Time of Death
A construction worker plunged to his death in early March while installing Ryuichi Sakamoto’s latest exhibition on the roof of the M Woods Museum in Beijing.
“The feelings have changed since we started planning for the exhibition three years ago,” Victor Wang, artistic director and chief curator at Beijing’s M Woods museum was explaining on the day the highly anticipated sound installation exhibition “Ryuichi Sakamoto: seeing sound hearing time”, which opened to the public on 19 March. “Since the pandemic and Sakamoto being diagnosed with cancer again, the show has become so much more about healing.”
We were inside the foyer on the top floor of the museum’s location in the hutong area that overlooks, on one side, the tight brick rows that fanned out from Beijing’s imperial city centre, and on the other, a third-wave coffee festival in the compound’s courtyard. Ten visitors were allowed to be outside on the rooftop at a time. At least thirty more were crowded in front of the glass door waiting for their turn. “I hope the show will convey a sense of joy – to bring joy to a mass of people is a remarkable thing,” Wang finished the thought before being whisked away by a photographer.
The assumption was everyone who knew what happened knew what happened.
Early bird tickets to the exhibition were sold out within a few minutes of release. The globally venerated Japanese electronic pop pioneer, experimental sound artist, and environmental activist known as “Professor” to Chinese audience has a uniquely intense fandom in China that is usually more common in pop idol stan culture. The first solo institutional exhibition in China from one of the few universally uncontroversial contemporary artistic figures seemed to be a feat on its own. As Beijing-based writer and musician Simon Frank observes after the opening, “Sakamoto’s exhibition was hugely ambitious, bringing in technicians from overseas in the middle of the pandemic who underwent weeks of quarantine. What makes him such an attractive figure that this exhibition had to go ahead? Why does the enthusiasm of tastemakers like Beijing radio DJ Zhang Youdai, who has been trumpeting his ‘friendship’ with Sakamoto since the 1990s, give the exhibition the air of a ‘homecoming’?”
Before Wang introduced the site-specific LIFE-WELL installation outside on the rooftop, he requested a moment of silence from the group. At that point, what began as a guided tour for the press had swelled to absorb curious visitors joining mid-way. A man grunted behind his surgical mask when asked if he knew what the moment silence was for. A younger, calmer, and taller woman bent down to say that there had been an accident at the museum a week before, which was why the exhibition opening had to be delayed for the second time. Ten days ago, on 9 March, a construction worker in his twenties who was part of the exhibition installation crew had fallen to his death from the fifteen metre-high rooftop. The planned opening date of the exhibition would’ve marked the seventh-day memorial of his death, a funerary rite in Chinese tradition.
The assumption was everyone who knew what happened knew what happened. I first heard about the accident from my co-worker on the same afternoon (I work at a contemporary art institution across town). An investigation item appeared on the city government website the next day, but no news report from official and credible sources followed. By then, the museum had scrubbed comments and reported users who mentioned the accident on Weibo, the museum’s most public-facing social media channel. The whitewashing campaign surprised no one.
Founded in 2014 by art collector couple Lin Han and Wanwan Lei and their former partner Michael Xufu Huang, M Woods is a privately owned, not-for-profit museum in Beijing that first opened in the 798 Art District at a time when youth culture – the first generation in modern China that grew up in a prospering modern state – began to show its market potential. The museum positions itself accordingly, both in its social media presence and a splashy, if somewhat incongruous and sometimes bewildering curatorial direction that has presented large-scale surveys for solo artists such as Tianzhuo Chen, Paul McCarthy, Richard Tuttle, David Hockney, and Lu Yang, occasionally in connection to Chinese art history. The museum’s brand identity as an influencer destination and its following are in part motivated by Lei’s online presence as a style influencer who courts controversies. (The most recent exhibition “Giorgio Morandi: The Poetics of Stillness” at 798 is symbiotic with the “Morandi palette” trend popularised by Lei’s street style in the past two years.) The Longfusi location of the Sakamoto show was opened in 2019 under the government-sanctioned auspice of a revitalised “art community” in a historic area. The basement housed the club space Gui before the Covid-19 pandemic, during which, for a while, the museum’s main activities moved online to Animal Crossing.
The most active voices online could be delineated into two non-exclusive camps: Sakamoto fans and Lei haters.
