Musquiqui Chihying The Chinese Museum F.
Curated by Pietro della Giustina
October 8th - December 10th 2019
12 rue de la Coifferie
63 000 Clermont-Ferrand
On the occasion of his first solo show in France, Taiwanese artist Musquiqui Chihying presents a newly produced sound installation titled The Chinese Museum F. The exhibition develops as a multilayered scenario in which the main space of In extenso is transformed into a branch of the National Museum of China through the appropriation of its display system, standards and colours. Through the combination of fictional anecdotes and historical facts, the artist evokes an ensemble of images whose aim is to question the social and philosophical function of cultural heritage as well as the practices of contemporary museums, examining how this knowledge is constructed, acquired, preserved and redistributed.
The exhibition takes as its starting point the sack of Beijing’s Old Summer Palace by the Franco- British army during the Opium Wars. On October 7th, 1860, despite the stalling strategy of the Chinese army, the Franco-British troops, captained by the generals Charles Cousin-Montauban and Sir James Hope Grant, broke through to the Old Summer Palace and began looting the treasures of the Chinese emperors, nearly destroying the building. In the first sound narration of The Chinese Museum F, Musquiqui Chihying describes two French soldiers who are both witnesses and actors, at once aware of the shameless violence that they are taking part in, but nonetheless pursuing their goal of collecting precious objects to send back to France. The palace’s prestigious water clock, designed by the Italian painter and missionary priest Giuseppe Castiglione, was destroyed in the looting, and its zodiac bronze heads were stolen and taken abroad, becoming a symbol of Chinese humiliation.
The colonial experience was driven through the dynamic research of cultural and artistic objects; armies had art experts in their ranks who dealt with tracing, evaluating and selecting art objects to bring back to Europe in order to integrate national and private collections. As Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy stated in their report Restituer le patrimoine africain, “Destruction and collection are two faces of the same coin. Europe’s major museums are both the brilliant guardians of human creativity and the depositaries of a dynamic of appropriation that is often violent and still too little known.”1 In France, the looted treasures were exhibited in 1861 at the Marsan Pavilion in the Tuileries Garden before being integrated into the personal collection of the Empress Eugenie, who in 1863 founded the Chinese Museum at Fontainebleau Castle. From that moment, Musquiqui Chihying’s fictional memoir moves forward in time, analysing the critical issues linked to the appropriation of foreign-looted objects and the custom of changing their functions by modifying their original shapes or by adding elements in order to integrate their new context. This second act of violence, that of physical injury to the cultural and aesthetic identity of the artefacts, is evoked by the character of BF, an assistant at the “Collas and Bardienne”, one of the main bronze studios in Paris. He and his chief work on the modification of a series of precious religious vases that have arrived from the Old Summer Palace, transforming them into candelabras for the decoration of Empress Eugenie’s Chinese Museum.
The looting of cultural heritage robs people of the chance to face their own culture and history, thus increasing the hierarchies between the culturally dominated and the culturally dominant. This fact essentially “[denies] the very principle of culture which [...] is generated and regenerated over centuries through the transmission, reproduction, adaptation, study and transformation of knowledge, forms and objects within society.”2 In the third episode of his fictional narrative,
Musquiqui Chihying shifts the story from a historical perspective to a speculative one, highlighting the critical link between China and its cultural heritage.
While for decades during the Cultural Revolution, Mao Zedong’s Party destroyed art, antiquities and museums that were viewed as representing the symbolic power of rooted bourgeois and feudal benefits, in 2009 Beijing announced that the state would begin conducting research into looted Chinese artefacts dispatched in Western institutions. The Chinese government entrusted the powerful state-run enterprise China Poly Group to locate and recover lost art through negotiation with cultural foreign institutions or by acquisition at auction.
The art market thus became “a patriotic battlefield”, promoting the repatriation of stolen treasures as a form of nationalistic retaliation for the Century of Humiliation. The business practices of China Poly Group, which stretch from selling weapons to art acquisitions, are shrouded in a nebulous aura, and the last decade has witnessed several anonymous robberies in Western institutions, the target of which have been historical objects looted from China. The artist interrogates the disappearance of these objects through the story of CJ, a thief hired by an unknown woman, whose goal is to steal an ancient Oilin statuette from a museum. In a private narration to himself, CJ muses on the practical impossibility of Poly Group’s role in the theft, as the enterprise’s aim, that of recovering looted artworks in order to show them in Chinese museums and to reestablish Chinese culture and identity within national borders, would be unfeasible if the pieces were known to be stolen.
In The Chinese Museum F, Musquiqui Chihying strives to blur the boundaries between victims and perpetrators by emphasising the shifting and cyclical nature of history. Through his voice- overs, he guides the audience through the exhibition without leading them to any one conclusion, and ultimately the vagueness of the monologues, which purposefully avoid reference to defined places or epochs, leaves the audience free to reflect on the too often hidden vicissitudes of human events.
In the projection room, ”The Sculpture, a filmed lecture-performance, focuses on Mr. Xie, a collector who has donated some 5,000 African artworks to the National Museum’s collection. Accumulated in the 1990’s, they are indelibly touched by elements of both the precolonial and postcolonial, frustrating efforts to view them as the products of timeless, ethnic others. Here, once again, the politics of recognition—and material redistribution—are complicated by the three-sided relationship between China, Africa, and Europe. [In the video] the artist, dressed in a black suit, stands amidst a sea of photographic reproductions of art. It is a re-enactment of the iconic photograph of André Malraux standing next to his «Imaginary Museum,» the prototypical art book. Yet, in Chihying’s version, it is the Terminator, rather than a finely sculpted bust, that peers out from one such photo.”3
1 Felwine Sarr, Bénédicte Savoy, Restituer le Patrimoine Africain, Éditions Philippe Rey, Éditions du Seuil, 2018.
3 Extract of the press release of the exhibition I’ll be back, Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing, 2018.
Musquiqui Chihying (Taipei, Taiwan, 1985) lives and works between Berlin and Taipei. He has participated in several international exhibitions, like Crush, Para Site, Hong Kong (2018); The 69th International Berlin Film Festival - Forum Expanded Exhibition, Akademie der Künste, Berlin (2018); A chemical love story, Tang Contemporary, Pékin (2017); 2016 Taipei Biennial : Gestures and archives of the present, genealogies of the future, Taipei Fine Arts Museum, Taipei (2016); Millefeuille de Camélia, Arko art center, Séoul (2016); Social factory, the 10th Shanghai biennale, Power Station of Art, Shanghai (2014); Place an image / Place in image, Museum für Fotografie, Berlin (2014); 2012 Taiwan Biennial, National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts, Taichung (2012), among others. His solo shows include I’ll be back, Ullens Center for Contemporary Art - UCCA, Pékin (2018); Resistance is futile, Gallery 456, New York (2017); Modern life is dull, Non Berlin (2016). Musquiqui Chihying has been nominated to the Berlin Art Prize 2019.