August 8 Red Army Mountain, Zunyi
Guan Yuda et al. The Long March Ceremony, performance, 2002
Wang Chuyu, Constitution, performance, 2002
Yao Jui-chung, Turning the World Upside Down, performance/photograph, 2002
Collective Painting – Little Swallow (Zhao Wei), Zunyi Cultural Center
Pre-conference Presentation of Long March Project, Jincui Lake Vacation Village, Guiyang
August 10 – 11 Jincui Lake Vacation Village, Guiyang
2002 Zunyi ‘International Symposium – Curating and the Chinese Context’
Wang Chuyu, Democratic Long March, performance, 2002
Xiao Xiong, Enter and Exit, performance/installation, 2002
Exhibition of Leaders’ Portraits by international and local artists, 2002
The group met local artist Wang Jun and five of his companions in the hotel, and agreed to participate in the welcoming ceremony the next morning at the Red Army Martyrs’ Memorial atop Red Army Mountain.
Lu Jie stayed in the hotel and kept discussing their expectations for the conference. Qiu Zhijie, Lisa Horikawa, and Shen Xiaomin look for ideal places in Zunyi to realize Long March art events.
The conference could no longer be held in Zunyi Hotel as the local friend of critic and curator Gu Zhenqing retrieved his help because of his misunderstanding about contemporary art. The curatorial team found “Big Ocean Foreign Language School” on the third floor of a billiards hall. Teacher Huang, director of the school offered the space up for free use. Long March decided to divide the meeting originally scheduled for Zunyi into two parts. The part to be held at the Big Ocean Foreign Language School would discuss “Alternative Spaces, Independent Curating, and the Development of Resources” as this place was located directly across from the former Red Army Bank.
A hair salon catering only to babies converted from a front door space of a Christian church refused Lu Jie’s request of collaboration.
Taiwanese artist Yao Jui-chung also arrived in town, prepared to travel with the marchers for three weeks, through to Luding Bridge.
Guan Yuda et al. The Long March Ceremony, performance, 2002
At 10:00, Chen Qiji, Wang Jun, Guan Yuda and others arrived at the hotel entrance, ready to lead the group to Red Army Mountain. The small square atop the mountain contained a statue of Ye Yushan and busts of three Red Army martyrs on pedestals arranged in a circle. On the memorial stele was inscribed a line of Deng Xiaoping’s calligraphy: “The Red Army Martyrs will never decay.” Atop the stele was a metal hammer and sickle. The summer foliage of the square provided a shady canopy for drinking tea. This tree canopy was actually the logo of the local Long March brand cigarettes, which are ubiquitous in Zunyi.
The welcoming ceremony put on by Guan Yuda and others also bore a connection to Long March cigarettes, as the activity mainly involved the presentation of tobacco, alcohol, and a flag from Guizhou artists to the Long Marchers, followed by the reading of an open letter. Everyone chose the space atop the mountain, behind the memorial, and in front of the Deng Ping Martyr’s Tomb in which to hold the ceremony.
Representing the Guizhou artists, Guan Yuda read aloud the open letter the the Long March curators and group, entitled “The Long March and Contemporary Art ‘Sent Down.’” In addition to welcoming the Long March, the letter also expressed doubt about its curatorial methods; its writers welcomed the Long March as if it really were a process of being “sent down” to the countryside in the manner of the Cultural Revolution. The letter was also signed by famous 1980s Guizhou painters Pu Guochang and Yin Guangzhong, neither of whom were present.
Detail of the performance
Guizhou artists first opened a flag, on which was written a famous Mao Zedong quote about the Long March: “The Long March is a manifesto, the Long March is a propaganda team, the Long March is a sower of seeds.” The Long March central command assigned “Qu Guangci” and his soft sculpture to receive the gift of the flag. In the second part of the ceremony, Guizhou artists offered a toast to their guests. They used Guizhou rice wine, which is very sweet. The artists then presented a box of Long March cigarettes to each of the marchers present. The Long Marchers in turn presented to each Guizhou artist a box of Zhongnanhai cigarettes. Zhongnanhai is a popular brand in Beijing, and bears the name of the compound near the Forbidden City in which the top echelons of the Communist leadership reside. These cigarettes had been brought along for personal use by Beijing artist Wang Chuyu, and quickly redirected to this purpose. Receiving gifts in return made the Guizhou artists feel funny, and everyone laughed.
Wang Chuyu, Constitution, performance, 2002
After the welcoming ceremony had concluded, Beijing artist Wang Chuyu invited Guan Yuda and others to participate in his work Constitution. The Guizhou artists each chose a passage they found particularly interesting, and read it in their thick Guizhou accents.
Yao Jui-chung, Turning the World Upside Down, performance/photograph, 2002
Afterwards, Taiwanese artist Yao Jui-chung realized the first portion of his work Turning the World Upside Down in front of the memorial. In this work, Yao uses his established style of revisiting history via his own body. Yao Jui-chung decided to shoot pictures of himself standing on his hands at key historical sites along the Long March route. Later, these images will be presented such that it appears as if he is holding up the world. Having understood Yao’s creative methods for this work, everyone thought of his old work Historical Survey Series, which similarly involves many different monumental locations and the movement of his own body. In this series, Yao appears leaping in mid-air, and interrogates the complex relationship between humankind and history by presenting himself “neither touching the ground nor reaching the sky” as the old Chinese saying goes. When speaking of this work, several people began to imitate it, jumping up and down. This joke grew more and more serious, until Yao Jui-chung decided that from here on, he would continue this previous work at the next several stops on the Long March.
That afternoon, Lu Jie received a piece of good news from Shen Meng, the trustee of Long March Foundation: hearing about the project, the European and American museum directors who Long March Foundation board member Professor Zheng Shengtian was set to accompany to the conference in Zunyi insisted on paying their own expenses, in order to help the Long March save some money and increase the number of people it could invite. Hence, Lu Jie and Qiu Zhijie decided that Chongqing artists Li Chuan, Li Yong, and Ren Qian could help to realize the Long March events in Zunyi. Lu Jie prepared documents for the curatorial conference. Qiu and Lu decided to hold the first portion of the curatorial meeting at the Jincui Lake Vacation Village outside of Guiyang. Gu Zhenqing would be responsible for convening the meeting.
August 9 Zunyi Cultural Center
Collective Painting – Little Swallow (Zhao Wei)
The Long March curatorial team had originally decided to organize a Long March Event to take place at Zunyi, in which the experts and scholars in town for the meeting, the members of the Zunyi Artists’ Association, and ordinary viewers of the exhibition would create a massive “leader portrait.” The original image would be enlarged and separated into many small squares, and the participants would each paint a square in the style and color of propaganda painting. All the painters working together would create a complete image, and the fruit of their labor would be exhibited in the local art museum. This activity would memorialize the groups of artists who produced “leader portraits” in China’s socialist past, and recall enlightenment-style artistic education. In producing a leader portrait, the Long March could discuss new forms of revolutionary memory and education in a cultural background quite different from that of the original portraits.
After reaching Zunyi, in order to more deeply connect with universally idolatrized cultural symbols, instead of merely borrowing images from revolutionary culture which may have lost their relevance, the curatorial team decided to use the image of a pop or movie or pop star instead of a leader. The decision came down to Leonardo DiCaprio or Chinese starlet Zhao Wei, and in the end, Zhao Wei was chosen.
In their original scheming, the curators had hoped that by creating the painting outdoors, they would attract a huge number of onlookers, some of whom would partake of the creative process themselves. But because the work was temporarily moved inside, there were far fewer viewers than anticipated. Guan Yuda and other Guizhou artists pretended to be specially employed for the project, and assisted in drawing some interested passersby.
Still, the expected plan whereby interested amateurs would be naturally attracted to the project changed into one whereby they were specially invited. Security guards and workers from the construction site near the Fenghuang Mountain Culture Center, along with little girls reading the newspaper by the entrance became part of the painting ranks. Zhao Wei was the idol of these young girls.
Dividing and painting was quite easy, but piecing the work together required more effort. As the masses moved, chaos became inevitable. Each person took a piece of the original photo and a large sheet of paper, but often lost the number of their piece upon completing work. Qiu Zhijie, on-site managers and artists from Sichuan Academy of Fine Arts, Li Chuan and others prepared the portrait of Zhao Wei and assembled it into a giant image.
The curatorial crew and comrades climbed a steep slope to reach the peak of the city, overlooking the mountain landscape and streets below. This is where the annual Red Army dance takes place. Women from mixed generations – the oldest dressed in traditional costume, the youngest dressed in jeans and sweaters – dance together while a thirteen year-old boy plays a traditional wooden flute in the center. The women dance before lush mountains juxtaposed with the city below, and framed by a monumental fifty-foot high Cultural Revolution-era bronze sculpture. During the dance, the curatorial crew erected a Long March flag that bore the New English Calligraphy logo designed by Xu Bing. After the dance, Lu Jie distributed propaganda to the dancers. Town officials quickly intervened so Lu Jie quickly collected the propaganda and the troops headed back to Lijiang.
August 10 Jincui Lake Vacation Village
2002 Zunyi ‘International Symposium – Curating and the Chinese Context’
Robert Bernell: Director, Time Zone Eight; Founder of chinese-art.com, Beijing
Jo-Anne Birnie-Danzker: Director, Museum of Villa Stuck, Munich, Germany
Per Bj. Boym: Director, Contemporary Art Museum, Oslo, Norway
Johnson Chang: Curator, Director of Hanart TZ Gallery, Hong Kong
Emily Cheng: Artist, New York
Fram Kitagawa: Director of Art Front Gallery, Chairman of the Echigo-Tsumari Triennial, Japan
Akira Kuriyama: Curator, Art Critic of the Art Journal Magazine, Japan
Lu Jie: Chairman, Long March Foundation; Initiator and Chief-Curator of the Long March Project, New York
Edward Lucie-Smith: Art Critic/Art Historian, England
Kenneth Lum: Artist, Editor of Yishu Magazine, Vancouver, Canada
Dr. Charles Merewether: Curator, Getty Research Institute and Museum, Los Angeles
Denise Oleksijczuk: Art Historian, University of British Columbia, Canada
Phil Tinari: Art Critic, Philadelphia
Wong Shun-Kit: Chairman, Art Development Council, Hong Kong
Yao Jui-chung: Artist and Independent Curator, Taiwan
Zheng Shengtian: Director, Yishu Magazine, Vancouver, Canada
Participants from Mainland China:
Chen Mo: Curator, Editor of the Sichuan Art Publishing House, Chengdu, Sichuan
Chen Tong: Writer, Founder of Borges Bookstore, Guangzhou
Feng Boyi: Curator, Associate Chief-Editor of the Artist News Magazine published by the Chinese Artists Association, Beijing
Gu Zhenqing: Independent Curator, Curator of the 1st Chengdu Biennial 2002, Beijing
Guang Yuda: Independent Curator, Guizhou
Jiang Yuanlun: Professor, Beijing Normal University; Chief-Editor, Avant-Garde Today Magazine, Beijing
Jiang Yue: Deputy Director, Guangdong Art Museum, Guangzhou
Li Taihuang: Art Consultant, China International Art Exhibition Co.
