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March 30, 2010

The Paradise of Modern Art

Set amid the ancient landscape of Guilin, the Hotel of Modern Art combines cool contemporary architecture with high-style boutique chic.

Close your eyes and imagine for one moment the Guggenheim Museum at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 89th Street in Manhattan. Now transport that same image to the wilds of Montana or Glacier National Park. That's the sort of radical eye-popping disconnect created by Tsao Rhy-Chang, who dreamed up the Hotel of Modern Art and then had the gall to put it smack-dab in the middle of one of the most spectacular landscapes in all China. It's wacky, crazy, unimaginable—but it works. In a country where the design/boutique hotel is hardly commonplace (you could count them on one hand), the Hotel of Modern Art is not only an exception but also a dramatic statement of the new China.

Seven years ago Tsao, a Taiwanese billionaire, procured 1,320 acres of prime real estate in the northeastern part of the Guangxi region, just outside the city of Guilin. (Even in the new China, one does not "own" property but "leases" it long term.) Here he would indulge a lifelong passion for art—in particular, contemporary sculpture. Inspired by Vigeland Park in Oslo, Norway, and the Open-Air Museum in Hakone, Japan, Tsao set out to create an outdoor gallery of his own. Over the course of seven years, he has done just that, vigorously amassing an extraordinary and truly global collection of some 200 pieces, most of which are unfamiliar to Westerners. He has also added studios for working artists in residence, an exhibition gallery, a retail shop, and the immodestly named Hotel of Modern Art. "It's really more like a small hotel," explains Tony Huan, a consultant on the venture, "but with a big backyard."

Tsao named the park, which opened April 1, 2003, Yuzi Paradise—yuzi quickly and imprecisely translates as "fool." And there is something of an 18th-century folly about Yuzi Paradise, something only a mad genius or a fool could have pulled off.

I first heard about the Hotel of Modern Art from Guy Rubin at Imperial Tours. When I asked him for his list of China musts, Guilin was at the top. "And you have to stay," he told me back in February, "at the Hotel of Modern Art." I wasn't so sure: It didn't appear in any guidebooks or magazine articles, and when I asked a handful of very savvy travel professionals, none of them had ever heard of it. Perfect. Just the sort of place I wanted to be among the first to visit.

"They were the oddest hills in the world, and the most Chinese, because these are the hills that are depicted in every Chinese scroll. It is almost a sacred landscape—it is certainly an emblematic one."
PAUL THEROUX, RIDING THE IRON ROOSTER, 1988

It's a two-and-a-half-hour flight on Air China from Beijing to Guilin. The city may have played a prominent role culturally and politically during the Ming dynasty, but these days it's, regrettably, the victim of overdevelopment and neglect. Beyond its borders, though, are green and verdant plains traversed by streams and rivers and, perhaps most famously, dotted with extraordinarily weird and seemingly magical outcroppings of rock called karst pinnacles. They bring something primordial, almost Jurassic, to this otherwise Edenlike setting. The karst pinnacles are both majestic and frightening—as if a Kong-size creature, say a Chinese dragon, might suddenly appear from behind one of them. All this has combined to make Guilin among the most traveled (some would argue overtraveled) areas in China. It has also been absent of anything but the most basic accommodations. Up until now.

The Hotel of Modern Art is small, especially by Chinese standards, in which bigger is almost always better. It currently has 74 guest rooms, another 141 are to open soon in a nearby building that's now under construction. The hotel is designed with lots of weird angles. The split roof, for example, is sloped at 45 degrees and planted over with grass. It looks like a miniature golf course, and is often mistaken for one. Inside are many of the trendyish signatures of the modern boutique hotel, such as a cool minimalist lobby—in this case, festooned with big podlike chairs in vivid oranges and bright reds. A tiny gift shop carries a few odd toys for children, some Chinese magazines, and a smattering of postcards. Upstairs the rooms are divided into deluxe doubles, which seem more like attractive college dorm rooms designed by Ikea, complete with futons. More appealing are the two-bedroom duplex suites, done in light wood and white everything. A plasma television, broadband connections, and the hotel's own line of environmentally friendly shampoos, washes, oils, and pungent scents complete the package. As the brochure puts it, the hotel is "not only to pamper the body but also to promote the soul and spirit of its guests."

Tsao's own, and very idiosyncratic, residence, called the Dream Palace, can also be rented out (for $10,000). It's wild: four floors spiraling down, à la the Guggenheim Museum, from a glass-domed ceiling to a marble-floored atrium. The 12-room villa, which would be perfect for a large family or intime group of friends, comes with its own limousine (a very luxe Mercedes-like vehicle named the Chairman and manufactured in South Korea), a kitchen staff, screening room, swimming pool, and health club. The decor is outré at best, 007 meets Taiwan kitsch—a sculpture of frolicking gold-leafed nymphs is set over an enormous oval bed in the master bedroom, and a koi pond is built into the dining-room floor. But then Tsao has always seen himself as a Don Quixote-type figure who does things in a decidedly offbeat way. His fortune comes from building cemeteries and, I suppose, it's not hard to see the connection between those manicured gardens with their "monuments" and this park in Guilin.

Tsao has obviously been involved in every stage of Yuzi Paradise: from championing the Taiwanese architect, Shiau Jon-Jen, who took on the project, to overseeing the kitchen, which, whether you're dining in one of the restaurants, cafés, or under a shade tree in the garden, serves some of the very best food I had in China. So far, he has brought 132 artists from 29 countries to Yuzi, where he's set up a series of studios for glass-, bronze-, and woodworking; another is for printing and large-scale sculpting. Invited guest artists live here for free in return for donating their work. So as one bikes among the pine trees on impeccably landscaped grounds, one can admire works that are variously complex, whimsical, provocative, and sometimes just beautiful. According to Tsao, Yuzi Paradise will take 30 years to complete and the centerpiece of the project will always be the sculpture park. True harmony, he believes, comes only from a balance of art and nature.

Westerners have yet to discover this extraordinary place. So far, the Hotel of Modern Art is not on many itineraries, not even those to Guilin. I'm told director Ang Lee has stayed here and the hotel staff was eager to tell me that Columbia Pictures and a crew of about 300 recently used the setting to film a movie based on a video game. How appropriate, I thought. After all, I'm sure the movie will be just as wacky, crazy, unimaginable as Yuzi. And what do you bet it works?

For information about the Hotel of Modern Art, visit www.yuzi-paradise.com, or call 86-773/386-5555. Direct flights to Guilin are available daily from Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong.