Translating Asia – Events, Symposia, Words and Chatter

Want to know more about Asian art? Chinese contemporary art? The Asian art market? Translating Asian art? Private museums in China and the Chinese museum boom? The language of Asian art? Find below the documentation of events I’ve come across over recent months (that sadly I have been unable to attend due to timing and location), all focussing on the understanding Asian contemporary art – “translating Asia” as such – from the perspective of the collector, dealer, artist, academic, gallerist and more. All of these events have reaffirmed and reinforced my current PhD research into global translations of contemporary Chinese art, specifically the notion of a transcultural curator…they are having similar conversations, thoughts and responses to those I’ve been having over the past five years, which makes me further realise how a history of Asian contemporary art is developing in the international realm…all on common ground.

‘The Axis Shifting East’

I’ll begin with ‘The Axis Shifting East’ hosted by Vastari at Asia House, London, on 30th October 2014 as part of the annual Asian Art in London event. This late afternoon discussion was planned in response to multiple themes and questions Vastari had recently received, inspiring them to organise a panel discussion around three specific themes:

  1. ‘The Rise of Private Museums in China’
    Cathy Giangrande, Xuhua Sylvia Zhan and Lori Luo will be analysing the trend of private museums mushrooming around China in the recent years. We hope their thoughts will shed a light on this cultural boom and what it means to the European institutions.
  2. ‘Lifting of Sanctions on Export of Art from Iran’
    Janet Rady, Daniel McClean and Soheila Sokhanvari will give us a dealer’s, a lawyer’s and an artist’s overview on the legal and practical implications of lifting sanctions on export of art from Iran and the Gulf area.
  3. ‘Mutual Vision: 400 Years of Artistic Exchange between Japan & the West’
    Inspired by the exhibition at the Tokyo National Museum, we once again go back to the 400 anniversary of contact between Japan and the West to look at the way the Western artists viewed the Japanese people, and vice versa: how the Japanese saw the foreigners arriving at their doorstep during the Edo period. The discussion will continue into the way the Japanese see themselves until the present day. Curator Aleksandra Görlich and contemporary woodblock print artist Paul Binnie will help us understand the subject from the artistic, historical and anthropological point of view with insightful questions from Marta Olszewska, the head of Asian Art for Vastari.

I am only going to focus on the panel regarding the ‘The Rise of the Private Museum in China’…a panel of familiar faces as I have worked with both Sylvia and Lori. Great to hear them speak.

“Asia is the focus of attention of the whole art world. Fast growing economies, new fortunes, changing legislations in the Far and Middle East all influence the art ecosystem in Europe and America. Whatever happens there will soon affect all of us.” – Vastari

Vastari 1

Vastari 2

Vastari 3

Vastari 4

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Cathy Giangrande from the Global Heritage Fund was asked to set the scene by talk about the scale of museum building in China. She first starting going to China with her co-authors about ten years ago…looking for the quirky and offbeat museums which were often the private museums that they saw rising from the landscape in 2004. Some of the most exciting museums we found such as the Chinese Ancient Sex Museum in Tongli and Fan Jianchuan’s museum cluster which has grown from 110 to 26 museums. [I blogged about his “collecting insanity” very recently here.] He is trying to educate the Chinese and foreign public – local to international – as to what has happened in China, where he has collected over 8 million objects, a lot related to the cultural revolution. A couple of years ago there was a surreal boom were private museums were popping up everywhere. In 2013, there were 4165 museums registered out of that 865 are private, 299 were new. That is almost one museum a day. In 2014, the number is slowing down. They say one museum is being built every three days, with the largest rise in the private museum network. Foreigners and more famous people are now investing in creating museums including Budi Tek’s Yuz museum, an airport hanger of an art museum in Shanghai…the Long Museums by billionaire husband and wife duo…then in in Nanjing, the Sifang Art Museum by a son and father called “a playground for the arts” as it is not just a museum, it has a spa, conference centre, and a place to interact with nature and more, spending $164 million dollars…they are creating a “culture village” in Hangzhou…Red Brick in Beijing…Aurora art museum.

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Next was Xuhua Sylvia Zhan from China Culture Connect, someone who I know well. She spoke about the difference in Chinese museums and what we know as museums. There are two systems in China…funded by the government and pilot museums in the major cities. Government museum are very different in China, it is a very political system…where as the private museum are often directed by the private funder such as OCAT Shanghai, Shenzhen and Xi’An who appoint artistic directors such as Carol Lu, Zhang Peili and Karen Smith. Another difference between the museums in the West and China is censorship. Government museums in China are more conservative in what they show…especially at provincial level. The contemporary art museum, the private art museum, is more of a knowledge house. They function as a collections organisation which have been in place since the 1990s. Sylvia went on to talk about the Turner exhibition she took to China. They are starting to think about conservation of art, linking to international partners.