Li Zhenhua: Independent Curator, Director of White Cube, Beijing
Qiu Zhijie: Artist, Independent Curator, Co-Curator of the Long March Project, Beijing
Wang Gongxin: Artist, Founder of the Loft New Media Art Space, Beijing
Weng Ling: Curator and Director of the Shanghai Biennial 2002, Shanghai
Wu Hong: Curator, Director of Art Union, Tom.com, Beijing
Wu Meichun: Director of the New Media Art Center, China Academy of Fine Arts, Hangzhou
Ye Yongqing: Artist, Director of the Loft 99 Art Space, Kunming
Zhang Qing: Curator, Shanghai Art Museum, Curator of the Shanghai Biennial, Shanghai
(all participants are listed in alphabetical order)
Brief Introduction about Zunyi Symposium
The town of Zunyi was an important historical turning point on the route of the Long March, where the Red Army’s march turned from defeat towards victory. The Zunyi Meeting held there in 1935 put an end to the dominance of a Leftist line within the Communist Party and the Red Army that rigidly and indiscriminately applied Communist International doctrines. A group of Communist Party members who were adept at combining the basic principles of Marxism with the native context of the Chinese revolution put their ideas to the test and achieved a new understanding and interpretation of Marxism. What significance does this have for the practice of contemporary Chinese art today?
At Zunyi our Long March exhibition will, through a series of artistic activities, debate the importance of native context in art practice, and the influence of the Chinese Revolution on international contemporary art and contemporary Chinese art. We chose Zunyi because its unique historical context can be used to advantage in determining the significance of native experience and native forms.
The ‘International Symposium -Curating in Chinese Context’ to be held at Zunyi Guesthouse will be attended for the most part by curators – both independent and those who are based at an institution, gallery owners, members of the art press, artists and critics, and the following topics will be discussed:
1. Curating in Chinese context:
Contemporary Chinese art currently finds itself amid complicated power relations: the existing national art exhibition culture itself is quietly undergoing a displacement and adjustment. For example since the 1990s there has been a shift from the concept of art and literature being in the service of politics towards ‘high art’. Traditional art still has a relatively broad foundation among the people and because of this has become a market presence that cannot be ignored. The new market and mass media created by economic development are having an increasingly marked influence on artistic activities, in particular because global contact is becoming more and more common, and political and economic forces from beyond national borders are having an unprecedented influence on Chinese art. The contemporary Chinese art that appears in international exhibition spaces is likewise caught up in complicated power relations, and this has had a strong effect on the self-orientation of Chinese society towards Chinese art. All of this has created a rich and complex arena of power. During this symposium we hope to analyse the key elements of this kind of power, and the positive and negative effects it has on Chinese art, using past examples as a starting point for our analysis. Our intention is to seek out more possibilities within the mutual effect of these various forces.
2. Curating exhibitions: the power and interpretation of visual space:
Within a special kind of power structure, the breakthrough of Chinese art should not only be manifested through making processes and results of art production, but also through a unique exhibition culture. In the interpretation of visual space, what power does the curator have and what are the limits of this power? What power does the media have and where are its boundaries? Amid such power relationships, what role does the exposition of art-making play through curation, narration and media circulation? What is the result produced by market forces such as sponsors, galleries and collectors, and what power and responsibility do they have? These are some of the concrete issues we want to discuss at this meeting.
3. Alternative spaces, independent curating and the development of resources:
Alternative spaces and independent curating are without a doubt the most dynamic phenomena in Chinese art at the turn of the century. And in an international context China’s alternative spaces and independent curating possess a rather distinctive nature, which is particularly noticeable in their relationship with institutions and the system. What are the material and psychological bases for the existence of artist-run spaces, and where is the space for their development? In what sense does media interaction – whether it be with the traditional media or the internet – constitute another kind of alternative space? How does the new force of independent curating achieve a re-distribution and development of resources? In what sense can it stimulate the latent energy of the conventional system, and in turn, to what extent is it controlled by the conventional system? How should the available resources be shared among the work of independent curators? At this meeting we hope to bring together people who have personal experience of this kind of work, to summarise what they have experienced and learnt during recent years, and explore more possibilities.
We hope that in the small town of Zunyi, located in China’s vast hinterland far away from any centre, Chinese and international colleagues will be able to communicate their experiences of China to each other, to discuss their actual limitations and genuinely beneficial resources, and to reinterpret the significance of space, power, and curating exhibitions in a local and international context.
View of Zunyi International Symposium of Curating
Delegate Members in Zunyi
Transcript of Zunyi Symposium
The theme for our conference is Curating in the Chinese Context. I’d like to introduce the format for today’s meeting. After any dialogue or speech, you are free to raise your hand and respond or pose a question. If anyone wishes to speak at length on any topic, that would be welcome. Simply write down your thoughts and submit them to Mr. Zheng Shengtian and he will arrange a time. Each of our three meetings will have a separate theme, and the theme of this morning’s meeting, like the theme of the conference, is Curating in the Chinese Context. The chair is Mr. Zheng Shengtian, and the discussants are Zhang Qing and Johnson Chang.
I’ve just heard my introduction by Gu Zhenqing. And I’d like to say that in addition to the work I’m now doing in Canada, I’m also a trustee of the Long March foundation,the organizer of Long March project and this symposium. In this capacity, I’d like to warmly welcome everyone to today’s symposium. The work I’ve been involed recently is not about the Long March, but about something that happened simultaneously with the Long March: modernism in Shanghai in the 1930s. The reason why I mention this is because in doing the work that we’re doing on Shanghai in the 1930’s, one of the things we’ve discovered is the importance of communications and exchange between China and the West. At the same time that all of the things were happening in Shanghai in the 1930s, the Long March were taking place here, in the Southwest of China. And the Long March was another kind of interaction, another kind of exchange. Over the last few years there have been many, many important events and exhibitions in Chinese art. The two gentlemen sitting to my right have been instrumentally involved in curating some of the most important events, so I’d like to begin today’s dialogue by asking Mr. Johnson Chang to say a few words.
Thank you, Professor Zheng. I originally wanted to speak on curating in the international arena and its connection to the Long March, but there is some distance between the “international context” and the actual history of the Long March, so I will address these topics separately. As far as our generation is concerned, the historical Long March is both the establishment of a new sovereignty and a creation myth for the current system. The Long March was about how to promote a new way of thinking, how find a new and appropriate response to modernization, and about how to apply that response to China. In terms of establishing a new order, the Long March was extremely successful. Looking at Chinese contemporary art from this perspective, this Long March is about taking the readings which art has developed of contemporary society, its integration of fantasies and dreams about this society, and making some adjustments. What I find interesting about this Long March is that it has abandoned the notion of a fixed exhibition space in favor of building a formless exhibition space that dwells in thought. When we curate Chinese art in the international context today, one could say we are taking some Chinese experiences, some Chinese interpretations, and introducing them anew. Perhaps this is not a simple process of introducing these things abroad, since modernism in China is fundamentally a Western import. And as China in the 1960s and 70s was shut off from the rest of the world, the situation today is in many ways a return, a coming full circle. If there is any meaning in this, it is that at last, China is returning to available resources, and returning to the land. You could also say that this exhibition is the beginning of a new Long March, a Long March that is necessary not only to contemporary China, but also to the West.
Now we invite Mr. Zhang Qing from the Shanghai Museum, the curator of the Shanghai Biennial, to speak.
I’d like to begin my talk based on a specific experience, my experience of curating the Shanghai Biennial on behalf of the Shanghai Art Museum. As a public servant, I’d like to say first and foremost that curating is about being a servant. Whether you are someone from the Long March in the early days, or you’re an old survivor of the Long March, or you’re someone involved in today’s art, we’re all servants of the revolution. For those of us participating in today’s Zunyi conference, I think in addition to this being an opportunity for us to talk about the Chinese revolutionary experience, it is also a time to stop, to put an end to the importation of the Western philosophical thought that is imported in the form of dogmatic tenets. In the ideal world, we would be able to take Western philosophy and tenets of international modernism, and combine them with the unique local idioms of China. For me as a curator, that’s my goal. And in our practice, we can attain new ways of explaining and creating understanding, and can we develop a model for Chinese art. To borrow a phrase from one of the world’s greatest curators, Mao Zedong, we should first “cast our eyes downward and not look up to the sky.” If you are unwilling to cast your eyes downward and have not the strength, then you will never understand the affairs of China. One thing that I’ve learned is that I should understand the mechanics of an independent area or field…China forces you to basically put aside your experience, the experience of past curatorial projects. It’s important as servants, number one, that we understand China’s cultural policies, China’s laws, and that we curate in a way that is in line with the thought and the special characteristics of China. Electricians, construction people, all of these are in many ways a part of the final product.
One of the things that I learned in curating the Shanghai Biennial was the relationship between shipping companies, insurance, and customs. In addition there was the issue of finance, and as many of the cultural institutions in China do not have foreign exchange accounts, so to do an international exhibition in China, you must have the ability to negotiate in different currencies. For example, one of the sponsors was from Holland, and they provided their funds in the form of a wire transfer in Dutch currency. It was immediately changed into RMB by the Bank of China, and we could do nothing because the French shipping company wanted to be paid in Francs. So we learn as we go. Another aspect of course is dealing with the local government. In the Cai Guo-qiang exhibition I participated in earlier this year, the artist wanted to do a pyrotechnical work in Pudong, but the municipal government will not permit this kind of activity. So the problem was how to resolve this issue, and the Shanghai TV station had an opportunity to get Cai Guo-qiang involved in the fireworks display that was being planned for the APEC conference in September 2001, and in this way we were able to resolve that particular problem. It’s also important to remember that the artists are the true heroes, and we are mere servants. If we don’t remember this, we won’t ever make the grade as servants.
We can’t continue the dialogue in this way; it’s not the revolutionary manner! Zhang Qing and I have both written short papers, but we shouldn’t just sit here and read them; we should talk about the issues. Actually the question we care most about is what are the curator’s motives in organizing an activity. In other words, when a curator plans something like this, who does he hope will attend? What result is he looking for? Everyone says that “curating is a kind of power.” But what kind of power, a power to do what? I’d like Zhang Qing to speak for a minute about the Shanghai Biennial, about the differences between the last one in 2000 and the upcoming one in November. Who is the intended viewer of the Biennial? What kind of final results are we looking for from this exhibition?
This is a very good question. Let me give you a little background to the Biennial. The first Shanghai Biennial was very much a China Biennial. The artists and the participants were working in international forms, but it was very much a Chinese Biennial. The second Biennial was centered on ink, and the third Biennial was an actual biennial in that it involved people from the international arena. At the time when we began planning the third biennial, there were a number of Chinese artists, curators, people involved in the international art world, and working with them, we had the means to undertake a truly international biennial. I think one of the target audiences for this year’s Biennial is going to be the students. The university students, but also the Shanghai citizen. The theme of this year’s Biennial is Constructing a Metropolis, and there will be an architectural design competition involving university students of architecture. The third aspect of Shanghai, something that is very much a part of life for every Shanghainese, is the buildings in Shanghai, so we plan to do an exhibition, “one hundred years of architecture in Shanghai.”
