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Heilongjiang Art Museum - Installation

Written by Gary Proctor, Director ( 2014-04-22 07:40:00 )

Harbin is in far North-Eastern China in Heilongjiang Province, an area with a strong Russian colonial flavour. The Heilongjiang Art Museum is in an ancient bank, probably the provincial stronghold in days gone by. Accordingly it has very thick masonry walls and, being quiet, was perfect for the 20 channel sound installation. We always wish for a better lighting system and we did again downstairs - but after we took away several movable walls the space opened up a little, especially on the second floor. Still only about two thirds of the work out though.

Some enjoyable moments for me and I learned some things about my own sense of composition in exhibition design - never too late, right? - based on where illumination directs attention/through space, making it more porous, it's disclosures more labyrinthine. The idea is simple enough but applied to this intercultural context it's problematic, and I mean whether it adds conceptual value or remains an theatrical effect conjured for the sake of idle drama. Here, though, the photo wall traverses a myriad of social spaces well lit and easily seen across to others less discernible in darkness. The relative ease/difficulty across this entire action is an operation of the human body in the space, a compositional element of the exhibition design in the overall accumulation of meaning, here the difficulty of fully understanding the mosaic of other cultural realities.

Still it's nice to play with space when you have the opportunity and in my mind I came to see this slab of photos with its well lit upper corner - one of the moveable walls in the gallery out by itself on the floor - instead as a large broad cylinder about 170mm high x 2M across. Top and sides are covered with the photos but there is a wide hole in the middle, going down into darkness.

Director Zhang made us very welcome and with lots of great Chinese tea with him in his office became a good friend very quickly; he basically turned over the space and said it's all yours. This is generous and I hope we did it justice; certainly everybody says they like the show very much, that it is very different. It is always a show of many parts and in Northern China it was a matter of making that drawn-out experience a significant encounter of Ngaanyatjarra people. We always appreciate a free hand in bringing the exhibition design to fruition, and that's pretty much the way it's been everywhere we've gone in China through the whole tour. Not so common in Australia.

Out on the streets were we walked a mile or so back to the hotel here in the city centre there are many souvenir shops full of Russian kitsch, tissue box and Faberge egg toothpick holders, fashion accessories and ammunition shaped vodka bottles. And strange things: high-precision hand-held optical rangefinders for artillery engagements, bronze statues and old, manually operated air raid sirens - will probably buy an air raid siren against the time it may be needed. At night salamanders in restaurant foyers, beautiful nights in the streets walking in the first warm weather after a very cold winter.

Bryce Grunden on A/V, Ling on management and Alex Robbins visited for the install - joined by four great volunteers from the local university. Harbin was good.