MUSEUM 2050 Dispatches

Updates from the ICA at NYU Shanghai

Michelle Yeonho Hyun

“Sorry, something went wrong.”  I’ve been trying to write the text for our upcoming fall exhibition, and, while trying to open a PDF reference book, Adobe confronts me with this message.  It’s not the first time.   I’ve been trying to open PDF files for the past two weeks like this, getting this message, and making yet another mental note to contact IT about fixing this issue.  I work around it by opening the file using Preview or digging through my Google Drive and Gmail folders to read it in my browser.  I just want to open the damn file and get on with it. Get on with the business of running a new art organization, re-opening the gallery in two months, preparing for the installation of a new exhibition, and writing this bloody essay. I keep forgetting that, indeed, something did go wrong.

I could write here about our fall exhibition’s artists, and how their work speaks to the current moment in troubling pure and possessive individuals, bodies, and borders.  I could also hint at a new online program we’re now developing to strengthen our digital engagement strategy — two years ahead of schedule despite our five year institutional plan.  I could maybe outline a strategy for diversified funding — also a few years ahead of schedule — as our university implements austerity measures for the next fiscal year and in anticipation of a dismal future for arts and culture philanthropy. I could muse about the implications of bilingual Zoom programming for public engagement, the detailed mechanics of which have been even more frustrating than a recurring software error message.  But then, I would again be forgetting that something went wrong and is still going wrong.

And yet I can’t seem to write this bloody text. Both this dispatch and the essay that was due for translation several weeks ago.  While trying to get on with it, I can feel a different “it” bulging at the seams of a system hastily stitched together by globalized capital, colonial knowledge legacies, and constitutive inequity.  It’s throbbing like a hot decaying tooth in the back of my already putrid mouth.  Or maybe it’s already exploded, and this is our punishment — to witness and live through a slow, though now perceptible, agonizing decimation?  Does this qualify as the “force majeure” clause that appears as the second to last article in our contracts, the one right before the prevailing language clause (the Chinese version of course)?

Cancellation seems to be the easiest thing to do.  It’s a quick fix we’ve been relying on for a while now.  Social death to those who get in the way of getting on with it.  Cancelling those we’ve decided are irredeemable.  A dopamine hit for us when we can like, unlike, or unfollow.

I struggled a bit when trying to decide whether to post an excerpt from that poem, Keeping Quiet, by that problematic rapist and poet, Pablo Neruda.  At the very least, at less than one year old as a new institution, I wanted to communicate to our nascent publics that “we’re still here,” but that we’re meaningfully pausing for the moment.  More ideally, I’d hoped that this beautiful poem by a contested artist relayed the more complex message of tension, of needing both stillness and action.  Missing from the excerpt displayed on our website and prior to that passage:

What I want should not be confused with total inactivity.

Life is what it is about…

About the Author:

Michelle Yeonho Hyun is Director/Curator at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) at NYU 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.