C is for…

…conference. Now I have just realised there is an alphabetical theme starting to arise here. May I state it is completely unintentional but these things seem to happen in my world, i’m always attempting to categorise and archive. It may prove to be a linguistic challenge so let’s see how it works out.

The past two days have been spent assisting my superb PhD supervisor Jiang Jiehong (or Joshua as he is known in a Western sense) with the conference Public Space, Art and Collective Memory held  at BIAD. Day one started with Xu Jiang who reflected on the individual based creation of artistic creative practice in the field of interdisciplinary public art. “Can architecture, design and websites be public art (gonggong yishu)?” Also, this paper highlighted the issue of transcultural translation of specific terminologies, that in Mandarin Chinese (here in pinyin) there are two words for space or site – chang (event) and suo (place or location). Next was John Aiken who looked at interventions within the traditional methodologies of the city and the perceptive experience, the paradox of the incidental becoming the artwork and how public art can “devour”. Lunch then followed which was your average conference sandwiches and snacks, and the hot water tasted extremely like coffee, sadly this meant Starbucks got my money over the two days.

After refueling, Gao Shiming, an established curator, contemporary art researcher and writer (who will perhaps be interviewed as part of my study) presented the paper “Nowhere, No Here”. It examined the institutionalised process and production system of public art as an artistic practice embedded in historical discourse and how these histories have penetrated the walls of collective memory. He referenced Barthes’ theory of ‘The Death of the Author’ and Foucault’s  views on how “writing has become linked to sacrifice…where the writer must play a dead man.”

Gao – “We cannot observe reality and be part of it at the same time…we are all entangled in some sort of false reality with society.”

He also spoke of the space of art museums calling them artificial thus, institutionalised within a mechanism of artistic production. He questioned whether art can create a new way of communicating not through advertising, propaganda or publicity, how interpreting life drives us to produce art and where this is placed within Modernism (“Nowhere”). “Das Lebenswelt” – life world, rather than seen in the public realm where it does not need interpretation, it just exists, it is the experience.

Yin Shuangxi referenced symbolism through the construction of Asian cities, how they are planned in a formulaic sense, their position and historical grounding specifically referencing at Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China.

The final speaker of the day was Nick Stanley who examined the fetishisation of the foreign through didactic experiences where consumer culture and renowned locations are transformed into miniaturised venues for the site of Chinese spectacle such as ‘Window of the World’ and ‘Splendid China’. It was a “delicious ironic parody” referencing the continuities of the world alongside their physical differences, and the national and international complex models. He spoke of the relationship between art, knowledge and education, and the development of learning processes through these sites.

Stanley – “Public space, art and collective memory can be harmonised for a safe and welcome future.”

During the end of day discussion, people became embroiled in this concept of “theme park” but then began to unravel ideas around the mediation of culture.
Day two started with a comfortable and relaxed atmosphere in the air, and a pint of Starbucks Calm tea (cha). Richard Wentworth was the first speaker of the day. He spoke about his anxious state of being as an Englishman, discussing the notion of his own exoticism, the development of colonial space, and how people claim space and exercise power of them – “I’m not brought up to be a tourist but i’m not a traveller.” He sees this culture (UK) as being beyond ugly, referencing the work of other cultures as using inventive (visual) languages. He viewed, what he coined as,  “Princess Diana effect” as “cheap flowers from the garage meets Henry VIII culture…where it could be deemed the best way to make public art is to kill enough people, to make them feel guilty about it…through memorialisation.” He also referenced a conversation with Richard Long.

Wentworth – “Whatever you walk towards means that you have walked away from something else…we are always in recoil from something.”

He examined how you see yourself as a foreigner in the public versus private domain stating we are all spectators of each other – the world is private yet we behave so publicly. He questioned what is going to happen to these ciphers and ultimately, who on earth are we? Goa Shiming summarised this paper succinctly by stating public art (gonggong yishu) is not a “genre” anymore.

