China – The power of who’s who…

The last blog post left you at 5am Saturday morning, post-late night antics, day one of three of a very busy weekend…a weekend filled with networking, VIP events, art exhibitions openings, a book launch, dinners and drinks with old and new friends…oh and the rain, how could I forget the RAIN! RJW and I have somehow got caught up with the who’s who of the contemporary Chinese art world (and the design world for RJW), and kind of by accident…or maybe not. It only really dawned on me on Monday as I sat back at my office desk at AIVA, it even overwhelmed me a little…I’ve met some very distinct characters, personalities and key figures in this scene and I hope to really build on this network and definitely not let these opportunities go to waste.

I’d thought I’d set the tone of this post by telling you about ArtReview magazine, who email me every month to inform me when the latest issue is available to view online…and which issue was it this month? By far the best one…‘The POWER 100’, and I couldn’t wait to see who was where and what was what in this slightly conventional, must be done by someone, art list and hierarchy. Does anyone really pay attention to this I wonder? Apart from the press and media. What surprised me the most was the number one artist, just outside the top ten, was the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei who is currently on display in the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern with his installation ‘Sunflower Seeds’. I spoke to my Mom last week and she said how disappointed she was to had just missed the chance to kick her feet amongst the seeds by only a day when she was visiting London. She has become a subconscious part-time researcher for me, keeping her eye out for exhibitions of contemporary Asian art. She already has stacks of leaflets waiting for me to collect when I get back to the UK in the New Year. As I scrolled further through ‘The POWER 100’, I actually was somewhat shocked to see the name of one of my interviewees in at number 86, a man who I have been exchanging and conversing with over the past few weeks, who has curated an 2-venue exhibition and presented an events series called ‘West Heavens’ as part of the 8th Shanghai Biennale ‘Rehearsal’ which I will speak about later on in this post. The number 86 man is Johnson Chang, or Chang Tsong-zung who I initially met at a launch party for the Asia Art Archive project/MoMA book ‘Primary Documents’ by Wu Hung at Minsheng Art Museum during my first few days in Shanghai. He is a real inspiration and such a gentle man, very tuned into what is happening and developing. I feel lucky to now be part of his scene.

Saturday began with rain, rain, go away come again another day. I’d been woken up by it in the night as it lashed against the pathetic double glazing and was hoping it would be a passing shower…but it was heavy, and as my Dad would say, a torrential down pour. It went on all day, non-stop, soaking you through in an instant. Where had it come from? RJW and I wanted it to stop fast. We had one umbrella, a handbag sized one that was enough to cover the top of our heads and that’s all…for a second we considered cycling around all day but then realised that was possibly the most stupid idea. We wanted to go out for breakfast and decided on a place called ‘Egghead Bagels’, a 5-minute cycle away. In that 5-minutes we got soaked, absolutely soaked. Our jeans were so wet against our skin it was a horribly uncomfortable feeling as it stuck against your thighs. Eugh. RJW and I get excited about good food, especially breakfast as it is the best meal of the day. I had a chorizo and feta omelette, and a raisin and cinnamon bagel with cream cheese…

…which came with salted apple slices which were a little odd. RJW had a huge American bagel breakfast platter thing which came with everything. One thing I must tell you is he DIDN’T have ketchup…how very strange. He usually has most meals with the red and glossy condiment. We chatted to the staff in the bagel shop about the ‘Shanghai Alleycat’, a bike race over the Halloween weekend that RJW and I are going to do on our single speed Battle bikes (a post on this will follow very soon). They are providing refreshments on the day of the event. This serious food set us up for the day ahead. We went back to the apartment, showered and left super quick…then it took forever to get a taxi as every man and his dog was after one. RJW stood in a telephone box whilst I waited and eventually flagged one down. The rain really wasn’t letting up. We got to the Shanghai Art Museum just after 2pm for the VIP launch of the 8th Shanghai Biennale ‘Rehearsal’ where I phoned Li Ning, my Biennale contact so we could get our tickets. She arrived at the East entrance and handed me my golden ticket, seriously, it was gold. She had also managed to get me a copy of the Biennale handbook and the catalogue which she’ll pop in the post to me at a later date. The museum was very busy that day and full of familiar faces such as the MadeIn crew, curator Karen Smith, the Moleskine organisers including curator Raffaella and PR man Giovanni, curator of the Biennale Gao Shiming, artist Qiu Zhijie…the list goes on. I did manage to speak to Qiu about his work and we smiled about how children were interacting with his installation.