Many of the initial comments on social media had asked the museum to respond to the accident: how did it happen? How will the museum bring justice to the worker? How could the public help? (Some fans, for example, made a call for contributing to the worker’s burial funds.) Beyond suspicion, it seems naïve that the museum’s first response was to shut down engagement. Some comments suggested that the museum had cut corners when the building was originally renovated, citing the disproportionately small budget for a project of this size. It didn’t take long for criticism to turn against the museum for trying to bury the hatchet, and for misogynistic, personal attacks on Lei to surface, whose past has been a source for online gossip and cyber violence. Others clarified their position: “the object of our criticism is not the hospital and the ambulance, but the delay in M Woods’s reporting of the accident and that the location of the museum was impossible for the ambulance to get through, not meeting emergency requirements at all!!!!”
The most active voices online could be delineated into two non-exclusive camps: Sakamoto fans and Lei haters. On Douban, an online depository for discourse, meme groups, and lonely heart classifieds alike, where Lei “got her start” as a kind of artsy e-girl a decade ago, there are forums dedicated to “Wan Studies” – doxxing and posting about the influencer-socialite’s social climbing lifestyle, following any trail of schadenfreude down to the crumbs on her post-brunch face. When the museum continued to stay silent throughout the weekend and into the following week, factions began to call for a boycott of the Sakamoto exhibition, refunding their early bird tickets for the planned opening on 15 March – shortly after Two Sessions, China’s annual meetings of the highest legislative and political bodies, concluded, just four kilometres from the museum site. (Some rumours insinuated it was the government that didn't want any attention drawn to the area.) There was a sense of pinning poetic justice on how the museum plans to respond to and compensate the worker’s family. On the back of everyone’s mind: does Sakamoto know? How much does he know? How could he not know?
In the ugliest hours, one almost wished the museum would stay silent forever, or would continue to do everything wrong. The tragedy needed a villain if the artist was to clear his name. It became harder and harder to parse if the public’s vigilance would’ve remained visible, if the outcry wasn’t at least partially fuelled by a less admissible revenge against the museum itself, the desperate culture it represents and personified by its owner.
As an art worker, you had to wonder what would’ve happened if the accident had happened at your own institution, where a large construction crew was installing a multi-volume exhibition at the same time.
The worker’s death has been an on-going police investigation, and the location of his fall was inaccessible to the public. The public feels victimised when it is denied the truth it feels entitled to, but the truth, the kind a free press is accustomed to, has an expiration date in an environment that has internalised the futility of specifics. “As we all know by now, the application of micro-justice can be situational and incoherent without being at all reduced in its power to penalize and constrict,” the American and Chinese literature scholar Nan Z. Da writes in the essay “Disambiguation, A Tragedy.” “Discernment is made infelicitous when there are almost no forums in which to present one’s findings, no suitable objects to discern, no audience to recognize and encourage the act.”
As the naïve but ethical public (because the naïve is always the more ethical when there are these power imbalances), we are motivated by outrage as the correct affective response, but there is little reward for engaging outrage as a mechanism for agency. After all, a life had been lost, something ought to be done. It isn’t hard to imagine if a similar accident were to happen in New York, or London, or Berlin: there would be a small-scale protest outside the museum building, the leadership would apologise sincerely in a heartfelt statement that cites inevitable technicalities, the lawyers would move on to insurance claims or litigation, activists would build a better case for museum workers’ conditions. The point of these PR routines is not to provide immediate solutions, but to reassure the public with the relief that the loss has not been in vain, because the grievance has registered. When institutions say (or don’t even say) “no comment,” the public hears “we have something to hide.”
What is the cost of art’s persistence in environments suffering under political harm? At what point does the existence of art itself become a humanitarian act?
The silence surrounding this case adds insult to the injury of a labour force that is already usually hidden and disconnected from the glamorous façade of the industry. Workers do not simply die, even though accidents do happen. In 2004, a 26-year-old maintenance worker slipped and fell to his death from the glass ceiling of the Sackler Wing at the Met, as the New York Times reported the next day. In 2012, while inspecting lighting, a worker was injured almost to death from falling through the glass floor during opening hours at the Rodin Museum in Philadelphia (he received $7.25 million in a settlement reached four years after the accident.) In 2013, two construction workers died and four were injured from a defective crane accident at the National Art Gallery in Singapore (same day press release). In 2020, a subcontractor renovating the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C. died from a fall, and work in the area was suspended while the accident went under investigation. In any case, there are known paths of accountability, either by the press, fair labour laws, or the institutions themselves, ideally a combination of all three.
