Curating China – Curating Viewpoints

Today is PhD research day so this blog post promises to be academic, contemporary Chinese art-filled and PhD worthy. Here are thoughts from creative conversations over the past week in Shanghai in relation to my PhD research and curatorial projects in progress, along with general comments on the contemporary Chinese art domain. Are you ready? Then I’ll begin. For those of you less academically inclined, there are some rather lovely photographs to sift through. I know my PhD talk can be a little “dense” sometimes, and that’s putting it mildly.

I’ll start with Paul Gladston‘s talk and book launch with the Royal Asiatic Society, held at the ‘Tavern’ in the Radisson Plaza Xing Guo Hotel in the French Concession district of Shanghai. It was a ten to fifteen minutes cycle from where I live so pretty local. I had no idea what the Royal Asiatic Society would be like as group and whether I should join as a member. There were a broad mix of individuals from all over the globe of all age ranges…quite an interesting bunch of people some of whom had no background in contemporary art but really engaged with what Paul was discussing. Other people had come explicitly to see Paul, hence they were the very art-informed audience. Actually, there was almost a visible divide between these two crowds. I did join as a student member in the end…let’s see what other events they will have to offer over the coming year.

Paul is Associate Professor of Critical Theory and Visual Culture in the School of Modern Languages and Cultures at the University of Nottingham. We have been in conversation a lot recently as we are hoping to publish, in a very well-known contemporary Chinese art magazine/journal, an interview we did in July as regards the criticality of contemporary Chinese art. The transcript for this interview is currently 23 pages long so I have a lot of editing to do and really as soon as possible. I spoke about out this interview in a previous blog post which you can read here. Paul was in Shanghai to talk about his new book ‘Contemporary Art in Shanghai: Conversations with Seven Chinese Artists’ published by Timezone 8. The artists included in the book are Yu Youhan, Liang Shaoji, Ding Yi, Yang Fudong, Song Tao, Ji Weiyu and Zhang Ding. Paul aims to ‘address the relative lack of attention to the specific social, political and cultural circumstances in relation to which contemporary Chinese art has been produced and received inside the People’s Republic of China, particularly with regard to regional and localized contexts outside the Chinese capital Beijing, by presenting a series of in-depth conversations with seven contemporary Chinese artists, all of whom live and work in and around the city of Shanghai. The conversations show, while contemporary art in Shanghai is highly diversified in terms of the way in which it is produced and displayed, it is also consistently informed not only by strongly held feelings of national and local cultural identity, but also an acute awareness of the changing circumstances that have taken place both within and outside the People’s Republic of China as part of globalization.’ My copy of the book is still sitting on my cabinet in my bedroom waiting to be properly read…I don’t think an idle flick through really counts. I can see it being a relevant PhD read.

At the event, I chatted to many familiar faces from the contemporary Chinese art scene and was introduced to new faces including Ming Ming from the Around Space and an English Photographer called Phillip Reed who has recently moved to Shanghai only a couple of weeks ago. I’ve invited him to the many openings and events that are happening over the next few weeks so he can get a sense of this city. He joined me for a few of the openings I talk about later on in this post. Everyone was after Paul’s blood when his talk and Q&A session was finished, so I arranged with Paul to meet him the next day when he had a little more time…only this kept on getting cancelled and rearranged for one reason or another due to commitments we both had so it never actually happened. I think he is back in China in the New Year so I will try to see him then.

Last Wednesday, was filled with curatorial meetings and cycling…cycling across Shanghai to discuss my future curatorial projects and current PhD research. My first meeting was with curator Biljana Ciric at a cafe called ‘AMOKKA’ on Anfu Lu a couple of blocks from where I live. She recently curated a group exhibition of contemporary Asian artists entitled ‘Institution for the Future’ at the Chinese Arts Centre in Manchester, UK, as part of the Asia Triennial Manchester Festival 2011 (ATM11). A few images of the exhibition and associated performances are shown below from when I assisted with the opening events. I don’t think I ever published these online for some reason…

As I sipped a banana smoothie, and tried to not to scratch a very itchy mosquito bite that had ballooned up my left hand and knuckles, we chatted about the success of her exhibition as part of the ATM11, the development of a publication in relation to this and the possibility of it moving on to another venue in 2014. We then discussed my involvement with the Guangzhou Triennial 2012, a new photography project I am curating at the Starspace Gallery, the development of curatorial strand to my PhD, ‘The Temporary’…at this point Biljana recommended some appropriate artists and projects that would be of reference…a great help. She then spoke about the development of her archive here in Shanghai, which I can’t really tell you much about until details are finalised early next year. It was a really fruitful meeting. I feel it is really important to keep in touch with people who show a conscious interest in your work. Biljana is certainly very dedicated to the development of the scene here, in an infrastructural and long-term sense, which is very much overdue in Shanghai and China…she is one incredibly down to earth creative.

After seeing Biljana, I had to go into work to collect my passport and paperwork in order to register my new address with the local police station, which really wasn’t that local at all. It was a ten to fifteen-minute awkward bike ride heading north, cycling through areas where bikes weren’t allowed on the roads. I hate cycling on the pavements here as there are just too many obstacles and people to get in the way of…but I got there, got the new certificate and then headed on my way for  my next meeting at 2pm with Chen Xi (Sydnee), Director of the Exhibitions Department at the Minsheng Art Museum. When I cycled into this art district, I was shocked to see how much had changed or was being knocked down since I’d last been here a year ago….always in transition…so you can never expect things to be the same. I’m learning that very quickly. It was nice to see that the graffiti works by ‘JR’ from the 8th Shanghai Biennale 2010 still remained.

