Chinese Labels

Cuauhtémoc Medina

Label of the Sculpture Gallery, 2009. Photo © Cuauhtémoc Medina

Museum texts are probably amongst the most neurotic literary genres that exist. Rare are the voices that point out that reading is, in fact, one of the most prevalent activities of the audience in a museum, for it drives the visitor to “consider the logic and wholeness of something that cannot be present, but is represented by something that is perpetually present in the object or the specimen.”1 Curatorial doxa still agrees with French museologist Georges Henri Rivière who hopes to see “the museum epigraphy” brought down to a minimum, and hopes that the right staging, lighting and dramatization will allow artworks and objects to babble, because “an exhibition is not a book and the objects themselves ought to speak”.2 The use of videos and interactive guides beamed down to handeld devices, in addition to the ever-present hypnosis-inducing audioguide, ventriloquize an infinity of artifacts. Yet however animated the objects become, they unfortunately remain dumb to the fact that the audience members (a.k.a. wandering visitor-cum-zombies) have already got tired of the same old boring texts. On the other hand is the late modernist ideal of visual hygiene that identifies any interference with the purity of the contemplation of works of art as a loitering of its aura by academic graffiti. Even experimenting with LCD-editable labels that are continually updated from a distance,3 institutions seem to consent to making texts as fleeting and immaterial as possible. Traces vanish in the river of the information overload. Curators know that their ideas are never destined to be written in stone.
All those rules fell into dust in November 2009, when I walked in amazement into the Sculpture Gallery at the Shanghai Museum located in the People’s Square. Right in front of the doorway, I was struck by a one-and-a-half meter tall black stone, which appeared to be made of granite and was marked with an inscription. To my disbelief, this was not one of the exhibits of the collection: I had in fact stumbled upon the most daring of curatorial gestures, a room label written for posterity, which would surely outlive any of the objects shown in the room. Its placement seemed to have been thoroughly thought out. Whereas the Chinese text stood proud as a stele displaying its golden ideograms under the spotlight, the other half, written in English for foreigners, had toppled onto the floor. Sic transit gloria mundi.
Having just visited a Prada showroom fifty meters away that not only sold overpriced garments, but whole silk sofa sets and bedrooms to the burgeoning new Chinese elite, I had to accept that the label as yet another omen of the impending demotion of Western hegemony. A few weeks later, the words of a Jorge Luis Borges poem were thick in my mind. Partly for their content, and partly for their historical context (as the author wrote them just after visiting The Cloisters in New York City, which is yet another museological marker of the transfer of geopolitical power). They went:

We see in the tapestries
the resurrection and the death
of the doomed white unicorn
because the time of this place
does not obey an order.
The laurels I touch will flower
when Leif Eriksson sights the sands of America.
I feel a touch of vertigo,
I am not used to eternity.4

Like Borges, I also felt the structure of time crumbling under my feet, but what is a museum if not a place whose time “does not obey an order”? I realized that the curators of the Shanghai Museum had effectively produced the Rosetta Stone of the future.
Thanks to this bilingual label, the philologists of 3000 C.E. will be able to start bringing the works of Shakespeare back to life, rescuing them from the midst of primitive western alphabetic writing. They will probably conclude that De Quincey was an imitator or disciple of Borges; with some luck, they will be able to decipher the name of Champollion. Because alas, the credit line for the curator who wrote the Shanghai stone was only recorded on administrative reports printed on acid paper.