transforms the RAS’s former library into a new one. The exhibition tells the story of the RAS through its members. Among them are Florence Ayscough, a Shanghai-born librarian who was deeply engaged with the city’s literature, philosophy, and art scenes in the early 20th century, and Wu Lien-teh, the first Asian member of RAS, its biggest donor, the first Chinese person to study medicine at University of Cambridge, and a heralded physician known for pioneering modern pandemic mitigation with his invention of the N95 mask.

Most intriguing, however, is the section on the Tang family, who served as RAS’s taxidermists until its closure—living on the first floor—and then continuing on for the nearby Zuija Biological Museum for decades later. Their story is told through a documentary, History and Memory, by artist Lu Jie, and a collection of their taxidermy birds. The Tangs’ inclusion was a result of history again pressing in on the building’s present: As Zhu-Nowell tells it, shortly after they started at RAM, they noticed an old man filming in the museum.

“At first, I was very mad. I was like, why are they filming in a museum without permission? Then we talked a little bit and I realized he was born in the museum,” Zhu Nowell said. “Different eras, different people occupy the space.”

Pages flip, history rolls on, and, before long, we’re either carved grains of sand or, in the best scenario, stories on a museum wall.






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