Creating conversation…creating questions?

The past couple of weeks have been incredibly productive (largely because I’ve lost my job so can solely focus on my PhD research and development) and overall one BIG conversation courtesy of presenting at a conference in Bristol, giving a guest lecture at the University of Wolverhampton School of Art and Design, engaging in routine PhD tutorials and discussions, and giving a seminar. I’ve also had the opportunity to catch up with familiar friends, faces and names in Bristol and London, including catching the last day of the Ai Weiwei installation ‘Sunflower Seeds’ at Tate Modern, which provided a little shock, slight amusement and, of course, mixed emotions.

I’ll begin by speaking about the one-day conference ‘Boundaries? New Histories of Art, Architecture and Design’ at the University of Bristol where I presented a paper entitled ‘Transcultural Translation – Writing Contemporary Chinese Art History’. I arrived a little early and the conference team were still setting up…this gave me an opportunity to get to know some of the organisers as well as the keynote speaker Dr Camilla Smith from the University of Birmingham who opened the day with her paper ‘Collapsing Boundaries: Sexology, Space and Homosexuality in Cut Moreck’s Tourist Guide to “Deprived” Berlin (1913)’. She focused on three main issues of the theme “boundaries” – spatial, social and corporeal boundaries – placing them historically within the theory of Derridian framing, where ‘a frame becomes the sight of meaning’. She focussed on the criticism and boundaries of the naked female form and how it is framed as a narrative and as object, and framed within the disciplinary – art historically erected…questioning what is and what is not art. Referencing Kienholz she questions whether the works are attacking societal taboos. Being “in” the work implies we can no longer contemplate the work from a safe cognitive intimate distant without applying previous knowledge or experience. Is it pornographic art? Rather than art as pornography? I think I then became so engaged in her paper I stopped typing notes…I’m not going to speak about all the delegates and their papers…just those that thought presented interesting themes.

Andrés Montenegro, PhD candidate at the University of Essex and one of three contemporary minds at the conference, started Session 1 with his paper ‘From the Loop (1997) to Sumisión (formerly word of fire): Decennial sketches of “La Frontera”’. He focused on a series of works and the power of performative processes by two artists Francis Alys and Santiago Sierra. By Alys, he showcased many works including ‘Magnetic Shoes’ at the 5th Havana Biennial (1994),‘The Leak’ in the Sao Paolo (1994) where he punctured a paint can before walking round the city to mark territory, returning to the gallery space to idolise the empty can as an art object. In his practice, he explicitly examines the idea of walking, travelling and being nomadic as a site of artistic experimentation. Other works included ‘Paradox of Praxis I’ in Mexico City (1997), and ‘The Green Line’ in Jerusalem (2004), which portrayed how something poetic can become political and vice versa, how doing something political can become poetic. Alys was interested in people moving through borders, migration, travel. Then onto works by Santiago Sierra including ‘Container in Space’ (1991) and a collaborative work with Chua Burés, which embraced luxury commodification of art. Sierra believes art is an elite endeavour to produce luxury goods and objects…interested in the power relations involved in the process of migration, who is in control? Andrés referenced a series of images, which showed Sierra paying members of the public to get different tattoos, largely of a straight line. This was to show that people were willing to be paid to become trade goods for the sake of an art project. In the second half of his paper, Andrés then returns to focussing on ‘The Loop’ (1997) by Francis Alys and how this piece crosses boundaries and borders. Reactions to the border speak of the time when they were done in 1997 where timing is integral to response. People were star struck by the possibility of global movement and migration. Alys work focussed on 1990s idea of travel around and “nomadology”. He concluded with thoughts on the changing relationship between Mexico and the USA, the flux between the borders and the borders themselves, referencing a global north and a global south. In his Q&A session, discussion was around the issue of documentation and how for Alys it is an end product, and for Sierra a means for circulation. Sierra delegates performance, no direct artistic action, it is from a removed point of view, he is taking the pictures and documenting the performances. For Alys, he is the performer and others document the process. They both abstract a specific point within Latin America. Question as to whether the borderline is not Latin America?

