top of page

What happens
after the contactless
art world?


14 Apr 2020

Nikita Yingqian Cai

When Covid-19 crosses physical borders with exponential scale and speed, its secondary catastrophes also provoke doomsday imagination from every sector of society. One ironic image about the art world circulating on social media is a meme of two screen shots from Titanic, in which the sinking boat symbolizes “The world in 2020”, while the quartet playing on the deck stands for the “Art institutions and galleries generating online content”. The metaphor is blunt and alarming:our security net and social identification won’t stand alone in the bleak economic prospect of the sinking world, so are we producing content just for the sense of belonging? Will we end up being the only audience of this content? 

Titanic meme

After Art Basel launched the online viewing room on March 20 as compensation for its cancelling of the fair in Hong Kong, commercial galleries fell over one another to explore the contactless art market as a therapy for the pandemic shock. It will probably take another crisis for economists to analyze data, compare behavioral patterns, and make predictions of the online sales profitability, but institutions that are less profit-oriented are by no means immune to the competition of attention that has been created by global social distancing. Alongside the outburst of open resource archives and publications, online screenings and showrooms, podcasts, live streaming and Zoom conferences quickly take over as platforms for art events. M Woods, a private art museum in Beijing, set up a virtual gallery inside the Nintendo game Animal Crossing to add value to its image as internet influencer. The game allows people to pay mortgages, build homes with furniture and objects, and socialize with animal neighbors according to their own image and imagination, but all the resources for this dreamlike island have to be extracted from somewhere offshore. The image of a cute little girl meditating on a bench surrounded by the wallpaper of Andy Warhol’s Cow (1966) is a perfect metaphor for escapism. Such 4.0 version of Cao Fei’s RMB City (2007-2011) is nonetheless novel but its simulation of the neo-liberal lifestyle is hard to ignore. Since the outbreak in Wuhan in January, new forms of social networks and collaborations have emerged and concrete solidarity is being formed across different social sectors in China, yet our contemporary art world is busy promoting the commodified experience of art.

M Woods Instagram

Two days ago, I stumbled upon an online vernissage on e-flux, presented by the Swedish Centre for Architecture and Design and titled Weird Sensation Feels Good. An Exhibition About ASMR (“Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response”). According to the statement, “ASMR injects the Internet with softness, kindness and empathy. As a form of digital intimacy, it offers comfort on demand, standing against the feeling of isolation that constant connectivity can deceptively breed. Anecdotally, ASMR is being used as a form of self-medication against the effects of loneliness, insomnia, stress, and anxiety. This is a cue to its success, and to its transcendental appeal”. [1] Conversely, the offline world is injected with hardness and struggles, self-medication is not going to protect people from getting sick or losing jobs. Less than a month after the containment policy went into effect in New York, the Museum of Modern Art terminated contracts with all its freelance educators in early April. MoMA represents one example of the museum industry among many other service industries that have sacked its part-time staff or furloughed its full-time employees quickly after the pandemic hit hard. Compared with small businesses such as restaurants, most museums’ operational budgets had been approved in 2019, and big institutions like MoMA would have planned out its fiscal structure, including the percentage of public funding, private patronage and ticket revenue for at least three years into the future. Before the closing of borders and museums, blockbuster exhibitions sat at the core of the art world’s show business, balancing the interests of trustees and the scale of production and demand. MoMA is one of the wealthiest museums in the world, so how come a cultural entity that embraces speculative narratives and future imaginations gives up so quickly in response to temporary uncertainties? Are we losing faith in reclaiming our audience after the pandemic?

Manuel Borja-Villel, director of the Museo Reina Sofía, Madrid, stated in an open letter that some of their staff have been sick but all of them will be able to keep their jobs “thanks in part to Spain’s governmental assistance program”. He also addressed the necessity of a paradigm shift, “Eventually, museums will reopen, but will people be afraid of being close to one another? Will we be able to continue developing large exhibitions that are anti-ecological? Maybe blockbuster exhibitions are over. Maybe we should think more about process and research.” [2] Recalling a postwar Marshall plan or a re-emphasis on process and research is certainly not a paradigm shift. We have to go deeper to ask: What kind of paradigm are we talking about? Has the pandemic revealed the problematics of the diffusionist museum model driven by Euro-American centralism and modernism?

