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The Chen Chi Art Museum, Shanghai Jiao Tong University, Shanghai, China

BY RAYMOND J. STEINER
May, 1999

IT WAS AS much spectacle as it was momentous█the opening of the Chen Chi Art Museum at the Shanghai Jiao Tong University Campus not only a major milestone for a living artist but a significant addition to a university that, according to some students, is so top-heavy in its technology that it's been nicknamed the "the M.I.T of China." China, of course, has been trying to rally economically, slowly finding its way into the mainstream of global networking, and one of the first things it had to do was to strengthen its universities in the fields of communications, technology and business management. As even our two-week visit showed, China is adjusting very quickly, standards of living rapidly increasing as more and more people enter the "computer age" and government-encouraged private businesses flourish. It is a thriving, bustling country, with department and food stores in major cities such as Shanghai rivaling those found in the West. So quickly is China changing, in fact, that even now some of the traditions and mores are being threatened with extinction. To cite but one example, the several centuries-old "hutongs"█one- or two-storied homes and labyrinthine alleyways centered around a family- or craftguild-shared courtyard█are being razed to make room for modern high risers, altering the face of such cities as Beijing in ways that are making them "foreign" to their own citizens. It is an ancient belief that living close to the ground is healthy, and many of China's elderly want no part of living in modern upper-storied apartment complexes.

Although, to progressive eyes, such changes might be desirable, to some, too rapid a transition might overlook some things that ought to be preserved█especially China's ancient and venerable traditions in the arts and crafts. With new art galleries popping up that proclaim Chinese centuries-old watercolor painting "kitsch" and touting artforms that are incomprehensible to Chinese eyes, it is no wonder that some, like the young students at the University, feel their cultural heritage threatened. "We need more art classes, more studies in literature," one student told us, "and the opening of the Chen Chi Art Museum is a good thing for our University." It seems the long instilled desire for balance and harmony, so evident in Chinese art and architecture, exerts a strong attraction even on sophisticated and forward-thinking Chinese youth.

Nestled amidst willow trees alongside a small lake and surrounded by exquisitely landscaped gardens and paths, The Chen Chi Art Museum, notwithstanding its elegantly modern design, is a subtle blend of old and new, its low profile holding its own amidst the towering campus library and dormitory buildings█oddly reminiscent of the old hutong enclaves surrounded by towering skyscrapers. As if to further set it apart from its surroundings, the Museum is subtly colored a creamy yellow to contrast with the uniformly red limestone of the University buildings and its setting in landscaped greenery opposed to the large expanses of concrete and paving stones that characterize all such institutions. The final touch of exclusivity is a beautifully designed footbridge over the lake that separates the new Museum from the campus and over which students can visit from the main campus area, the walk constituting both a physical and mental transition from the institutional coldness of the University complex into the garden-like setting.

We visited the Museum with Chen Chi, his wife, family and friends, the day before the official opening on April 8th█the date, an auspicious one since it is the traditional birthdate of Siddhartha (the name means "every wish fulfilled") Gautama, the prince destined to become known to the world as Buddha█and therefore, to Chinese thinking, a practical nod to good feng shui. A leisurely walk along an access road (the bridge over the lake closed until the following day of festivities) brought us to the building. Still under construction, only the reception room and main galleries (downstairs and upstairs) had been completed, ready to receive guests at the gala opening. Workers were busily setting out hundreds of potted flowers, sweeping the floors and readying the place for visitors. In addition to the main gallery and reception room downstairs, there is a spacious lobby, a large studio and contiguous lecture room (both with large windows and glassed doors opening onto a path along the lakeside), several offices and washroom facilities. A spiral stairway brings you to the second floor, to the upstairs gallery and several more offices. An integral part of the building, but still under construction, is the two-storied living quarters meant to serve as residence for Chen Chi and his wife whenever they are in China. The household will feature a kitchen, living room, dining area, bedrooms and guest rooms.