Just before midnight Beijing time on Saturday, 13 March, a week after the accident and less than two days before the exhibition opening, M Woods broke its silence with a statement on Weibo, followed by an Instagram post by Sakamoto that expressed his condolences in English, Chinese, and Japanese. The next day, the museum’s social media and Sakamoto posted a black square to announce the exhibition opening’s indefinite postponement. The comment section rushed to relieve Sakamoto, recently diagnosed with cancer for the second time in New York, of responsibility, even apologizing on behalf of the museum: “Your fans from Shanghai: The organizer escape [sic] the responsibility! It’s so kind of you to take the fault. We fans apologize to you for this case, and please don’t be disappointed with China because we fans love u so much!” And: “The exhibition is worth waiting. We can wait for it until the right moment comes and the best gallery to hold it.”
What do the circumstances of the accident and the accompanying tragic silence mean for Sakamoto’s legacy if this was (touch wood) to be his last exhibition? What will it mean for artists who collaborate with institutions with discrepant values and labour norms in the future? If the Western art world is indeed moving towards more self-examining and discerning practices when it comes to its priorities and alliances – if Warren B. Kanders could resign from the Whitney board, if the National Portrait Gallery in London could reject Sackler funds, if Leon Black could step down from MoMA – how will the art industry become informed of their international partners in a closed media environment with an impoverished critical commons? How does the exploitative conditions of local art labour bode with the humanistic potentials of art that these institutions champion? What is the cost of art’s persistence in environments suffering under political harm? At what point does the existence of art itself become a humanitarian act?
As a foreign import, the contemporary art museum institution in China has had to contend with an accelerationist timeline on which it is simultaneously panting to catch up to international industry standards in form, while localising in a post-museum ecology that has evolved from Enlightenment monuments to platforms and communities. More than a decade ago, curator and scholar Pauline J. Yao has already called out the Chinese art world “eagerly adopting the very institutional systems and structures that the Western art world is ready to abandon.” But in 2021, these dynamics no longer only refer to art institutions in relation to the establishment, hegemonic powers, or art’s autonomy, but the internal structures of museums themselves. These conditions remain invisible to a public that is largely used to consuming aesthetic experiences or engagements with art as spectacles, curatorial directions that rely more often on thematic or blockbuster surveys than art-historic points of view and discovery, and a lack of collective introspection from the industry’s white collar work force, often from privileged backgrounds.
Who does the museum serve and who is it ultimately accountable to, if not its audience and its workers?
In critical ways, operating under different constraints and pressures than their Western counterparts, the absence of counterweight to existing practices has limited the Chinese art institution’s radical potentials that could otherwise be realised through protests, public engagement, visionary directorships, generationally relevant board members, a healthy criticism culture, and media accountability, so that even with the most innocuous intentions, gestures that grasp at formal solidarity with the rest of the international art community – posting a black square in mourning that recalls the pathetic sight of emperor’s new clothes when brands and corporations co-opted social justice during Black Lives Matter – ring extra-hollow. Invoking care and community in institutional messaging, when the community only exists in rhetorical imagination as consumer categories, is disingenuous. But in spite of obvious political reasons, so that museums in China, even as public institutions, are not able to function as a kind of moral leadership that their international counterparts are free to enact, until museum owners and directors in China could afford to introspect publicly about the place of the museum, who does it serve, and who is it ultimately accountable to in this contemporary context beyond generic claims about art’s universality, perhaps they have no choice but to resign to their neutered missions as well-embellished production companies. Maybe that’s okay, too. It will just be a different kind of museum, but at least it will be clear about what it can do and how will it do what it does.
Who does the museum serve and who is it ultimately accountable to, if not its audience and its workers? If we can judge a person by their five closest friends, as Chinese art institutions are formulating best practices and identities outside of the Western context they grew out of, it is worthwhile to consider who Chinese art institutions consider their peers and what kind of dialogues are made possible or foreclosed by these affinities. Shanghai-based curator Wang Shuman writes recently about her alarm at the gaping omission of visitor data in the annual reports of Chinese art museums: “Before art museums reflexively blame visitors for misbehaving in the galleries or for their lack of refinement, they should ask themselves if they are even capable of knowing who their audiences are, and in turn fulfilling their duty of providing guidance to their audiences accordingly.” The mirror reflection is almost too glaring when the museum is literally not ready to face its audience.
The accident of the worker’s death at M Woods becomes a tragedy again when it becomes an unresolved crisis of aphasia, thinking about the number of conversations we need to have before we can begin to talk about his death.
Jaime Chu is one of Spike’s contributing editors. She is a translator and critic living in Beijing. Jady Liu contributed to reporting.
“Ryuichi Sakamoto: Seeing Sound, Hearing Time”
M Woods Museum
March – 8 August 2021