Finally was Lori Luo, who I know from my CFCCA days. She is Managing Director of Art Find in art consultancy. She spoke of the influence of these galleries and whether they are tastemakers. She spoke about a project about with the Royal Academy regarding art handling and art conservation taking place in Beijing. It depends how we define the “taste”, it is the taste of the richest Chinese people and collectors…it is a function for them to show rather than change their taste. Over the past 5 years, their trend is shifting from Asian modern art ot contemporary, they are shifting from the culture they are familiar with to Western art. In many new museums including the museums Cathy mentions, they are travelling such as to Dubai and other places. Taste is becoming more international and open-minded. The public taste…it is too early to say whether those museums have changed their taste. The number of visitors to these private museums have always been an issue. They pay sky-high running costs…say over £1 million to run the museum, event the museum visitor figure is still an issue. They put effort into the educational programme. An excellent example is by UCCA in Beijing and Long Museum. They have brought more art to China, they bring more contact with the contemporary and Western art to China and the Chinese public. This is a dimension that the public museums are unable to provide.

As a panel they went on to discuss many issues stating how gallery entrance fees stop the general Chinese public from visiting as costs to enter private museums are inaccessible. Free days are very popular. They talked of the links between private museums and real estate projects. A lot of people have heard about the K11 foundation…it is a department store whilst matching the standard of what a museum requires. Chinese people want to price art as intellectual property which adds value. Lori mentions Park View Green in Beijing. They get cheaper land for building a museum. This applied to the Long Museum and to the Yuz Museum. Development includes office space, residential, shopping malls, parks, social spaces and more including a museum. Sylvia mentioned a museum that is creating projects to work with Chinese children and people who are disabled and have learning disabilities and also migrant workers children…not many museums think of art as help. They get funding from the government to run these projects continually. Exploring the problem of censorship in China. Cathy stated that there is censorship…where private museums have more of an edge than public museums, they get away with more, and those that review the shows to censor don’t get the subtleties that should be censored. For example Ai Weiwei cannot show in any public museum but can show at private.

Q: I was wondering about the underlying motivations of collectors when they open private museums. There is a certain reputation…a high price to enter…are there other motivations? Is it a business?

Lori: A lot of famous American families made their name by opening museums…to make a name. A second reason is the local government see the potential in having a cultural centre, an the private museum within property development is a way of getting the land.

Cathy: A big issue for them was education…to educate the foreign public and the Chinese public. Membership programmes are starting but they don’t have the income to sustain them.

Sylvia: Most public museums are free of charge. The development of an exhibition is a still a mature idea in China. Sales from ticket sales, publication, gift shop, canteen, buy more gift…it is the whole business. The costing of the exhibition…loan fee, research,,,a very mature system in the Western museum that is still being learned in the Chinese museum. Some private museums in China don’t want to show others exhibitions or touring shows. Places will cooperate with other places but not collaborate. Collaboration is good for the organisation and programme, sharing resources, promoting the programme.

[Vastari connects collectors to museums for exhibition loans. Founded in 2012, it is funded by a group of individuals from a variety of backgrounds who understood the importance of connecting museums and collectors worldwide. Since the first site launch in January 2013, collaborations with important private collectors have resulted in successful placements at noteworthy exhibitions around the world. Vastari currently collaborates with hundreds of curators from a variety of fields, who are on the lookout for works to include in their upcoming shows. This includes curators from 5 of the top 10 museums worldwide. They believe that ‘to share art is to keep it alive’.]

‘Art in a Transnational World’

The next perspectives are from 5 May 2014, provided by Curator Okwui Enwezor and Thai artist Rirkrit Tiravanija joined by Melissa Chiu, Asia Society Museum Director and Senior Vice President of Global Arts and Cultural Programs. They discussed the current trends in international contemporary art – ‘Art in a Transnational World’ – the video can be viewed here. Here are some thoughts from the session.


Melissa: The session was about being international…being transnational. How do we situate Asian artists in the broader international context…do you feel hemmed in only working with Asia? It’s over 30 something countries. Look at the skills set that curators have to have…they have to be versed in art of the world. How have curators had to change go about the way in which they curate shows or make themselves aware of developments in contemporary Asia Art?

Okwui: The twentieth century was the American century…the twenty first century is the Asian century. If you put this into the world picture, it becomes more interesting to look at the historical cycles that we have lived through and witnessed in the past fifty years. World-changing and transformative. We are not always attentive to these historical cycles.