Sui Jianguo discussed the development of his sculptural public art practice which conveyed a sense of time, direction and location. Presenting democracy through visual practice, he is interested in the idea of life cycle, time and being, expressing feelings of embodiment in nature and culture, specifically how nature operates whilst referencing the regeneration of life and the body. He discussed examples of his artworks including ‘Legacy of Mentor‘ (1997) influenced by the developments in Hong Kong at that time, and the concept of the jacket worn by Sun Yot-sen, the revolutionary political leader and pioneer of the Republic of China. His jacket symbolises the modernisation of China and the ideas he advocated. This is also seen in the commission he completed for Beijing Fashion University this year (2009). Asked to design something to represent the characteristics of their University, he again used the idea of Sun Yot-sen jacket. This also marked the 60th Anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic, it  questioned how should modern chinese history from 1911 should be understood and how he, as a  leader, should be remembered. He stated people are rethinking the Chinese Communist and Nationalist parties, where agendas have been reset in, and through, public debate. Another example he referenced was ‘Motion/Tension‘ (2009), an intervention within the Today Art Museum, Beijing, made up of a series of static and moving steel balls. What makes this artwork unique is that the balls can be viewed through several channels, from the interior to the exterior. Either mobile within a closed gallery space or running through a network of pipes and tubes in between the interior and exterior gallery space,  they hit the edges of the interior or exterior spaces creating sounds.

The final speaker for the morning was Francoise Dupre, who spoke of her workshop-based practice which combined traditional and contemporary theories of making through the development of an interactive network of social, cultural and human elements.

Dupre – “Making has an empowering role in the development of a human being, responsible for identity formation, acting as a form of cultural resistance against war and globalisation.”

The invisibility and marginalisation of the stitch and of the handmade object shows it is undervalued as an art form. Textiles activities are accessible and universal, usually associated with women. Her projects reference the functionality of ornament and its transformative quality on architectural space, locating identity and performativity through formativity and the construction of making artwork. preferring the phrase public sphere than the term public space, Dupre is creating a sphere for communication between artists, participants and communities. She references the theories of Susan Sonntag that remembering is an ethical act and questions what happens when the act of remembering is an impossible task for the artists, when it cannot have a visual outcome? Is it the right of the artist to represent this information, historical and cultural connections between artist and participant? It is only the participants who can articulate their rich cultural history and heritage, part of the projects concept, not to be put into a memorialized context.

At the end of the morning session, Jiang Jiehong questioned whether memory belongs to the collective? Wenworth responds by saying “he cannot be responsible for his knowledge, it is unbearable, almost impossible…the point at which I went to english art school is the point when carving had stopped being taught. This was the point in which they had stopped making war memorials too.” Dupre replies by stating the practice of memory is more important It is making sure memories are not fabricated by others as there’s not one collective memory. It’s the performative quality of talking about it and the problematic representation of memory in the pseudo neutral space (gallery space).

Over lunch Wentworth and I ended up talking about a photograph he referenced in his paper. It was of a neighbour who placed planks of wood in his doorway to stop people from entering, which to him was a normal traditional action. This cultural activity was unknown to us. We then spoke of feeling foreign in a Berlin supermarket, living in London and then how I have had quite a nomadic life, moving every 6 years or so courtesy of having a father who was a Methodist Minister.

Wentworth – “Curators and art historians often come from that kind of strong parentage.”

I liked this comment. It makes me feel like it’s possible. Whatever “it” is.

Mao Jianbo started the afternoon session by looking into Chinese painting in public spaces and whether they have a specific public dimension. He examined Chinese painting in the modern era, the politics behind them and its future. Paintings had a traditional function, set in spaces such as temples but now exist as “intellectual” paintings. It is the impact of this and the way in which artists create paintings that has become important. Politics evidentially became a common issue, giving the paintings a specific political function, where Chinese painting was in a great need of reform as it could no longer represent the so changed reality. The publicness and how to achieve it poses great challenges to the contemporary artists along with the translation of content in this new public context.

Sian Everitt, art historian and Keeper of Archives at BIAD (who also lecturers on the Pg Cert I have to complete as part of my PhD), presented her paper on the archive of public art in relation to public art working as a historical archive of our time. She highlighted sculpture logics and building decoration such as murals, where recording the realisation process of the development of this type of public art projects is integral – temporary, performative and contingent. The potential academic and public benefit have made organisations and institutions aware of their legacies and historical grounded futures.

Everitt – “The archives have the potential to capture the meanings created through the actualisation of the artwork that may otherwise go unknown, adding and preserving layers of meaning to our understanding of that public art.”