Georgina Webb-Dickin from the University of Bristol followed with her paper, ‘The Vanishing Berlin Wall: The representation of an old boundary within a new city’. She focussed on the remaining parts of the Berlin wall in the city, the genesis of the over fifty-year history of the Berlin wall, the function and purpose of the different sections, and the ways in which Berlin’s histories are represented on its landscape – Berlin as a city as an urban palimpsest or city-text. She looked at different areas of the wall in different locations across the city though a diverse visual showcase, whilst referencing the theory of Walter Benjamin and his personal historical knowledge of the city – ‘The site has been reincarnated so many times, it can no longer be found, only lost.’ Authenticity is constructed quite heavily, histories are quite selectively presented, when there are so many more layers of history, a physical layering of history on the landscape. I was particularly interested in when Georgina spoke of the Eastside Gallery, a specific section of the Berlin wall used by artists as a “public” space for creative representation. The artworks have changed, developed, been added to over the many years since they were created during and after the fall of the wall. Georgina saw the paintings as the palimpsest – they become the historical trace. They are symbols and structures representing many things to many people. ”The Berlin wall is a text, there is no single reading.”

Session 2 began with Francesca Baseby from the University of Edinburgh and her paper ‘Tapestry and Beyond: Claire Barclay’s quick, slow’. She questioned the nature of collaboration, joining different working practices, and where tapestry sits and is placed in the art world. Tapestry has to be planned. Therefore, a lot of decisions have to be made prior to starting the work. Francesca was looking at the many boundaries created by different working methods and materials and how they are overcome in different ways. One method is the use of other makers, in a collaborative process where Claire uses external weavers to create tapestries for her artworks. Claire is interested in the power and relationship with and to specific materials and ways of making, and what craft means – “Hands on processes like weaving and printing reconnect people in meaningful ways with their surroundings.” The title of Claire’s piece, ‘quick, slow’, references the multitude of opposites that occur in the piece, and the contrasting elements. The work presented a state of flux and precariousness, a link from the sculptures to the world outside the gallery. Weavers artistic identity and autonomy relates to the how tapestry is placed within the art and craft world. The art element is from Claire, the craft element is from the weavers. Francesca states how the words art and craft are fluid terms that are in exchange with each other. She also notes the legitimisation of “fibre art” in the US, and how it is becoming considered as “art” and installation art.

Laura Gray from Cardiff School of Art and Design was next with her paper ‘The Space in Between: The Transgressive Nature of Ceramics’. She opened by speaking of a series of work by different artists who focus on notions of suggestion, removal, function and non-function, and stand on the line between craft and art. It is how we align ceramics with sculpture rather than craft. Laura is also interested in the status and perception of the boundaries of ceramics when explored in exhibitions. One of the first slides she referenced was an image of white porcelain flowers as part of an artwork as part of the British Ceramics Biennial in Stoke-on-Trent. I used to help make these flowers during my years working at the Gladstone Pottery Museum. It always makes me smile how worlds collide sometimes. Laura referenced a beautiful piece of work called ‘Monument’ by Clare Twomey, a towered pile of broken domestic ceramics installed at MIMA. The broken vessels she observed at a tile factory in Stoke-on-Trent were “due to be ground back down to dust, and used to reconstitute raw clay body to be re-used by the factory. For Twomey, this neatly articulated the poignancy of broken china, both in terms of a personal relation to the vessel form, and an understanding of a great industrial tradition in decay, simultaneously gesturing towards a future hope.” This paper again highlighted the art-craft debate, it questioned the use of “vessels” as art or craft, and their domesticity and function.

The only other paper which really caught my attention was by Irene Noy from the University of Edinburgh – ‘don’t just stand and stare – move and listen: sound & movement in contemporary art’. Her research shared a lot of similarities with my best friend’s recently completed PhD…so when she made us listen to the walking tour audio work of Janet Cardiff, a huge smile spread across my face as I remembered taking part in this “walk” many years ago in London. Irene said a beautiful phrase – “ears as mediation devices”…certainly a way to conceptually frame this kind of experiential art. She examined soundwalks and ‘subtlemobs’ to enquire about the relationships between the history of art and movement, the body and the senses, the crossovers between movement and stillness, aural and visual experiences. Irene used no visuals, only sound for her presentation, which I think really helped the audience to focus on her concepts. She questioned what kind of participation such contemporary artworks expect, and what kind of experience do they offer.