He said we could have a proper more formal chat when we were both in Beijing for Joshua’s exhibition opening at CAFA at the end of next month.

So what were the highs and lows of the Biennale? As with any art exhibition…here are a selection of my favourites and some more photos from the day. I’ve already spoken about a couple of examples including Verdensteatret. I’ll begin with Wu Shanzhuan’s floor-based installation ‘d=mr2’ (2010) and in the background MadeIn Company’s installation ‘Must Act’ (2010) – “Let’s abandon this model of an individual artist thinking and creating; let’s think and create as a company.”

Liu Wei’s installation ‘Merely a Mistake…II’ (2010) which RJW and I had seen a different version of at the Long March Space in Beijing. Liu Wei collected old and used timber in the demolition site, and then mounted to construct his structuralist installation. His design without function is closed connecting with the daytime in his studio. “For me the studio is a way of working, not a kind of space…”

The lightboxes by Liu Qingyuan, ‘I saw, Couldn’t tell, but came to mind…’ (2010) provided much visual and literal conversation for people. These works were what I considered to be accessible.

JR, apparently coined as the new Banksy…now is that a good or a bad thing? His installations ‘Wrinkles of the City’ (2010), were photographs installed into site-specific locations across Shanghai. “JR is a mystery: no one seems to know his real name, or what he looks like, or how he makes his photographs so big. Yet as he goes about carefully protecting his aura of mystery, his work is mounting a sustained visual and psychological assault on the public.” I managed to also catch the opening of his solo exhibition on Sunday…I’ll show visuals from that later on.

Mou Boyan and his ‘Fat Series’ sculptures (2010) – “Mou’s performers and subject matters, bony black dogs, lazy White cats, steaming buns and hot coals. What’s impressive is that the dogs and cats seem to be breathing. We may even ask if they are alive. Of course, they look alive, but the virtual setting clearly tells us that they ate part of a scene. The combination of reality and illusion has been a source of fun in the world of art. In fact, the true performers in the virtual world are close to our life, though they look so far away.”

Michael Lee and his beautiful book series ‘Monuments to everything else’ (2010) and ‘The World Unexposition’ (2010). They were actually described as “book sculptures”. “Each volume isolates and focuses on one architectural component, such as column, pile, staircase, wall, foundation, beam, roof, ceiling, floor, room, window, door, and metalwork as a site to deliberate and reflect on salient issues extending beyond its structural function in the building to which it is attached.” I met him at a book launch the following day…I’ll talk about that meeting later on. It certainly made me smile out of similarity of personality.

After being immersed in the Biennale, and realising there were suddenly far too many people around us, RJW and I left the venue to run across the road under our umbrellas (RJ bought one from the museum gift shop for about 40RMB) to the opening of the ‘West Heavens – Place Time Play: India-China Contemporary Art’ exhibition where we hoped to see Monica (et al) from Raqs Media Collective who we had helped in Beijing. It was still pouring down outside and the rain managed to soak us in minutes. The first venue for this exhibition was in what I can only describe as a lobby area at 128 West Nanjing Lu. They had installed partitions and walls to create some sort of negotiated space but there was one rather large concern…the works were still being installed due to issues with customs, so the show was very much still in its developmental stages. Johnson Chang was rushing around trying to organise and inform but constantly with a smile on his face. There was something quite special about the fact the show was still “in progress” and no one seemed to mind. It almost added to the theory and cultural issues behind the show.

