Another day, another symposium event, another opportunity to see and talk new and current research, to cultivate and breed (new?) knowledge, this time on the themes of CONFLICT-COMPASSION-RESOLUTION as part of the current Asia Triennial Manchester 2014 festival. It was a jam-packed day, back-to-back keynotes and short presentations from artists, curators and creatives involved in the local Manchester city-wide to global Asian project. Here are thoughts and soundbytes from the day…and many, many questions. From conflict to glory, tensions to paradoxes…the conversations from the day will go on, but will they ever be “resolved”?
The day began at 10am with a series of introductions by Graham Boxer, Director of IWM North; Professor David Crow, Pro-Vice Chancellor for Internal Communication at MMU and Dean of the Faculty of Art and Design, who said,
“…art is a facilitator, a translator of things that we find difficult to talk about…it reminds us about all the perspectives that are in our society, where a strong cultural core drives the creative industries here in the UK.” – David Crow
Finally, Alnoor Mitha, Artistic Director of the ATM then gave his overview of the project and the symposium day…’a key public programme in Manchester and as part of culture. ATM is the only Asian Triennial outside of Asia. It offers the public an opportunity to see Asian art that otherwise they wouldn’t be able to see. Cultural distinctive and connected city. What it means to be part of Manchester and Manchester as part of the rest of the world. It is to provide a voice to the unheard, a message to the dominate, sympathetic values to the innocent.’
Alice Kettle chaired the first session of the day, where keynote was given by Tessa Jackson OBE, Chief Executive of INIVA, London, who spoke of her work as a curator around the three themes of the ATM14, her work at INIVA, a venue for the intersection of visual arts and politics…coming out of contestation and conflict. Founded following campaigns and campaigning about the lack of black and minority voices heard across cultural institutions in the UK, given funding in 1994 to “diversify the mainstream” through investigating power, cosmopolitanism, globalism, post-colonialism and more.
“Can art function as a meditator of change and resistance?”
Tessa cited the ‘Blood swept lands and seas of red’ by ceramic artist Paul Cummins and theatre designer Tom Piper at the Tower of London where 888, 246 ceramic poppies lace the land representing the British fatalities during World War I – a sea of humanity. This shows the power of art and public impact.
“You can be seduced to think that art can redeem the world, but it cannot.”
She went on to speak about other artists that examine the same themes, citing Mona Hatoum’s work ‘Measures of Distance’ (1988); the 2011 exhibition ‘I, the undersigned. The people are demanding’ by Rabih Mroue, a show that dealt with issues swept under the carpet of Lebanon; graffiti works by Shamsia Hassani…making art accessible to people, a memory for people, memorising art that they don’t need a ticket for, art for the Afghan people on the street; Willie Doherty’s film ‘Remains (2013); Xu Bing and his idea of how histories replay themselves, amongst other artists.
“Art cannot influence the war in Iraq but can influence how it is remembered.”
“It is only through poetry that you can understand history and the reality of conflict.” – Amar Kanwar
There are many ways in which artists can represent conflict – defiance, resistance, resilience, memory, humour, satire. Is creating a work on the surface of conflict is satirical? Tessa finished by citing the experience of taking a Picasso to Palestine…was the idea enough? Picasso was a political artist. This project for Tessa expresses all the issues of artists working with conflict…seeing it from many different ways, it is what we learn…turn the TV off and put the newspaper, the image of conflict will still be in your mind but it is what we learn.
Following Tessa was a series of short artist, curator and critical perspectives from the ATM14 starting with Amanullah Mojadidi discussed the surface level satire of conflict..the commodification of conflict and war…the things that are unsaleable, the idea of war and conflict as saleable, and how you take the idea of conflict and make it saleable, the Marxist concept.
“If you are going to speak of the truth, you better make them laugh or they will kill you.” – George Bernard Shaw
He spoke of an experience in Beijing visiting the Mao Zedong memorial where you literally as Banksy says you “Exit through a gift shop”, (I loved this moment as Aman is very right). Conflict as chic…art of this kind was something everyone wanted to support…art and culture projects. Conflict is becoming more and more normalised in a way that a camouflaged T-shirt is fashion. Accessibility is important to my work…cause disturbance, make the audience re-think.
