Watching the Audience

An afternoon at the Zhejiang Art Museum provided a quiet retreat into a world of brushes and ink – and iPhones 

A single visitor concentrates intently on a painting

Perched on the side of a main road close to Hangzhou’s famous West Lake, the Zhejiang Art Museum looks innucuously like a modern university campus. It’s broad and spacious, paved in soft slate greys and creamy beiges, and accentuated tastefully by a minimalist water feature (as well as the obligatory smattering of Mao-era politician statues). Walking inside the grounds felt immediately peaceful, and contrary to nearby West Lake – one of China’s top domestic tourist destinations – blissfully unpopulated.

Entrance was free into the main exhibition, which featured a pair of watercolor artists from China’s revolutionary era whose work represented the merging of traditional Chinese art with the then-newly imported Western mediums and art philosophies. Further on was a winding exhibit featuring a diverse and color-rich collection of many artists’ watercolor offerings. My original intention had been to find a local painter I liked and could interview; the pieces that hung on the walls and their stories were fascinating, but what I was drawn to instead was the visitors that were wandering the exhibits.

A daughter mirrors her father’s pose, hands clasped behind their backs

Unlike many other urban spaces, people were content to walk around quietly, in twos or alone. There were couples walking around playfully nudging each other; pairs or small groups of friends wandering in loose herds, occassionally pointing things out and whispering; a father explaining something to his intently listening daughter. Like many other urban spaces, all of them stopped frequently to take photographs. The only difference was, here I was interested in the incessant snapping.

The most charming of the league of iPhone photographers were the lone visitors

Girlfriends demanded minute changes in angles as they stood in front of framed paintings which they didn’t seem to look twice at. Friends posed together to snap WeChat moments. By far the busiest room in the museum was a brightly lit studio displaying a collection of video art and filled with models and their phone-and-tripod carrying photography teams, using the space as a free shoot location. 

The busiest room in the museum

At first I was a little riled by the blatant and superficial commercial use of somene’s art, before I remembered that there are no rules that stipulate how art should be used, and that regardless of the piece’s original intention, you’d probably be hard pressed to find an artist who objected to their work becoming a popular shoot location. Intriguingly, the exhibition, “The Boundaries of Dimensions” (纬度的边界) by artist Link (林科) was an unsettling series of photo-editing software screenshots and spy camera recordings of deserted studios that seemed to poke fun at our immersion in the digital world. I had no idea whether the models chose it for the irony.

The most charming of the league of iPhone photographers were the lone visitors who stared intently at a piece, angling their camera to capture one part of it at just the right angle, their faces inches from the glass. Lowering their phones, they would gaze at the artwork, absorbed. 

This utter absorption created heartwarming, pensive and calming scenes of silent connection between medium and observer. High contrasts between the shadow of the figure and the lights on the wall often created frames in which the observer was an integral part, or even the focal point, of the art.

A lone visitor completely absorbed in a 1930s-era scroll painting, phone in hand

Walking away, I felt invigorated at having seen so many people deeply engaged in a gallery. Even if they never look at their photo again, it doesn’t matter. Taking a photo is often less about the photo itself and more an expression of what the moment made us feel; as demonstrated by the frequent urge to capture the latest movements of our pets or grubby children. Something worth recording has occurred. You feel something about the piece.  

In modern China, where the lightning fast pace of urban life seems to squeeze out much opportunity for feeling, it was a joy to see so many snaps being taken.

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