Archives can assist as memory aids, not intentionally commemorative in context. “They do not store memory but offer the possibility to create memory.” She sees memory like history is neither objective or static and cannot be captured – it is constructed and reconstructed. By conceptualizing public art, it makes it into a collective practice not just an individual artwork, from product to process, from record to the recording context. She referenced Derrida stating “society is suffering from archive fever” and acknowledges the fragmented construction of archives. There are gaps, there is no absolute definition of public art practice.

The finally speaker for the day, closing the conference was the contemporary Chinese artist Qui Zhijie. The funny thing is I saw his most recent exhibition ‘Twilight of the Idols‘, which he calls a special study of monument, at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt when I was in Berlin in October. Stunning…anyway, his paper “Nanjing Yangtze River Bridge: The Shadow of a Monument” examined key Chinese symbols referencing and shown in modernity. Over 300 to 400 people try to commit suicide from this bridge every year and it is constantly causing severe controversial debate where any events in relation to it will be highly publicised within the media. In 2007, Qiu started to be concerned with the history and reality of the bridge, largely looking into the recurrent suicides thus the suicide phenomena. Textual interventions have taken place on the bridge in the form of statements, phrases and graffiti portraying the many voices and personalities of the bridge users – “Love is dead. All that’s left is the void.” – the sentence, written in blood, is supposed to be the last words of a suicide victim. He increased the awareness of the problem in an artistic way through the involvement of volunteers, those who have been saved by their friends and/or family from suicide. “A Suicidology of the Nanjing Yangzi River Bridge” presented his research through paintings and note-taking, a special focus on monument, displaying the concrete-itisation of the artists perspective and the blunt reality of the situation. When talking through recent projects he references the imagination of modernity as more industrial where the study of Chinese monument shows icon, text and calligraphy was the centre of Chinese visual culture  as well as the notion of monument. Qiu talks of two words, specifically the difference between “tablet” and “monument”. The tablet is the physical form or material existence  whereas the monument is more memorial like, like a book that you need to open and read on one’s own initiative,  like a reading room, inviting people to come inside, think and read. “An endless monument…an ongoing monument…a dialogue with…” The words are not written for any specific audience, they are written for the heaven and the earth in a timeless dimension (monumentality) in an ideology of time in relation to ancient China.

Qiu – “In terms of attitudes we have to focus on the past but walk into the future – walking backwards.”

The final panel discussion unravelled ideas of spectatorship, whether passive or active, translation, the grey areas of terminology and also the notion of monumentality.


The day eventually came to a natural end although issues were still murmuring in the background. It’s time for the post-conference dinner to commence. I’ll fill you in on that tomorrow.


  1. fasinating post! It will take a few reads before I understand most of it( you are clever!) What makes me angry about some public art practice is that they seem to have very little to do with the public. Not that it should they have terrible taste ,but it seems to me that perhaps it should just be caller Big Art. In an ideal world talented artists would just be able to do what they do best and make their art without needing to hide behind this charade that every piece of art will heal rifts between communities, and right the wrongs of a society that has sold its soul to tesco.

    dont get me started on community art projects! Art in the minds of the public is either a “disgrace” or something that keeps kids off the streets in half term. That is no suprise given the way that the funding of the arts works in this country. I think it is stiffling for artists and is probably worse than the church funded and controlled art of previous centuries. At least the church had money and decent spaces to display your work. … breathe

  2. As I was saying early on today with particular reference to monument/Berlin/Wall/Private bar Collective memory: the notion of monument-tablet-monumentality which embeds the linguistic issue or non-issue (as proposed during Q&A this afternoon) is also reflected in the German notion of ‘Denkmal and Mahnmal”. This debate linked with the theme of memory has very much taken place in Berlin for the project of what in English is translated as “the Monument for the Murdered Jews of Europe”
    Suggested reading on the subject Chapter 4 of Holocaust Monuments and National Memory. France and Germany since 1989 by Peter Carrier. Also Ch5 titles The institutionalisation of Memory and so forth…

    Also of interest strictly from a Western Perspective is the book At Memory’s Edge – After-Images of the Holocaust in Contemporary Art and Architecture by J. E. Young.


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