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Zeng Xiaolian Museum of Art officially opens in Kunming Expo Gardens

By in Features on

On the former site of the Kunming Expo Park's Pakistan Garden, the Zeng Xiaolian Museum of Art was born under the blue skies of the Spring City. It took a mere one-and-a-half months of construction, although reportedly work continued day and night. Locally famous designer Yang Xiong designed the cultural site based on the architectural style of the pavilion that had previously graced that location, the idea of the design was to preserve the original Pakistan Garden site and inspire architectural conservation practices, while bringing nature and art together in one place, much like its central figure. The museum is officially open to the public since June 5, 2022.

The museum presents and celebrates the works of Zeng Xiaolian. When Zeng graduated from high school in 1958, he was hired by the Kunming Institute of Botany (KIB), which is a part of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), and in the decades since that time he completed illustrations for Flora of China, Flora and Rhododendrons Yunnan, and 30 other scientific research works. Over time he became senior engineer of KIB, as well as a member of the China Artists Association and director of the Technical Committee of Botanical Illustration, Botanical Society of China.

As a leading personage among Chinese scientific illustration artists, the far-reaching significance of Zeng's oeuvre is the way it has served as a link between art and science, as the cultivated draftsmanship he developed requires both rigorous scientific observation and solid artistic expression. By presenting the most sophisticated details and convincing portrayals of plants and birds, his works convey the uniqueness of his subjects. His 2008 series of illustrations, "Birds of China", won the Best Stamp Series prize at the Thirteenth Government Postage Stamp Printers' Association Conference, and he remains the only Chinese artist to have received this honor so far.

He was unwilling to sell any of his works, as his intention has been to place these artworks in good care of his hometown, Kunming, and for future generations – a core value maintained by this museum.

The art museum with its gardens is not wrapped by dense walls and roofs. Instead, like Zeng's subjects, it is more like a living thing which can itself breathe freely under the blue sky and abundant sunshine while the wind passing through these gardens flows through the cloisters of the exhibition hall.

The museum fully inherits an architectural style reminding of an Islamic background. The original architectural structure in the Pakistan Garden was reminiscent of the solemn and noble temperament of Badshahi Mosque in Lahore. The museum's square chapel and milky white walks and pillars, together with the unique marbles of Pakistan and the symbolic red bricks of Islamic architecture, also bring to mind the Faisal Mosque in Islamabad.

The three terraces of the Shalimar Gardens in Lahore, Pakistan, are named Bestower of Life, Bestower of Goodness and Bestower of Pleasure. Following this practice of shaping and naming multiple diverging areas according to a theme, four gardens surround the three exhibition halls of the Zeng Xiaolian Museum of Art: the Wild Garden, the Meadow Garden, the Country Garden and the Vision Garden.

The entrance of the museum is through the Wild Garden. Walking along the white corridor, the first feature to catch the eye is a rainforest landscape which represents the unique hanging garden of Xishuangbanna, echoing the tropical flowers depicted by Zeng Xiaolian's paint brush. This mini rainforest is nourished by the sunshine pouring through the transparent glass roof above. These plants were carefully transplanted from Xishuangbanna and include rare flowers such as tiger beard, giant bird's nest fern, paphiopedilum, araceae, and palmaceae.

As visitors continue strolling along the red brick floor, the spacious corridor, immersed in a clean and elegant Islamic vibe, acts as a second exhibition hall. One may drift into a dream while viewing Zeng's painting of birds hanging on the wall. The soul of Zeng's ornithological illustrations is the divine inspiration of Xishuangbanna's jungle, where he first had the opportunity to closely observe birds.

The end of this corridor leads to the third exhibition hall, an arc wall built around the original square chapel. Pakistani marble and colonnades, their shape inspired by the Voronoi Diagram, which itself is a mathematical description of patterns found in nature, make this rather hollow exhibition hall come alive with exotic solemnity.

A round window in the front wall, impossible to ignore, throws one into reverie in this solemn space, its view lending an extra hue as, through it, one can see outside to the azure blue sky and colorful flowers.

The surrounding gardens are planted with dozens of plants that echo Zeng's artworks, such as fine leaf awn, torch flower, alpine rhododendron, lubing flower, saffron, purple pearl, agave, and so on. These plants and Zeng's paintings together constitute a living organic entity, which undertakes the mission of connecting real plants with art, immersing visitors in the beauty of plants and increasing their awareness and appreciation.

Zeng Xiaolian once said, "I don't expect everyone to appreciate my work, but I do hope they appreciate and care about the life in my work. All life has the same right of survival and reproduction as humans." This reflects the connection between art and science through Zeng's painting, which has not only artistic and scientific significance, but also sociological significance. His works encourage more people to really appreciate the beauty of plants, and to begin to observe and realize their ecological significance.

The museum is surrounded by a great diversity of plants and, along with the exquisitely furnished, exotically charming café found in the Vietnam Garden alongside a bookstore and Zeng's exclusive artist's studio (the studio is not open to the public), encourages one to take a leisurely pace while visiting.

Café reconstructed based on the Vietnam garden
Café reconstructed based on the Vietnam garden

The museum and its café suffice as an alluring stop inside the Expo Park, allowing one to pause under the blue sky, appreciate the beauty of its pleasant gardens, and, in passing, take in the artwork, have a cup of coffee with friends and merely immerse oneself in the rich artistic atmosphere.

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