The Museum of Modern Art as a canon of large-scale institution was born in the U.S. context and charged with historical contingency. When Alfred Barr organized Cubism and Abstract Art at 11 West 53rd Street in New York, he had no idea that the diagram he presented and the symbolic construct of abstract art would lay ground for a global chronology of modernism which shaped artists’ learning experiences and their occupational aspirations, historical arguments and museology outside of the Western centers in the postwar years. The evolutionary periodization and the colonial terms of “Near-Eastern Art” and “Negro Sculpture” have been challenged and eventually abandoned, but the network of the main characters remains (artists, art historians, curators, museum directors and trustees etc.) and it maps out a division of labor, identity and resource which still functions in our contemporary art world. What is invisible in Barr’s modern art supply chain is the end of demand, which we call “audience” nowadays. The American economy had not recovered from the Great Depression when Barr’s exhibition opened in 1936, and it took a sharp downturn in mid-1937 which lasted for another 18 months. It is hard to imagine Cubism and Abstract Art was orchestrated for ordinary Americans who were still suffering from unemployment at that time, and yet the exhibition gained substantial support from MoMA’s trustees to secure the artworks through U.S. Customs and from other private foundations. Barr’s essay in the catalog highlighted the “impulse of abstraction” and its dialectic; “it is based upon the assumption that a work of art, a painting for example, is worth looking at primarily because it presents a composition or organization of color, line, light and shape.” [3] Such zeitgeist needs to be accommodated in the idealized, climate-controlled white cube, which becomes the most important paradigmatic residual of MoMA. Even in a time of crisis, museums can still shut the discorded tones of the economical-disadvantaged and messiness of reality outside, and provide sanctuary for autonomous art objects and meditation.

Museum of American Art in Berlin, installation shots at Times Museum in the collection display of Moderna Galerija, Ljubljana

There has been a lot of comparison between the stock market crashes in February and March this year and the Wall Street collapse in 1929 that triggered the decade-long Great Depression. But the postwar trauma has given European countries more reasons to activate their social democratic policies,such as the German federal government’s sweeping aid package of €50 billion for the country’s creative and cultural sectors. The Chinese media and artist community voluntarily picked up the positive messages rather than the depressing ones in such a difficult time. Artist friends who live in Germany posted messages on wechat about their application for the subsidies, and some of them had already received the money. I’m genuinely happy that art sector and artist’s social values can be recognized and sustained in the European context, but a conversation between myself and Qiao, our curatorial assistant,unpacked my doubts. Qiao shares an apartment with a couple of friends who are educated young professionals. They have been intrigued by Qiao’s enthusiasm and have visited some of Times Museum’s exhibitions. Qiao said that her friends couldn’t understand why the arts need to be subsidized, and why a government like Germany is giving artists money. I tried to structure my thoughts and present my arguments around the emergence of the bourgeoisie museum after the French Revolution, Tony Bennett’s “exhibitionary complex” informed by Foucault, the modernist ideology of “art for art’s sake” and the more recent socioeconomic concept of “precariat” proposed by Guy Standing… I soon realized that none of Qiao’s roommates would be satisfied with my explanation. Artists are precariats because “they live with the expectation and desire to move around, without an impulse for long-term, full-time employment in a single enterprise.” [4] They are cultural migrant workers competing in the global market, but the globalization that used to support their production has been put on hold. European countries with colonial history have been exporting their culture and artists for centuries and they know this business better than anyone else.

