Yuz Museum: Representing Modern China Through Art

In Shanghai, The Art of Travel Fall 2014, Art by Haley Menchel1 Comment

Seeing that I am an art major, it’s only fitting that my favorite part of traveling would be discovering the art scene in each city I go to. Here in Shanghai, there is a constant theme of dealing with China’s modernity. I recently traveling to the Yuz Museum, a museum made up of a private collection all owned by a wealthy Chinese man. The work he has collected deals with the themes of the loss of Chinese tradition, the stigmatism China faces and how it’s become more and more “Westernized”.

My favorite piece I saw at the museum was Yang Zhenzhong’s “Massage Chairs: Then Edison’s Direct Current was surrendered to the Alternating Current”. I wanted to detail this piece in particular because it really made me think of deBouton’s excitement when traveling to Paris to see new art. This is the exact same feeling I had when going museum hopping and stumbling upon this gem.10877D34-BD31-4029-BD22-9B6167E56720-600x401 Yang Zhenzhong’s 2003 “Massage Chairs: Then Edison’s Direct Current was surrendered to the Alternating Current” is a sculpture/media work utilizing the mechanical and inhuman nature of the unpadded massage chair and it’s soundscape to evoke an unsettling and eerie viewer response. The artwork itself consists of six “chairs”, which at first glance appear to be pieces of questionably identifiable machinery. However, there are two chairs in specific that give way to their truer identity, because they retain their general shape more so than the other four. The chairs are gutted, giving way to their inside machinery: belts, cogs and pulleys, and various moving shapes meant to knead at the back. The chairs are are metal, there is nothing comfortable about them. They appear bulky and aggressive, frantically moving to achieve no goal. Some of the chairs have portions of their cushions still attached, again giving way to their identity.

Even upon realizing that this piece is a series of chairs, it’s difficult to detect they’re massage chairs until you begin to recognize and internalize the feeling that these robotic apparatus’ inflict physically. The piece requires a certain amount of physical recollection to relay to the viewer what exactly it is they are looking at. Each chair has their own way about them; they’re internal structuring is different, they each make different sounds and they’re moving parts are each extremely individualized. Every chair presents the viewer with a different possibility, a different form of massage to recognize.

The chairs are placed upon pedestals, raising them off the ground to a height just shorter than their average viewer. They are inherently pieces of metal; machines that resemble electric chairs in both appearance as well as the weight they carry within the greater gallery space. Without their padding and upholstery they are mere skeletons of comfort, taking a man-made replacement for human interaction and turning it on it’s audience.


The chairs remain in operation, which furthers the viewers confusion and discomfort even more due to the soundscape the machines create. The timely manner of their individual massages creates a rhythmic phenomenon, emitting a rather inhuman mixture of clicks, clacks, groans, whispers and hums. The pulsation of sounds mirrors the pummeling of the palpation contraptions and echoes loudly into the greater gallery space pulling those towards the sculpture only to be looked upon uncomfortably and with a weary eye.

This sense of perturbation does not simply arise from the peeled apart nature of the massage chairs, nor does it stem from the pulsating hums and groans. The overwhelming resemblance these chairs have to electric chairs leaves viewers feeling un-welcomed and out of place. It aims to push you into a man-made dangerous and distorted situation. This imitates the dichotomy that exists within the stripped down nature of the massage chairs. Artist Yang Zhenzhong took away all the elements of comfort and left his audience with a skeleton of an object they themselves created, which is meant to provide and create pleasure and relaxation.

The artwork upholds the greater theme of the Yuz Museum’s collection by making a larger statement pertaining to the changing nature of China. It comments both on the loss of traditions, in this case Chinese massage, and the move towards a more sterile and mechanical environment. The artwork, comprised of six stripped massage chairs, forces viewers to question the direction of China’s growth and how it is handling bringing it’s rich history into the present.


  1. Hey Haley. This sounds like a fascinating exhibit. I think it is particularly interesting how the viewer is made to feel so uncomfortable looking at an object which has the sole purpose of inducing comfort. I agree that this dichotomy has undertones of the benefits of Chinese growth. With the introduction of new technology in such a quick time span, the Chinese government and people have been forced to ask the question: how do we accept modern practices while maintaining a respect and honour for traditions that have defined its culture for thousands of years. Massage is a good example, but there are so many more. Oriental medicine is one that comes to mind. I think it is amazing how a seemingly simple piece can start a conversation about such important societal issues. Thank you for sharing.

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