Write-Up: Presenting at UK China Arts event, London

On Saturday, after a bonanza Asian contemporary art-filled Friday previewing the Asia Triennial Manchester 2014 (ATM14) festival and their largest exhibition of contemporary Chinese art in the UK – ‘Harmonious Society 天下無事’ (that is going to take a while to blog about because there is so much to talk about) – I went to present as part of the second ‘UK China Arts’ event at Goldsmiths, University of London. It was a fantastic day, bringing to light many pertinent issues and successes of planning cultural projects in or about China and it’s peripheries.

Hosted by Natasha Phillips and Kunjue Li in collaboration with the Goldsmiths Confucius Institute for Dance and Performance, it was a three-hour afternoon event in which artists from different disciplines, academics, and art producers and representatives of institutions came together to look at artistic exchanges between the two countries – UK and China, understand and communicate industry practices and formal practicalities, and exchange intercultural creative ideas and working methodologies through the sharing of resources. The reasons and motivations behind the series of ‘UK China Arts’ meetings are threefold:

  1. There is a lack of concrete foundations that are successful in support and facilitation of cross-cultural creative projects and talents;
  2. It is catered to tackle specific issues that often result in the unfulfilling utilization of resources in both the UK and China;
  3. We want to bring together a community of knowledge and resources that will contribute to the ever-growing amount of opportunities that are being offered and sought after within the industry.

The first meeting was hosted by founder of ‘UK China Arts’, Bill Aitchinson at Birkbeck University in November 2013. Sarah Fisher, Acting Director of CFCCA took part in this event after my recommendation. On Saturday, it was the second meeting of what is planned as an ongoing network and the focus at this meeting was to better understand the experiences of, and to create opportunities for, the different parties involved to meet and strengthen the network. This can be viewed from both directions as British artists working in China and Chinese artists working in the UK.

“A cross-cultural dialogue of cultural, linguistic and artistic understandings between UK and China artists and organisations.”

The afternoon session presented the work of four speakers – Lindsay Liu, myself, Diana Yeh and David Tse – through short 20 minutes presentations followed by informal Q&A. Natasha and Kunjue photographed and filmed the event, so I will post footage and further documentation in the coming future. Until then, here are some partial transcripts and thoughts from the day. As always, any comments are welcome.

1) ‘The difficulties and obstacles for bringing work into the international market’ – Lindsay Liu News and radio presenter and documentary producer)

Lindsay started the afternoon session by introducing her professional background within the TV/broadcasting/documentary-making industry, and the successes and obstacles as part of these roles. She spoke about her first job with China National Radio station – a “mouthpiece for the government” – where documents were often hidden…they were told what news couldn’t be reported, having to listen to the government about what could and couldn’t be said. Her next role was within Phoenix TV station, the only private TV station in China, based in Hong Kong only airing in Southern China. Randomly, Rupert Murdoch was one of the shareholders. Currently, she is working with Interactive Media Britain Ltd., a private and commercial company that produces documentaries and commercial videos. After working there for one year, she noted difficulties between working between the UK and China, which she mentioned in relation to specific projects. She then went on to show examples of her video marketing work (shown below) with Chinese fashion designer Haizhen Wang, the Savile Row fashion designer Yingmei Quan, and also a trailer for a forthcoming documentary ‘Grey Trader’. From watching these, Lindsay wanted to know the UK reception and understanding of these Chinese short films to see if they translate in the same way to UK as to Chinese audiences, especially in relation to the ‘Grey Trader’ documentary – ‘Grey Trader’ is a way to earn profits through smuggling products between Mainland China and Hong Kong.

Lindsay then spoke of what she experienced in terms of professional differences. “In terms of forming professional relationships – “guanxi”- Chinese people want to share good feeling, they are all “friends”, open-minded, and are interested to know what is happening from a global perspective.” She does not know whether UK people want to know more about China, seeing this as a huge difficulty – and I actually share the same view in this. When I lived in China you could clearly see how much Chinese society were interested or even driven by the West (though I dislike saying the West, this is a PhD related thing). She goes on to talk about the ways of communication being different not just in a literal language sense, where the Chinese way is implicit and euphemistic, the British way is direct and manifest. Also, the market situations in the UK and China are different. China is a huge market, where earning profits is the priority. In terms of the film industry, China wants to invite UK script writers to China to cooperate together building on the success of shows such as Sherlock, Downton Abbey and more, that have huge audiences in China. One important issue that Lindsay states, is the UK standards for the film industry are clear and transparent in the UK whereas in China, even if contracts are signed they can still withdraw, things are always changeable.

