Hanru and I hold interesting positions ourselves in understanding this condition. As Chinese-born curators, we both work in an international context; we absorb information, communicate with different artists, look at exhibitions and participate in discussions with peers and colleagues from multiple cultural and political environments. Such plurality has enabled us to constantly reflect on these issues. Therefore, we are always more interested in the tensions between China and the global situation, the rest of the world, and other different cultural contexts. The point is not to place one in opposition to the other but to examine the complexity of these relationships.
I am very much against the idea, especially for commissioning projects, to have a theme before even knowing what the artists are going to work on; in other words, to let the artworks somehow illustrate a theme—such a method can itself be an act of ‘marking territories’ through curatorial authority. Therefore, the concrete theme actually came after we did the studio visits, selected the artists, and received their proposals. We understood from the beginning that we would like to work with artists who practice in similar conditions—who understand the plural and rich tensions between China and the rest of the world and share similar concerns. Therefore, these artists either have experience living and working abroad or have participated in exhibitions substantively outside of the context of China or both. After fully comprehending what they were working on and thinking about, or their interests at the time, the links started to emerge among some of the artists we visited. After further evaluation, we decided to work with these seven artists and artist groups. Then, we provided these artists a set of key words for them to respond to, including ideas of territory, boundary, and borders but we invited them to think as speculatively and poetically as possible. We also provided the same set of key words to the fiction writers who contributed short stories to our catalogue.
What is worth mentioning is that these artworks have all entered the permanent collection at the Guggenheim Museum. The Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation Chinese Art Initiative does not only present exhibitions but also builds a collection to contribute to a bigger narrative of our contemporary art history. This is very important and interesting, because another layer of ‘deterritorialization’ takes place in this context. We hope that these new commissions will have a different life after this exhibition, after being interpreted in Tales of Our Time; they will go on to be interpreted and displayed in many other exhibitions, in many other narratives, and most importantly, to be connected to artworks produced not in a ‘Chinese’ context.
If I can draw a parallel, I would love to compare this exhibition to a poem, but absolutely not a piece of argumentative writing or expository writing. I hope this can enable an understanding of the relationship between all these artworks with the ‘theme’ or ‘title’ of this exhibition, and more importantly, how they relate to each other. As a curator, I never consider artworks as illustrations of a curator’s idea. Curators provide a context for artworks to be experienced but not a didactic speech of how they should be understood. Therefore, for me, making an exhibition is always a process of many threads woven together, from the issues we curators would like to put forward, the ideas the artworks express, and the materiality of the artworks, to the spatial relationships, architectural conditions, the route a visitor will navigate through, how such spatial experience enhances the meaning of an artwork compared to when it is displayed alone, and so on. Perhaps such an approach also differentiates my practice as a curator versus other museum curators.
With that said, I can give a very brief outline of how these artworks connect to each other. But again, these connections are intended to be read as one would read a poem. Kan Xuan takes us to places that used to be cities in different eras of history, spinning from earlier centuries to more recent time, across thousands of years; Chia-En Jao visited sites loaded with historical and political significances with local taxi drivers in Taipei. But it is not only about these specific sites but also Taipei and even Taiwan as a concept of place. Therefore for Kan, it is cities of old times and for Jao, it is the urban metropolis of today. Then Zhou Tao investigates the formation of the urban environment. Taking Guangzhou and Shenzhen as starting points, he filmed many of the construction sites and their interesting semi-ecologies and the relationship between natural and artificial elements of our contemporary existence. The complex relationship between nature and culture perhaps is also exemplified through Sun Xun’s new work, for which he used the mining history of his hometown Fuxin as an entry point. The history of coal mining is itself extremely political and is a history shared by many different regions in the world. So again, China, or a specific place in China, becomes a connection point for many larger discourses. Then we have Tsang Kin-Wah who looks at the Diaoyu Islands (Senkaku Islands in Japanese), a place that is constantly and enduringly under territorial dispute between China and Japan. He uses this group of uninhabited islands to reflect on the course of history and the relationship between human experience and the writing of history.
If the above-mentioned artists all consider a specific site as the starting point of their work, Beijing based duo Sun Yuan and Peng Yu speak about concept of territory and boundaries in an allegorical way. They have employed a robotic machine and programmed it to conduct a specific action: monitoring a puddle of red liquid on the floor and shovelling it back whenever it spreads over a pre-determined border. But the exhibition ends on an uplifting note about the possibility of creating a utopia—another concept of a place—in a contemporary art exhibition. Yangjiang Group transplanted their autonomous zone from Yangjiang China to the Guggenheim Museum. Since 2002, this collective has been organising communal gatherings in their studio, where they invite neighbours and friends to share meals, practice calligraphy, drink tea and play scorer. They have transformed part of the Guggenheim gallery into a tea gathering space, a Chinese garden with calligraphy murals.