Above are two works by Tallur LN, ‘Apocalypse’ (2010) and ‘Enlightenment Machine’ (2010). The left hand piece is a machine developed to render your money civilised, and on the right a “product which grinds or sharpens the cultural objects of our time.” Below is a piece by Gigi Scarla called ‘No Parallel’ (2010) and is a photo and video footage installation where two parallel projections carry archival images of Mahatma Gandhi (left) and Mao Zedong (right). They attempt to trace similar archival images from the lives of the two leaders in “an attempt to understand the psyche of two nations through historical narratives and personalities of these two leaders who dedicated their lives to creating modern India and Modern China.” This piece did raise a lot of smiles with viewers. The attention to image detail was so finite, it baffled you as to how he found photographs so in sync.

As well as seeing Monica again, that evening RJW and I also met Sonia Khurana who I discovered had recently worked with David Schishka Thomas from the New Art Exchange, where I occasionally, if and when, go and do some curatorial based work. She also recommended I speak to Leon Wainwright from Manchester Metropolitan University, a Reader in Art History, about my PhD research, so I’ll have to look him up.

We left the first venue to go onto see the second venue and attend the opening reception. People carriers had been organised to ship people from the two different locations. All I can remember was how bizarre this journey was…that really horrible ‘Crazy Frog’ tune was on the stereo and Gao Shiming, one of my interviewees and curator of the Biennale was sitting up front. I couldn’t have academic talk whilst this was on! So instead I smiled to myself as I stared out the window onto the rainy Shanghai streets…I kept on trying to speak but then just couldn’t for some reason. Seriously, who actually listens to the ‘Crazy Frog’?! The second venue for the ‘West Heavens’ exhibition was still as unfinished as the first, but in a different way. This time, the space was more rough around the edges, still in renovation and transition.

After a brief look around we went onto the opening reception in the church next door where there where light refreshments included cream cake, shortbread biscuits and nougat…a very random mix. I got to speak to curator Hou Hanru very briefly again, but still no time for a more formal interview as he was in Shanghai for his exhibition opening ‘By Day, By Night’ at the Rockbund Art Museum which opened the following day. I hope at some stage I will get the opportunity to speak to him. RJW and I had to leave pretty soon after the speeches, and after making an agreement with Monica from Raqs Media Collective to go punting with Pimms in Cambridge next June. As we left, RJW discovered someone had stolen his umbrella…he was not impressed as he had only bought it a few hours earlier.

So an umbrella for an umbrella right? Complete karma. Another girl had also had hers taken. It was an umbrella thieves night! RJW (with a new-ish looking black umbrella) and I walked round the corner, down the very wet Bund to the LEAP magazine/Moleskine notebook VIP party at ‘L18’ back at ‘Bund18’ (my third visit to that building that week). Here, we saw Philip Tinari who I spoke to about possibly writing for LEAP in the UK, the Moleskine crew including Consuelo Romeo, Project Manager for Detour Shanghai, and Raffaella and Giovanni who I had met on Friday, Lee Ambrozy who I met at the ‘Negotiating Difference’ Conference back in Berlin last year, Chris Moore, Editor-in-Chief of Randian, a new online contemporary Chinese art magazine and Leo Xu, Curator at the James Cohan Gallery, apparently one to watch in the future of curating contemporary Chinese art. We were so hungry by about 9pm, RJW and I left to get food, and we went to of all places Pizza Hut and I didn’t have pizza. RJW asked for a large Pepsi, only to get a jug that had about six or seven glasses in it…they were also playing terrible cover tracks in the restaurant…”You raise me up…” being one of them. Eugh. Getting a taxi home was impossible because of the rain…one taxi driver was a complete joker and said he would charge us 80RMB, when it should cost 18RMB…ummmmm NO WAY! Onto the next one…we did eventually get one and get home for me to realise that my feet were dirty…very, very dirty as I’d worn pumps on bare feet…stepping in puddles, meant stepping in muddy water and a little sewage. They were not pretty poo feet, sorry for being graphic. Eugh.

Sunday was another art filled private view, openings and launches kind of a day. It began with an envelope hunt so I could send a couple of parcels back with one of RJW’s friends Tan who would be with us for 48 hours or so. I never found one though. I think they have specific stationary shops for that. In the morning, it was the ‘West Heavens India-China Summit on Social Thought’ starting with a lecture by Sarat Maharaj.