Sophie Ernst asked ‘What is conflict?’. Struggle over resources in our fractured world. Compassion not stand for morality, does resolution not enter an ethical framework. Morality of ethics? Who’s morals and who’s ethics? Important to consider as part of conflict. What words come to mind when you think of conflict? War, battle, war, engagement, clash. I want to think of the relationship that conflict shares with purpose. She spoke of the merging of reality and dreams as part of conflict. What knowledge is real but not verifiable? Conflict as the precision of imperial warfare. Resources as objects of conflict. She concludes by asking, what is glory? Is glory acclimation? Is glory an aesthetical tool to represent praise? Conflicts are instruments to attain glory.
Professor Bashir Makhoul began by stating that conflict is an unavoidable contradiction in itself. An identity is about a sense of belonging. What constitutes an identity? Identity is about projecting difference…ascertaining your relationship to others. Identity is seen as multiculturalism…an impossibility. This difference is fraught with problems according to Edward Said. Construct of xenophobia – a hatred of the other, instantly provoking what can be seen as a conflict. The binary of being different presented against the somebody else…this tension known by Marx as a social and non-conflict. Conflict emphasised by power relationship. Conflict is directly related to a sense of power, caused by difference. Inequality leads to instability leads to conflict. A fight for the same place. What happens when one image takes over another image…the instability of the image in representing conflict.
Dr Ming Turner and Dr Beccy Kennedy talking about ‘Dark Border Developments’ and their project ‘Pop-Up Republics’ as part of the ATM14 – a curatorial and research project. Shipping containers offer a consistent form of global space; micro nations offering a diverse and inconsistent dimensions of space across continents, cultures, races and economics; border as geopolitical – nations, continents and locales. Institutional and ‘everyday’ borders/bureaucracies; dark tourism – visits to places of former oppressions or conflicts. Literal and metaphorical understandings of border in identity construction. Themes and aims were conflict and compassion; identity and border crossing; dark issues using humour. Shipping container asks the viewer to consider migratory movements across countries whilst referencing the challenges of tensions and restrictions of borders. Boat rides as part of the exhibition…border crossings of Manchester and Salford versus Asia and the UK. Showed artists with associated academics/curators: Anti-cool and Paul Booth, Chen Chieh-Jen and Ming Turner, Daksha Patel and Beccy Kennedy, Siddharth Ramakrishnan and Toby Heys. It is thinking of academics and curators through creating collaborations. There is a great overview of the project online here.
Hardep Pandhal…doing deliberately bad to see what good is. I think humour is a tagline that is put on artists, I’d prefer to say humane…that’s what my caricatures of sikh people say. Illustrated artists CVs…anxieties of what being an artist means. Was resolution around for this festival? To be an artist, to make work, you have to resolve what you encounter…the process of making work is life-long, where my position is to mediate between other people and of want of a better phrase, a vision. Arose a discourse and short-circuit routes. You have to infiltrate your work. Presence and absence. The short terms values of art…what is politically incorrect now, before it becomes established. Hardeep then stated what was to become my favourite words from the symposium day…
“The greatest parodies in art are their interpretations.” – Hardep Pandhal
The Q&A session began with Bashir’s notion of identity…
Bashir: Identity and descent into conflict. Relationship between difference, inequality and conflict. Identity being defined by conflict? It is unavoidable when making art. The essence of conflict is about inequality and justice. Compassion is something I don’t believe in. Resolution I do. From a theoretical point of view…as soon as you resolve one, another emerges…all around difference, difference as a catalyst for who we are, how we define ourselves, who we belong to…
Aman: When you come from a country with global conflict, there is an expectation of the kind of work you should be producing. The political also becomes personal that you can often try to escape from. The problem with identity is not always down to us. Identity is out of your control.
Tessa: We all see ourselves differently at different times in our lives, what we are doing at that time is fundamental to our identity. The essence of conflict in relation to inequality…conflict can be related to anything. It is about a difference of view…I find it difficult to easily position myself. It’s not enough to say it is linked to inequality.
Sophie: Identity is formed by stories…how we can break the stories down. How does art history, oral history represent identity?