My paper discussed how the identity of contemporary Chinese art today “translates” from a Chinese to Western perspective and context through the use of and understanding of recently coined terms in China and the West. In a response to the public’s need for critical engagement, to look beyond the local, regional and national to the international sphere, and an art historical desire to constantly redefine the current status of contemporary Chinese art. I specifically discussed the use of two specific terms, ‘glocal’ and ‘transcultural’.

I submitted this  paper and manuscript to the World Art journal by Routledge and received very positive comprehensive feedback and criticism. I have to send the re-worked and edited manuscript  with visuals and credit lines back to them by the beginning of next week…fingers crossed I can make this happen as it is a fantastic opportunity. I must thank the conference team at the University of Bristol for all their thought into my dietary requirements as they had especially bought bags of seeds, nuts and dried fruit, as well as lunch for me. I’ve never had this super special treatment before at this kind of event and it really did make such a difference to my day. Although the conference was largely traditionally/art historically minded, rather than contemporary perspectives, I managed to hunt out the contemporary minds and have some very decent discussion. Some interesting points and issues were raised as regards my research during the final response to the conference, such as my definition and application of the term ‘West’; the importance/relevance of the political and censorship aspects of contemporary Chinese art to my study; the historicism of the term transcultural/transculturation and its Latin American roots; does China have no art history versus does China have its own art history? Therefore, do I need to define it comparatively to Western art historical ideals? Notions to definitely consider.

Obviously, it wouldn’t be a proper visit to Bristol without seeing some Bansky. This one from 2006…the blue paint is a new addition by some unhappy viewers…not sure why they have done this. Always questionable.

I couldn’t possible write this rather extended blog post without mentioning the Royal Wedding. When I returned from Bristol, I went to spend a few days at my parents in the Staffordshire countryside to prepare a guest lecture for ‘Artists’ Day 2011′, at the University of Wolverhampton School of Art and Design. I basically sat in my pyjamas in the lounge as the wedding unfolded on TV…typing away on my laptop whilst drinking ginger tea. I considered it a little voyeuristic to watch a wedding of people you don’t actually know. A very strange phenomenon that the world became obsessed with…I particularly like this image of William’s slightly confused expression as he is talking to Kate…or should I say Katherine…staring into their future.

The day after this monumental (really??) event, I went to London with RJW for the bank holiday weekend to catch up with good friends that we hadn’t seen since before going to China last Autumn.  I thought the city would be packed, brimming with tourists, but to be honest it was particularly calm. I think a lot of people escaped for the weekend. RJW and I took our bikes so we could save a little money and also see more of the city. It’s the first time I properly cycled round London and it was an experience…liberating that’s for sure, and it took my back to when I was cycling in Shanghai and Beijing and you had to be fearless. There’s my Raleigh Wisp on an overground train to Highams Park. I love my bike.

As I was cycling from South West to North East London, I went over Waterloo Bridge and passed this huge straw construction. It is called ‘Urban Fox’ created by Pirate Technics for the Southbank Centre and was a pleasant surprise during my ride – an incredibly random piece of public art with a slightly sad expression on its face.

On the bank holiday Monday, RJW and I managed to catch the last day of the Ai Weiwei installation ‘Sunflower Seeds’ at Tate Modern and it was quite an unexpected experience. As I peered over the barrier to get all the close-up photographs shown below, the girl in the green dress (who you can just see on the photo below on the left hand side) stripped off, jumped on the seeds and proceeded to do a little protest. She had masking tape over her nipples and a sunflower image over her privates…she was literally only on the seeds for seconds and didn’t really make much of a protest or effort…I’m not quite sure what she was trying to say. It happened so quickly that I fumbled with my camera and didn’t manage to get a photo of her in action. According to the Independent she was a yoga teacher and ‘”ave Tate Modern visitors an eye-opener as she stripped off in support of detained Chinese artist, Ai Weiwei. Charlotte Eaton walked naked across the artist’s sunflower seeds installation with “freedom” and “thank you Ai Weiwei” written on her body.” Here is a link to the Evening Standard’s article too. She wasn’t actually naked though, and it certainly wasn’t eye-opening…it made for a random day anyway. This happening provided the perfect opportunity for a little seed picking by RJW if you catch my drift…they’re a lot heavier than I thought they’d be but perfect in every way.

