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Conversation  |  Curator, The 5th Auckland Triennial, Auckland

Hou Hanru

In Conversation with
Ocula Editors
24 May 2013
Hou Hanru

Born in 1963 in Guangzhou, China, Hou graduated from the Central Academy of Fine Arts, Beijing in 1985 (BA) and 1988 (MA).

Formally a critic and curator based in Paris, he was recently the Director of Exhibitions & Public Programmes and Chair of Exhibition Studies & Museology at the San Francisco Art Institute from 2006 to 2012.

Hou is a sought-after advisor, international juror and member of curatorial committees to art museums around the world, including the Guggenheim Museum and Tate Modern. He is an advisor at the Rijksakademie van Beeldende Kunsten in Amsterdam; visiting professor at Hoger Instituut voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp/Ghent; a member of the advisory committee of De Appel Foundation, Amsterdam; and a member of Global Advisory Committee of Walker Arts Centre, Minneapolis. In addition, he is the French Correspondent of Flash Art International and has contributed to and guest edited Urban China, Yishu and ArtAsiaPacific.

Hou Hanru's acclaimed biennials, triennials and exhibitions include: The Spectacle of the Everyday, Biennale de Lyon (2009); Not Only Possible, But Also NecessaryOptimism in the Age of Global Wars, 10th Istanbul Biennial (2007); Everyday Miracle, Four Woman Artists in the Chinese Pavilion (Shen Yuan, Yin Xiuzhen, Kan Xuan, Cao Fei), Venice Biennale (2007); Beyond, 2nd Guangzhou Triennale, Guangzhou, 2004–2006; Z.O.U.Zone Of Urgency, Venice Biennale, (2003); 4th Gwangju Biennale (2002), Gwangju; Shanghai Spirit, Shanghai Biennale (2000), Shanghai Art Museum, Shanghai; The French Pavilion, Venice Biennale (with Huang Yong Ping) (1999).

OECan you elaborate on If you were to live here..., and how you came to propose this space and process in the context of Auckland, a somewhat remote Asia Pacific city?

HHHow to be in the world, or more precisely, how to 'live here', is the key question to start with when we engage in artistic production in making sense of life—to think through the meaning of living in the world with our imaginations and critical judgements, and to further figure out who we are. 'To be here' or 'To live here' provides the most basic but inevitable start for all our imaginations and artistic actions.

By calling the Triennial If you were to live here... we intend to emphasise the fact that the current Auckland Triennial—the fifth—is a locally engaged project of 'global art'. We are determined to consecrate our art creation to, and engage ourselves with, the specific locality where it takes place.

The remote New Zealand, a faraway 'there'—and its self-mythologised bio-geological 'virginity'—can now been seen as 'here', a locality that is no longer situated on the margin of the world.

In New Zealand, the questions of dwelling and home and eventually the question of 'here' are intensely critical. As a postcolonial country, its existence relies on a cautiously kept balance between the colonisers (Pākehā) and the indigenous people (Maori) under the political-philosophical arrangement of biculturalism. Over time, this process formed a highly distinguished image of a nation, a kind of 'official identity'.

However, for the past couple of decades, new waves of immigrants from other Pacific nations, Asia, Africa and elsewhere have significantly altered New Zealand's bicultural profile. The new lifestyles, cultures, values and modes of production brought into New Zealand by these immigrants and, equally importantly, the inevitable integration of the country into the globalised system of economic, cultural and political production and exchange, have made New Zealand a potential home for anyone in the world. Auckland has already seen its 'nationals' outnumbered by 'foreigners'.

These global circulations of people birth to a new world: this is an open, unknown and perpetually evolving world that the traditional distinctions can no longer maintain and validate. New Zealand, as well as the Pacific region in which is situated, is now a central part of the new world system of multi-centres. The new routes of cultural and artistic production and circulation prove to be the best evidence of such a novel geopolitical cartography. The notions of belonging and home have fundamentally changed while new social divisions are being provoked.

It's under such circumstances that an art event like the Auckland Triennial should be organised as a 'home event' in which the 'global art community' is invited to participate in the making and remaking of a 'home'—the Here. Imagine: 'If you were to live here...'

OETell us more about 'The Lab'—referred to as the brain of the Triennial. How did this concept come about and how does it function in relation to the wider event?

HHIt's vitally important to emphasise the Triennial is not only an exhibition. It is a site of production of knowledge and imagination, an alive, ongoing and infinite platform for dialogues, participations and exchanges between artists and the public, via collaborations with trans-disciplinary professionals and institutions. To realise such a vision, we have established a laboratory, 'The Lab', to occupy a central space at Auckland Art Gallery. This is the brain, the intellectual core of the Triennial.

As a kind of open university, its programme—case studies, lectures, presentations, symposiums, panel discussions performances and outside excursions—will unfold for the duration of the Triennial. A rich and intense programme around five major themes has been developed: Rural-Urban (as living space), Emergency Response and Recovery (Christchurch as a case study), Multicultural impacts on Urban Transformation, Ideal Homes and Informal Markets. The public is invited to participate on many levels, while students will develop case studies and presentations. General coordinator Michael Davis has also come up with a space design using an intelligent and efficient strategy to recycle the found materials in the Gallery—crates, frames, and so on—to provide a flexible and stimulating space.

Ultimately this forms a space of occupation, a kind of 'Temporary Autonomous Zone' in the heart of the Triennial to allow and active and open discussion on the immediate and future social, urban and cultural reality in which we live. Mirroring the strategy of Occupy as a resistance to the hegemonic powers of the capital and its political alliances, along with arts projects at the Triennial, The Lab allows the most pressing questions of our time and our real lives to become the fuel for our intellectual and imaginative machines.