Beccy: Looking at diasporic artists and identity, it becomes important to a person when you realise what you want rather than what you are…identity is about what you are not. Suddenly when your identity is under scrutiny, you suddenly realise how you don’t fit it. Conflict is such a complicated term, do we have conflicts in terms of war to have a resolution. It is a weird binary…conflict and the resolution.
Q: Is there a degree of passive criticality in talking about conflict? I wonder whether the system and structure of how art operates is a therapeutic force accepting that conflict goes on, it is over there and we can have a passive criticality. I wonder whether the structure of how work like this takes place within society, what does that achieve? Is it conflict porn?
Aman: I agree in that sense. It has actually been part of my own struggle as an artist. What would I make art about is Israel ceased to exist. It is very dangerous…as you say conflict porn, conflict chic…it becomes about the egos of the galleries rather than what the artist is trying to convey. Why I extracted myself from Kabul was to gain experience in other places…I enjoy site-specific works that are going somewhere or responding to the place, rather than being in a studio creating a work that ends up on a gallery wall.
Sophie: Context is a very important part of this, the context of the museum is different to the context of the public…the context of Manchester to another city…
Bashir: The notion of being comfortable, and comfortable around conflict. We are trapped. When we are talking about identities that relate to artists…we are less comfortable when it is crisis, there is less fertile sources of ideas and so on. I also write about art and it is important, that is less comfortable. We are bound to language.
Q: Bashir, you said you don’t believe in compassion. What do you mean by compassion? As I see it as important. A question for the panel…how is it you so what you do is different from what politicians do? What is different, what does an artist have to say about conflict rather than political debate?
Bashir: Compassion is a process.
Tessa: I’d like to join it to the question before. Nothing is fixed. It is that process of expression which can say so many things, even if it is not what the author intended. To be a curator I have to be a politician. Art can change people’s views. Politicians constantly position themselves and I think artists do the same thing.
Me: I wanted to pick up on two comments from the morning…what Bashir just said about being ‘less comfortable when we are in crisis’, which I’d relate to the current Hong Kong protests that I think we can discuss more this afternoon, and Hardeep’s comment that ‘the greatest parodies in art are their interpretations’…relating to the need to define what we do, as we are here at the symposium as they’ve added the term “resolution” after “conflict” and “compassion”. I’m not happy with the word resolution. I don’t feel that anything is ever resolved, or conflict is resolved, as it will always impact future histories or art histories.
Beccy: I agree with Rachel. Conflicts are never truly resolved, also picking up on what Tessa said that the role of the artist and curator is a political one…art and politics are fluid.
Hardeep: In regards to the parody in art are their interpretations, it boils down to how difficult it is to communicate, the reality there are only a few people who turn up to see the art. It is important to be pragmatic but also lose site of what and who you are dealing with…
Aman: There is a specific view of politicians. Artists have a freedom from this pre-conceived ideas, they can represent things more abstractly than politicians can do. I’m making work about the oppressor and the oppressed. I don’t think artists have to take a position, it is more about raising questions. It is more less comfortable in conflict as there are right and wrong sides that are so much more. I disagree with Bashir as it is much more complicated…conflict is not clear.
The afternoon session began with the guest speaker Dennis Ching, Deputy Director-General from the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office, London, in place of Erica Ng, Director-General. He spoke of the protests occupying the Hong Kong streets. ‘I want to highlight how the pictures, videos and reports on the protests are being freely communicated on international circuits and through social media showing a freedom of speech in Hong Kong. This freedom of expression I think is a prerequisite for any artistic work. It has not been undermined during the protest of Hong Kong, it has been manifested to the world….this is what makes Hong Kong unique diversified and cosmopolitan. I believe history and culture are very interlinked. Hong Kong under the influence of East and West…exposed to Western influences whilst under Western rule, creating its own Western modernity. In Hong Kong we mix a lot of English words into our daily conversation. It is sometimes challenging to speak purely Cantonese.’ He spoke of Art Basel and the construction of commercial galleries such as White Cube…the West Kowloon cultural district…opera and theatre developments.
