No Beard Fei,1
This letter is penned after PRACTICE was created two years ago, within which we have experienced fifteen projects and exhibitions with artists from vastly different backgrounds. PRACTICE was founded in New York by three artists born in China, and has served as our studio (plus a free space for artists to work and sleep), an exhibition space, hotpot restaurant, and mahjong house. The artists with whom we have collaborated were born in Korea, Japan, Greece, the United States of America, Croatia, Portugal, and Taiwan, with several artists born in one place but raised on the other side of the Pacific or Atlantic Ocean. But this phenomenon is nothing rare in a place like New York; in fact, it is quite common. I'm writing this letter today to update some thoughts, though not necessarily from a bird's eye view (we often find ourselves trying to unify many minute and fine things). I would like to start from a very intimate and real place—changing language barriers and friendship between peer artists.
When Zhang Huan arrived in New York in 1998, who was his best friend? Who was Cai Guo-Qiang's non-Chinese best friend in New York? What was the conversation between them about? Does the meaning of life reside in studying other cultures and reflecting on one's own? Why do people care or not care about these issues? Here at PRACTICE we shared much happiness. It came partly from artists' desires to create, partly from the necessity for and pleasure from communication. This kind of communication didn't revolve around eating, drinking, or gossip, but rather questions generated out of states of urgency, regarding society, geography, economics, life, physics, and art. In the process of conversing with Irini Miga, Taro Masushio, Seon Young Park, Ali Van, João Vasco Paiva, Casey Robbins, Yunyu 'Ayo' Shih, Wang Wei, and Rania Ho, PRACTICE continually found new inspirations. These artists are like mirrors, in the sense that they allow us to see with more than one pair of eyes. Imagine what it's like when many pairs of eyes flutter open on the same body. It is true that English isn't our mother tongue. We all started from mimicking. Without even knowing whether it was absolutely necessary (there wasn't enough time to make a decision), we all naturally became bi-lingual, tri-lingual (during the period of Korea under Japanese rule, refugees escaped to Manchuria and studied Chinese, which was the only mandatory language used for communication. Their mother tongue was forbidden into whispers: only at night could they be enunciated as lightly as possible, for the sole purpose of not forgetting).2
We never had the opportunity to think over or decide whether we needed these languages, but before we could respond, we had already learned them. It's luck that we have encountered friends from different countries and backgrounds, our bi-lingual or tri-lingual (computing language) tongues not only served as the basis for communication, but also opened up new modes of thinking (logic). Language, evolving from being a tool to a habit, became a game.
We spent many nights at PRACTICE just talking. These conversations were not always profound, and sometimes we even fought for trivial things. The word 'emotional' is especially suited for PRACTICE, perhaps because the three founders came from a place that acts on emotional impulses. People are always held together by a thin membrane led by emotions (mianzi, guanxi, yiqi, family). As such, many artists witnessed the so-called 'Chinese way' of fighting, but they also experienced the 'Chinese way' of sharing (selflessly helping others), trust, modesty (the ability to withstand adversity), as well as a forgiveness that seemed to run in our blood. I always thought this was the most unique character that made PRACTICE stand out as an artists-run space in New York (that is, aside from its deliberate purposelessness). On another level, artists like Xinyi Cheng, Weiyi Li, and Zheng Yuan were all born in China and came to study in the US. We met in the US, and started to question our identity and the culture of our homeland. We all thought of emailing each other to keep in contact—we didn't have long to stay together. Everyone lived in a different place—each had his or her own mission. But those momentary connections forged in the past were profound enough to slightly shape each other's work and life.
Asides from Warhol (1928–1987) and Beuys (1921–1986), we should also remember Robert Filliou (192–61987). He came up with the 'Genial Republic', which aimed to be an ideal society beyond national affiliation and underscored the independence of the inquisitive. Each person is their own territory.
I was on the phone with a friend at noon today. 'What do you think of when you make work?', I ask. He answered: 'I would think...am I adding a new piece of garbage to this world?' (Another voice from 1991 starts ringing in my ear: 'Do you believe that you have made an impact on the Western art world?')3
Culture is a kind of fruit, the result of production and consumption, shaped according to people's needs and beliefs. Yet these needs and beliefs should be explained by historical, technological, geographical, and economic determinants. What is the culture of our homeland? Whether we left because we have no choice, or we linger at the confusion of having too many choices, at the end of the day I know that I have some little friends by my side. Through time and space, our friendships gradually change our identity.4
Special thanks: Capsule Shanghai, Terence Chan, Guo Juan, Ho King Man, Banyi Huang, Carol Lu, Taro Masushio, Xiaofei Mo, Wang Xu, Cici Wu, all the artists.
1 Pseudonym of Fei Dawei, used in a letter to Li Xianting in 1991.
2 Excerpt from Dictee, an auto-ethnographic novel about the self and nation-states by Korean-American artist Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, 1982.
3 A question that Li Xianting asked in his letter to Fei Dawei in 1991.
4 Press release of Mathew Berliner Mauer, Amy Lien and Enzo Camacho, 2014.
Press release courtesy Capsule Shanghai.