Xiang Biao, a social anthropologist who has won awards for his survey on cross-bordered labor migration from Northeast China, argued for a different interpretation of “precariat”, “one very important background note about the precariat in the West is that they are the product of a large-scale reduction of the welfare state, as well as excessive marketization and liberalization. The loss of workers’ benefits has left these people feeling like they are in a precarious spot. So the Western precariat has developed movements such as Occupy Wall Street, and they have become an active political force. For China’s society people, their material life is better than before, and many are quite grateful to their country. From this point of view, they’re not like the precariat. That’s why when you talk to them about movements like Occupy, they don’t understand where all this anger is coming from.” Xiang emphasized the role of intermediaries which create demand and control the flow of migration, and went even further to claim that these laborers’ “contributions to China will increasingly be reflected in their role as consumers. In the future, the way in which they relate to society will not be mainly as laborers, but as consumers.” [5]

After the Beijing Olympic Game in 2008, galleries, museums and art media in China have all contributed to creating a demand for contemporary art narrowly defined by market value. The inauguration of the West Bund Art & Design Fair in 2014 and the neo-liberal developmental policies of the Shanghai government also paved the way for unprecedented growth of blockbuster exhibitions which feature artists as celebrity producers of commodified visual experiences. The paradigm of MoMA and the ideology of modernism were stripped of their historical context and repackaged as a glossy new dream of immersive consumption. Museums, biennials and art fairs witnessed queues of young audiences even though the price of one entrance ticket has soared up to 150-250RMB. There is also a popular myth among potential museum founders that franchising museums and reproducing blockbusters are going to bring in substantial revenues. We are creating the bubble of contemporary art like Luckin Coffee selling its speculative financial statements to investors. China’s economic miracle in the past four decades has relied on demographic dividends boosted by the increasing share of the working-age population and more women entering the labor force. One does not need statistics to confirm such insight because museum audiences in China are mostly young and mostly girls.

During the period of containment, people got used to contactless everything. Contactless payment has prevailed over cash for some time, contactless delivery prevents people from rushing to supermarkets and hoarding, contactless education keeps kids and parents occupied at home… It is not Confucianism or totalitarianism that have stopped Chinese people from going around, it is our easy adaption to contactless socializing. The modernist impulse of abstraction demonstrated by Alfred Barr in Cubism and Abstract Art has been transformed into a powerful, digitized abstraction of capitalism and consumerism. The question is whether the digital intermediary will lead our audience back to the museum after we all recover from the pandemic, or it will completely replace the temporal-spatial intimacy of relating to an artwork in a museum?

One thing we have learnt from the ongoing crisis is the vulnerability of our existing structure of globalization. Individual stories, precarious voices and empirical knowledge can be filtered by ideological constructs and power relations. We are all in this and there is no exclusive position we can take as cultural makers. Identifying ourselves as precariats might smash the forming hierarchy of different social groups, and we have to recognize that labor division between artists (art professionals) and other professions, producers and consumers does not hold a historical legitimacy outside of the Euro-American context. The paradigm of museums and exhibition-making might not be able to accommodate the diverse experiences and document the socioeconomic transformations in the post-corona world. Replicating the model of the modern art museum, reproducing large exhibitions that are anti-ecological, or homogenizing user-consumer experiences of art will not introduce any shift. We have to walk on the ground, resist our impulse of abstraction, indigenize the process of art making and become our own intermediaries to configurate new contacts between people.

Click to read Chinese version

Nikita Yingqian Cai lives and works in Guangzhou, where she is currently Associate Director and Chief Curator at Guangdong Times Museum.
[1] ArkDes presents a virtual vernissage, WEIRD SENSATION FEELS GOOD | An exhibition about ASMR, April 7, 2020, (accessed on April 11, 2020)[1] Manuel Borja-Villel, 
[2] Letter From Madrid: The Director of the Reina Sofia on What It Will Take for Museums to Rise Again—and What They Can Do in the Meantime, April 6, 2020,
[3] Cubism and Abstract Art, p. 13, April 1936, The Museum of Modern Art New York
[4] Guy Standing, Defining the Precariat, A Class in the Making. April 19. 2013,
[5] Cai Yiwen, Q&A with Anthropologist Xiang Biao on Northeast China’s Overseas Migrants, March 19. 2020
bottom of page