Nissen Richards Studio has designed the most comprehensive exhibition of Bob Dylan's art ever held, at the Modern Art Museum in Shanghai. Spanning five decades of Dylan's career and seven distinct series of works, Retrospectrum marks the artist's most comprehensive art exhibition to date anywhere in the world and also enables visitors to experience Dylan's artwork in a uniquely immersive and interactive environment, contextualizing the artwork alongside Dylan's writing and music and across time.
Retrospectrum features more than 250 of Bob Dylan's artworks, spanning 40 years and an array of different media, including important works on loan from private collections around the world. The artist's diverse creations include oil, acrylic and watercolor painting, as well as ink, pastel and charcoal drawings and distinctive ironwork sculptures.
"The exhibition provides visitors with a unique opportunity to view Dylan's journey in the visual arts as well as with an introduction to the artist's singular stature as a singer, songwriter, recording artist and concert performer, reflected in iconic elements from his storied career," stated Museum Director Derek Yu.
Among the artworks featured in Retrospectrum are some of the artist's earliest ink sketches, first published in 1973's Writings and Drawings, that illustrated and compiled Dylan's lyrics up until that time. These are shown alongside works from last year's Mondo Scripto series, in which Dylan revisited some of his most renowned lyrics, hand-written and illustrated in his unique hand. The exhibition also features the iconic Train Tracks paintings, representing The Drawn Blank Series (2008) that first brought Bob Dylan's visual artworks to critical and popular acclaim. Additionally, there are paintings from Dylan's The New Orleans Series and The Asia Series (from 2012 and 2010 respectively), inspired by the artist's travels, as well as works from his hugely popular The Beaten Path series (2015 - present), including the monumental landscape painting Endless Highway III (2016), exemplifying Dylan's appreciation for the beauty of America's landscape and capturing a sense of anticipation for the road ahead. Among the artist's most rarely-seen pieces featured in Retrospectrum are his industrial ironworks, created from re-purposed objects that speak to America's industrial past. First exhibited in London in 2013, the ironworks reveal the artist's fascination with welding and metalwork.
Located along the 'cultural corridor' of museums and galleries along the riverside in the Pudong New Area, Modern Art Museum (MAM), Shanghai is a former industrial building once used for coal storage that has been stripped, gutted and converted, whilst retaining much of its original brutalist forms. It is now a major gallery, with a focus on diversity, equality, exchange and education, utilizing innovative methods to facilitate public participation and engagement with art. Its vast industrial architecture offers a versatile and dynamic space to help connect the shared cultures of the East and West.
"Our design approach was to use a variety of printing techniques and substrates throughout, including considering all available walls and floorspace, to enhance the exhibition's sense of place and era and compliment Bob Dylan's own stylistic approaches," said Pippa Nissen, Director of Nissen Richards Studio. "We also took inspiration from Bob's artistic output, his huge cultural influence and the gritty bohemian settings he wrote about and lived in, de-constructing, abstracting and reworking archival images to evoke place and time, rather than imitating the past. This both works with the space's contemporary nature and creates a visual consistency to the overall treatment, whilst also subtly aiding wayfinding. We used monochromatic halftones and other 20th-century printing techniques throughout and combined these with organic, painterly textures."
The dual-language (Mandarin and English) exhibition design treatment by Nissen Richards Studio for Retrospectrum began with the wrapping of the building's external façade at the ground and first floor levels with exhibition branding. External and internal hanging banners use bold colors, a fusion of handwritten and typewritten graphic styles and prominent photographic images of Dylan. Internally, the ground floor space is dedicated to ticketing, and also houses a new shop and American diner-style café-restaurant.
"We also created a bespoke graphic wallpaper for the scheme made up of images showing Dylan's range of creative output, from album and magazine covers to artworks," explained Candy Wall, Associate Graphic Designer at Nissen Richards Studio. "This is used on the left-side entrance wall at ground floor level, as well as cladding the entirety of the staircase walls, floor-to-ceiling, up to the first floor and again from the first to the second, helping unite the graphic language across all floors."