“China needs to absorb the advantages of the UK to reach an international standard.” – Lindsay Liu

Lindsay Liu UK China Arts

[Lindsay Liu is a news and radio presenter and a documentary producer. Lindsay has worked in the media industry for around ten years in both the UK and China and is currently the TV presenter, director and producer of Interactive Media Britain (http://www.im-britain.com/). She used to be the News Anchor of Phoenix TV station, Radio Presenter of China National Radio station where she interviewed various of celebrities, stars, diplomats and reported on many important events as well as hosted hundreds of important events. Her credits include Commercial videos: “Non-stop Plan from Beijing to Birmingham” (Producer), Documentaries: “Chinese Designers” (Director), “The only one Chinese Lady in Savile Row” (Director), “The Chinese architect in London Olympic Games” (Director).]

UK China Arts

Natasha Phillips Rachel Marsden UK China Arts

2) ‘The Transcultural Curator: The successes and problematics of developing a platform for Chinese contemporary culture’ – Rachel Marsden (Curator and cultural producer, Founder of The Temporary, Arts Writer)

I was next…and after a long-winded introduction by Natasha about what I do, which is never easy to succinctly explain because I simply can’t sit still and do one thing, I spoke about the origins and development of my research interests in the translation of Chinese contemporary culture, my current PhD research that lead me into working within an academic and institutional context with the Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art (CCVA), fieldwork research in China with associated opportunities, the difference in art and design education in China and the UK, and establishing ‘The Temporary’ and its inaugural exhibition ‘The Temporary: 01’. I clearly stated at the beginning of my presentation that it is impossible to translate, an art form or culture of any kind, perfectly or in its entirety. Misunderstandings, mistranslations, gaps and voids in translation will always happen…it is how we make the process of translation as open and fluid as possible.

Many of the problematics I referenced included Health and Safety standards (the lack of) in China versus the UK (bound by red tape/form-filling/other people’s permission); partnerships with China are sometimes hard to pin down and have the opportunity to change last-minute, however in the UK can take a long time to plan and finally make happen; timescales can be somewhat last-minute in China; the issue of literal translation as I do not speak Mandarin Chinese (yet) and also the editing of texts from China often takes longer due to disjointed spelling/grammar and the mistranslation of concepts and contexts; the difference in the Chinese versus UK art education systems and how formalised/traditional it is in China; contracts and issues of copyright often don’t apply in China, often by verbal agreement where contracts are mostly null and void, however in the UK always necessary; FUNDING, one of the largest and ongoing issues wherever you are in the world; the social impact on the public audience of projects…hard in different ways for both the UK and China, and finally the pace of life…China is non-stop and you have to keep up, you have no choice and to be honest, you want to, to know what’s next…whereas the UK, well things just take a lot longer…which I’m sometimes not very good at dealing with…a bit of both please?

The successes I referenced included the new ways of seeing and perspectives you can gain by looking into and from a different cultural context; the meeting of minds and the sharing of new knowledge, new relationships; the contribution to new knowledge assisting in the development of a Chinese contemporary art history; the development of a mutual support network to bounce new ideas off; shared and partnership involvement in projects can mean collaborative funding; projects provide research outputs for all partners; it shows and builds on the power of networks and relationships, something which Lindsay mentioned earlier that afternoon; faith in kindness, honesty and generosity can go a long way in making things happen; a good, solid concept can go far and gain investment whether financial or conceptual; there is a real ability in China to make something happen from nothing; by documenting projects, it helps to build an archive and again a history for Chinese contemporary art; by commissioning new works and new texts it is fuelling creativity, the development of a global art discourse, carving new paths and potentials; faith in the strength of artists can drive and lead projects; an open to information sharing, again let’s things happen.