I’m an outsider looking at the Shanghai Biennial. Looking at the Long March project, it seems as if it’s aimed at expanding the space for exhibiting contemporary art in China. And looking at the Third Shanghai Biennial, it seems that the questions you asked were of a strategic nature, i.e., how, in the scope allowed by politics, can we gradually expand the space for contemporary art. This brings us back to what Lu Jie and Qiu Zhijie are doing now, which is very much an attempt to expand the space in which we can view and understand and engage with Chinese art. What are you doing in this regard?
I think our purposes are the same. Based on what I saw last night at the slide presentation, I have a great respect for Lu Jie and Qiu Zhijie and what they have accomplished, to engage people otherwise outside the international art world. I think in that regard I share their purpose. Whether one is working on a biennial in Shanghai, in Chengdu, in Guangzhou, or like Lu Jie and Qiu Zhijie a biennial in the villages, it all has meaning.
One of the characteristics of the 1990s was Chinese artists viewing the Western inner circle as being a Shangri-la, an ideal. A lot of Chinese felt like the circle of intellectuals with cultural authority had been off-limits to them before, and so the most pressing question was how to break into that circle. It’s not unlike Western tourists going to Lijiang looking for Shangri-la. The fact is when you go to Lijiang, you find a lot of tourist trinkets and curios that are otherwise available in Shanghai and are unremarkable. So another challenge that obviously we face is to bring art inward into China. What I find most interesting about exhibitions that have recently taken place in China is that they’re more organic; they’re less like the Guangzhou trade fair, where they lay out goods for the rest of the world to come and see, and say that this is China. They’re more about asking stimulating questions and interacting with the local public. Many of the exhibitions were essentially designed to initiate a dialogue in artistic circles, and many of the exhibitions were made for people in the art world. I think the obvious next step for exhibitions in China is to be able to engage with people outside the art world. So my question to Zhang Qing is, as a next step, is it conceivable that we go as far as to abandon the exhibition itself, so that artists may have events and do works and have activities for one another that are not exclusive that are accessible by the public, or to go out and actively engage with the non-art public, and among them find things that are artistic, things that can further the dialogue?
I’d like to ask Johnson a question now. You have curated the Hong Kong pavilion at the Venice Biennial; given the form that you’ve just suggested, how would you realize that in a place like Venice?
Of course we have to continue the revolution. I have to admit that I can be somewhat utilitarian in curating exhibitions. In doing exhibitions I’m somewhat self-serving. I look to myself, try to understand myself and what it is I’m trying to accomplish. So again the revolution must continue on that front. Getting back to China and what we’re trying to accomplish here, one of the issues is the relationship with officialdom. And what’s really interesting to me about this project is that most of the participants were actually graduated from China’s official art academies and institutes, and that they are now engaging with a different face, as someone who is outside officialdom, and there seems to be an interesting dynamic that is coming out of this. What I mean to say is that the expanding art circle in the last twenty years has basically been created by artists from the official academies. So if you step back and look at it, it is clear that in alternative official art, as they say in Chinese opera, you’ll have those who sing the role of the white face, who are the good guys, and those who sing the role of the black face, the bad guys. As things evolve, the stages for the black face and the white face are coming together, and it’s quite obvious that the government is taking a far more active role in promoting Chinese contemporary art abroad. So in a way, experimental art is converging with official culture.
My question to Johnson is if there is indeed a black face and a white face, and if we are to wait for officials to move forward in contemporary art, do we need to have another Long March?
Indeed I think that therein lies the true meaning of this exhibition. Of course we need a new Long March! The question of this new Long March is not only how do we make ourselves rich, but after we get rich, what do we do? The Long March is the process of China’s modernization, but after we’ve reached modernization, what next?
I thought that was a very interesting dialogue. Now I’d like to open the dialogue up to everyone, but in particular to the many curators who have come to be with us today. I think we should start with the curators of the Long March, and ask them to respond what these two men have just said.
My earlier hope was that everyone would have a chance to talk, so I’ll just answer quickly. I think the purpose of the Long March project is really to understand, to re-read, to re-interpret the relationship between modernity and China. Only when we understand will we know in which direction we need to go once the modernization process is achieved.
Modernity to me is really a change in one’s view of history. And so what I just said about getting rich might sound a bit misleading. I don’t understand modernization as economic development, it’s more holistic than that. We cannot afford to not address modernity, but the question remains, how should we do this?
Lu Jie: The focus of this Long March project is to reconnect the current practice with our collective consciousness, and to contextualize the relationship between modernity and China, and is there an alternative.
I first of all would like to agree with what Lu Jie said, and of course bringing the historical Long March into international art discourse is one of the objectives of this particular project. It’s not an issue of political history, but about how modernity fits into Chinese society. So the purpose of this whole project is to examine whether, within this Chinese history of modernization-which is the history of the Long March-there might be any experience that is indigenous to China which we can actually uncover, characteristics which can be called Chinese. In fact the globalization process for China began passively. And because it was passive, it always ends up being examined by others as something from outside. So that’s why in the process of making exhibitions during the last ten or fifteen years, it’s always been about how others look at us, how we are examined by foreign institutions. This is also the source of a great deal of conflict and complexity. This whole sense of not being fairly treated is actually a huge influence on curating. It is also mutual, because from the other side, the overseas experts who pick the artists for display in international shows also feel that they’re doing their best to promote the artists, and that we must feel a corresponding sense of gratitude. Lu Jie and I both believe that in order to change the situation, the problem is not with other people but with ourselves; not in trying to be understood by other people but trying first to understand ourselves.
So the new Long March for us is actually an active search on our own initiative to seek a modernity which belongs to us, to seek a modernity that we want. Our main concern is what sort of new experiences we can provide for other people, not what we can get from others. That’s why we have taken a very humble attitude by seeking out native, indigenous artists and resources from the countryside where one would not expect to find artists. This is a response to Zhang Qing’s question just now, after Chinese contemporary art has been officially recognized, has been taken within the official arm, whether we still need a new Long March. This type of positive initiative in terms of presenting our own culture, this not being passively selected, was always a Chinese cultural attitude before the Opium War. So for us it’s about this dialectic between the positive initiative and passive receptive attitude toward modernity. I think this is a much deeper question than the tension between the official and the unofficial, the government and the underground. We see Zhang Qing’s work inside the system as another kind of Long March.
I’d like to ask some of the Chinese curators in the audience -people like Feng Boyi, Gu Zhenqing-to respond to what the two discussants, and now the two curators of the Long March, have said.
As a curator, we do encounter a variety of problems and issues with this official dialectic. But to me, this is a technical, not a substantive, question. I agree very much with what Johnson Chang just asked about who is our audience. And I also agree with Zhang Qing’s statement that a curator is a servant. But it is also very important that we take a peer relationship with the artists, in line with what we’re trying to achieve. Curators are after all somewhat like artists in their own right: through their understanding of artists’ works, they seek to raise a cultural critique, or stimulate artistic production, in line with the particular aims and goals of their curatorial concept. But more than that, curators are intermediaries. I participated also in the satellite exhibition called Fuck Off, which took place simultaneously with the Shanghai Biennial in 2000. The Chinese translation of that title was basically “to not cooperate,” and as far as I understand, the position of Chinese art from the very beginning has been to not cooperate with officialdom. That’s how it was interpreted, but in fact what we were trying to achieve was an uncooperative attitude with the Western institutions of power, the Western sources of art authority. Many of the exhibitions that had taken place up until that time were underground exhibitions. In the end it created a force where artists felt like they had to respond to the needs of the Western curators who came to pick artists for exhibitions abroad.
In curating, I think we’re moving from being “uncooperative,” to being more cooperative. I am working with University of Chicago professor Wu Hung right now to curate the first Guangzhou Triennial at the Guangdong Museum of Art in November. I think the situation in Guangzhou is unique. Here we have the opportunity to present a massive retrospective of Chinese art in the 1990s, and to do it in a public venue. It’s an example of the kind of thing we might be able to achieve in the future. There are possibilities; it’s not just black or white. There are many different possibilities, many different things that can happen. I personally work very much within the system, I work for the Chinese Artists’ Association, and over time I’ve seen progress. Installation works are now an acceptable approach to art in China. Performance art still hasn’t gotten to the level of acceptance yet. There are a lot of works that involve violence that are still very much unacceptable to officialdom. A piece of news: In Beijing, next year, the Artists’ Association is going to do an international biennial, and the ministry of culture will be involved. They approached me and said I have experience in this regard, and would I participate. I said, when the time comes I will certainly participate, because I believe in the old Mao aphorism, “a spark can set the whole prairie on fire.”
I’d like to hear from some of our international curators. Your understanding of this “Chinese context” may be quite different from our own. The situation of Chinese art is changing; many artists are no longer intent on going abroad to find support for their work, but emphasize rather the domestic audience, be it official or non-official.
I had some feelings when I saw the presentation last night of the pictures from the Long March up to this point. It has only been since the Shanghai Biennial in 2000 that experimental art has truly started to develop inside of China, and it has already reached a crucial moment. What is crucial is that in the past, the intended viewer of our experimental art was a foreigner, and only rarely did these works have any influence on people in China. I think more important than issues of official versus unofficial discourse are the organic relationships between the curator and artists, art institutions, galleries. All are facing the question of how to bring art to viewers. So after watching the presentation about the Long March so far, I was very moved. I have curated a lot of exhibits myself, and I think that this exhibition depends entirely on the diligence of the curators. It is like a field experiment to see how long they can continue. Most important about the Long March is the behavior of its curators, which will influence a great number of artists and others. But after hearing Lu Jie and Qiu Zhijie speak, I am skeptical of the influence that this exhibition will have on the artists and their works. The works introduced in their events still cling to the previous art system and exhibition protocol. Perhaps these works were previously displayed in museums; now they have been dragged somewhere else and displayed. How to create a chemical reaction with the viewers or artists along their route, and not merely to display works in an environment that they do not understand, that is the challenge. I think this is what they are striving for, as evidenced by the way they constantly amend their curatorial plan in line with actual experience, and this is extremely moving.
Listening to the curators speak, including Lu Jie and Qiu Zhijie, I feel like we haven’t been able to get out of a certain conceptual framework. If we speak about the current curatorial system, the situation of the entire art world is leaning more and more toward relatively stable exhibition methods. This is also to say that the power of the system and the flexibility of the system are expanding. We need only look back for a moment on the situation in the art world between the 1960s and today, and we will discover, the 1960s were a time when the entire system adjusted itself, and the situation in artistic and cultural circles changed accordingly. I think one of the issues is that in this particular culture, exploring local issues is important. So I think the approach that Qiu Zhijie and Lu Jie have taken in this Long March is very similar to an official approach, for example in the way they collaborate with CCTV, or with certain local cultural institutions. They use emblems, signs, elements that can be instantly recognized internationally, and will carry some force. And I think that’s been done by some of the curators here today. It’s an obvious example of something someone might leverage for their artistic purposes. But in leveraging this, what impact do we have on artistic discourse.