It's like a volcano sitting in the centre of the whole Triennial event—one day it may explode, and the effect would be unexpectedly exciting!

OEThe Triennial takes place in nine venues across Auckland. Beyond the obvious locations, is there any particular significance in the venues chosen?

HHThe locations were chosen as a result of a lot of research on the city's contemporary art scene, its architecture, and social and economic history. The idea was to reach out to many different partners and in connecting with a vast number of different contexts, to provide a more comprehensive picture of how the city evolved as it did.

Our venues are diverse. We've got the more traditional art spaces, typified by the likes of the Gus Fisher and George Fraser galleries, and of course the Auckland Art Gallery itself. Then, we have the Auckland War Memorial Museum, which provides a cultural and historical context to the examination of our theme. We really wanted to go beyond the central city and so Fresh Gallery in Otara was chosen—it's been doing a great job in showcasing the work of Maori and Pacific artists of course, but also presenting an opportunity to effect change by inspiring viewers to reflect on issues that affect their lives. It's a space that is not only defined by the parameters of the venue but also by the context and culture to which it belongs, investigates, inhabits and mediates.

Silo Park was another interesting venue. Situated on the waterfront, Silo Park represents the expansion and the renovation of the city and mirrors many such developments around the world, where industrial sites are being transformed into cultural equipment. While these developments are exciting and widely embraced, however, the speculation and gentrification involved are being critically debated. How to render this supposedly public space truly public?

In June, Maori architects Rau Hoskins and Carin Wilson plan to lead a collective that will erect a paparewa teitei (food storage construction) to host a festival on the waterfront—the first reconstruction of a paparewa teitei in the Auckland region in more than 150 years. It will be part of a festival of public creativity, which we hope will more genuinely put forward the waterfront's status as a public space than the area's fancy restaurants.

OEDid you have a set of guidelines to work with when selecting artists to take part in the Triennial?

HHThere were no clear 'guidelines' as such. The research provided ideas for the theme, and related to that I had looked into the interaction between the local art community and the more international artists. Then followed the consideration that the Auckland Triennial is not large—not as big as Sydney with over 100 artists, for example—but in the region of 30 to 40, so that provided another parameter to work within.

Meantime we also reached out to other professionals—architects, designers and so on, people who often lecture in these topics—with the hopes of adding an educational dimension connecting the art community to all these others and the public.

Most of the artists respond directly and indirectly to the theme of home and evolution of habitation. So all this lead to an organic collection of the most appropriate participants.

OEThe 5th Auckland Triennial has required diverse institutions and groups to work together—has this had a bearing on the outcomes of some of the projects?

HHThe background to curating the Auckland Triennial required, as I have said, months of researching the context and trying to look at all the different parties and their historical interactions—always with a mind to pushing collaboration even further. This process required hundreds of meetings with different collectives and individuals and when we all came together to sit around the table I was in for a wonderful surprise—the conversation was very active and positive and the outcomes are truly unique.

OEWhere there any particular challenges or opportunities that arise from socio-economic, historical and political conditions in New Zealand?

HHIn Auckland, as in many post-colonial cities, the contemporary urban structure, both home and public space, has been deeply imprinted with overlapping layers of different historical periods of the city's transformation, which are based on differences, disputes and negotiations among various social, cultural and political traditions. An example of this is the way Maori land usage was often in conflict with the coloniser' logic of home settling and town building.

New Zealand may not have the same disparity between formal and informal urban spaces that can found in other countries. There is a growing recognition that, for example, Maori and Pacific alternate design principles and life values meld with Western modernist tradition. Numerous experiments have been carried out in this direction. Recent natural disasters like the 2011 Christchurch earthquakes were not simply national traumas. They could also be seen as an opportunity to awake the potential of the country's creative minds when faced with the urgency of survival and renewal.

Experimentation and ecological correctness are common approaches shared by the actors of these projects, while they service totally different functions from non-profit, cultural and community organisations to mainly commercial and political institutions. They seem to share a certain heroic and even utopian attitude in the face of the threat of natural forces. Perhaps this reveals once again a survival instinct in facing crisis which is deeply anchored in the New Zealand psyche.

Yes here—this imaginative 'New Zealand'—is perhaps the ultimate new land for all of us to live in ...

OEThe world is awash with Biennales and Triennials. Can there be too many? What do you see as their most important function and how will they evolve?

HHIt's a difficult question to answer. Are there too many art galleries? Too many museums? Certainly there are an increasing number of biennials and triennials and the question of whether there are too many depends on how effectively they work to create relevance and a relationship with the public.

Generally they can work to raise the visibility of artistic events and endeavours and work to not only expose audiences to the best art from all over the world, but also encourage the best artists to come and work and live in Auckland.

From a more global perspective, biennials and triennials work to broaden the scope of art seen by the public beyond the traditional centres, beyond the traditional institutions and contexts where art is produced, seen and perhaps even brought in the western tradition. The majority of the most exciting art is coming from Asia Pacific, Africa, Latin America, the Middle East and so forth—biennials and triennials provide a new form of cultural infrastructure that seeks these works out and helps to build a better consciousness of art in all its forms.

OECan art change the way people approach finding solutions to problems arising at this point in history?

HHIn terms of raising consciousness, or understanding the role of imagination—yes. I think it is true that art and art events help us understand the importance of creativity in the process of living in our time—especially at a time like this, where communities are dominated by economic power relationships. Art can help us go beyond that. When social politics and democracy itself are in crisis, and many communities are really at the mercy of economic interests, art imagines other perspectives, other ways of 'being here'. —[O]

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