It was a quite an emotional experience seeing all the seeds, and to be there on the last day. It silenced me for a while as I considered the reality of what is and has happened to Ai Weiwei…will we ever see him again? As my inner sense says he might be gone forever, my outer sense (of conceptual creativity) hopes it is a performative act of political grounding. I very much doubt the latter though. Currently, Ai Weiwei has a series of exhibitions internationally placed including ‘Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads’ at Somerset House, London, and in the Grand Army Plaza in Central Park, New York,  and a survey show of his work at the Lisson Gallery, London, which opens today. All of these platforms are raising the profile of his disappearance and providing further opportunities for him to still have a voice.

The day after my very late return from London, I was guest speaker at the University of Wolverhampton School of Art and Design for their ‘Artists’ Day 2011′ event. There were only two speakers, myself and Phil Sayer, who I have met on numerous occasions through the art scene in Staffordshire. He’d recently had work as part of a group exhibition in Chongqing, China, so it was interesting hearing about his experiences of curation and exhibition installation over there.

I spent an hour talking about my past and current curatorial endeavours, my PhD research and experience of contemporary Chinese curatorial practices. The progression from the morning to afternoon session meant I was left with a very small audience of about 15 people. From this small collection of minds, I got some fantastic responses and questions…the main one that stuck in my mind was “Is China a chameleon culture?”…what a question! One that I still mull over in my mind.

Now onto my battle with funding and monies. At the end of April, I submitted an application to the Universities’ China Committee in London (UCCL) for a month-long research trip to China to happen in the Spring of 2012. They have their Executive Council meeting in mid-June and I’ll hear the outcome shortly after that…fingers and toes crossed as this could potential make a lot of things HAPPEN. I was very recently awarded the ESP International Research Bursary for £250, which will  go towards supporting another fieldwork research trip to China either in the Autumn of this year, 2011, or the Spring of 2012. I never thought I’d have a chance in getting this, but I did and it really did make my week when I found out. Yesterday, I met with Liz Rowe who manages the Extra Special People (ESP) scheme as part of Eastside Projects in Birmingham. ESP is an associate membership programme for anyone who would benefit from engaging in the artists-led environment…with their diverse programme of exhibitions and events. I like the nature of Eastside Projects as it has an incredibly raw creative and cultural atmosphere, where I consider it to be an open platform for new concepts, contexts, dialogue, conversation and exchange across multiple formats and artistic media. The meeting with Liz was an opportunity to further discuss my research and the fieldwork trip, possible ways of collaboration and events, and a chance to get to know each other. I was also supposed to meet artist-curator and Director of  Eastside Projects, Gavin Wade, however, he was very much caught up in exhibition install for their upcoming show ‘Narrative Show’. I actually interviewed Gavin for my MA thesis back in 2006-7 when I was looking into the role of the artist-curator. I’m not sure if he remembers that instance as I’m sure he gets a lot of people wanting to talk to him. Liz wants me to introduce my research and ideas as part of an informal discussion event around the possibilities and realities of exhibiting and working internationally on the  evening of Thursday 19th May at Eastside Projects. Very last-minute, and you know I never turn these things down. Finally, I was successful in receiving the New Generation Space (NGS) bursary for £100 to develop the artist’s books and book arts project ‘Words Are All We Have’, which I have spoken about many times. The NGS bursary is intended to work as a helping hand for emerging artists in North Staffordshire, letting them develop any area of their artistic practice. It will really help to get this project “physically” off the ground as such. I’m going to get to grips with this project more over the Summer.