One of the key and overriding statements that was made by all speakers during the afternoon was the importance of relationships…of understanding who you are working with, their cultural nuances…working with honesty, passion and drive…where a good, solid concept and idea will drive your project forward. Also that ‘UK China Arts’ is another opportunity to bring like-minded people in this area of research together, and the strength and opportunity with that group.

Rachel Marsden UK China Arts

[Rachel Marsden is a curator, art consultant, PhD researcher, arts and culture writer, and avid blogger in the field of contemporary art, music and visual culture, specifically East Asian and Chinese contemporary visual culture, since 2010 living between UK and Shanghai (China). In January 2014, she founded ‘The Temporary’, a new transcultural exchange platform examining “temporary” and ephemeral experience in art, architecture, design, music, sound, performance and culture between the UK and China. She is also Coordinator (part-time) for the Centre for Chinese Visual Arts (CCVA) (Birmingham (UK) and China) and worked as Research Curator (October 2012-April 2014) for the Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art (UK).]

3) ‘Propose solutions that address misunderstandings and challenge commonsense ideas about Chinese identity and customs’ – Dr. Diana Yeh (Senior Lecturer in Sociology, University of Winchester)

After a brief biscuit and tea break, Diana Yeh, who I originally met many years ago through the ‘Translating China’ AHRC funded research at the University of Westminster in London, started the second half of the session by saying a wonderfully true statement that “academics are pretty inept at proposing solutions to problems”…which I very well know…so instead she showed examples of the misunderstandings and commonsense ideas of Chinese identity and customs, to provide us with an idea of the strategies she has used to tackle these misunderstandings in her work. She then made reference to something I’d said in my talk, that you will never fully be able to translate something as there will always be some gaps or voids in translation, misunderstandings, but there are methodologies that can be used to try to stop this from happening or make the process of translation more fluid.

Diana firstly spoke about the research background of her new book The Happy Hsiungs: Performing China and the Struggle for Modernity (Hong Kong University Press, 2014), which introduces the world of Shih-I and Dymia Hsiung, two once highly visible, but now largely forgotten Chinese writers in Britain.


Shih-I rose to worldwide fame with his play ‘Lady Precious Stream’ in the 1930s and became known as the first Chinese director to work in the West End and on Broadway. In 1952, Dymia became the first Chinese woman in Britain to publish in English a fictional autobiography, ‘Flowering Exile’. Diana has recovered the Hsiungs’ lost histories and discussed the challenges they faced in representing China to the rest of the world and becoming accepted as modern subjects, at a time when knowledge of China and the Chinese was persistently framed by colonial legacies and Orientalist discourses.

She then went on to talk of the experiences of migrant Chinese artists in the UK, from 1930s to the present day. A lot is just plain common sense…the roots of racism…difficult to talk about in the post-racial era…not to dismiss race or nation in commonsense ideas of Chineseness or any culture.

“Racial discourses are global….We all reproduce these notions in the way we speak…we have an idea of a strict Chinese culture. Instead of thinking of culture in these fixed terms, we need to think of cultures as an active and dynamic process…it will always involve contestation, infused with ideas around power.” – Diana Yeh

Diana’s first strategy looked at how identity is constructed referencing constructs including the “exotic other”…the fashion for Chinoiserie in the 1930s. She made us consider how we as artists, curators, theatre producers and academics, how are we constructing these identities of Chinese identity and China, and who are these ideas of Chineseness being constructed for?

“We need to move beyond sociological ideals of “methodological nationalism”, and look at China beyond nation-state frameworks.” – Diana Yeh

Citing artists and examples, she spoke of the Ton Fan Group (東方畫會) of the 1950s, one of the first Chinese art groups to produce abstract art. Li Yuan-Chia, one of the members of the group, coined as the founder of abstract art after studying in Taiwan, moved to Europe in 1962.