Sarat questions what is Asia today? Saying you must ask what is the shape of modernity today? He examines his theory of ‘Asia Pandemonium’ which he has used since the Guangzhou Triennial in 2008 in an attempt to conceptualise something which is positive and negative in one goal…in one and the same term. He looks at the term under three different titles:

  1. What is the shape of the plethora of modernities we face today…is there is a new epistemic object that has emerged and crossed our horizon that we need to examine and unpack?
  2. Moderntiy as the production of under development
  3. The concept of dirty cosmopolitanism

To him, the idea of pandemonium,  relates to the ecological disaster of the landscape that we face across Asia…a ”topsy turvy” effect…every one of the nation states we face suggest to use this condition of pandemonium. He also looks into European Modernity vs. European Centricity, and the notion of post-colonial is of provicialising Europe, but how do we de-provincialise Europe? And he references ideas of European Modernity from other theorists questioning as to whether these modernities are different. Or are they essential to the modernisation process where China and India are just manifestations? Are they entangled modernities? Multiple Moderntites of the experience of India vs. the experience of China? Referring back to the metaphor for pandemonium, he says it involves the physics of pandemonium…chaos as a productive and creative force…modernity as a tedialogical and linear development. The concept of pandemonium arises from a work of art…experience of turbulence and chaos…an artists way of capturing something. In language it comes across in more abstract exposition. Thinking through the visual is a parallel to thinking through theory…language is only one register through which knowledge takes places…emotional, affect, subjectivity, phenomenological…within the experience of the moment as opposed to an abstract theoretical understanding, understanding it as know how, algorithmic, now-how, that there is an embodied understanding of the world, different from abstract thinking. The openness of the artists mind…they are not scared of interdisciplinary borders.

A question from the audience instigates dialogue into why creativity has made such a big come back in our language today…from the food we eat to the holidays we plan we are now seeking to be creative at every point in our life. But where does this lead? Once was a job to be done by art…a queer body of creatives and sensitive souls…now everyone now wants to be creative…and it’s true. It doesn’t feel quite so individual anymore. The mornings dialogue certainly revealed some key points that would infiltrate my research. I spoke to Sarat and we decided to meet back in England in the New Year to not only disseminate my findings from China but to talk further about ‘Asia Pandemonium’…that is part of the everyday here.

Lunch was a Western cave in again of a Subway Sandwich. I can remember my friend ‘MK’ gave me a subway leaflet from Tokyo when he was there a while ago, so I picked up a Chinese one for him to take back with me. It tasted pretty much the same, though I never doubted that.

I continued the envelope hunt after lunch but still couldn’t find one! At this stage RJW left to go and have a design portfolio meeting with a contact from IDEO and I decided what I was going to do…do I go back to the ‘West Heavens’ lectures? Or go to a curatorial book launch at the OV Gallery that my friend Lee recommended to me the night before? I went for the book launch as it would mean new people and a new place…and I’m so glad I went. So to the OV Gallery…and the rain had stopped for a second. As I got to the gallery too early, I had time to sit down in a cafe across the street with some fresh wheat tea, and the opportunity to start to write a conference paper abstract for submission to the ACLA 2011 Conference – “World Literature / Comparative Literature” specifically for the seminar ‘Chinese Art for Global Audiences’ by Rujie Wang…very apt right? My brain was actually in gear that afternoon so I managed to make a lot of headway. I think the lecture in the morning had instigated this though. Words were flowing…or maybe it was the wheat tea?

The launch started at 4pm and I was a little late as I got carried away in writing land not realising there were formal presentations. I crept in and grabbed a seat and copy of the book just in time to hear the remainder of Alvaro Rodriguez Fominaya, the Director and Curator of Para/Site Art Space in Hong Kong, introduction to the book ‘Who Cares?: 16 Essays on Curating in Asia’ The artist and co-editor of the book Michael Lee then followed and spoke of his understanding of curating and the role of the curator. He came up with ten very interesting points…one of which is on the photo below and a further eight written down…I seemed to have missed one though.

“A curator is a writer who enjoys arranging things.”

