Before I left my role as Research Curator for the Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art (CFCCA) in Manchester in April this year, I was involved with the initial planning for the largest exhibition of Chinese contemporary art that is about to take place in the UK – ‘Harmonious Society 天下無事’ – opening at the end of the month as part of the Asia Triennial Manchester 2014 (ATM14) festival. On Monday evening, CFCCA facilitated an evening workshop at King’s College London to talk more in depth about the curation of the exhibition whilst referencing the previous workshops they have facilitated in Shanghai, Hong Kong, Taipei and Manchester. In each of these different locations, discussion was formalised in very different ways, along with varying themes, where this event was again on different terms specifically talking about curating and translation. Different trajectories and provocations from the audience informed where the discussion would lead, all very much artist-led sessions.
Jiang Jiehong, Co-curator of ‘Harmonious Society 天下無事’ and also the Director of Studies for my PhD, introduced the informal, presentation and open discussion session alongside guest speakers Jonathan Watkins (Director of Ikon Gallery), Ying Kwok (Curator at CFCCA and co-curator of ‘Harmonious Society 天下無事’), Ying Tan (Curator at CFCCA) and Yu-Ling Chou (Assistant Curator of ‘Harmonious Society 天下無事’). JJ defined the exhibition’s title of ‘Harmonious Society’ where it’s translation into Chinese is “hexie shehui”. Not happy with this ideology they retranslated it the ideal into “tianxia wushi” – Nothing happens under heaven. Derived from a political statement, when revisited it talks not only about the literal harmonisation of the Chinese society politically framed, but the general positive and negative harmony of society – ultimately, from a global perspective, the harmony of the world. “How can we generate interesting ideas through these different harmonies? Knowing that the title came from mainland China, JJ wondered whether Taiwanese artists would be (un)happy with this. When framed within the idea of looking at creating harmony within a global ideal, the artists came to respond very differently. A response from the audience to this was,
“It is important to think about the historical translations of these themes too and not forget that…the modernisation.”
JJ stated that Yang Zhenzhong’s work ‘Long Live the United’ (2011) visualises and illustrates the theme of ‘Harmonious Society’ in the best way. Although it could be seen as a political piece when seen as a whole (as shown below), it is also viewed fragmented, abstracted with underlying tones of humour.
JJ and the speakers then went on to discuss some of the artists that are to be part of the exhibition including TOF, Chen Chieh-jen, Wang Yuyang, Zhao Yao and many more; some of the new and pre-existing site-specific works currently being installed; the associated venues, and the difficulties of working within some of the spaces, such as Manchester Cathedral and it’s dominance of space and decoration (venues include CFCCA, MOSI, Manchester Cathedral, John Rylands Library, Artwork Atelier and the National Football Museum). A great visual map of the sites can be viewed below designed by Manchester-based artist Stanley Chow.
JJ made reference to the difference of gallery spaces in the UK versus China, specifically as regards the Artwork Atelier space in Manchester where the exhibition has been given a dedicated floor in the building of over 1000 square foot, which is something quite normal in China terms however, seen as grand here. He also mentioned the differences in Health and Safety values in UK versus China, where ambitious artworks are harder to make happen in the UK due to the many lines and red tapes that exist.
“How can you get audiences who have no political or cultural understanding of China to engage with the works?”
Jonathan Watkins was invited to be on the panel as he has been a “translator” (I put this word in inverted commas as a translator is here applied not to the literal translation of language from one to another but to the role of someone who is attempting to present other cultures to new audiences not necessarily limited to visual arts – this is examined in my PhD) of contemporary Chinese art for many years, leading Ikon Gallery as one of the main gallery spaces in the UK to have solo exhibitions of contemporary Chinese artists. JW said he cannot compare a group exhibition in the UK to ones that he has curated in China, or the solo exhibitions in the UK, as they are different constructs. He is intrigued to see the exhibition and how it translates. JW prefers to look more in depth at artists rather than group shows. When he worked in Shanghai with the government museum, now the Power Station of Art, which he sees resembling Battersea Power Station in London, it was very controlled, the management were very controlling, especially as regards censorship. He felt that very strongly in China, that there were things that couldn’t be spoken about such as politics, direct references to America, and (randomly but appropriate) weird conversations about Feng Shui that made “excuses” as to why works should be removed. In Guangzhou, when curating the Guangzhou Triennial 2012 with JJ that I was also involved with, he experienced censorship through works that represented Tiananmen Square. JW said he funnily enough felt more freedom in Beijing, which in the Western media is often portrayed as being one of the most censored places in China. He spoke about the disproportionate number of male artists to female artists, asking “What is normal in China?” This opened up a limited discussion about the divide of the sexes in contemporary art, which is spoken about later on in this blog post.
“Did you feel any pressure on you in China and especially Taiwan when curating a show? Do you feel this censorship in Manchester and on the representation of Chinese women artists?”
JJ stated CFCCA have a very open relationship with working with Taiwan. There hasn’t been as much of an issue for us as with other projects. As regards the National Football Museum in Manchester, they decided not to show a new video, animation piece by TOF that depicts the two football teams as different men of the law as they felt it was not sensitive to the context of the show, or to particular audiences, as the piece could be a potential negative trigger due to it’s parallels to the Hillsborough disaster. The National Football Museum will be showing another work by TOF instead.