‘Silenzio’ (1962) by Li Yuan-Chia, 100cm x 40cm, Ink on Canvas

Many reviews associated him to his East Asian routes, likening him “to a classical Japanese potter, providing a temple outside Western time”…however, there was a flip side to this Orientalist interpretation, where references made to his Chineseness disappeared and his work was seen more broadly as its own art form. Diana went on to cite his series ‘Mathematics’ (1979), designing one of the first multiples made in Britain (an inexpensive mass-produced artworks), challenging the conventional role of the artist and artworks, raising questions of authenticity and the role of art. Sold at a cheap price, Li had hand-made each piece as an original, “all these new works have been completed by my own hands”, he wasn’t interested in the “multiples” concept, more important to him was the spectators physical participation, the engagement with his work. This is further reflected in his “Total Environment” shows, immersive installations of his works to engulf the viewer and audience which again didn’t discuss Chineseness or Orientalist values. There was a universality of their language. This can be seen as a positive shift…it merely allowed to appropriate Li in the role of the avant-garde, considering him and his works as American or European…however, people often failed to acknowledge that they could be developed by an artist that were influenced by the modernity of China and Taiwan.

Li Yuan-Chia founded a modern art gallery in Cumbria UK, called the  LYC museum from 1972-1983. It is now a foundation, seeking funds to re-establish itself as a space and continue the work of Li through education and research. He has had a huge impact on people all across the country, yet he is rarely known. The materials he used, his belief, spectator involvement, all these ideas were routed in Li’s early creative practice…his artistic practice came from his childhood family home, his make-shift studios in the 1950s, martial law Taipei, his studio in Bologna and so many more experiences.

“Rather than working within ethnic or national frameworks, we need to observe and acknowledge the nuances of the artist and local cultural production.” –  Diana Yeh

The final artist Diana spoke about was Anthony Key, stating the importance of paying attention to histories of cultural justice. His work raises the issue of hierarchies of authenticity and cultural value, ultimately, who is Chinese? She spoke of the idea of British Chineseness that references immigrant experience where Anthony doesn’t want to be referenced as British Chinese artist…because he is not part of the 2nd generation Chinese in Britain, he has a different relationship to his heritage. Also he has a very distinct life, growing up in South Africa in Port Elizabeth during the apartheid in a group area where the Chinese lived. The Chinese were invisible in South Africa, although they were often caught within black-white conflict…Anthony fearing for his life. Traumatized by his childhood experiences, where art enabled him to repair himself. Many artworks appear humourous but maintain a hard edge, coming from this South Africa experience. His work has been co-opted into a rather celebrated discourse of ethnicity and migrant assimilation. The piece below was described as ‘A witty example of assimilation, showing how the East accommodates itself to life in the West’.

‘Chopsticks/Knife and Fork’ (1997) by Anthony Key, 25cm, carved chopsticks.
Walcot Chapel
‘Walcot Chapel’ (2002) by Anthony Key

‘Walcot Chapel’ (2002) comments on a meditation, and how it is possible to be yourself when you don’t belong, The Times newspaper co-opted his work again into an assimilationist discourse. Diana concluded by saying,

“We need an acknowledgement of the immigrant experience and the importance of considering how the cultural is continually transformed and appropriated. With the rise of China, it is important to consider the implications of this engagement with China, to Chinese artists. Her final point ends with a plea, that we don’t forget these locally based artists and reproduce hierarchies of value around ideas of authentic Chineseness. Britain needs to be reimagined as multicultural, multinational…inform our understandings of who you are.” – Diana Yeh

Diana Yeh UK China Arts

[Diana Yeh is senior Lecturer in Sociology, University of Winchester. A former Fellow of Sociological Review, she also teaches on the MA Culture Diaspora Ethnicity at Birkbeck College, University of London and in Sociology and Psychosocial Studies at the University of East London. Her research interests lie in race/ethnicity, diaspora, migration and culture. Her book The Happy Hsiungs: Performing China and the Struggle for Modernity was published with Hong Kong University Press in 2014. She has presented her research on BBC Radio Four, and at institutions such as the Royal Geographical Society, the Wellcome Trust, National Portrait Gallery and Tate Britain.]

4) ‘Talk about your own experiences and explorations with your work as an international artist, specifically in China. Communicate the challenges, successes, pitfalls and loopholes and give advice to artists and companies’ – David Tse (China Town Arts Space)

David introduced his work as Director of  Chinatown Arts Space’, now called ‘Chinese Arts Space’ (CAS) stating that it is a very unfunded organisation, where he is only paid for a 1-day a week to run and programme. Within that context, he tries to “hit above our weight”, trying to intervene, empower, enable other artists to do their work – it’s constantly chasing after opportunities and finding a way through. He went on to state five specific case studies.