“The role a curator plays include nanny, police, publicist, tutor, counsellor, agent, supervisor, contractor and shoulder.”

“Circumstances, such as the lack of curators, may inspire an artist to become a curator.”

“The toughest thing for a curator to do is tell his/her friend they are not in the show.”

“The curator who does not produce a printed catalogue lacks more than just funds.”

“Composition is a mark of an excellent artist, and a curator”

“The artist-curator has the burden of knowing the artists struggle”

“Most curators do not brainstorm with artists”

I had a lot of affiliation and familiarity with these definitions and I’m sure most curators would. The one in the photo made us all laugh as it’s right! Comparing a curator to the three roles of the American Idol judges was so fitting although rather concerning as we sit within popular culture. He also referenced the exhibition ‘The booked, The Unbooked and The Unbookable’ by Michael Lee, organised by the Asia Art Archive in the Hollywood centre, Hong Kong…which I want to find more out about. He concluded his talk by stating the key themes presented in ‘Who Cares?’:

  • Politics of care
  • What makes a good exhibition?
  • Sense of how to curate in this global world of advanced travel and technology (Asian globalisation)
  • Looking at the audience as active producers in the curatorial experience

…in relation to the liberation of new contexts of curating in Asia and the need not to abandon the exhibition too quickly after it has finished.

Afterwards, I chatted to Michael about all things books, paper, archiving and language and we seemed to have a lot in common as regards our studio practice. Some very common threads running through. I also spoke to Rebecca Catching, Director of the OV Gallery, Hunter Braithwaite, a writer for City Weekend magazine and Lisa Movius, a well networked and known freelance writer out in Shanghai. I said to Rebecca I would interview her at a later date as regards my research. Most people were heading to the same openings and private views that evening so we shared taxi’s to the venues – the first was JR’s solo exhibition ‘The Wrinkles of the City’ at ’18Gallery’, back at ‘Bund18’…my fourth time at that location this week. Fourth and final, well it had to be as it was Sunday night. This opening was popular…but I think the works are quite “fashionable” at the moment.

I then headed to the opening of ‘By Day, By Night’ at the Rockbund Art Museum. Again it was super busy, I think due to it being the opening weekend of the Biennale so everyone who is anyone in the field of contemporary Chinese art was in town. RJW arrived at exactly the same time as me so we had a couple of drinks before entering the very beautiful museum to have a peruse. He had had a very productive design meeting with positive feedback and recommendations…he’s starting to get his head round the very diverse design scene out here.

On the fourth floor we came across one artist that we liked which was Tu Weicheng and his work ‘Brilliance of Shanghai: Braille-Sound Installation’ (2010). It features quoted verses that pay tribute to Shanghai’s beauty, converted into braille punched on bronze plates, then played through custom-made acoustic systems so they sound like music boxes. Clever and intimate and they caught our attention.

This artwork reminded me a little of a girl called Beth’s work. My artist and painter friend Georgie Vinsun and I studied with her during our Foundation Art and Design course and she created these discrete framed selections of braille…which leads me on to discovering that Georgie has announced her pregnancy and started a blog for its development! I love it! You have to take a look at it…its called ‘The Pregnant Artist’. Time for some mingling, networking and post-exhibition chatter. My friend Violeta was there and she introduced us to many of her friends including Sanjay Kothari, an Indian photographer and digital artist. W also bumped into Raffaella, curator of the ‘Detour’ Moleskine notepad exhibition and she invited us for dinner…so of course we said yes. I’d missed out on having proper chats with her so now was the time. On our way out we saw the security guards all lined up armed with umbrellas to assist you if it suddenly rained. They looked very similar to RJ’s “new” one.

I can’t remember where the restaurant was or its name but it was local and very good food. A complete feast with very good company. On the left is one of the other Biennale artists Carlos Garaicao Manso from Cuba amongst some more of Raffaella’s international friends from Spain, Italy and South America. I found out Raffaella was from Palermo where I had spent my summer last year and we realised we most likely had been in the same bar at the same time without knowing it! I love how the world works sometimes. Coincidences put a big smile on my face…things do happen for a reason…I’m a true believer in that.


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