We are not interested or capable to propose a new ‘canon’ in how to define ‘China’, not even the art from China (not to mention China in its historical, political, and cultural complexities) through a small exhibition of such. This is to big of an issue to be addressed through an exhibition, and I am a disbeliever of anyone who claims to do so. But this is the condition we are working from. What you just described is the condition of [The Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation Chinese Art] Initiative, on many levels; a parameter we shall be working from. We simply selected the interesting artists whose practices in recent years will make an attractive exhibition and generate previously non-existent artistic connections.
There is not much politics in terms of balancing a relationship between the mainland, Hong Kong or Taiwan in this exhibition. I think this approach has already differentiated us from exhibitions at Para Site, whose exhibitions, in recent years do carry much bigger ambitions. (Para Site is doing very important work and creating interesting narrative-based essay exhibitions. That’s why I have invited Cosmin Costinas to be in conversation with David Harvey, Howard French and Robin Visser as a key part of the surrounding program for Tales of Our Time. They will speak about the intersection of art, urbanism and literature.) We are not escaping/denying/protesting anything but to open and to complicate any pre-fixed frame up. Simply ‘escaping’ does not equal ‘making fluid’. We can apply your same questions to the ideas of what Hong Kong or Taiwan shall be. So what is Taiwan? How do you understand it? Is it just an island? A place whose recent history was made by Chiang Kai-shek? How do people living there feel about Japanese culture? I am afraid the answer is not that black and white. But art practice, through the power of imagination, can make these places and notions plural.
This is not an exhibition based on ‘China’ but a show with artists participating from the mainland, Hong Kong and Taiwan. If we continue such rhetoric in interpreting the making of the exhibition and the artists’ works from the media world, the art critics, the writers and even the educators, then we will be running in circles and end up in a dead end. We have to think and reflect critically on ourselves as part of the art community and how we actually contribute not so positively and effectively in perpetuating such rhetoric. Have we opened up our own minds? Have we even made an attempt to understand these exhibitions and artworks and artists with fresh eyes? Can we get rid of the burden of pre-existing notions?
One important question I always ask myself: Are there any alternatives for showing contemporary art from China in a non-Chinese context besides the existing models: 1) the historicisation of art, meaning to situate artists in frameworks of politics and identities; 2) the market and commercial success of art and whoever is hot and big? Is it possible to create a different relationship with history? Can we go to the specificities, the specifics of an artist, the specifics of one artwork, the specifics of one element, one object? Are we still able to be imaginative? Can we feel them physically and let go of our mind? Can we love them? Can we balance the sensory and intellectual experience?
The same comments can be applied to the making of an exhibition. It is not just a reportage or commentary of a theme. For me, spatial relationships, site-specificities and all other experiences during one’s visit of an exhibition are equally important to what will be read on a wall label.
What exactly is the cultural specificity of the US or let’s be more specific, New York? How can we understand the idea of cosmopolitan today? Immigration culture? Do the American people know? And how to articulate it? Why is an American audience interested in arts and cultures from Asia, Africa, Latin America? Are people really still interested? Has a kind of global ambition evolved in the past decades? How can American institutions genuinely engage art produced in these places of the world? These are the questions we all reflect on and the answers are not easy. But I would like to consider Tales of Our Time as a trigger for people to think more about these issues, rather than finding ready answers.
I always think about alternatives to our current condition, alternatives to the dominating art systems, cultural and knowledge productions and circulations, mainstream values and even social organisations: I guess a lot of the things artists think about. I am also a true believer of the power of imagination in art. I think the possibilities of the alternatives come from exchanging ideas and values, which makes the deconstruction of stereotypes possible. I am interested in introducing new things and ideas to people, as I am by nature very curious. I am always open-minded and ready to step out of my comfort zone. I think art is such a great thing when it comes to stimulating people to do the same. Many of our world’s problems can be solved by more communication and exchange.
For sure. I am experiencing big learning curves, but it’s all interesting curatorial experience. I think in the museum context, I am not only an exhibition maker but also a curator in its traditional sense: a caretaker of collections. As I mentioned, these new commissioned works will enter the museum’s permanent collection, forming The Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation Collection together with Wang Jianwei’s work, the artist commissioned for the first cycle of the Initiative as organised by Thomas J. Berghuis. I really hope that these works will have a different life, being shown at different exhibitions and museums internationally. At the same time, I am very excited to be able to have a much bigger audience for my work. I am curious to learn how people can create a relationship with this initiative and this exhibition and what kinds of relationship.
But I also miss the independent work environment and spirit. For me, it is really important to always keep that criticality and independent thinking no matter what kind of position I am in. I like to challenge myself. I also would like to create connections between independent practices and institutional practices, not only by myself but also with other practitioners in the field. I want to engage people who are doing amazing work but do not necessarily have a big audience. I think the institution is a great platform to circulate these ideas and knowledge. At the same time, these independent practices also challenge the institution, pushing its boundaries and motivating its reinvention. Perhaps this is how the museum might avoid becoming the ‘mausoleum’ described by Theodor W. Adorno.
For my upcoming exhibition at the Guggenheim, for example, I am bringing many such independent and critical voices to be part of the programme accompanying the show. I think new innovations in exhibiting and interpreting art from China has to come from such cross-pollinating efforts. —[O]