Sydnee and I discussed the role of the curator in Chinese institutions and curatorial projects…she doesn’t see herself as an actual curator as such…more of an administrator and manager. There are different staff infrastructures for different institutions, where Minsheng Art Museum is just one example. We discussed the problematics of the curator as a concept, the role is not clear as anyone can be a curator today. What is the purpose of the curator? What is the goal of the exhibition? If the artworks are already strong enough on their own, why do you need a curator? How do curators communicate with the audience? What is the differentiation between the curator and the museum staff in terms of transmitting concept through translation and interpretation? How do normal visitors understand? Minsheng Art Museum tend to have exhibitions on display for very short periods of time from 2 to 4 weeks, largely curated by guest curators brought in from outside. These guest curators are only available during the installation period and exhibition opening to inform the staff of the exhibition concepts, basically the ideas behind the show, so Sydnee said if you don’t know what the show is about during this time, then you struggle to translate and interpret it for the public from then on…causing the potential for mistranslations. She said that contemporary Chinese art is not so popular anymore in China, unless you are specifically interested in it…however, the government are now believing in the potential of contemporary Chinese art, building the new ‘Shanghai Contemporary Art Museum’ opening next year, and moving the ‘Shanghai Museum of Art’ to the EXPO site. She suggested it might be worth talking to students who are currently studying curating courses in China to get their perspectives, seeing as they will be the next new breed…what are they taught? what are their preconceptions of curating? What do they think the role of the curator is? Again, I can say that this meeting was incredibly fruitful. I will be seeing Sydnee at exhibition openings and events during December so outr conversations can continue then.

I also got the chance to see the exhibition ‘Moving Image in China: 1988-2011’ before it closed at the end of November. Sydnee very kindly gave a catalogue to take home that is the size of a few bricks. It is a huge exhibition presenting a broad spectrum of film, moving image and animation artists from 1988 to 2011. Here are a few of my highlights…

The artwork below is by Song Dong. Called ‘Touch Father’ it is an action and video-projection that narrates the artist’s inability to achieve physical (and consequently emotional) proximity to his father where the video cassette below is of the artists last touch with his father, after his father had died. Very moving and had me transfixed in the enclosed room where the works were presented.

Below is a three-screen video projection by Xu Tan called ‘Speech and Self Justification’, a development of his keywords project that I have been following since it started in 2007.

Below is a five-screen video installation by Wang Gongxin representing five colours red, yellow, blue, black and white. The pigment powders fell on different parts of the body. The colours are so intense in this artwork.

On Saturday, after a very rigorous ballet session…my thighs were killing me…it was time for an afternoon and evening of exhibition openings and gallery hopping, always taking me back to my Sunday afternoons during my days in New York. Time to head to m50 and Moganshan Lu for openings at the ‘OV Gallery’ and the ‘Other Gallery’ who were showing some interesting works by AAAJIAO…

…then onto the ‘ifa Gallery’ for their exhibition ‘what is the name? solution?‘ with artists Wang Xiaofeng, Zhang Liaoyuan, Shao Yi and the audience. It had an interesting curatorial concept that struck a PhD chord…it aimed to ‘challenge the idea of an “exhibition” by showing progress of changes and development – that goes through a thought process of artists and results – or not results – in an art piece; in an art exhibition. Artists are taking time for rethinking and re-formulating a very art piece itself, extending it to making of an exhibition – questioning the margins for a practice’s beginning, middle and end. What is a completed creative process? Is it possible to complete a process? Is it the perception of a viewer that defines the completion? How does an artist see his art in an exhibition environment or space?’ It is to be seen as a growing organism which started 6 months ago and it to continue developing, being ‘re-thought, changed and re-interpreted’. I spoke to the curator briefly who was interestingly also an artist…future discussions here for sure.

After the opening at the ‘ifa Gallery’, I parked up my bike and got the subway to The Bund to go to the exhibition opening at the ‘Shanghai Gallery of Art’ at Three on the Bund. I will actually be co-curating an exhibition here in 2012, an offsite project in relation to ‘The Unseen’ as part of the Guangzhou Triennial 2012. Very exciting and a little bit daunting as this gallery is vast. When I got there, I introduced myself further to the Director, Mathieu Borysevicz, where we spoke about possible avenues the show could go down. I also met with a few friends, bumping into familiar faces at every turn. Mathieu invited my friends and I to the after exhibition opening dinner held at the ‘Whampoa Club’ on the 5th Floor of Three on the Bund. It was a five-course dinner (I forgot to photograph the soup course) with good company and new creative acquaintances.

The first course came with honeyed lotus root stuffed with sticky rice (guì huā lián’ǒu 桂花莲藕) smoked fish (xun yu 熏鱼) and some sort of jellied chicken. The second course a pork vegetable soup. The third course, an egg tofu curd dish, sweet almond crunchy coated chicken and a chilli spiced prawn. The fourth course, prawn and egg fried rice, fried vegetables and a xiǎo lóng bāo 小笼包, a meat dumpling, sitting on its own in its bamboo steamer. It looked delicious and I know they taste good…it’s a shame I don’t eat meat anymore. Finally, came the dessert, a deep-fried red bean pastry roll with red bean ice cream. It had been an incredibly long day what with ballet in the morning, exhibition openings, cycling across the city, PhD and curatorial project conversations and then this unexpected super lovely long-haul dinner. I was glad to eventually take my tired mind and tired legs home…I felt content from what had been a productive PhD week. Let’s hope this week is the same.


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