1. SUSTAIN international sculpture commission – a global search to find a global artist to make a piece of work for London’s Chinatown. Through global curatorial consultation, artists were recommended, 49 responded from 14 East Asian different countries and diaspora. East Asian in David’s mind means, East of India and West of the Americas. Shortlisted to 15 people…from these 2 high-brow Chinese artists pulled out at the last-minute as the offered finances of £25,000 was not enough…then shortlisting to the four finalists. The sculpture was to capture East Asian philosophy towards sustainable development. David said that he is interested now more in this sustainable idea, how do we co-exist, how do we live in harmony? The piece is called ‘Flowing’ by Chua Boon Kee – “when you drink water remember the source, not forgetting virtue and gratitude, or your roots.” It is a Chinese persons reflection on the past, in the right here and now, that has a universal relevance to all of us – a concept David is very interested in. The new sculpture was only unveiled recently, photographs shown below.


Chua Boon Kee studio


2. ‘Piccadilly revisited’ (2009-12) by Ruth Chan and Suki Mok. It was a film and music performance inspired by the life and loves of Hollywood’s first Chinese film star, Anna May Wong, and the classic British silent movie ‘Piccadilly’ (1929) in which she played a starring role. Composers Suki Mok and Ruth Chan performed their new contemporary score to the backdrop of an outdoor screening of the silent film, ‘Piccadilly’. They wanted to share this with artists and new audiences.Wong is the only Asian-American actress with a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. She worked with Dietrich and Olivier, graced the pages of Vogue, Tatler and Vanity Fair, and the song These Foolish Things was written for her. She has experienced a renaissance in recent years. Projects like this illustrate CAS’s interest in intercultural dialogue.


3. In the Beijing Olympics year of 2008, CAS organised 5 events during that year, a major event every 2 months where two involved inviting artists from China to do residencies in the UK including Beijing-based rappers Dragon Tongue Squad – DJ Phat and Suki Mok, showing their work at the Royal Opera House. CAS was able to persuade these world-class venues to be curious…finding the right way to approach people can open a lot of doors as there can often be a lot of “institutional racism”. Intercultural, cross-art form, trying to find a contemporary form whilst looking backwards (referencing my quotation by Johnson Chang) are important to CAS. He also mentioned the power of making a chinese cultural faux pas…the importance of showing face with the powers that be and maintaining relationships, reiterating Diana’s notion of always thinking about the subtle cultural nuances. David stated, if you forget them, you have to make reparation…there can be a hurdle over a small thing. Like myself, he values the generosity of cultural spirit…quite a few of the China projects have been about compromise, whether it be about concept, budget, or saving face.

4. His final example was a bilingual version of ‘King Lear’ for Yellow Earth Theatre. In collaboration with Shanghai Dramatic Arts Centre (SDAC) they transpose the action of ‘King Lear’ to London and Shanghai in 2020.

King Lear, Yellow Earth

‘The business world has shifted and China is the leading superpower. Corporate money and power protect a privileged elite who live above the law. Lear looks out from his penthouse across Shanghai’s financial district. He has called a video-conference to decide how his global business empire will be divided amongst his three daughters. Greed and the desire for control leads to a trail of deceit, betrayal, lust and murder. As Lear suffers and searches for Taoist enlightenment, what hope is there for love? In revisiting ‘King Lear’, David’s adaptation provides a challenging cross-cultural interpretation – matters of East and West, China and Britain’s identities, Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism, spiritual and financial wealth, family loyalty and generational divides.’

David Tse UK China Arts

[David K.S. Tse 謝家聲 is an actor, writer, theatre director and filmmaker, developing the British Chinese / East Asian (BCEA) arts sector to improve intercultural understanding. As consultant Creative Director for CAS (chinatownartsspace.com), he engaged artists from China / UK during the Five Circles festival 2008; toured to Beijing / HK with Piccadilly Revisited; secured a Cultural Olympiad Chinese commission for New Music 20×12; and in 2014, will unveil a new sculpture commission for Chinatown and develop artists’ / youth arts talent during Autumn Moon. He was Founder-Artistic Director of YellowEarth.org, where for 13 years, he led the company to become the UK’s only revenue-funded BCEA theatre, touring across UK/China.]

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