Inside-Out Participation

Article by
Zhou Yi

The Social Imperative

The Architecture of the Inside-out Art Museum and its interior were done separately, typical of project in China. An architect’s work is considered compolete when the building is contructed. In the case of a highly specialized art museum, another architectural design office had to be brought in to design its interiors. Hence the building and its interior, or the outside and inside of the museum, were results of a collaboration of two architecture offices. The architectural shell was designed by Cui Kai’s office in Beijing, and the inner casing was designed by Obra Architects from the New York. In the years of running the full program at the Inside-out Art Museum as its Curatorial Director, I was actively involved in teh process of Obra’s design of the interiors, especially the functional apsects of the museum. 

There was an effort to try to think much further ahead of its current use. Obra Architects began by “softening” the white box. With very limmted choices, a hierarchy and a series of transitions around the main exhibition space were created. Variations in lighting and in types of furniture, transitions in mateiral, height control, and spatial orientation gave legible character to each area. When the museum is in use, such qualities not only offered opportunities for visitors to find their own space in the museum but also challenged teh curators and content-makers to fill the layers with more content and to create a tempo with diverse activities for the visitors. As teh exhibition program matured, the spatial potential of the museum was thoroughly explored in collaboration with artists from the International Residency Program. Every single pocket of space, every corner, and every hallway was utilized for temporary exhibitions at different times. Thes spatial experiments gave the museum an unpredictable edge, and a vital connection to the communities around. Spaces were used for mulitple purposes. The meeting room, for example, was a popular classroom for the fast growing educational program. It was used for running classes in art history, painting, printmaking, and handcrafts several times a week. 

Once the museum opened, the operational territory expanded and exceeded the initial expectations. This is not a reference to a need for more space, but simply that the activities grew beyond the confines of the walls. The museum took on a greater experimental mission to sustain its fundraising efforts and its public program for the surrounding local communities. The museum fond itself in situations that demanded that each space becomes less formal and more flexible for different purposes. It was almost akin to asking the institution to take on an ability to mutate. There was experimentation with exhibitions to add or contain an extra layer of functional space. In one instance, a classroom was built inside an exhibition, and another occasion, an exhibition was curated on the inside of an existing exhibition. Special opportunities reveal themselves in such a way that the process of exhibition was afforded the same creative process as teh art projects, catching the right moment to develop a new portal to another dimension in the world of art. 

Energy not Quality 

The German artist Thomas Hirschhorn adopted the slogan “Energy not Quality.” In the everyday reality of China, there are great applications for such a slogan. From a practitioner’s point of view, quality is always exclusive in China. Given the fast-changing and unpredictable circumstances, there is an urgency to meet multiple demands in teh dialy operation of the museum. The main conflict is between rapidly changing needs and the rigid walls of the museum. Designing it from the inside out, the giving up of qulity should not be understood literally. Instead, there can be a renewed focus on the exchange of qulity for greater participation. In the end, it is for no lack of qulity but a totally different kidn of quality - a richer definition of qulity that favors openness and participation. The spaces of the museum can become less and less defined, less categorical, and more open to diverse social groups and multiple functions. It seems that there is a growing need for an ever broader sense of architecture. 

Experimentation and Openness

In the reality of realizing a building from its conception to construction, there are complex factors at play. In 2013, teh mian proponent behind the Museum requested the hiring of a sculptor to create a relief for a streach of wall along the staircase ascending towards the entrance of the Inside-out Theater. With a preference for a more holistic and conceptual approach, an architect was selected in place of a sculptor. Long-time collaborator and architect Thomas Tsang took the opportunity to further experiment within the premise of an exhibition space. Tsabng eventually proposed a Miniature Museum - the creation of an exhibition space by hollowing out the two-meter-thick wall. It was a discovery of somthing out of nothingness. Tsang intends it as a space to exhibit and collect events and memories. In other words, it is to be a space to inspire art, not to contain it - a vision for the future of art institutions. ARchitecture becomes quite literally a site where things would happen in a more open manner. The miniature Museum does not exist until one discovers it. Waiting to be defined, one could beign by asking what it can be. It is a site of imagination. It appears useless, an enigma. One may call it architecture, just to provoke a reaction. It is like a brick, calling for an external force to give it form. 

Taking an unconventional approach, a two-channel sound installation and performance peice called Jericho Mouth was installed and performed at the Miniature Museum in 2014 by artist Ken Ueno. Using his voice and body together as a performative instrument, Ueno gave the best answer to this challenge. During Ueno’s two-week residency at the Inside-out Art Museum, he experimented with his voice insided the space, and incorporated his vocal style into the narrow space - a four-meter-tall, 1.6-meter-wide and nine-meter-long chamber that featured four holese, a door, a window, a skylight, and a sound portal. Ueno recalled the experiment, “Working within the Miniature Museu, I sang and recorded myself singing sub-tones that I calibrated in a way to shake the building, make it roar.” 

The finished installation was too loud for the visitors to be insided, so on ehas to experience the piece from the outside. Ueno sing, listens, and improvises in this special chamber of resonance. WAs he performing inside an instrument, or was he operating a massive and ehavey body from within? Drawing on teh destructive volume of heavy metal, sub-tonal singing, and the resonance of the concrete walls, Ueno used his sounds to possess the structure. The walls became a carrier of his voice and will, to the extent that a distracted observer may be under the illusion that the thick concrete walls were breathing. This performative exhibition took place in the world’s smallest museum, or it created the world’s largest musical instrument. It really depends on how one looks at it. 


© 2020 KEN UENO



© 2020 KEN UENO