To me, the Long March seems like assigning essays to a classroom full of students based on a theme. Artists can participate, be on-site, not on site, can interact, not interact, or even just can completely avoid interaction. That said, and I think that the subject of curating is a very complex issue, and something that we probably won’t be able to resolve in this discussion. I do think that the experience of travel, movement through China, that in itself is a very valuable experience. So by moving from place to place, there is this theme of the changes involved, it’s different and separate from place to place. And that’s the real interesting and important thing that’s going on here. I do like the aspect, the fact that we have moved from the city. Often exhibitions in China are done against the background of the city and centered on issues in the city, so there is something good about this move. From a cultural standpoint, this is a step forward, and an important one.
We’re well beyond our time. We only have about ten more minutes and I’d like to get some input from some of our overseas guests.
On to the last commentary, because in relation to what I saw last night and the Long March project to this point, one of the things I find striking about it is-and I’ll use the metaphor of traveling as a way to begin-what it seems to me, and I’m not particularly interested as a non-Chinese person in the question of whether there’s a new model here. But it seems to me that there’s a new dynamic here that I have not been aware of in terms of contemporary Chinese art practice. And that is the model wherein artist and curator, both of whom are people from the metropolis, are functioning in two manners in terms of travel. That’s to say that they’re traveling both locally, going through different towns and cities that connect with the local, but that they’re also producing something in terms of the record of it that can travel internationally or transnationally. So what seems critical here in terms of being a Chinese metropolitan artist or curator, is the ability to be Janus-faced-that is to be able to look in two directions, to be able to function in two directions simultaneously, both in terms of a real connection with the local, and maintaining a connection with the West or the international. So the manner in which I understand this project is that the local is being translated through the metropolis, into the international sphere, and the international being translated back into the local. And what strikes me about this project is that it seems to me-someone said that this is an issue of the domestic, a domestic issue-In English there’s an expression which is “getting one’s house in order.” So the thing that I find most significant is that this project is actually an act of recovery of historical consciousness, that is, how does one recover historical consciousness without forsaking modernity.
I originally wanted to speak about how the curators from outside China consider the discussion that’s gone on in light of postcolonialism and exoticism. But what was striking me as I was listening today was not that everything was so exotic but that it was remarkably familiar. The idea that the curator should be a servant is a central issue at the moment in Europe and North America where curator-stars are becoming more the rule than the exception. And I certainly consider myself as being the servant of a shipping company! Another aspect which is remarkably familiar is that at this moment, as an aspect of the reform of the entire department of culture for the city of Munich, we’re actually engaged in a long-term process with the aid of moderators looking at the fundamental questions of who are we serving, what is our audience, what are we actually doing, what is the function of an exhibition? So I think we’re engaged in a similar process, and I’m very grateful that I can be here, because I think that all the work is on the same level, with the same issues. And essentially, as Charles Merewether just noted, the recuperation is from the local to the metropolitan to the international and back to the local.
I’ll ask some questions because there is one aspect of the seminar that interests me and which I am very concerned with myself from the Norwegian perspective. And I would say like someone else that there can’t be “a Chinese context;” there must be a hundred or so Chinese contexts. And the effort to try to combine seems doomed. Even in a small country like Norway, I would say that curating in a Norwegian context would also be very misleading because the contexts are so very different. So the force of my question will be: the Long March, as a model, historically, was a great achievement that restored an empire. But do we need empires in the art world?
For time reasons, I’d like to leave everyone with that question. After lunch we’ll reconvene here.
This afternoon, the discussants will be Ken Lum, editor of Canada’s Yishu magazine, and Lu Jie, chief curator of the Long March. I will personally serve as chair of the discussion. This morning’s discussion on context grew very long, I think it was a very interesting debate or dialogue that we had going, and I’d like to continue that for perhaps a half hour. But given how much remains to be said, I think that another half an hour is all we can spare, and so let’s pick up where we left off this morning.
I think given the presence of so many Chinese curators and so many international curators, I think this is a perfect context in which to continue our discussion on context. The Chinese art “fever” was very important in the 1990s, and continues even now, and we should talk about this. As to the question of globalization, and the phenomenon of Chinese artists leaving China and participating in the international field, these international artists that are practicing abroad perhaps don’t represent Chinese identity and issues that are internal to China. By looking at their works, you might not know that they were Chinese. In many cases you would have to meet the artist themselves to know that they were Chinese, so removed are they from the China context. I think this kind of attitude toward Chineseness is passive. For many artists, being outside the Chinese context was a way to avoid Orientalist and post-colonial work. So while they may have feel like they respond to things that are happening in China, in actuality, they don’t. And as a result, what you see is not the authentic Chinese artist. For instance, the artists participating in the last Venice Biennial, it took me forever to find them. This Long March is different. It actively goes and seeks out Chinese resources and collective consciousness in China. And it looks to tradition, to the past, to memory, to recreate a modernist discourse. It seeks to realize the capacity within China to recreate a discourse, a context. So I hope that this Long March project represents a new model for curating. These are just some thoughts I had based on this morning’s conversation. I know that Lu Jie wanted to respond to some things that Guan Yuda said this morning, so I’d like to turn the microphone over to him.
I’d like to respond to some of the points made by Wu Meichun this morning. She said that the true importance of the Long March lies in its ideals, but that it is not interactive enough, that it is not effective when really placed in public spaces, in front of regular people. I would first like to explain that when we talk about interaction, we call it the “Long March Method.” In that term there are many layers, and we have tried quite our hardest to consider each of these layers. For example, in our ten-plus exhibitions in Kunming, we collaborated with many alternative and independent spaces. Working with artists in Kunming was a form of interaction. At the same time, in the projects we completed in Kunming, we called on some of China’s most famous painters-Zhang Xiaogang, Yang Shaobin, Yue Minjun-to work outside of this medium and put together conceptual installation works. This is another kind of interaction, between the curator and the artist, and also with the public-a three-directional interaction. Expanding the possibilities available to working artists is another responsibility of the curator. Then there is another layer: for example, when we were at Jiangwutang Military School in Kunming, we gave away original works of Xu Bing’s New English Calligraphy to villagers and children, so that they could take them home and study. I was very excited when a New York gallery insider expressed his amazement at this gesture; it makes me think that when we do things in the public space, perhaps it is possible to leave convention behind. Another example which I did not introduce last night is that of the German artist living in New York Ingo Gunther. Gunther plans to open a “Long March Information Center” in Manhattan, a two-month long exhibition in which he will tell New York viewers of what we are doing here, opening up the familiar topics of the Long March for discussion once more. At the same time, he will combine Chinese contemporary art and Chinese modern history, and use these things to interact with New York viewers. Then there are Chinese artists like Xiao Xiong, now doing an exchange work. Xiao Xiong is traveling the route of the Long March in reverse, from Yan’an to Ruijin, and coincidentally he is in our midst today. Each day he takes the object he obtained the previous day, and exchanges it for something new with someone he meets in his travels. He began with a portrait of Chairman Mao, and through this unceasing exchange, he has touched on themes of revolution, experience, history, the Long March, and art. He works quite hard on a daily basis to interact with people from different social strata and professional backgrounds. Finally I would like to address the point Guan Yuda made that the Long March is stuck in the conventional art system and following a conventional exhibition praxis. In making this point he said that we have used the official apparatus to publicize our activities. My answer is that when we debate things in China, it is relatively easy to take an oppositional stance, and that this is not building something new. We have never claimed that there is anything wrong with any of the curatorial praxes now in play in China. Many of the propaganda methods invented during the Chinese revolution or which took shape just after that revolution were quite avant-garde and experimental. Many of these stratagems had an influence on the international art world. Now we think they can have an influence on contemporary art, and the Long March seeks to re-interpret and re-use these methods.
Guan Yuda’s remarks this morning seemed to take the Long March as being “sent down” to the countryside, something this unambiguous. I think it is biased to see the Long March in this way. When we take contemporary artists to the people, one goal is transmission, but another is to have the art examined by these viewers. It is also a chance to enfranchise otherwise ignored artists, people like the natural-light photographer Li Tianbing, or the man who has carved a mountain with bas reliefs of Chinese leaders, Jiang Jiwei. Another aspect is that the Long March operates on many levels, as in the works Lu Jie just spoke of. I have two other examples. One is Shi Yong’s Long March project in Shanghai. He has created a Long March through the streets and buildings named for sites on the historical Long March, places like Ruijin Hospital and Yan’an Road. Thus, in China’s most cosmopolitan city, he has undertaken an experiment which is a call to Shanghai’s collective consciousness. The second example is Beijing artist Qin Ga, who is continuously tattooing his body with the route we are following on our Long March. So our interactions are not confined to the villages, but happen also in major cities, with particular individuals, and on all levels of society. This means first that we are unearthing all possible resources to make our hopes into reality. Second, it means that we are drawing on the wisdom of the masses to propel everyone to realize their goals. Third, it is a gesture of respect to Chinese history. Fourth, it is a kind of interaction and cooperation. I make these four points to contend that the Long March is about creation based on an assigned topic. But I would also like to ask: what is so wrong about assigned topics? And if we say that this is creation based on an assigned topic, who has given the assignment: Lu Jie or Chinese history? If we don’t want to respond to these so-called assigned topics, then why do we still bother to consider the “Chinese context?”
I just thought the moment had come to remind the audience of parallel activities which have happened in other parts of the world. The idea of wandering artists and wandering exhibitions occurred in Russia before the period of the Bolshevik Revolution, with a group who were indeed called “The Wanderers.” You also had experiments like the art school in Kitev, which was originally run by Marc Chagall, and afterwards by Malevich. So all of these are examples which one has to take into account when one things of how one thinks of “out into the hinterland” of a very large country. And I think one of the things you have to ask yourselves is what mistakes the Russians made, why in the end it didn’t indeed work. It’s no good saying this hasn’t been tried before, because it has. So I think one of the things you need to do in order to make the Long March idea work, is that you mustn’t be too entirely Chinese, you must look at examples of things that happened elsewhere in the world.
I’d like to ask Ken Lum to speak, someone who has taken part in a great number of international exhibitions. He is also a great writer and critic, as well as the editor of the journal Yishu.