“From my own curatorial project, whilst I am broadly interested in what is going on in different parts of the world, I need to keep my critical curatorial and intellectual door ajar as you don’t know what will bleed across these boundaries.” – Okwui Enwezor

I am increasing interested in the nation that the Chinese economy is going to be larger than the American economy and what this means. Its come quicker than expected. The scale of this e-commerce side is three times the size of ebay, Amazon and so on. In order to have a world picture let’s not call it global, we must begin with the process of unlearning…unlearn the habit that circumscribes various types of expertise, such as an expert of Asian art, which is confining rather than to be a interdisciplinary context. Don’t you think it is limited to work on African art? I would rather be an expert on this than the thousands expert on Warhol. When I make exhibitions this protocol of keeping the door ajar is fundamental…learning the world of others, that is how I admire, how I learn what drives this ever-changing scale of artistic and curatorial and art historical production.

“When I look at that I think what has happened in this intervening years of the last half century is an awareness that the field of art is a constellation, a network, a social network, a cultural network, a historical network. James Clifford states in ‘The Predicament of Culture’ ‘You do not watch a masquerade for one vantage point, you have to follow the performance.’ You have to be as mobile and as agile as the performance in order to comprehend the dynamism of it all…you can’t comprehend the world of it all.” – Okwui Enwezor

Melissa: This idea of unpacking…what do you think is something that is a prevailing idea in the contemporary art world that leads to the biggest misconception about Asian art? What needs to be confronted?

Okwui: For a very long time…making an exhibition of this kind (Venice Biennale) I am totally stumped. I’ll tell you why. We step out into this so called art world…what can we identify today that really represents the burning questions that the artists have to approach…the politics of form, critique…what is it? I can’t really identify a single thing that is the burning question, I feel like we are in a period when things are quite open so I want to keep the exhibition open as such. I want to de-historicise Venice. I don’t want to make a historical exhibition. By keeping this open. My hope is to contemplate the possibility of making new work. What does the present represent? It’s not about the future…it’s not about the past. It;s the intensity of the present.

Rirkrit: My work can be too much translated…too much mediation…we always need to keep our doors open. People aren’t always listening to each other and make assumptions about each other.

Melissa: A new world order. If you take your mind back to 2000 when you went to China and then to today…what are the differences?

Okwui: Back in 2000, that trip was epoch making and deeply transformative…there was a shift in the generation…Xu Bing, Huang Yong Ping…then there were the people on the ground. Invited by Ken Lum…the trip was supposed to be for one person but it turned into a curatorial caravan. It became apparent immediately when we landed in Hangzhou’s small airport in 2000, every man you saw wore exactly the same three piece grey suit…a capitalist vision. What we decided on this trip, in every place we went we wanted a public debate with the local. It was unplanned, it was like wild fire. By the time we arrived in Beijing…Shanghai…Taiwan…they were waiting for us. This was pre-social media…and 798 pre galleries. There was a deep hunger for engagement. We had incredible access, as curators who are privileged…Hangzhou is very different now. In less than a generation things have changed…this is a lesson as what one does as a curator, you have to keep all options open.

Melissa: Where do you see curators in the ecology of the art world? This has shifted greatly in recent years…so many new developments. The roles of the curator has changed.

Okwui: I don’t know whether the role has changed. The world around it has changed and is changing. I never considered myself an independent curator…I called myself an unaffiliated curator. This is to illuminate the contradictions and a claim for independence…an independent curator sounds like you are a hustling for work…the power on institutions and for nomination. A space in which to act. I am interested in the spaces within which the curator can act, rather than acclimatise a condition, the condition of the curator. What is the space one can act. It has changed enormously in many ways. This is natural. the proliferation of curators across the world…there are less and less places curators can act. They can’t act an art fair…they can’t act in a commercial gallery. To act you have to have an agenda…I always had a change agenda and that had to be within certain spaces that are hospitable to that. The institution is important and the politics of the institutions. I want to be an enabler for curators. The back up singer for their solo act. I am interested in this notion of reclaiming the space. The ecology is very complex with diminishing spaces where one can act. One can be naive that you an act….there was a compelling reason to act. Today, a lot seems so studied, like an interview for a job

‘The China Symposium’

In March 2014 The Armory Show, in conjunction with Philip Tinari, organised a series of talks and discussions called ‘The China Symposium’. Hosted in conjunction with its annual regional Focus initiative, this weekend-long forum comprised eight discussions that aimed to elaborate and clarify the state of contemporary art in China today. The first day of the forum explored circumstances and dynamics shaping the external environment, while the second day looked at significant currents in art itself. Drawing speakers from around China and beyond, including leading artists, journalists, curators, collectors, gallerists, and academics, the two days together offered perhaps the most comprehensive overview of the art scene in China yet undertaken for a general New York audience. This was the first time The Armory Show had organised a China-focussed event of this scale where it was supported by Mr. Adrian Cheng and the K11 Art Foundation. All of the discussions from the day are shown below. To date, I have only had time to watch a couple of them (outlined themes noted below) as the videos are all over an hour long or more and my PhD apparently needs to get written…so much information to take in, digest and critique…but a great archive in progress. Documentation is very much needed of the Asian art ecology.

