A Visit to Ningbo Museum of Art: Facades, Fakes and Facsimiles

It is the seventh day of Chinese opera from the grounds of the ever so nearby temple. It kicks off at lunchtime and then again in the evening and is amplified through a tired old PA system (the idea of singing without amplification is inconceivable in most of Asia). As eclectic as my musical taste is I haven't been able to acquire an appreciation for this style of noise. I have tried. I sat through at least 30 minutes of a particularly harsh Chaushan opera performance, mostly with my fingers in my ears, marveling at how the players beards, began under their noses and flowed to a foot long without a gap, like foot long mustaches. To me it is the definition of caterwauling, it is fingernails on a chalkboard and If it's part the new leadership's bid to drive out foreign influences and re Chinese society then its working.

To get some relief I hopped on the 363, and tried to remember if it was the bus that took me to downtown and then onto Lauwaitan, a precinct of cobbled streets and remnant colonial architecture. A leftover of Ningbo, the British treaty port, it's often referred to as a miniature of Shanghai's Bund and like the Bund and many formerly exciting places to visit is simply a melee of garish bars, catering to the wanna be western middle class locals and the odd Lauwai interloper. Luckily I picked the right bus and with my ever present headphones incubating me from the advertising drone and shouted chatter, I settled in for the 20 minute ride.

I was traveling in search of art, planning to spend the best part of the day wandering the halls of the cavernous and impressive looking Ningbo Art Museum, all modernist angles and cantilever platforms, stretching like tongues out to the swirling muddy river, that sit at the end of the precinct. I was hopeful rather than expectant, having been equally surprised and disappointed at many museums around the country.

In the evening the two streets of Lauwaitan are a scramble of competing bar music, the night club sort of doof-doof type. During the day most of the bars are closed and serve as a backdrop for fashion shoots, mainly wedding photography promotions. The flicker of reflective hoops lighted my way, I stepped around the first couple then with a little disco in my step sang and almost danced my way through the rest, gaining the odd curious glance.

I disturbed a woman at the ticket office, she passed me a colourfull ticket without varying her concentration from the screen in front of her. I then distracted a second woman from her 3×6 inch screen, she limply accepted the ticket the last woman had issued.

With my by now healthy dose of skepticism I read the introduction panel "Modernity, Transition and Alternation — Three Asian Cases. Oh yeh one of those Google translate titles. I stepped around the corner, glancing at the wall of facsimiles on the cusp of pixel breakdown and the Chinese script, incomprehensible to me. I paused briefly at the small column of English, equally incomprehensible and continued around the zigzag of artificial gallery walls and unbroken vinyl wall freeze, like a morsel in an intestinal tunnel, deeper and deeper, facsimile after facsimile. My headphones lashed out with the anarchy of the Pop Group's "Citizen Zombie", I lashed out "Where the fuck is the art".

At the end of the tunnel a small side gallery answered my plea, an insignificant display of work, mostly charcoal sketches and a few colour portraits from a recently deceased artist, once of this city or at least nearby region.

And so I found myself among the sleeping locals, feet up on the tables of the nearby of a well know coffee shop chain, green tea lattes long since drained, Where at least some original, albeit industrially produced art met my gaze.

As I walked back along the opposite river bank, I looked back through a replica Chinese gate and caught site of an old church in scaffolding, set against a shiny skyscraper. From fake old China to the calipered old West to symbol of unifying commerce.