Walter Benjamin: Made in China, 2011 & The Modern Canon, 2016

Walter Benjamin​


Made in China, 2011



Moderni kanon / The Modern Canon, 2016




MoMA Made in China   

Recently I had the honor of giving a lecture at the opening night of the exhibition A Museum That is Not. The lecture was titled “The Unmaking of Art” and the audience and I were placed in a gallery full of paintings, all the icons of early 20th century European modern art, the masterpieces of Western modernity. The sight would be highly familiar to any art lover, but we were not in any of the great museums of modern art in the West. In fact, we were in the Far East, in China, in the newly established Times Museum in Guangzhou, and the paintings around us were not originals but copies – all made in China. Even Alfred Barr's famous “Cubism and Abstract Art”, here as a painting, was in Chinese, with the chronology moved a hundred years back in time, and all the corresponding works were dated accordingly, meaning that modern art began in China one hundred years before it actually did. 

Moreover, for the first time, as far as I can remember, I was Chinese and giving my lecture in Chinese. For me this was an entirely unusual event, and since then I keep asking myself: What might be the meaning of all this? What is this thing called “MoMA Made in China” and me appearing as Chinese?


Perhaps it is not yet possible to provide any definitive answer, it will take time to see what the consequences of such events, both in China and in the West, might be. In other words, it is too soon to tell. But it seems that those two events represent a complete disregard for the fundamental notions on which art and art history are founded – originality, authenticity, uniqueness of the artifacts (“art works”), and the identity of the characters (“artists”, “art historians”, etc.), and its basic structure – chronology.


It is important to emphasize the notion of an author/artist as a unique character is defined only in relation to the original works of art. Without the original work there is no place for an author/artist, as in the case of the Museum of American Art and similar institutions that are based on collections of copies.

As an associate of the Museum of American Art for the past few years, I was able to recognize all of the works on display. These are the same images one could see for many years now in the smaller version of the Museum of Modern Art, exhibited as an American “invention” at the Museum of American Art in Berlin. These images differ only in size. The paintings in Berlin are ten times smaller than the originals, and all are visible only from a single vantage point – from above. In the Times Museum the paintings are the same size as the originals, dictating that we walk through the exhibition like we would through any museum, and experience them from within. One might interpret these two cases as if our size as observers becomes relative, while the observed, the exhibit, remains the same. 

As copies, the meaning of these paintings does not change with a change in their size. That is one of the most important properties of a copy: regardless of its size, small or large, it will still represent the same original that is being copied. A copy is a symbol that stands for the corresponding original and, being a symbol, its size becomes irrelevant. Another important property of a copy or an exhibit based on copies is the possibility of replication, that it can appear in two or more locations simultaneously. Today, one can see the same copy of Cezanne’s Bather playing the same role simultaneously in three different versions of the story called “Museum of Modern Art”: one here in Guangzhou,
another in Berlin, and a third in Eindhoven. It’s worth noting that, at the same time, these three versions of the “Museum of Modern Art” themselves play three different roles within three different exhibitions (Guangzhou – A Museum That is Not, Berlin – MoMA and Americans, and Eindhoven – Sites of Modernity) – a story within three different stories.


However, the copy is not the primary theme of the Museum of Modern Art exhibit, it is simply a vehicle to tell the story about the origin of the modern canon called the History of Modern Art. This canon was formulated by the Museum of Modern Art in New York at the 1936 exhibition Cubism and Abstract Art, according to Alfred Barr’s diagram on the cover of the exhibition catalog. This was the exhibition that introduced “International Movements” instead of “National Schools” as a key notion in Art History. Together with the uniqueness of the author, the artwork and the chronology, it became the key ingredient of the story which defined the art world then as it does still today. 


The first three walls of the Museum of Modern Art exhibit are arranged according to the main lines of this diagram, while the back wall reflects the exhibition Dada, Surrealism and Fantastic Art at MoMA, curated by Alfred Barr in 1936. Thus, the storyline of this exhibit ends the very year in which the story itself was conceived. Founded as it was on the notions of internationalism and individualism, this story gradually became the modern canon, first influencing and later incorporating all subsequent developments/movements up until the present day. This is the story that brought the art world to here, the story out of which the entire art scene today emerged. And this is the story that has completely exhausted its potential and cannot take us any further. The story based on the uniqueness of its characters, artists and artworks; and chronology will probably continue to be followed, but it will also continue to be more of the same. That story has no potential to open new frontiers, new visions, it cannot take us to unknown places.


In order to get there it would be necessary to start a process of detachment from the very notion of art and trying to look at an artwork as a human-made specimen, as an artifact of a certain state of mind or certain cultural/political milieu – in this case the West. This approach should not be one of a passionate believer and admirer of art, but a diagnostic one, much like the cold approach of an ethnographer.

In order to fully establish this “dispassionate” position, some of the existing art museums would have to be gradually transformed into anthropological museums about art. Such an institution would be a new kind of museum, one that would enable the de-artization of existing works of art into non-art artifacts, the way the desacralization of religious paintings and objects changed their meaning with their removal from churches and being placed into the art museums. This new kind of museum would in fact be a meta-museum based on a meta-narrative.

If the meta-narrative is possible, it should not forget the History of Art, it just has to re-contextualize it. However, a meta-narrative could not be built on the same fundamentals: the uniqueness and originality of the author and artwork, and on chronology. Those notions could not be constitutive for any meta-narrative in relation to the History of Art. When we analyze the properties of the Museum of Modern Art exhibit at the Times Museum we could come to the conclusion that it is not based on originality and authorship. It also makes relative the idea of chronology by moving the entire time line of Barr’s diagram back a hundred years in time, and dating all the works accordingly. Without respecting the key notions of the modern canon – authorship, originality and chronology – this exhibition has positioned itself outside Art History and the basic principles of the art context in general. The existing permanent installation in Berlin already stands outside the Western canon, but it is still in the West, while this Museum of Modern Art materialized in Guangzhou is not only conceptually but also culturally and even physically/geographically (well) outside the West. Furthermore, by translating the words on the paintings from European into Chinese script, this version of the Museum of Modern Art, from the Western point of view, could be interpreted as an “Orientalisation of the West”.


Finally, how to understand the meaning of the title “MoMA Made in China”? To start, this title could for some well sound like a superficial stereotype, since today it is a common notion that most anything can be copied in China, including art. However, is it really possible to copy such a thing as modern art, whose very essence lies in subscribing to the idea of originality? Or is it possible to copy the Museum of Modern Art? Of course it is not.

Imitation or the notion of copy is antithetical to modern art. Having MoMA made in China precisely questions the Western belief in uniqueness and originality, on which all modernity stands. The Museum of Modern Art based on a collection consisting of copies produced in China is not the Museum of Modern Art. It is a museum about the Museum of Modern Art. It is what makes “MoMA Made in China” the real museum of modern art, a place where modern art is really remembered and actualized, where this memory is more about the present and the future than it is about the past.


Nor is it particularly important that the idea for this collection came from the Museum of American Art in Berlin, nor the fact that it is produced in China (“MoMA Made in China”). It was practical decision, it could have been produced anywhere in the world and it wouldn't have made much of a difference. Most important is the fact that this collection, called Museum of Modern Art, comprised of these specific properties (translations into the Chinese language and the chronology moved 100 years back) was first exhibited in China. I wouldn’t be surprised if one day we come to see “MoMA Made in France” in Paris, or even “MoMA Made in USA” in New York.


Walter Benjamin

Guangzhou 1911