‘THE CHINESE ART WORLD DESCRIBED AS A SYSTEM’ with participants Huang Rui, Artist, Beijing; Meg Maggio, Director, Pékin Fine Arts, Beijing and Hong Kong; Shen Qibin, Director, Tianrenheyi Art Center, Hangzhou; Shaway Yeh, Group Style Editorial Director, Modern Media Group, Shanghai. Moderated by András Szántó, New York-based Author and Cultural Consultant. A long legacy of censorship, speculation, and pay-for-play practice at museums and in the media has created the perception of a deeply flawed system for contemporary art in China. And yet in recent years, a crop of enlightened academic departments, dedicated galleries, curious collectors, ambitious foundations, and public institutions has emerged to counter this earlier understanding. Nodding to Lawrence Alloway’s 1972 studio-to-market analysis of the Western art world, this panel asked what is distinctive about the models that have emerged on the ground in China, and what, perhaps, they might have to teach us.

‘THE MUSEUM BOOM’ with participants Colin Chinnery, Artistic Director, Wuhan Art Terminus (WH.A.T.); Jeffrey Johnson, Founder, China Megacities Lab, Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation, Columbia University; Lu Xun, Co-Founder, Sifang Art Museum, Nanjing; Karen Smith, Director, OCT Contemporary Art Terminal (OCAT), Xi’an; Budi Tek, Founder, Yuz Museum, Shanghai. Moderated by Fiammetta Rocco, Culture Editor, The Economist, London. All across China, fusty state museums are being rebirthed with stunning facilities, while private institutions are launching in record numbers and in many different forms. China’s vaunted “Museum Boom” is creating spaces for the display of contemporary art on a scale never before imagined, raising key questions about the publics these places envision for themselves as well as their ability to sustain operations and programming in the long term. What is behind this sudden urge, both public and private, to establish new spaces? What will it ultimately mean for artistic production, circulation, and consumption in China and globally?

‘A Journey of Ideas Across: In Dialog with Edward Said’

Finally, in October 2013, the Haus der Kulturen der Welt hosted the three-day interdisciplinary symposium ‘A Journey of Ideas Across: In Dialog with Edward Said’ curated by Adania Shibli with Akeel Bilgrami and Katrin Klingan. It was presented in response to the tenth anniversary of Said’s death, aiming to interpret his work – from “Orientalism” (1978) to “On Late Style” (posthumously, 2006) – in new contemporary contexts within the cultural and political realities of today, including those in the Arab world. The symposium used “Said’s interdisciplinary method of inquiry and his fundamental criticism of dichotomies in the context of intercultural exchange as an occasion to subvert binary structures and assumptions of polarity.” An outcome of this event is an invaluable resource, a multimedia online publication of the same title – ‘A Journey of Ideas Across’ with contributions by Ruanne Abou-Rahme & Basel Abbas, Meltem Ahiska, Ahl al Kahf, Mohammad al Attar, Rana Barakat, Asef Bayat, Akeel Bilgrami, Burnt Friedman & Saam Schlamminger, Subhi Hadidi, Sandi Hilal & Alessandro Petti, Abdelfattah Kilito, Mahmood Mamdani, Samia Mehrez, W.J.T. Mitchell, Prabhat Patnaik, James Quandt, Adania Shibli, Michael Steinberg, Fawwaz Traboulsi, Trinh T. Minh-ha, Michael Wood, Feridun Zaimoğlu. The website is a great resource of the event.

“Edward Said’s ideas and observations on knowledge production and representation, time, space and travel, on the relation between power and weakness, on agency, engagement and generosity remain especially valid. They continue their journeys across territories, to be read and adapted outside the walls of academia as well. Said’s portrait appears in graffiti in the streets of Tunis, while intellectuals in Syria and Turkey draw on his critical thought. His influential interpretation of imperialism is applied to the global economy. And his views on migration movements and cultural crossings find expression in current theoretical and artistic positions. This way, the Palestinian-American thinker has left his mark in the realm of art and culture as well. Musicians as well as literary and film critics worldwide refer to his numerous writings on music, literature and film, culminating in his treatment of the “late style” of great artists.” – HKW

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