Next was keynote by Dr Nima Poovaya-Smith who is Director of Alchemy in Yorkshire. I had never heard of this organisation but was pleased to hear about its aims and mission – ‘a focus on artists, audiences, interdisciplinary work and cultural confluence.’ speaking of terrorism, security, censorship, restrictions and restraints in Pakistan relating to culture and cultural events…how ‘public discourse is stifled’. The vibrancy of the artistic scene that drives this…bubbling spring of creativity in the visual arts ads well as literature. Modern day Pakistan and the rise in female educators. She talked briefly of the work of Salima Hashmi including her background and upbringing. Art education used to be a privileged middle-class enclave…now it has begun to open up to poorer students, where Salima has been dedicated to cultivating critical and technical skills.
Rosa Nguyen sadly couldn’t join so the art curator Yvonne Hardman at Touchstones in Rochdale who recently commissioned her work – ‘Sanctuary’ – spoke in her place. She spoke of Rosa’s global collaborations and projects.
Professor Jiang Jiehong (Director of Studies for my PhD) spoke of ‘Harmonious Society Outside of the Gallery’. We’ve spoken a lot about conflict through the day…I want to make an interruption now. Why Asia Triennial Manchester? That in itself is confusing…and I think it is the role of the artist to make bigger confusions. Conflict in Chinese…I am a foreigner here in the UK and even when I got back to China I am seen as a foreigner. In China, there is a different tradition…the most profound culture in China is the literati art…when artists envisage the social conflicts, they don’t face it they escape it, they live an elusive life hiding in the mountains with brushes and inks. In contemporary society, we don’t run away…but how do we hide ourselves and where to we envisage those conflicts? How useless an art museum space can be. As part of Harmonious Society, we only used one formal gallery space at CFCCA. Joshua went on to cite specific examples from all the different venues and spoke of their relationship to conflict. Commissioning a sound piece for a library was a paradox.
Hsiao-Chi Tsai and Kimiya Yoshikawa, two artists currently on show at Bury Museum and Art Gallery as part of the ATM14 could not attend the symposium so instead pre-recorded their presentation. They spoke of their previous public art projects…how the shape and construct of their public works are influenced by the colourful nature and energy of the space and the city where the work is positioned. They cited their work placed in London’s Chinatown made of over 5,000 pieces of perspex…their lion. New works now combine light as part of the artwork and also show abstract motifs that can be reinterpreted and retranslated. All works as part of the ATM14 are unique showing colour, structure and form referencing nature and utopian visions, escape from apparent conflict that dominates society – they are like individual planets. They spoke of a new commission called A COUPLET (2014)…a landmark work inspired by the historical identity of the Bury town.
Sarah Perks and Andy Willis spoke of Asian cinema in the UK and the experiences of programming as part of the ATM14. They discussed the place of Asian cinema in UK cinema culture and international film festival, the conflicts with this…limited number of Asian film distributed in the UK and very specific genre films like Hong Kong action. Andy spoke of recent films released in Asian countries…also researching female filmmakers…limited audiences for Asian film, and a limited understanding. Sarah and Andy referenced Asian films as “products” (which I wasn’t content about and wanted to raise a critical discussion from). Andy mentioned slow cinema as a form of Asian filmmaking. For the ATM14 we took wide-ranging and contradictory perspectives…question, challenge and celebrate the film industry in Hong Kong…challenge the festival friendly circles of cinema and film…working with filmmakers who are popular of the festival friendly circuits in a different way. They wanted to talk more about the BFI’s current Chinese film festival…that it was generated outside the UK and comes from the canon of Chinese cinema where Cornerhouse only borrowed a few from their programming.
Dr Tongyu Zhou who spoke of her project ‘The Fire and the Rose’ on show at the Manchester School of Art, curated with Joe Duffy and Alice Kettle. She spoke through the twelve artists and their works, all who are originally from Manchester School of Art by Sarah Lawton, Steve Dixon,Saoirse Higgins, Paul Booth, Jacqueline Butler, Alice Kettle, Paul Scott, Joseph Duffy, Gavin Parry,TongyuZhou, Jane Brake and John Aitken. Inspired by their visits to Asian countries, the artists reflect deeply on the conflicts that they witnessed, conflicts that have troubled these regions: conflicts of cultures, ideologies, religions, and modernity. This work captures not only the harshness of reality; it also reveals a spirit of tenacity, tolerance, reconciliation, and hope. Do this artworks have any impact on the situation? in other words, what can art do? The title is taken from the last line of a poem by T.S. Elliot called ‘Four Quartets’…in relation to ATM14 it encapsulates the opposing categories of conflict and compassion. We are still living in a time of uncertainty where orders and structures are being challenged. Regional wars have erupted one after another…Asia is a part of this chaotic world. Art might not be able to do anything directly but their compassion will last, it is their legacy.
