MUSEUM 2050 Dispatches

Updates from UCCA

Christina You

I came back to an empty Beijing Capital International Airport terminal at the break of dawn after spending 10 days in Jerusalem searching for some answers in life. At that point, Hubei province had been closed off a few days earlier, in the largest lockdown the world had ever seen.

After that was a long period of doing nothing but staying at home. I found myself writing notes on my iPhone to focus my thoughts:

“I don’t want to add to the chorus of fear-mongering, but one thing is for sure: The virus has brought an entire country of 1.4 billion people to a complete standstill. To many, the fear of the unknown is paralyzing and the impact of this virus will be felt for a long time to come. For me, this experience has made me realize what a blessing it is to live during “normal times”: grabbing a cup of coffee with a colleague during lunch break, going to see some friends and walk in a park over the weekend, and going to a movie or the gym after work.

To those of you outside of China, remember to count your blessings, as simple as they might be. To those of you inside China, remember to wear your mask, wash your hands, show kindness to everyone you meet, and call your family often, so they don’t worry about you.”

What I did not expect back then was in the span of a few months, our world would change incalculably—we have all been forced to adapt to new ways of living, working, playing, connecting, and socializing, regardless of our nationalities. Each day, we are inundated with news about the pandemic and how it has continued to strain health care systems and resources around the world. The coronavirus has plunged the world into uncertainty and the constant news about the pandemic can feel relentless. We were, and still are, coping in one way or another with fear: fear of the unknown, unseen, and unpredictable. Social media has become the best and worst place for news, as it empowers voices yet also spreads misinformation. While it is impossible to measure the full scope of these changes, there are perceptible shifts in the market that illustrate how we are collectively navigating the day-to-day reality of a global pandemic.

In China’s post-quarantine period, I’ve watched careful behaviors rise to the fore in response to these fears. They play a large role in defining people’s attitudes towards work, spending, school, their governments, and more. These responses express the fear that the careful balance of our lives—personal, financial, or otherwise—can be broken at a moment’s notice. Facing fear, we realize, again, one should always choose art over materialistic things, as it provides a balm that transfigures our ordinary feelings into something bigger. As Oscar Wilde said in his lecture “The House Beautiful,” “For there never was an age that so much needed the spiritual ministry of art as the present. Today more than ever the artist and a love of the beautiful are needed to temper and counteract the sordid materialism of the age.”

UCCA Beijing opened its door to the public with #emptyUCCA in late April. We invited visitors to experience our museum as it was—empty—a way to stress test our health protocols, and let both our team and visitors ease into a more active schedule after the long hiatus. After getting their temperature carefully taken, and following other now standard health procedures for Covid-19 era China (i.e. at the entrance to 798 Art District, as with most public buildings and compounds, you must scan a QR code that runs your mobile data records and verifies you have been in Beijing for at least 14 days), guests could walk into an empty UCCA, freely taking photos as they experienced the architectural heritage of our museum, originally built as factory chambers in the 1950s and most recently revitalized by OMA in 2019. ⁣ Afterwards, our first new show of 2020, “Meditations in an Emergency,” came together on a month’s notice, and brought together 26 Chinese and international artists reflecting on the role of art during a time of crisis. We have been pleasantly surprised by how many people come to the show every day to find solace in art and to interact with strangers—things that have been sorely missing from the first half of 2020.

The exhibition takes its title from an anthology of poetry by Frank O’Hara (1926-1966), better known during his short life as a curator at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. As O’Hara wrote in one of the included poems, “In times of crisis, we must all decide again and again whom we love.” Who do we love and what do we love? Whatever the answer may be, when all this is done and dusted and we emerge into the blinking light of the post COVID-19 vaccinated world, when the dead are mourned and the living are gathering themselves around to rally back from all they have lost, when the world has been brought to its knees by an organism invisible to the naked eye, and all humankind’s hubris has been nothing in the face of the wrath it has unleashed, let’s starting learning to enjoy the little things we have long been taking for granted.

About the Author:

Christina You is Director of Development at UCCA Center for Contemporary Art, one of China’s leading art institutions, with museums in Beijing, Beidaihe, and, soon, Shanghai.

About the Series:

Museum 2050 has always been about bringing people together through our community’s shared passion for museums and institutional development. As the world slowly and carefully starts reopening, we are checking in weekly with various members of our broader network to share personal reflections, anecdotes and musings about how they and their institutions have been operating in the face of this pandemic. In these incredibly difficult times for all, we hope that these brief vignettes from around the world bring us closer together, and remind us that even when the world stops and museum doors close, we still persevere.