JJ then went on to state that it is important to choose work not based on the sex of the artist…”it is whether the work can say something with a different perspective whilst talking about the same thing -‘Harmonious Society’ – this is our curatorial responsibility”. As part of the exhibition, there are only three female artists out of the over thirty Chinese artists. In general, this reflects the lack of female representation of not only female Chinese artists by female artists on the whole as part of the global contemporary art ecology. JW makes reference to a group exhibition of Iraqi artists he recently curated, and how it is the same there, that female artists in that culture are not seen in the art schools and are therefore, under-represented. “It is to do with social values, the advances that are being made, Higher Education opportunity and building an equality of the sexes”. Ying Kwok stated that it was about the works not the artists, and how the works fit curatorially also, saying that in Hong Kong there are more female than male artists at art school where only 1 in 4 is male. This is only in Hong Kong. Furthermore, through the choice of subject matter that the female artists choose, such as more local and Chinese contexts, and the choice of media, means that the work is less seen.
A question, more of an observation, from the audience, spoke of her experience of working, exhibiting and having residences across China and East Asia, and how as an artist you enter into a multi-layered environment – a highly sensitive environment – and it’s how you understand and negotiate this environment. When she recently worked with female artists in China, she observed they had more of a sensitivity to the works and more of a specific association to China, which is perhaps less wanted in terms of being selected and shown due to these contexts. However, how does that translate and transpose here? Katie Hill from OCCA responded in the audience by saying that,
“It represents the patriarchal nature of the art world, the art world in China, and how it impacts China, and the ability for a female Chinese artist to be represented in any way. It’s a direct relationship, responding to society and social structure in China.” – Katie Hill
YK stated there has been a lot of change in the last 10-20 years and the artists of that generation are very male dominated. The younger generation could be different and more balanced in terms of the sexes. The discussion of gender balance continued where an audience member stated that the idea of gender balance in the arts, Chinese art, is a recent phenomenon.
The discussion was then steered back to the issue of translation, of trying to translate Chinese art to new audiences. It was interesting at this stage as an audience member spoke of an L.S. Lowry exhibition that she is taking to China, turning the notion round asking “how do you translate very British art, very local work, to China for the first time? It is always through an attempt to trigger common topics…is this part of ‘Harmonious Society’? And what kind of general message you are trying to say to local people in the UK?” Sarah Fisher, Director of CFCCA, responded by mentioning the difference in group exhibition types describing how the survey exhibition works as a construct, where for ‘Harmonious Society’ although artists have responded to the given theme and selected to represent that theme, the artists (who are very aware of the world and familiar with the fact they are not aware of the contexts of Manchester) have attempted to move away from the cliched local investigations. This is an issue for CFCCA, who are showing artists from all over the world with global concepts…it’s hard for the UK to get a nuance sense of the artists and works, something reductive. The exhibition is not providing a statement, it is trying to challenge making a statement…the artists are responding to the theme with individual perspectives, not as a group message as such. Ying Tan stated that one of the advantages of the show is that it takes place across 6 venues and that they in themselves will influence the nuances of the artworks, creating new translations…there are works that take on different forms in these venues, when presented in these new settings. Through this, the artists deal with site-specific issues on top of their concept .
At this stage, I then piped up asking,
“How does it sit within the framework for the Asia Triennial Manchester 2014 (ATM14)? As the show has been quite isolated in it’s discussion so far.”
JJ responded by questioning why an Asia Triennial in Manchester and what is Asia? These questions are repeatedly asked when each Triennial happens and are never resolved, but do they have to be? The boundaries of Asia are constantly changing and being reinterpreted from East Asia, South Asia, Asia-Pacific, Ultimately, I wanted to know what weight is being put on the different cultural contexts and why when exhibitions and projects are being curated. This is something I am very conscious of as part of my own curatorial practice.
“It is more of a philosophical proposition. It is the job of the curators and artists to make confusions and to think of life differently.” – Jiang Jiehong
A question from the audience then asked about Asia’s representation as a monolith for the Asia Triennial Manchester 2014 (ATM14). SF responded that the ATM is not like other Triennial’s as each organisation produces its own programme rather than there being an overarching curator for the whole festival. As I’ve just stated above, this issue of what is Asia is asked each time the festival takes place.
“Not putting definitions down, artists evade that anyway…CFCCA evades definition to continue the discussion.”
Final questions for the audience when on to discuss how history is represented and engaged with in the exhibition and through the artists’ works. “Is this a rewriting of not only politics but of history and aesthetics too?” Also going on to talk of the methods used to curate conflict. A core interest in this curatorship is using harmony as a trigger to create harmony…translatability is here based on difference rather than identity…the curatorship of connecting region, encouraging the artists to create conflict and challenges through their response to ‘Harmonious Society 天下無事’.
This curatorial workshop was the final in the series for the development of ‘Harmonious Society 天下無事’, opening on Saturday 27 September 2014 across 6 venues in Manchester. In addition to the show, two associated conferences will be taking place, one explicitly relating to the contexts of ‘Harmonious Society 天下無事’, the other more broadly looking into the themes of the Asia Triennial Manchester 2014 (ATM14) festival. More information can be found here. I’ll be going so come and join me!