Thanks very much. I’m not so sure what I’m stepping into after all these discussions of authenticity and non-authenticity in terms of Chinese essentialism-especially since I don’t speak Mandarin Chinese. I do want to continue a little bit on what we started on this morning…For me, the crux of the issue is not so much this debate about authenticity in terms of Chineseness or not-Chineseness, and when I say that, I don’t also believe in this idea that somehow an artist is just a world traveler, and can revel in non-identity. I think that’s a completely privileged position. So for me issue is not one of Chinese and non-Chinese, or authentic versus non-authentic, or indigenous versus non-indigenous, or official versus non-official. For me I think the important issue is that of historicism versus ahistoricism. There are many taboos that remain in China. And even in a conference like this, sometimes I wonder whether it’s possible to fully express all the issues that people want to express, but may not be possible yet in China today. I also don’t believe in this idea that somehow the problems here are the taboos…sometimes you get responses from Europeans and North Americans that “oh, we have taboos too” and so on. I think they’re of a qualitatively different order. I think what’s missing in China, and that’s only now beginning to be addressed, is the problem of how does one make an accounting of a situation in which only twenty years ago, there was very little curating, and today you have very sophisticated curated shows. Where twenty years ago you had very few artists making work in a manner that one could say was contemporary. And yet today there are many contemporary Chinese artists doing all sorts of performance, photography, installation, video. So for me it seems to be that there seems to be a kind of missing link. The kind of situation of creative activity today didn’t just emerge out of a vacuum. And it’s linked to all kinds of historical memories which remain largely unspoken. I also think, just because I have experience with the recent Documenta in Kassell, you can see all kinds of work from Indian artists, Iranian artists, artist from Ghana, Benin, and without losing any of the local concerns, these artists have made work that you could show anywhere in the world now, and actually be able to read this work, be able to appreciate this work. For lack of a better word, I don’t like this term, but certainly it’s under the rubric of neo-conceptualism, the kind of linguistic framework that ties all this work together. The question that interests me is how did this neo-conceptualism, how did this framework, become stylish in China, and secondly, how did it become established so pandemically? And finally, what are the historical components that are unsaid in this emergence?
Next I’d like to ask Lu Jie to speak from the technical perspective about the power and interpretation of visual space. Everyone is welcome to raise questions.
Lum’s story and his personal view, along with Gu Zhenqing’s comments about the role of the curator among the historical and political changes in China right now, all make me think of some questions. Both talked about the power and interpretation of visual space, but, interestingly enough, from different perspectives. Even so, it occurs to me that both share a binary, almost oppositional perspective. It’s almost as if what was being played out here was what Johnson Chang referred to this morning about the black face and the white face in Chinese theater. There’s no doubt that what they’re speaking about was their own experience, and that it’s factual and accurate. But the Chinese context, again, is very complex, it’s not bipolar or binary.
On the next topic, the relationship between independent and official should not be considered in a binary way. In China, even deconstruction and construction are not binary. To me the dilemma of the Chinese curator is that it seems like everything is so confused here. As a curator, both personal satisfaction and professional success require you to promote new artists and hold interesting exhibitions. At the same time, it is very popular now to talk about the public space and about independent curating. How do we resolve this binary? I ask this question in order to say that these roles have already come together. I believe that this is precisely an effect of the so-called “Chinese context” on the work of curators, but that the issues this raises must still be debated. Gu Zhenqing just said that in theory, independent spaces are also required to have their exhibitions officially approved, but that in actuality, no one gets them approved-I think this is very interesting.
There is a joke here that when people ask me why I wanted to be a curator, my answer is ‘when you’re not a good painter, you become an art critic; when you’re not a good critic, you become an art dealer; when you’re not a good dealer, you become a curator.’ That’s who I am. I was an artist, I was a critic, I was a dealer, and I’m a curator now. This joke is very serious. I want to say that the Chinese context, in relation with curators’ work, my personal experience is that almost all Chinese critics and curators or art dealers were artists before, or are still practicing art. Why does one sacrifice their career to come to this point? It has to do with the coming together of resources, and the emergence of new artistic careers, all of which is a relatively recent phenomenon.
I want to summarize my conclusion about the power of space, the power of the curator. In China this power is not given by the society, but sought by the individual. The work of all curators right now is to continue integrating resources, and in this way to make new things possible. I am interested in whether in this process there might be something new-that perhaps because our context, our situation is different, because of this complexity, our practice might produce something interesting which might become a contribution to the visual art world.
I think you may have misunderstood me slightly. I think clearly the most interesting art that’s produced today is not produced in America or Europe, but in China and so on. I would define avant-gardism as a kind of creative response to a social situation that is a contradiction between what can be said and what cannot be said. So that you have a situation where officialdom is imposing, then the creative response to that would make for more nuanced, more sophisticated art. That’s why it’s not a coincidence that you have so much interesting art coming from countries in Africa, coming from Persia, India, and China, all of them responding to their local political and social determinants. I also want to say that I don’t think I was suggesting that these terms should be binarisms, but I think they are monadic terms. Several years ago I saw a fantastic show of Polish conceptual art, art dating back to the 1960s and 70s, work that was being produced under conditions of martial rule. If you had the good fortune to see that show…I remember being shocked by how American or Western conceptual art paled in comparison, because they had something specific to say, and it was a specific response. And it was a specific response to a political situation without having to announce itself in a decorative form.
What I really wanted to say is two things, very much linked to the story you just told about Manet. First of all, I think Chinese independent curators should be careful about what they wish for. God often gives people what they wish for, and then they find that’s exactly what they didn’t need. What I mean by this is that there’s now a very strong case for saying that the supposed avant-garde in the United States and Europe is now in fact the equivalent of the 19th century salon. The great museums have turned what we’d like to call the avant-garde into official art. And in fact many manifestations which we still call avant-garde would be impossible in Europe and in the United States without very substantial official support, and without the frameworks applied by great museums. So the avant-garde is no longer simply officially tolerated in the United States and Western Europe; it has become officially necessary. I think that those of you have been concerned with organizing the Long March series of exhibitions would agree with me that a certain amount of controversy is necessary to push the envelope. And that if it weren’t doing this, there would be no point in doing the exhibitions at all. So what I am saying to you here is that the curatorial community ought to be very careful in China about allowing itself to become completely official. Officialization won’t necessarily mean that the avant-garde will be doing anything different than it is doing now. It will simply mean that the context has changed to the point where what the curatorial community is doing will no longer have that force to change society which perhaps it possesses at this moment. In the United States, it invariably exists in a completely official context. It is only here in China which you remain in opposition. I might be Europeanist, but I feel that you ought to cherish that status, as opposed to the status of Europe.
Before I absolve myself, I’d like to pose one question which of course doesn’t have to be answered. The longer I sit here, the longer I feel that contemporary Chinese art is expressing an identity consciousness. We talked about the relationship between the avant-garde and the local, and it seemed to be very disturbing to many people. We talked about the relationship between the Chinese avant-garde and the West, and that seemed to disturb many people as well. We talked about those Chinese artists who remain at home and those who leave, and that seemed to be a disturbing vision as well. We talked about the relationship between the Chinese avant-garde and official art, and that also seemed to be a disturbing issue. Which leads me to a very simple question, to whom does the Chinese avant-garde belong?
I think what I was preparing here, the media is a power structure. Websites in China are not considered media. And in that regard we’re given a certain amount of leeway in what we can print. And frankly, we’re below the radar screen. How long this situation will continue is really hard to say. But inasmuch as we are below the radar screen over at TOM.com, I’d like to think that we can continue to do good and positive things. On the other side, we have commercial pressures. The owner of the website, Li Ka-hsing, is an entrepreneur, a capitalist with no interest in art. I’d like to also comment on something that was said this morning. So the question on a lot of our minds I think is, to what degree the average person needs what we are doing. It is very likely that the people singing karaoke downstairs are finding that as spiritually fulfilling as they would like. So is what we’re doing significant to them, or is it significant only to us? Are we driven by another kind of exoticism, a certain aspiration to Shangri-la, the Shangri-la being a position in the official museum hierarchy?
I think that has already set up some departing points not in this conference, so I want to question those points, the base of his question. One of the assumptions behind your remarks is perhaps that people in a cosmopolitan or urban environment would perhaps better understand and be able to get engaged with the art that we’re doing. Are you suggesting that the people outside the cities do not have a right, or have less of a right to such art? Even with your assumption that people in the city know art or need art more, do we have the right to assume that people outside the city have no right or no necessity to get in touch with art? The third question is that even if the first two assumptions were true, then we have, I feel, an even greater responsibility to bring art to them. The sort of oppositional assumption, the assumption of us and them, also seems to imply that we somehow understand the art that is being done better than others might. So this would lead to the conclusion that Chinese necessarily understand Chinese art better than anyone else. I don’t subscribe to this and I don’t think it’s true. I agree with Per Boym’s concept that there are many contexts in China, I think it’s very complex. What’s interesting about each stop along the Long March that we make is the different reactions, the different degrees of success, the different degrees of understanding that we achieve at each step. There are places at which we succeed, places where we fail, and other places where we can’t use the concepts of success and failure to talk about what we have done.
I can’t let Charles Merewether get away without responding to his question about to whom the Chinese avant-garde belongs. It’s interesting, the people in the Ministry of Culture have never laid claim to the title of avant-garde art. Recently, there have been changes whereby the Ministry of Culture is now trying to lay claim to avant-garde art. They found that when they were abroad and said that they dealt only in traditional art, they wouldn’t receive respect and attention. But no sooner than they had said they were involved in the avant-garde, they were courted by the overseas curators and museum directors, taken to coffee and to see artists’ works. They found an enormous amount of attention. We can see this in the upcoming national art exhibition that’s about to take place: the government’s attitude toward avant-garde art has undergone a considerable change. They have taken the word avant-garde art and used it to replace “contemporary art.” And some institutes and art academies in China now have semester courses in avant-garde art. They teach how to make avant-garde art, everything from installations to video works. So it seems that everybody is trying to lay claim to avant-garde. But I think that ultimately the avant-garde “belongs” to a relatively small number of artists who are practicing, artists who are overflowing with creativity, energy, sensitivity. Their approach is the opposite of the fifty-day course offered at the Central Academy of Fine Arts, the rigidification of art. They seek to reach out beyond borders. And in reaching out, only over a period of time do they actually mature and develop their art. We’re seeing the sprouts, the emergence of this sort of artist in China today. I hope that in the next twenty or thirty years, China is able to produce and give home to avant-garde master artists. I think this is the real value of avant-garde art in China: ultimately, these artists will be something for both China and the rest of the world.
Do we really need to repeat what other countries throughout modernism have done to promote certain masters? Is it just because our encounter with modernism is quite new and young, so we must promote certain masters? One view in this world nowadays is that we do not need masters anymore. Why is there this gesture or desire to promote Chinese masters? And the necessity of promoting Chinese masters seems like it is cutting China off from the world, as if China is totally isolated and is trying to build something itself. Are you saying that China needs master artists because the West had master artists when it was developing? Must we travel the same route?
I’d like to respond as the representative of one of the only institutions in China devoted to new media art. I got the feeling that you were against which take up teaching new media, video skills, computer skills, and trying to introduce these into art. Only last year has new media actually become part of the curriculum in Chinese academies. So a lot of the talk of experimental art in the academies really grew out of these departments. I think that much of what is being done in these departments is new and innovative. It sounded as if Gu Zhenqing was implying that the universities do not have any right or claim to teaching new media art, that there is no value in teaching it. I don’t think we’re trying to lay claim to avant-garde art or to bring avant-garde art into institutions. The net effect is more of a kind of mutually stimulating dialogue, something that has an impact in both directions. Much of the experimental art that has been done in my view is not really experimental. It is done for a circle of like minds. By incorporating this into its curriculum, the academies are actually creating channels for more art and experimentation. I think this movement in the academy should actually be cause for reflection for many of the people practicing experimental art outside the academies.
