All silence is a hidden space / Curated by Huang Wenlong
All silence is a hidden space
If it is a great honor for an individual to have their name become part of cultural memory, then the Cloister Apartment as a piece of architecture also enjoys this distinction. Two legends exist about the building: one says it was the private residence of the owners of the British yarn manufacturer Patons & Baldwins, Ltd; the other legend claims that the American businessman Fritz and his wife lived here and hosted literary salons attended by a wide range of Chinese and international luminaries. The Chinese name 花厅 (literally the hall of flowers), on the other hand, comes from the Republican poet Shao Xunmei’s artistic rendition of the salon’s title.
However, the legend of private residences of magnates seems to contradict the name of the apartment. Did the two groups of owners cross paths? Who lived here and when? No primary sources exist about the alleged owners of Patons & Baldwins, and Xue Liyong, a scholar specializing on the history of Shanghai, has concluded that this legend is pseudo-history. According to the tenant registration in the 1930s, seven or eight shareholders and managers of commercial companies and insurance companies lived here, the Fritzes listed among them, which shows that the site served as a high-end apartment building, not a single-family house. The first salon took place in the Cloister Apartment in 1933. Between then and 1937, when Japanese army invaded Shanghai, the salon only continued for three or four years. Little was known about its fate afterwards. Why, then, do wealthy businessmen and the cultural salon dominate the cultural memory of this building? What happened to the salon when concessions stood as the “lone islets” during Japanese occupation? What occurred to the apartment when the Vichy regime abandoned its concession in China in 1943? And during the Civil War? The only known fact is that the apartment became the Hunan Road Subdistrict Office in Xuhui District after Shanghai’s liberation.
The search in the prevailing gaps beyond the myths proves futile. The lacuna, compared to the intact condition of the building’s exterior and interior, creates a sense of absence that is difficult to describe. When the Cloister Apartment served as the subdistrict office, its exterior did not differ much from that today, with only minor functional modifications such as security bars on the windows, bulletin boards on the street, and several white plaques hanging on the front door. Alterations to the interior can only be seen from a few photos online: an addition of golden characters “Unity, Practicality, Pioneering Spirit, Progress” to the foyer, the twisted Solomonic columns painted in the same dark brown color as the floor tiles, and the unused fireplace boarded up. However, the mosaic steps leading to the second floor have been preserved. In 2018, the government initiated a restoration project of the building to bring it back to its original appearance in the 1930s, removing all traces of post-1949 modifications. In restoration practice in modern China, the guiding principle is “restoring the old as it was,” first conceptualized and exercised by Liang Sicheng. But does “the old” refer to the building at its completion, during a certain historic period, or in its current form? The preservation of history means at the same time selection and anchoring of a particular façade. Keeping a specific, unified style and narrative cuts off juxtaposition and amalgamation of different time periods and closes channels between us and a number of fragments from history. In choosing memory, one erases history.
After restoration, the apartment’s interior perfectly showcases details of Spanish architecture such as Corinthian capitals, cast iron scroll grilles, and ornamented fireplaces, but these historic architectural elements can no longer form a reliable narrative in the space. It is difficult to imagine what the subdistrict office looked like in this location, much less to recover the salon in the 1930s. Objects and furniture exist because of people and disappear with them. Architectural elements can be reproduced, but movement of people is difficult to capture and, in fact, leads to the forgetting of historical lineage. These surviving objects can only partially preserve memory, but not the essence of history. The “positive space” of the Cloister Apartment, namely the physical building, shines with unprecedented beauty bestowed by its restoration; its “negative space,” or the traces of human presence in the flow of time, disappear altogether. The blankness of memory is given a legend, one aspect is chosen from the building’s vicissitudes of fortune, and the Cloister Apartment is fixed to a time and space that never existed.
Exploring the absence in the historical narratives of the Cloister Apartment is the exhibition’s departure point. In her work “Archival Memory Room” (2008), the German artist Dorothea Reese-Heim cuts out people’s contours in photographs, perhaps conveying that forgetting and remembering are always relative and that they are interdependent as positive and negative shapes, thus revealing the absence of memory. The Chinese artist Xu Zhe’s work “.wav” (2023) collects the sounds in the apartment, which are transformed and re-released into the space to converge with on-site sounds to form a new soundscape, a metaphor for dislocation in the return of memory.
The Cloister Apartment became a museum that developed from the old French Concession to the present, and it is by itself a museum exhibit. However, has it also become what Adorno calls a “museal” in German, merely “museum like,” without any personal connections? In preserving architectural and material heritage, how much of human activity can we retain from time? The Japanese artist Hikaru Fujii’s practice focuses on the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear accident, questioning whether we still have the capacity to record and recreate history. Is the museum’s reinterpretation of history also a threat to history? Can these constructed meanings and orders really help us see the reality of time and space in the past? The Georgian artist Vajiko Chachkhiani explores the connection between the individual and collective memory in “Winter Which Was Not There” (2017), implying an attitude of release from metanarrative. Xu Zhe’s new work “Into the Slit” (2023) starts from an individual’s life experience and finally returns to the care between individuals. Individual person is the most difficult to capture in history, but ultimately composes the core of history.
The exhibition title is inspired by “Vertical Poetry” by the Argentinean poet Roberto Juarroz.