Guangzhou’s Best Contemporary Art Galleries and Museums

| Photo by Qingbao Meng on Unsplash
Cassandra Naji

Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong Province in Southern China, may be known primarily as the manufacturing factory of the world, but thanks to its affluence and relative liberalism, the city’s contemporary art scene is as vibrant as any Beijing art district. We take a closer look at ten great contemporary art spaces, galleries and museums in one of China’s lesser-appreciated art cities.

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Libreria Borges Institute of Contemporary Art

Libreria Borges, as its name suggests, is not technically an art gallery but an independent bookshop. Founded by Chen Tong in 1997, the shop combines bookselling with contemporary art activities, many of them aptly focused on text as art. In the words of artist and academic Chen, who has described the bookshop as a work of art in itself, the people behind Libreria Borges ‘use literary methods to do art, and artistic methods to do literature.’ Well-known artists such as Cao Fei and Yang Yong, both of whom work with video, among other media, have exhibited at Libreria Borges. Chen Tong’s love of video art eventually led him to co-found Video Bureau, a Guangdong/Beijing archive of video art that also stages regular exhibitions.

Vitamin Creative Space

Vitamin Creative Space is hidden away in a run-down department store in the centre of a fruit and vegetable market. Embracing this unusual location the commercial gallery walks the line between art and business, using its financial independence to ensure ideological freedom from official government diktat on creativity. Since curators Zhang Wei and Hu Fang founded the gallery in 2002, Vitamin Creative Space has grown to be one of the best-known spaces in all of China. Artists like Lee Kit and Koki Tanaka, who represented Hong Kong and Japan respectively at the 2013 Venice Biennale, have shown works at Vitamin Creative Space in recent times. Projects such as Your embodied garden with Olafur Eliasson, which saw the Icelandic artist work with co-founder Zhang Wei to create a short film exploring traditional Eastern gardens, demonstrate Vitamin Creative Space’s aim to explore ‘the confrontation between contemporary life and ancient Chinese philosophy.’

Guangdong Times Museum

Image courtesy of 时代美术馆 (Times Museum)

For a Guangzhou newcomer the Guangdong Times Museum, designed by Rem Koolhaas and Alain Fouraux in 2010, can be hard to locate. The non-profit museum takes up the ground and top floors of a residential apartment block, an architectural innovation that not only puts less pressure on Guangzhou’s sorely limited real estate, but also informs the culture and practice of the museum itself. Self-defining as a ‘product of artists’/architects’ imaginations’, the museum’s open attitude towards related disciplines such as architecture and urban planning can be seen in many of its exhibitions. Since its 2010 opening, the museum has brought innovative international artists like Pipilotti Rist and Adel Abdessemed to Guangzhou. Guangdong Times Museum is also unafraid to risk controversy: the 2013 exhibition Autonomous Regions invited artists to consider the idea of autonomy in contemporary art, a contentious topic for a nation where artists and activists can still fall foul of the authorities for being too enthusiastically autonomous.

Redtory Art & Design Factory

Once a canned food factory, in 2009 this industrial site was transformed into an artists’ village and creative zone, revivifying Guangzhou’s industrial heritage with a contemporary aesthetic. Staying in touch with its heritage, Redtory is a platform not only for contemporary art but also creative industries such as design and applied engineering. The 170,000-square-metre factory zone contains seven exhibition areas and over ten creative organisations, as well as studios and art shops. Since 2009 the team behind Redtory have organised over 200 exhibitions, cultural events and lectures, all with the aim of bringing art and modern design into ordinary people’s lives. With exhibitions of contemporary Chinese ink from the likes of Guangdong native Li Gang showing alongside groups shows from industrial design students, Redtory combines Chinese aesthetics with Guangzhou’s working heart.

Observation Society

‘Redefining artistic freedom with a low-cost alternative’ is the motto of Observation Society co-founder Anthony Yung, an attitude that informs the style of the art space. Located in an unassuming building previously used as a hair salon, Observation Society has since its 2008 establishment promoted creative collaboration between artists from the neighbouring cities. Unlike many Hong Kong or Beijing art spaces, the space aims to work outside of commercial constraints, staying true to Yung’s motto in its rough and ready aesthetic and independence of thought. A good example of a typical exhibition at the art space is Trevor Yeung’s recent Encyclopaedia, a modern wunderkammer of weird and wonderful objects collected by the young Hong Kong artist, including withered plants and taxidermied birds. In these objects Yeung sees visual metaphors for the human condition and the possibility of as yet undiscovered ways of thinking and connecting to the world – a metaphor for Observation Society itself.

53 Art Museum

As the city’s first non-profit contemporary art space in private hands, 53 Art Museum holds a special place in Guangzhou’s contemporary art scene. Exhibitions and artist residencies take place in its location in a stack of disused rail company containers, which also provides office space for contemporary art magazine Gallery. Dedicated to ‘the experimental, pioneering, cross-border nature of contemporary art’, 53 Art Museum is designed to show paintings, sculpture, video and performance art. This cross-disciplinary approach is mirrored in the Museum’s plan to become a ‘platform of exchange’ with its international roster of artists. Exhibitions such as The Expanding Horizon (29 March – 29 May 2014), which brings the work of 13 Japanese contemporary artists to Guangzhou in an attempt to rebuild fractured bridges between Japan and China, show 53 Art Museum to be living up to its slogan – ‘standing in Guangdong, eyes on the world.’

Guangdong Museum of Art

In 2002, the Guangdong Museum of Art took control of the Guangzhou Biennial, turning the event into a triennial and, simultaneously, setting out its stall as the establishment face of the city’s contemporary art scene. Calling itself ‘a major cultural establishment in the Province and the largest of its kind in China’, Guangdong Museum of Art collects and shows both ancient and modern works of art from the region and holds over 60 shows a year, in addition to maintaining a permanent display collection. The Museum of Art also collects work by contemporary artists from China and the Chinese diaspora, with particular focus on those based in the Pearl River Delta. Works by long-time Guangzhou residents such as Xu Tan and Chen Shaoxiong can be seen at the Museum, and there’s also a large outdoor sculpture garden dotted with contemporary works.

Fei Gallery

Based on the Cantonese word for ‘door’ or ‘doorway’, Fei Gallery aims to be just that – a portal by which ordinary people can access great contemporary art. To that end Fei shows works by both international and homegrown artists from its busy downtown location near Dongshankou subway station. From the young painter Yan Fangwei to Berlin-based urban photographer Peter Frischmuth, Fei Gallery promotes the work of a wide variety of artists while also holding collateral cultural events such as film nights and creative workshops.

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