My point was just that artists should follow their own urges and desires, and that by institutionalizing these practices, we somehow harm and prevent them. But of course the introduction of new media studies is something that I fully support. As to Wang Gongxin and his comments a minute ago, my response was directly aimed at answering the question posed by Charles Merewether, which was whose art is it. And so I had necessarily to begin in China. I do think that over a period of time the idea of the master-and by this I don’t mean the traditional toothless masters of the past-representative of the best the culture can put forward.
We’ve asked Mr. Edward Lucie-Smith to speak a little bit about the phenomenon of the YBA, the Young British Artist, as a way of exploring the relationship between the artist, curator, and power. I hope this will be a good reference for Chinese artists.
The YBA artists were associated with sex and violence, and also with a morbid interest in many cases in death and mutilation. Their sensibilities are not new. It derives from the attitudes and public gestures of the punk rock bands of the 1970s. But there is also in a broader sense a strain in British culture which is obsessed with ideas of death. There is a very strong strain in classical British literature beginning with poet John Donne at the beginning of the 17th century which expresses exactly the sorts of ideas which you find in Damien Hirst’s work. So it is absolutely understandable that this group of artists seized the British public imagination and afterwards have became internationally famous much quicker than has been the case with British artists in the past. The reason was that there were already elements in their work which were subliminally familiar and which were already embedded in British popular culture. Damien Hirst is the first artist since Henry Moore to have become a staple of caricatures in the newspapers. So just as in the 1950s, British newspaper caricaturists used to make jokes about statues with holes in them, so, in the 1990s, they actually made drawings of sharks in tanks, and everybody knew what was being referred.
But there was another element as well. The YBA artists were largely backed with private money, not with official money. I think in particular, they were funded by the advertising tycoon Charles Saatchi, who had a private gallery in North London which he used to show their work, and he also used his advertising skills to publicize them as personalities…However, even though museums were not initially directly involved in the YBA phenomenon, the YBA phenomenon itself has had a great impact on museum practice. It imparted the idea that avant-garde artworks were no longer simply artworks, but that they were also newsworthy events. And it also suggested to museum curators that a mode of directly theatrical presentation was the way in which to reach the public…Well this formula has proved extremely successful with the British public and with tourists who come to London, and the Tate Modern is now averaging something like five million visitors a year. In fact it is the biggest tourist attraction in Britain, next to the Blackpool amusement park and beach in the north of England. So to conclude, what one can say about the YBAs is that though the Tate possesses very few key works by these artists, they have transformed the way in which art is perceived in Britain. The only question is, what happens next?
Next I’d like to hear from Yao Rui-chung, a curator and an artist from Taiwan.
I hope he can will talk about the his different perspectives in these two different roles
I’m going to talk about some exhibition experiences in the 1990s in Taiwan. Actually, Taiwan has been through its own struggle to get to where it is today…If you look at art as a free, concrete manifestation of truth, then many artists when they are making art look to and raise different voices. It would be the artist’s instrument to open up human minds and to bring in new knowledge. So similarly to what we are doing now with the Long March, in the early 1990s in Taiwan, artists and curators were starting to work together. Concetely speaking, this took four forms: to get organized; to create an informed curatorial practice; to build independent space; and to construct a discourse. In Taiwan, the task was to re-examine and re-construct the discourse that had been championed by the authorities, to make a real departure from there. At that time, it was a collected group, a collaboration. We did not have the word curator yet; the artists were doing the curatorial work…We did not have support from the government, so what we did was to have a strong presence in the news media. In this way we opened up a space. And now I want to talk about artists and curators in that context. I mostly work independently as an artist, and we normally do not have to work with the curatorial side on our suggestions. We tried to create new interpretations and provocative practice. The visual arts had always served the elite class, so what I do is more like cross-border, cross-disciplinary work. When they gain their power and actually achieve their goal and actually occupy a space, my works receive very strong support from the media. And at that point the government is not involved because what we’ve done is useful. They use the power of the structure to try to drive us out, but it’s not the same as in the Mainland. For us making art is not like a gesture or creating icons. For us it’s more important to look for possibilities throughout this making process…Curators are like artists, there are many different types. In Taiwan we have a saying that there are six different types of curators: commercial, academic, authoritative, trendy, emotional, and the artist-curator. We’ve discovered that in Taiwan there are many possibilities. It’s a quite open structure, and being a modern society, the roles are already clearly divided. So the question of whether the curator is more of a director or a producer is a big one. This kind of structure may have an impact on art-making, especially when it gets commercial. Like the management of a business, the job of the curator can become to make a product, and to promote that product. In conclusion, the Long March project is taking meaningful art to contextualize history, collective memory and the current developments of society to make art useful and meaningful.
I’d like to ask Mr. Jiang Yuanlun to speak.
I’ve been involved in the publishing of China Avant-garde, it’s a book, it has an ISBN, but it’s published on a monthly basis. The people around me are mostly involved in literature and literary criticism. In the beginning the magazine was focused on avant-garde literature, criticism, and other written forms of art. I asked Li Xianting to join our editorial advisory board to help on visual arts. After two or three years of publishing, I found that the impact of China avant-garde was actually much greater in the field of visual arts than it was in literature. Why was this? There’s one reason which I consider quite obvious: literature, after its high tide of developments in the 1970s and 80s, already began to decline. The visual arts, on the other hand, were just beginning to take off. Another reason is that avant-garde literature actually has gained a certain acceptance within society. Visual arts on the other hand were somewhat suppressed by the official cultural infrastructure.
Unlike literature, where it was really a form of technical control, in the art field, the officials were more concerned with questions of ideology. They put up a lot of hurdles for people in the visual arts and film. Of course there were technical issues also at play. But formally, when works were put down or refused exhibition, it was because of ideological concerns, very much unlike in literature. The outcome, interestingly enough, is that you’re seeing a lot more interesting things happening in the relatively ideologically controlled area of the visual arts, and literature, on the other hand, has somewhat gone down. So the most interesting things we’re seeing now are things that are grassroots, things that are organic, that are almost oppositional in the visual arts. And I think that’s why we’re seeing so many interesting things happening both in film and in art. Most illustrative was in yesterday’s visual presentation by Lu Jie and Qiu Zhijie was the repeated interference by local officials in what could be seen and what couldn’t be seen. Thank goodness for the Public Security Bureau and their intervention.
Gu Zhenqing: I want to thank everyone for the insightful comments, they were very much overview comments. Now I’m going to turn the microphone over to questions.
I’d like to respond again to the two curators of the Long March. They’ve emphasized over and over again that Chinese exhibitions must have Chinese characteristics. Official hierarchy in China now is much looser than it’s ever been before. I think that has reduced the binary qualities of our art. I do want to emphasize that we live in a fairly optimistic and free period. But for a history with such strong political forces at play, those forces often being used to stifle art, we are lucky now. I’d like to borrow a quotation from Mao Zedong, “The Long March’s manifesto is propaganda.” So we shouldn’t make compromises. I want to raise some doubts about the optimistic picture of Chinese contemporary art raised by the curators who just spoke. If their hopes come true, we’ll finish what we’re doing now, finish with biennials, finish the Long March, and be left with great masters exhibitions!
The “you” and the “they” I just referred to, it was only a descriptive necessity. In actuality, contemporary art has all happened in a small circle. If we say that art has a connection with the larger population, it becomes a fashionable and consumerized. As far as the media are concerned, I’d like to explain further, China perhaps doesn’t have pure, non-official formalism, and we can’t say that the media have no power, but its power is more a kind of governmental power. For example, last year several state-controlled media organizations ran reports about performance art, saying it was bad. I’m curious whether we can use our identity as people on the periphery of officialdom to go deeper. I’m certainly not saying that I want to consciously protest against officialdom.
The topic just introduced by Gu Zhenqing is very interesting. As far as the “contrived nature” of the Chinese avant-garde is concerned, this is not to say that avant-garde art is the same as new media art. When we talk about contemporary art, talk about new media art, talk about avant-garde art, talk about experimental art, we often get a bit confused about how to use the term “avant-garde.” As to the question of where the Chinese avant-garde actually exists, how modern it is, I wonder how much of a negative or positive impact Chinese curators have had on the question. I sincerely hope that everyone can have a debate about these questions.
I’d like to introduce two simple points. First, the notion of “the power of the curator” sounds almost scary, it almost grates on the ears. But the point made by Zhang Qing about the curator as a “servant,” that also sounds a bit too modest. I think we’re ignoring the fact that a curator is to a very large extent a mediator, especially here in China. In this so-called “Chinese context,” if a curator wants to put his own ideas and the artists whose work he likes into an exhibition space, in the Chinese environment, he must use all sorts of knowledge to negotiate with the system. We don’t need to say “self;” I also find this word grating on the ears, but it is nonetheless a form of mediation. Today we have spoken a lot, and people are very worried about being incorporated into the system. But we also can’t ignore the question of being incorporated into the market; that’s another danger. What we were just saying about why the Western avant-garde is no longer an avant-garde, it is actually a result of incorporation by the market and by the system, a result of both of these phenomena.
I think the Chinese context has a special situation. For example, we talk about the power of the curator. In 1994, Ai Weiwei, Xu Bing and I did a book called Black Cover Book. At the time, after the first volume was published, this impact of this book seemed to resemble that of an exhibition. Because back then, this sort of avant-garde art just couldn’t be displayed openly. If you say that the curator has power, this is the sort of thing that embodies that power. That’s to say, Black Cover Book was able to stimulate the artistic creation of a group of young artists working at that time. Now, like Zheng Shengtian just said, the curator is a negotiator, an intermediary, and a harmonizer. Most of the curator’s work is in this vein. Right now I feel that curators have no power at all, though when some artists hear that I’m curating an exhibition, they’ll call me up and say “Feng Boyi, I want to take you out to dinner, I just did a new work that I’d love to show you.” This isn’t power; this is a kind of self-satisfaction. I’d also like to address the worries that the honorable Dr. Lucie-Smith expressed for curators of Chinese avant-garde art. I think he used two key phrases: one was “cherish,” the other was “be vigilant.” I agree very much with this. But China also has its own unique situation, and Chinese avant-garde art still exists in an atmosphere that is rather repressed. For example, right now I am collaborating with an official museum to curate an exhibition, The Guangzhou Triennial. In this triennial, the Guangdong Museum of Art is going to hold a large exhibition that lasts for two months, and that may have a great number of viewers, many of whom will come from outside of the art circle. This way, regular people will learn that art in China has already developed to this kind of a situation, that art is no longer just easel paintings or classical works. This will present a definite obstacle to these people’s habitual aesthetic views, it will be useful. I feel that avant-garde art in China still has a popularizing role to play. A lot of biennials and foreign museums have taken notice of Chinese contemporary art, and perhaps this puts some curators at ease already. But I believe that there will be a new generation of curators who rise to challenge us, and who create a new way of curating in the process.