The exhibition is located over three storeys of the building on the first, second and third floors. The first floor - where eight remaining concrete funnels from the building's coal-sorting days hang down into the center of the space - makes use of both the funnel external surfaces, as well as the walking border space around the edge. The exhibition kicks off with four roomsets. The first is an introductory area with a projected film wall and text panel. The second is The Writing Room, depicting Dylan's formative literary influences, featuring a typewriter on a writing desk with a chair and a record player cabinet with albums stacked underneath. Illustrated windows look over a fictional exterior, whilst a wall unit displays inset artifacts or lightbox rear images showing influences and inspirations. The roomset sets the scene for Dylan's writing process and makes clear to visitors the links between Dylan's creative personae, from writer and musician to visual artist.
The third area- New York and the Folk Scene - covers the Greenwich Village/New York folk era. Here, contextual scenes are created, focusing on Dylan's early hero Woody Guthry and reproducing the awning of famous venue Café Wha? together with large-scale black and white photos of the period. This cedes into the final of these four areas - an intimate Performance space, suggesting the interior of 'Café Wha?' and configured as a performance area, with café-style seating, replica vintage concert posters lining the walls and film projected onto a screen to the rear of space on a small stage, complete with curtains and an acoustic guitar.
A corridor with a further display of the bespoke graphic wallpaper leads to Mondo Scripto, where song lyrics are displayed with accompanying sketches, underlining Dylan's constant balance of words and images. Directly opposite, a timeline denotes Dylan's artistic career, via lyrics and projections, which is set against major world events from the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s, right up to Dylan's receipt of the Nobel Prize, with projections onto boards attached to the concrete funnels. Legacy quotes line the final walls of this story, the entirety of which should very much convey to visitors an impression of an artist with a singular vision and outlook, whose creative output has spanned different disciplines since the outset and over many decades.
A curved wall leads up to the second floor - clad in the bespoke record sleeve graphic wallpaper once again. Here, the visitor is guided around a series of long corridor spaces that envelop central roomsets, broken up with portals and graphic panels. Color is very much used as part of the display to work with the artworks, including a series of blues for the Drawn Blank series (Faces & Places and The Artist's Eye), whilst reds, ochres and rusty oranges tie in with the sunset and metal themes of other artworks. A series of Early Works sketches also show the artist drawing whilst on tour.
The second-floor roomsets launch Ironworks, a display of Dylan's metalwork sculptures, with half the space devoted to this - starting with an evocation of his actual ironwork studio - the Black Buffalo Studio. The replicated studio is suggested displays of via real rusting junk and rough'n'ready natural grain timber studwork shelving, showing off pieces from the Minnesota rust belt Dylan originally hails from in the form of a post-industrial landscape, as well as expressing a certain honesty and simplicity via the material choice. A second room here also includes a video wall showing black and white industrial footage.
In the second half of the space, further examples from the Mondo Scripto series are displayed, with an entire roomset dedicated to the seminal track Subterranean Homesick Blues, together with cue cards and graphic wallpaper lyrics. The visitor transitions out of the drawing series into the Moving Train Carriage environment, which is lined with seats on each side and where fast-paced multi-screen video displays emphasize the scale and breadth of Dylan's career, including the Rolling Thunder Revue list of gigs and wallpaper of an American boxcar. An intermission area leads to two mini-series of linked paintings: the first is a series of portraits from New Orleans (set against rust-colored walls with overlaid graphics) and the second is the Asia series.
The final, third-floor exhibition is loosely centered on Bob in his studio and shows pictures of Dylan at work, via lightboxes and a number of screens. The floor also hosts Dylan's third and main painting series - The Beaten Path - focusing first on small towns, then on big cities and finally on the 'endless highway'. The series begins with pencil sketches and pre-painting plans and culminates in a central, double-height installation featuring two newly-created pieces - one of a railroad, depicted in a giant triptych and the other a 5 x 5m grid of cityscape paintings. After the artworks, visitors finally arrive at a cinema space with a curved screen wall and bench seating, which will show a variety of movies based on Dylan's performances and career, such as No Direction Home or Rolling Thunder.
Photography: Amey Kandalgaonkar