At my most recent PhD group tutorial, we finally started to set chapter deadlines, the first one now being at the end of June.  Eeek! It is all becoming so real so fast. We also spoke of what was expected of the seminar session, which I facilitated on Wednesday evening. This was a chance to speak to the faculty and research students about specific aspects of my research that I am having trouble developing or resolving. Some of the points raised were the theory versus practice elements to my research – how are they balanced? My second supervisor said he didn’t see it as either/or but that a PhD can involve distinct elements throughout; Am I just cherry picking information? I need to be selective…look at the similarities and differences of my interviewees. Would you see the cultural and curatorial similarities and differences if the transcribed audio/texts were anonymous? Or is it clear as to where they are from?; Discussion into Chinese versus Western arts education, again their similarities and differences; Definition of the terms in use is important. Interest in the term stated by curator Huang Du, his description of “reasonable” curating, where I might use appropriate or effective. Perhaps elaborate on this in a chapter? The discussion then developed around the translation of terms from Chinese to English and whether words mean the same thing. How I might define something might be different to someone else. No translation is ever correct as we apply our own knowledge, therefore it will always vary; How standards such as health and safety, and the fast pace of China affect the curatorial process. Less time is spent planning and installing, leaving more time for discussion and dissemination. What is possible in China, might not be possible in the UK due to health and safety; If I am to exhibit in Beijing as a lead in to the UK shows/events I am planning, should I consider the use of non-specialist venues?; It is easy to get caught up in the romanticisation and project management aspects of curating to avoid writing, although as one of the faculty said its easy to find any means to avoid writing; Writing for different audiences in different audiences…how do you differentiate for these different purposes? So it was a very fruitful hour and a half as you can read. Thanks to Lorenzo for taking the obligatory blog photo.

A couple of other things to mention to before I sign off for the weekend. Helen Kaplinsky, who I have spoken about previously, asked me to write a letter of recommendation for a funding application, and also invited me to become involved in her residency at 501 Art Space in Chongqing, China. Taking place in the Autumn of this year, her key focus will be the impact of dominating external markets upon young artists’ networks in China versus the West. She aims to raise many questions including, “Do artists feel part of the contemporary art scene in China, more specifically Chongqing?” and, “How can Chongqing be ‘represented’ on return to the UK?” For the duration of Helen’s residency, I have been invited to critically engage and respond to her online residency blog where she will post documentation of dialogic experiences, such as images, photographs, personal thoughts and reflections, and “conceptual” texts. This blog will act as a “performative” curatorial platform through which to present and disseminate her findings. In addition to this, Helen and I will commence a process of fluid and regular email exchange and dialogue between our respective locations in Chongqing, China and the UK. This dedicated form of online correspondence will allow us to engage with keys themes, notions, issues and problematics as and when they happen in relation to our mutual research contexts, and, like the blog, will act as another “performative” curatorial platform. On Helen’s return to the UK, she will disseminate and showcase her findings through various different curatorial platforms across the UK as a site for further exchange and dialogue. This will include an event at the Chinese Arts Centre (Manchester, UK), where Helen and I hope to engage in person, rather than online, in the form of a public “in discussion event”, bringing together the similarities and comparisons from within our mutual research contexts and curatorial practice. Furthermore, to conclude the exchange and dialogue process between Helen and I, I will contribute a piece of contextual and critical writing, which again will act as a “performative” curatorial platform for the dissemination of our collaborative research findings. This process will provide more opportunities for engagement with my research, thus furthering contexts and providing first-hand material.

I got accepted for the afternoon postgraduate Workshop on ‘Culture and the State in Contemporary China’ at the University of Oxford. The session is actually organised by two colleagues of mine – Ros Holmes and Karita Kan. I met Karita when I was in Hong Kong, as we both write for Art Radar Asia. I can’t wait to catch up with them both at the beginning of June. At this workshop, I will be discussing how the identity of contemporary Chinese art today “transculturally translates” across different curatorial platforms for exhibition from a Chinese to Western perspective and context through the use and understanding of three different translational approaches – governmental, cultural and commercial. Another opportunity to discuss my research …I find these processes extremely beneficial. Finally, I am now the Web Editor and Contributor for the Centre for Chinese Visual Arts (CCVA) website after a very quick induction and afternoon training session on Dreamweaver. I’m learning more and more each week and hope to really develop its content. Take a look!

I thought I’d finish on images of my recent baking…I seem to use baking as a cathartic process to empty my brain, and it works (most of the time). I like knowing what goes into food too. So below you will see maids of honour, Nigella’s cherry and almond cake, chocolate cupcakes, banana and raisin flapjack, the infamous Gran’s wholemeal ginger biscuits, black cherry chocolate cake, wholemeal carrot walnut and banana cake and finally, gluten and wheat free Gran’s ginger biscuits for two very special ladies. I like making soups and breads too…that’s definitely for the summer season.

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