We’ve been bringing up the idea of avant-garde art over and over, and this seems to be a special characteristic in China right now. This morning, Edward Lucie-Smith spoke of the Chinese avant-garde, and in the end, he very passionately encouraged it. When I started to listen, I was very excited, but later I realized that what he was saying lacked flavor. Avant-garde art in the West appeared in the 1960s and 70s, and was in a role of absolute opposition to the government. Today, most countries outside of China no longer have an avant-garde, and I think there must definitely be an objective reason for this. Maybe in the end it was due to its excessive compromise with the government or integration into the culture, but for whatever reason, this notion of the avant-garde barely exists anymore. We still have an avant-garde in China, but I feel like even if the artists haven’t compromised themselves, officialdom is nonetheless realizing in its process of “globalization” and “democratization” that avant-garde art is necessary in international cultural exchange. And they have made a gesture to us that they are willing to accept contemporary art. So the question is whether we still need to maintain our independence, or keep up an attitude of protest. We have seen big changes in officialdom over the last two years.
Returning to the question of the power of the curator, I want to ask Johnson Chang, do you have more power in your role as a gallery owner, or as a curator?
The only time you have power as a gallery owner is when you’re paying the bills.
I also want to ask Ye Yongqing, is your power greater when you are an artist or when you are a curator?
As an artist.
I want to jump in here. The kind of “power” I had in mind when I designed this forum was not the kind of power we’ve been talking about. I was thinking about the intellectual power of the curator, about their professional role, about the power of interpretation. Today we’ve been talking more about the power to get a free meal, and that’s not what I meant. I’m a bit sorry that the discussion has turned out this way, it’s my fault.
Thanks to all of the critics and curators who spoke today, and thanks to all of the artists in the audience as well. We’ll end today’s meeting right here.
This afternoon’s meeting will be chaired by Gu Zhenqing and me. I would first like to invite Ye Yongqing to speak about his space in Kunming.
Good afternoon everyone. I’m glad that I can participate in a real Zunyi meeting. I want to talk about my own space in Kunming, which I have tried to make into a public space. In this way, I am able to allow artists and artistic resources in Kunming to exchange with each other, on a platform that exists right there in Kunming. That’s why I decided to turn an old house into a space. In an inland Chinese city like Kunming, it would be a bit crazy, and not realistic, to open a pure gallery or art space. My original notion was to make a space for consumption, which used art as something of a background. Art would be like a very low threshold, and ordinary folks would be able to come to this place. This space would float on the water like a boat, a self-sustaining space. After doing this, I ran into another set of problems. First, I myself am an artist, not a gallery owner or a curator. But I need to occupy all sorts of different roles in order to get things done-otherwise we would just be a space that supported itself by selling tea and alcohol. At the same time, I wanted to get the real estate people to invest a portion of their profits in art. This was a tough argument, and I couldn’t offer the right kind of proof, so it all came down to personal interest and preferences, which makes it difficult to keep things going in the long-term.
I still remember what it was like during the first year. Lots of artists knew that I was running this space, and they supported me. Before, there was a group of contemporary artists in Kunming, somewhere in the neighborhood of ten people. This group has an exhibition every year, which feels kind of like a co-op. But the structure was very stable. They would have an exhibition one year, then have one again the next year. It was always the same faces, and their interaction with the world beyond was basically though books and indirect contact. Once we had the Upriver Club, they had some opportunities to communicate with people from outside their circle, and these local artists began to have some opportunities to display their works outside of Kunming. At the same time, there were some artists from Beijing, Japan, New York, and Taiwan who slowly began to move to Dali to establish a second studio-for example Fang Lijun and Yue Minjun. This all happened in 1998 and 1999. At that time the Upriver Club had some fundamental problems which I thought there was no way to solve. We were constantly trying to build a system for contemporary art, but this kind of a system is fundamentally a copy of Europe. And Kunming couldn’t support this sort of a system. The first space I worked on was actually a gallery. This gallery had some of the best art in China at the time, lots of famous artists sent their early works to this space to be sold. And because I wasn’t depending on sales of these works for my living, I did everything with the attitude that I was just helping them out. Business that first year was very good. It was all by chance, people would come to Kunming and discover that in this far-off city they could by artwork that wasn’t available in other cities. At the end of the year we did the calculations, and realized that not a single work had been purchased by a collector based in Kunming. This made us quite frustrated. I felt like I had only done things that I had imagined, and that I lacked a concrete connection with Kunming itself. The second year I spent a lot of time making contact with real estate brokers, bankers, and all sorts of potential art buyers and people who were interested in art. I would go talk to them, tell them my reasons, convince them to believe in my insight. And there were some people who really got interested. I would tell them that it was very important to me that they bought the works in my gallery, because these works were valuable. In a year, I would do seven or eight exhibitions, including some pretty decent exhibitions. It got to the point where these bankers and local collectors believed me, and said “Ye Yongqing, we’ll go with you. Every time you hold an exhibition, we’ll buy a work. And in a year, our offices will look different.” After a year of this, I was even less happy than after the first year. I’m an artist, and things like this I can’t go hire a person to do. Throughout this whole process, I also began to have some opportunities to travel abroad and participate in some art happenings in Europe and America. I was curious how these countries developed their avant-garde, in the absence of museums, foundations, galleries, and collectors. I wondered what art means in these countries, where art fits into these societies, what kind of connection it has with the public. These questions stimulated me, and my impression was that in addition to the Western system we are familiar with took more than one hundred years to develop and mature, there is another way to work, which though not as stable as the system we know, may be more viable. This system doesn’t have limits, it is more creative. It does not exist amidst a dichotomy of professional and unprofessional, contemporary and modern; sometimes it is very confused. Looking back on the last few years in Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou, lots of artists have come out with their own spaces, but these spaces are all just for the use of the artists. Like Shanghai’s “Suzhou Creek” or the huge artists’ village at Tongxian in Beijing-these places are fundamentally aimed at resolving the artists’ own working situations. At the end of 2000, we looked at a big abandoned factory in Kunming. I convinced a few Yunnan artists who didn’t have long-term studio arrangements. These artists needed a place to do their most basic work. I thought about this kind of space in an inland Chinese city, and I thought there must be another way to do things. I felt that it should be a space that was open to the public. I imagined this site as a workshop area for handiwork, and the fundamental characteristic of the area would be individuality. This includes some design companies, video studios, bars, restaurants, and places for leisure, but at the same time it has a gallery structure, it’s a multi-purpose alternative space. If you build this sort of a place inside a city, it will definitely become a cultural center for the city. These artists occupied this space, but to tell the truth, this space hadn’t been designed from scratch. Now it’s called The Loft, and it already has three or four galleries, two restaurants, four bars, and a big badminton area. One part belongs to the Swedish Cultural Foundation; they believe that the climate in Kunming and the layout of this space suits them well, so they set up shop here to publicize their native culture. There are now around thirty artists living here. My own situation is like this: I have a display room of my own, about 200 square meters. I also have a studio which I share with a few other artists, about 100 square meters. I’m always very excited to let artists who come from around the world use this studio. In the back, I also have a bar which doubles as an office. The idea to have a bar comes from my experience at the Upriver Club. I want the threshold to be as low as possible, and so everyone can see-as they drink a cup of coffee or tea-the works that we think are important for them to see. When we first started, we were able to control the rents very well, and to set the lengths of leases very long. We had low-rent eight-year leases, and so costs were very low. I run this place together with Zhang Xiaogang, and we have a deal that as long as this place doesn’t lose money, we’ll keep it open to the public. But if it loses a cent, then we’ll close it and make it our private studio, because we don’t have the need or the resources to run a place that loses money. But because the rents are so low, we have also put our own studios there, which has been quite inexpensive. From an operational point of view it’s going very well, but I’m constantly using money from the bar to pay rent. Finally I’d like to say that no matter whether it’s artists or Chinese society in general, I think we need to look at cultural problems as a process of opening up, and to use this opening up process to understand our culture, our ideology, to absorb all different kinds of experiences, and to look back on our own traditions, and come to know these traditions anew. So these are our goals, and our goal is still to build something new that can return to contemporary life, something that can return to having a connection with our personal experiences. How will what we do have any meaning if it can’t become part of real life; how will it create new power? Thank you.
Although though what we were doing in Yunnan was a collaborative effort, and we accomplished a lot, it was Ye Yongqing who gave us a great deal of help. Before this we had also gone to investigate, but many of the things he just spoke about I had never heard of before. My own feeling is that he has been able to combine personal ideals and abilities, and that these have both very useful in this context. Because of this the cultural landscape in Kunming has gone from its earlier uneventful state to having a complete set of structures. Where artists in Kunming once had only their own studios in which to work, they now have a site of international and domestic cooperation, a place for interaction, a place to work together. At the same time it also has the environment of a place where art takes places, with galleries, good design, etc. And so this space has become special place in Kunming, a multi-purpose space. It is something of an emblem for Kunming, and it has a kind of charm. I’d like to point out where this significance lies. It’s that this is an alternative space, but not the kind of alternative space we’re accustomed to seeing in Beijing or Shanghai, spaces where artists can do work or hold exhibitions that may be otherwise impossible in more public venues. These folks in Kunming are heroes, and they are heroes because their space is about opening art up to the public, about stimulating interest in issues. So I think this reflects a very distinctly Chinese experience; I daresay no space like this exists elsewhere in the world.
Now I’d like to invite Chairman Wong Shun-Kit of the Hong Kong Arts Development Council to speak. In this capacity, he serves as a bridge between artists and government resources.
I want to introduce briefly the problems inherent in the sort of alternative spaces we were just talking about, because I also used to run this kind of a space. Right now in Hong Kong, most of the independent spaces receive support from the Arts Development Council, which started supporting such spaces back in 1997. At that time, the council would mainly support particular activities. In 1999, this changed to the practice of giving annual grants to support these spaces, with the hope that they would strengthen their own administrative capacities. The main support we provide is administrative, including their rent, and money to hire full-time administrative professionals, as well as support for an event here and there. In 2000 we supported seven of these spaces, but in 2001 three of these spaces disappeared, leaving four. This year, another one came about, bringing the total to five. In addition to these, the Council also keeps its eye out for new spaces, and provides Hong Kong artists with six studios and one exhibition space that are virtually rent-free. Supporting independent spaces is a significant portion of our overall program. Even in these financially difficult times, they still receive a significant portion of our funding, about one-fourth of our total visual arts allotment. Other funding programs are seriously decreasing, but we are committed to keeping this one as it was before. We assemble a committee of local arts professionals and critics to serve as our evaluation committee and read applications; it’s not a committee of government officials. We require that these independent spaces are listed as non-profit, limited liability corporations; this way we can bring them into the financial oversight framework of the Hong Kong government. Often, in addition to evaluating applications, the committee will evaluate what these spaces actually do. Our standard for giving new grants is based on the past performance of these spaces as well as their future plans. At the very least, an application must include plans for six public activities. In addition to that, we look at the space’s administrative competence, and the overall direction in which it is developing, as well as its strategy for future development. This strategy must fit into the needs of the overall arts environment and structure in Hong Kong. Looking at our past development, we hope that these independent spaces have plans not just for one year, but that we can review their plans once every three years, and that they have plans even longer ranging than that. This is even better for the development of the arts.