The second Q&A session began with chair Dr Simon Faulkner’s thoughts on institutional constraints and the relationship between all the different compelling artistic practices…all the ways in which they allow for a reviewing of a situation…you’ve got that on the one hand, then you have a set of restrictions, challenges…trying to sustain a cultural life, with moral value where the system of distribution doesn’t allow that…how do you locate a piece of work that doesn’t “fit”. Can you speak about the tension and the richness of artistic practice and the kind of limitations to make artists survive.
Nima: Salimi talks and works with many of the artists that the ATM14 has worked with. The international platform gives them a voice, a cheque and balance system. Distribution networks…it is so important. It enriches our knowledge and experiences too.
Sarah: The feeling of a struggle or conflict there…make it sound like such hard work, that you are constantly coming up against things…a freedom fighter. You have to see it as a positive and work harder for it…it is a plus…there is a necessity to work a little bit harder.
Joshua: Many journalists interviewed me and they hardly asked about the show…they wanted to know about Ai Weiwei. I asked them to tell me about Ai Weiwei. Is “Harmonious Society” a political statement for you as curators as us as curators…it is a linguistic and cultural problem…how it works in Britain differently. The translation is subtly away from the political engagement to obtain more freedom.
Tongyu: The most important this for us…we are a bit like amateurs…I really appreciate the artists in ‘The Fire and the Rose’ as they just wanted to show something to show they care about Asia.
Q from Aman: The expectation from certain artists to create certain art…from looking at India, Iran and the Emirates different to work from the East…what I see from our work (middle world) is that we self-orientalise ourselves…what should or shouldn’t we be producing…I see it less so in the work from the East, even when they are addressing the same kind of issues. For me, I don’t see it as being as caught in the same kind of struggle for the artist. Is it even an issue with Eastern artists? A struggle of wanting to be represented and seen without the “Turkish Delight” notion…
Sarah: It is sadly still a live issue, that I think it down to lazy or poor curating…stereotypes can be quite dangerous. Triennials can be problematic. It comes down to having a conversation with the artist themselves…it is important to understand what they do, presenting it through the art and the themes not through the country. It is about the relationships with artists and curators. It is to find an authentic path in between.
Q: Instead of interpretive stereotypes it can go the other way. I cam talking about arranged marriages, its hard not to talk about certain things…I just have to make the work with integrity, also if we ponder too long on those thoughts, we’d never make work or curators would never curate. It is about integrity.
Charlie Booth: I feel like throughout the day there has been lots of talk about the location of geography…where the artists are from or how they have been influenced by Asia…that when people come to see the ATM14 they expect to see Asia so it is difficult to get away from what Aman was talking about. It is great to see an artist choosing to represent a location outside.
Nima: We always seem to be in a developmental cycle…we always say we need more curators…and it’s hard.
Bashir: A curator has to find new artists each time, and find artists that fit aesthetically and curatorially, thinking of location and audience…how did you choose your artists Joshua?
Joshua: The way that we worked as a team was quite simple…we organised six workshops in Manchester, Taipei, Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong and London…in the first five workshops we discussed with the potential artists the venues so they could make proposals. Their proposals chose the venue…this made the marriage. What you don’t see is that many proposals were rejected including big names. The joy of the process is to discuss with the artists, and become involved in the artistic process.
Sarah: It is where I’m coming from in terms of themes of work…it is difficulty simple as Joshua says. What I make sure is there is a dialogue around it. If some issues aren’t resolved…if you have problems about geographical boundaries just say that. A thematic that runs through a series of shows that is important…though this will change with HOME.
Zoe Dunbar, soon to be Director of the Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art (CFCCA), finished the day by saying,
“The ATM14 artists have given us very unique insights, the world we live in and might want to live in…they’ve been able to say a lot of what the institutions can’t say.” – Zoe Dunbar