The galleries had been hung with Chen Chi's pictures before our arrival, his newest paintings█his Moon and Sky Series█down in the main gallery while the upstairs housed a wide range of his work, from earliest times to the present. Of some interest to me was his paintings█done in the 1970s█of the Bund in Shanghai, the main commercial strip along the Huangpu River. Long famous as a tourist site for its beautiful Victorian/Edwardian architecture, the area is still a must for every visitor, the buildings smartly renovated and the river-side now vastly changed with walkways and sitting parks. Chen Chi's new work, some dozen or so paintings of the moon in different phases and set in a dark-blue sky, were begun in December of 1998 and represent a major stage and culmination of his life's work. I was privileged to view these paintings in Chi's New York studio in January of this year, an occasion which prompted me to write an essay on them which is now part of the new catalogue published in conjunction with the inauguration of The Chen Chi Art Museum. It was at the Museum that I had my first opportunity of seeing the paintings█many of them relatively large█discretely hung for full viewing, his cramped studio allowing only a fragmented and cursory look since many were placed in front of others as they lined his walls. The Moon and Sky Series did full justice to the gallery (and the Museum) and, conversely, the well-lighted and spacious gallery to the paintings, its curved walls affording a panoramic view of the full series. By any standards, both the show and the Museum were a triumphant success and a glowing testament to a long life devoted to art.

All this was evident the next day, when some 1,000 or so dignitaries, friends, guests and students paid full tribute to Chen Chi and his lifetime of achievements. The day began in mid-morning with a steady flow of well-wishers coming to the Academic Exchange Center where Chi and his family held court in an elegantly appointed reception room, replete with vases full of flowers and oft-poured tea. Not only University officials, but dignitaries from the government paid respects, along with a full contingent of people from Wuxi, the home town of Chen Chi (a city about two hours or so northwest of Shanghai that we had visited two days before), many of whom came from the same elementary school he had attended as a youth.

From the Academic Exchange Center, we were then driven the short distance to the Museum, the access road now even more elaborately decorated with flags, balloons and yet more flowers. A band in full regalia played while cars arrived and students streamed over the bridge, people milling about awaiting the grand opening. A half-dozen TV cameramen circled the crowd, rushing forward as each new dignitary made his or her appearance. Seats were eventually taken, with Chen Chi, his wife Zu Min, and alongside her, President Jiang Zemin's son, in the front row. It was evident that the Shanghai Jiao Tong University was proud of its new Advisory Professor and Honorary Director of the Eastern Art Exchange Center. The alma mater of Jiang Zemin, China's President took especial note of The Chen Chi Art Museum by personally inscribing the calligraphy for its façade. After many speeches orchestrated by Zhang Shengkun (Vice President of the Shanghai Jiao Tong University and Master of Ceremonies for the day), gift-tributes to Chen Chi and an introduction to the new Curator of the Museum, Wang Zongguang, the ribbon-cutting was effected and the doors thrown open to the public for the first time. Although my grasp of the Chinese language is severely limited, I had little doubt that the reactions I was noting were extremely favorable. Those familiar with Chen Chi's work were obviously delighted with his new Series, while newcomers to his work found much to evoke animated language and comment in both galleries.

Following the opening, several hundred selected guests retired to a special room in the Shanghai Jiao Tong University Liu Yuan Hotel and Restaurant where a sumptuous feast was laid along a fifty-foot table with enough food to feed twice as many people. As anyone knows who has visited the country, the Chinese cuisine is plentiful and varied, with a wide range of textures and tastes to delight the palate. It is safe to say that no one█including the few Westerners there█left hungry.

Later in the afternoon, Cornelia Seckel and I were invited to attend a special meeting of artists and poets in an upstairs room where a round-table discussion on Chen Chi's work was to be held. Bowls of fruit and vases of flowers adorned the tables in the mahogany-paneled room, while tea, of course, was served. After a brief introduction by the Chairman and all had risen to individually introduce themselves, members addressed the work at the Museum, speaking in apparent informality but with a marked degree of fervor. Since I could not follow the discussion, I was later informed that all comments were favorable although some disagreement about one of Chi's titles of his paintings had come up. Even without a full understanding of the words being spoken, I felt the occasion to be one of solemn formality and joyous commentary, an experience I was pleased to witness and one that surely must have filled Chi with pride.

In all, it was a full day, and one in which we felt honored to be invited guests. Cornelia and I had greatly enjoyed the fanfare and will savor the unforgettable day for years to come. Chen Chi, modestly subdued throughout the day, must have surely felt great joy and satisfaction in this very special tribute to his eighty-seven-year long odyssey. We were honored to be invited to share the grand opening of The Chen Chi Art Museum with him.

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