First major exhibition of relics and masterful replicas from legendary silk road city comes to Shanghai.

The Shanghai Himalayas Museum is a privately-funded institution that seeks to provide world-class educational programmes and cultural exchanges to audiences both inside China and abroad. “Dunhuang: Song of Living Beings” presents a unique opportunity to view ancient pieces and contemporary art inspired by Buddhism and spirituality.

Ancient Tibetan Mahayana Sukhavativyuha Sutra from the Tang Dynasty 25.6 x 192cm. Photo: Yan Haibo. Image courtesy the Dunhuang Research Academy and the Shanghai Himalayas Museum.

Ancient Tibetan Mahayana Sukhavativyuha Sutra from the Tang Dynasty, 25.6 x 192 cm. Photo: Yan Haibo. Image courtesy the Dunhuang Research Academy and the Shanghai Himalayas Museum.

The Shanghai Himalayas Museum, formerly known as Shanghai Zendai MoMA, opened at its new location in 2012. Located in Shanghai’s Pudong District at the Himalayas Center, the impressive 1.9-million-square-foot complex designed by Japanese architect Arata Isozaki also includes a luxury hotel, shopping, restaurants and a theatre. 

Himalayas Center and Shanghai Himalayas Museum, Exterior View. Photo courtesy of Shanghai Himalayas Museum.

Himalayas Center and Shanghai Himalayas Museum. Exterior view. Image courtesy Shanghai Himalayas Museum.

The Shanghai Himalayas Museum is owned by the Zendai Group, founded by Dai Zhikang. It has offered over 50 international art and cultural exchange programmes since its opening in 2005. The mission of the non-profit art institute, according to the venue’s website, is to “play an active role in promoting cultural and art developments”:

Boasting world-class facilities and the highest level of expertise, the museum is committed to furthering the development of art in terms of both breadth and depth, to making art more accessible to the general public and to cultivating a new generation of audiences.

"Dunhuang: Song of Living Beings" installation view. Photo: Yan Haibo. Image courtesy Shanghai Himalayas Museum.

“Dunhuang: Song of Living Beings” installation view. Photo: Yan Haibo. Image courtesy Shanghai Himalayas Museum.

“Dunhuang: Song of Living Beings” marks the first time that the Dunhuang Research Academy has paired up with a private museum to present an exhibition. The Dunhuang Research Academy was founded in 1944 by Chang Shuhong (1904-1994) as the National Dunhuang Art Institute, whose mission was to protect, research and restore the Mogao grottoes. The UNESCO World Heritage site, found in China’s northwestern Gansu Province on the edge of the Gobi Desert, contains a significant body of work referencing Buddhist parables (similar to India’s Jataka Tales). The treasures of Dunhuang are sizable, with over 700 caves, 45 square metres of murals and 2,400 pieces of sculpture.

The exhibition is co-curated by Wang Xudong, Director of the Dunhuang Research Academy and Wong Shun-kit, Advisor to the Shanghai Himalayas Museum. Dr. Yongwoo Lee, the director of the museum is the exhibition’s Artistic Director and Fan Jinshi, known popularly as the “Daughter of Dunhuang”, is the show’s Chief Academic Advisor.

Ding Yi, 'Appearance of Crosses ', 2015-1, mixed media on basswood 240 x 240 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Shanghai Himalayas Museum.

Ding Yi, ‘Appearance of Crosses’, 2015-1, mixed media on basswood, 240 x 240 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Shanghai Himalayas Museum.

Another memorable piece is by one of China’s most famous abstract painters, Ding Yi. Ding is well known for his “Appearance of Crosses” series, where the artist uses a combination of “t” and “x” marks to create a dense patterning or “patchwork” that burgeons into geometric forms, “pixels” and lines. This patterning is Ding’s attempt to break free of conventional constructs, as was noted in an article from Frieze Magazine:

 In the midst of the revolutionary zeal of the art world in the 1980s, Ding adopted repetition as a direct expression of freedom from any social or ideological expectations for artistic practice and the turmoil of society. For him, the sign of the cross is relevant to the way we perceive the organization of the universe, while remaining free of specific references to immediate reality.

Finding one’s way

This grappling and delving into one’s philosophical, religious and spiritual domain and both the historical and contemporary terrain is a thread that runs throughout the exhibition.

Qui Zhijie, 'Some People Always Tend to Believe',2015, ink on paper, 245x126cm. Image courtesy the artist and Shanghai Himalayas Museum.

Qui Zhijie, ‘Some People Always Tend to Believe’,2015, ink on paper, 245 x 126 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Shanghai Himalayas Museum.

Qiu Zhijie’s work Some People Always Tend to Believe depicts a fantastical map of differing theologies and beliefs, in topographic form. This work speaks to the artist’s background where his early years were steeped studying traditional calligraphy, literature, history and philosophy and his artistic narratives often offer contrasts between “destiny and self-assertion, social fragmentation and transience”. Maps, for the artist, provide a way to make sense of a world where many of us are lost.

For Qiu, his participation in this particular exhibition was something that intensely interested him. As Qiu told the Global Times, he has always had a fascination for Dunhuang:

Qiu said that he had wished to become a Dunhuang expert when he was young but “unfortunately” became a contemporary artist.

Nam June Paik, 'Blue Buddha', 1992–1996, mixed media, 250 x 15 5x 20cm Installation view at Shanghai Himalayas Museum, Dunhuang: Song of Living Beings. Photo: Yan Haibo. Image courtesy Shanghai Himalayas Museum.

Nam June Paik, ‘Blue Buddha’, 1992–1996, mixed media, 250 x 15.5 x 20 cm. Installation view at Shanghai Himalayas Museum, “Dunhuang: Song of Living Beings”. Photo: Yan Haibo. Image courtesy Shanghai Himalayas Museum.

Nam June Paik is considered by many to be the father of video art, whose pioneering work ushered in a new generation of visual artists who continue to refine the medium to this day. Paik considered his work to be “time art” instead of sculpture or another type of conventional medium. His installation Blue Buddha, presents a contemporary and jarring contrast to a serene Buddha-like figure, with flashing neon lights and a succession of images upon several television screens.

 Lisa Pollman

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Related Topics: Buddhist art, Chinese artists, Classic/Contemporary, connecting Asia to itself, hstorical art, art preservation

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By Brittney

Brittney is a writer, curator and contemporary art gallerist. Born in Singapore and based in New York City, Brittney maintains a deep interest in the contemporary art landscape of Southeast Asia. This is combined with an equally strong interest in contemporary art from the Asian diasporas, alongside the issues of identity, transmigration and global relations.

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