Now I’d like to speak about what I see as some problems now existing for these alternative spaces, and some problems which might become apparent in the future. The biggest problem facing these spaces is precisely the homogenization of their sources of funding. Most are dependent on us, some one-hundred per cent. Even after a number of years, they are still unable to create a multivalent funding framework for themselves, so their existence is fundamentally weak. The moment the current situation changes, these spaces will be done with. Some spaces have disappeared as soon as we have revoked our funding. The first variable is the changes in the political structure of Hong Kong, including the future position of the Council over the next few years. Another is the worsening of the Hong Kong economy. The third is increased competition for funding; our money is after all limited and we have lots of applicants. Fourth, our council changes every three years. Many of our members are democratically elected, and each new council will have different tendencies in terms of policy and funding. Another problem is that of real estate in Hong Kong. Finding a place that is conveniently accessible in terms of transportation, that has a lot of passers-by, and that has rent that artists can afford is very, very difficult. I have organized this kind of space myself, first on an island, then in a factory, then finally in an amazing spot in the city with very good rent. It was a morgue, and we were quite happy to have found it. But because there are still a lot of very suspicious people in Hong Kong, many of our viewers weren’t so happy. For this reason we found some Daoist priests to perform some rites, a gesture we made in name in order to appease everyone, to make them feel safer. We also have a logo, which looks something like the logo of the People’s Republic. This logo has given rise to some murderous looks. The viewers were able to let go of their misgivings, and come in to partake of some of our activities. But after a year, this place was revoked by the government, who gave it to Li Ka-hsing, the richest man in Hong Kong, to build a mall, so of course they wanted us to move. In a year, this area had turned itself into a makeshift arts village, so we decided to try and fight, to negotiate with the government, saying that we wouldn’t move unless they gave us space elsewhere. Through many negotiations, through the noise the media helped us to make, the government finally agreed to give us space long-term to make into an artists’ village, to make up for the place they were going to tear down. And so we were forced to move into a former pig slaughterhouse, where-after a year of renovation by the government-we were able to establish a so-called arts village. Immediately a new problem arose: the government had spent millions of dollars renovating this place, so they wanted to manage the physical plant. As soon as we allowed them a chance to inspect, there were problems. First, they wouldn’t let us hang a signboard. They wouldn’t let us post any sort of posters or announcements on the exterior of the building. Every guest had to register upon arrival. Many of the large squares inside we weren’t allowed to use; we could only use our own rooms. People started saying that it was more like an “arts prison” than an “arts village.” And so some of the spaces which we have now began to arise; people weren’t satisfied with this arrangement. But the problem was that management was the responsibility of the Department of Industry, according to the management statutes of Hong Kong. We realized that the only way to solve the problem was to change the supervisory organ, and since the space has been under the management of the Department of Culture, many of the problems have been solved.
There is a very subtle point here. They are dependent upon government money and support, and because of this dependence and support, he is an agent for change. I think this has led to some questions we need to consider about whether independent spaces and alternative spaces need to have a kind of consistency. This is a topic that has been under debate internationally.
I feel that governmental support can only be an impulse, a catalyst, and after this catalysis, independent spaces should have an overall adjustment of their funding sources. Only in this way can we assure that these spaces continue in the long term.
Moving along, I’d like to ask Mr. Fram Kitagawa of Japan to speak about his space and the operational style behind his triennial.
Mr. Kitagawa is the founder and chairman of the Echigo-Tsumari Triennial in Japan. This is a very special exhibition, a public triennial that takes place in a remote location, far from a metropolitan locale. The first triennial included artists who are relatively distinguished worldwide and everything from creating the exhibition, to choosing the artists, to curating the exhibition, to managing it- all are the work of this man. This is very significant.
When I was a high school student, I read Red Star over China by Edgar Snow with great excitement. Those memories came back to me as I heard the presentation on the Long March project two nights ago, hearing names of places like Ruijin and Jingganshan. What moved me most about the Long March was the story of Zhu De. He, who starts out as an opium addict, manages to quit in order to join the march. He was someone I could relate to the most as I was quite a hooligan myself. I would first like to talk briefly about Echigo-Tsumari Triennial. Six towns comprise the area of Echigo-Tsumari with a combined population of 60,000. Those towns were clearly going downhill when we first came in contact. There were two reasons for this. First, more and more people in the countryside, especially the young ones, had moved to big cities in the process of modernization. Secondly, agriculture had been abandoned in Japan as reflected in its low agricultural self-sufficiency rate of 40%. The situation of in Echigo-Tsumari was a result of political
policies implemented by the Japanese government, which were simultaneously a consequence of the relationship Japan established with the United States after WWII. In the Triennial we invite more than 140 artists from both within Japan and abroad to come and to make a discovery on a site. Its significance lies in discovering the innate power hidden in the site and then working together with the locals to create art on that very site. The reason why we invite many artists from abroad is because these artists can see the site in relation to their own hometown and also put it in perspective with the rest of the world. Artists have the power to discover memories from the past and to retrieve the unheard voices of the minority, and that is what we ask the artists to do. Echigo-Tsumari being one of the most deserted and conservative areas in Japan, nobody supported the proposal of making art on their own property in the beginning. Thus, the artists had to convince the locals of what they had discovered about the site. It was a constant process of confrontation, conflict, and negotiation, which ultimately led to mutual understanding. Out of the 100 local congressmen representing these six
villages, not a single one supported the Triennial in the year 2000 when we first started. But today, close to half of the 200 villages comprising those six towns have offered to work together in the next Triennial. This reflects how much the locals enjoyed the process of clash and collaboration last time.
I would now like to discuss the situation of art in Japan. Out of Japan’s population of 120 million, the number of people who read a contemporary art magazine only numbers 5,000. It is also said that the number of people who are involved in contemporary art only comprises 1% of the whole population. Music, physical education and art are all part of the public school curriculum in Japan. While music and sports continue to be practiced even after graduation, art falls off from such a group. And while people respond to music and sports with “I like or dislike,” when art is under discussion, the question is always whether “I get it” or “I do not get it.” Art remains in a weak position, and a wide distance lies between it and the public. Under such circumstances, the only formidable approach to promoting art seemed to be through engagement with the local and the site. The 20th century was the age of the city. The ideal was to create a universal space connecting all cities of the world from New York, to Johannesburg, to Tokyo. Telecommunication has taken part in this process as well, creating a universal space on the realm of information. This move towards global unification has now reached not only information, but also world’s financial market and into the everyday life of a citizen. However, as we hit the new century, various voices have begun to be raised against it. In another words, people have started acting against American standard becoming the international standard. There emerged a move towards re-evaluating the importance of local and its historical space. We can trace this back to the artists-initiated projects which placed emphasis on sites, such as the one involving local public in Munster from 1977 and the city renewal projects in England. What lied at the core of modernization was its faith in the city. However, cities have become aged and disoriented, as seen in the growing number of environmental issues. Thus, people have begun to rethink the importance of a particular site and locality. I would now like to introduce an interesting project in France which touches upon the theme of today’s discussion on curators. The French Foundation has been carrying out a program called the mediator program in which they send out a mediator to a community who has submitted a request for help in rejuvenating their town. The mediator does not simply take in the requests of the locals and keep a certain degree of independence in making decisions. After the mediator invites artists from abroad, the mediator works together with the artists and the locals, as a link between the artists and the local public. The people who get appointed as mediators are museum workers, independent curators, and architects in some cases. While the pressure of global capitalist market and the wave of globalization continue to grow, there still exists a universal artistic expression, and how we link this with the local and the regional will continue to be an important issue for us. I perceive the Long March project as an extremely important undertaking in light of all this.
Next we’d like to hear from Li Taihuan.
First I’d like to say a brief word about the situation at the China International Exhibition Agency; perhaps some artists aren’t too clear. CIEA is the highest government organ with jurisdiction over Chinese art. In the past, its exhibitions have all centered around our nation’s so-called mainstream art, and contemporary art has been a total blank. In the past, CIEA has also participated in things like the Venice Biennale, but because they don’t understand this concept, the exhibitions they prepare have been laughable. I don’t think this is solely the responsibility of the leaders of CIEA, who are very high-ranking. It’s also the people my age, forty- and fifty-some years old, their life experiences, educational backgrounds, and the changes in their thought are not so different from those of society at large. So they know that if they want to continue planning exhibitions for CIEA, they need to adapt to the preconditions of the international circle. But CIEA has discovered that it has no way to connect to the international sphere; that if you take Chinese “mainstream” art abroad, there is no way to create a dialogue. So they came upon a new consciousness, and the current situation has currently come about. I think the reasons for this current consciousness, as well as the reasons for its earlier absence are just as we talked about in yesterday’s meeting. The changes of thought in China are gradual and subtle as the structure loosens. I am originally a painter, I have a feeling of space, I try my hardest to find some peripheral things, and so now I’m making very few works. CIEA is very interesting. In that job, my role is to introduce the concept of avant-garde art to people there, but I still don’t think it’s possible to make people there truly understand or appreciate this art. I hope that as a consultant for CIEA, I can help to re-define what art means to that organization, because I think that would be very meaningful to artists in China. Right now the goal is to gradually expand this field, so that in the future CIEA will actively seek out large exhibitions like the Sao Paolo and Venice Biennials, will take a more active and less passive role. Every time Chinese contemporary art meets with an international audience, CIEA will have a different impression. Even if CIEA doesn’t have the ability to put together this sort of exhibition, they need to have someone like me, to act as an inside line, and with the participation of many CIEA personnel, it can find the most able curators, people like Pi Li and Fan Di’an. To speak from the heart, I believe that every curator has their own prejudices, but the CIEA shouldn’t have any prejudices. If you require that every curator have no prejudices toward art, this could become rather troubling. Every time China participates in an international exhibition, it goes through the Foreign Connection Department of the Ministry of Culture. When the Foreign Connection Department is arranging an exhibition, it goes through the Department of Art of the Ministry of Culture to take care of the required tasks, and so another layer of questions may present itself. CIEA may have good intentions, but going through such an intricate series of approval proceedings, problems are bound to arise. I should say, when it comes to avant-garde art, the struggles at the upper levels are comparatively many; there will inevitably be a great deal of troublesome tasks. But there is still participation; the door is already open. My feeling is that in terms of the works themselves, there are still a great number of requirements. I want to tell young artists, structure is this sort of a thing. After my time at CIEA, I still have a number of plans, so I hope that before we go our separate ways, I can get in touch with a number of artists. To put it simply, I have many different feelings about this meeting, and I’m sure that I will continue to discuss what we’ve talked about with my own friends. I imagine that many other people also feel this need to continue the discussion.
My feeling is that if CIEA is unable to take care of the Venice Biennial, this isn’t the fault of CIEA, but rather the nature of the times. My personal feeling is that the things it exhibits are not problematic, but the proper way to exhibit them has changed; at that time China was completely isolated from the rest of the world. I believe that if the curators seated here today went to exhibit these things, they could create an interesting dialogue. I believe this topic has a particular meaning. Yesterday we talked about the power of the curator, today we’re talking about sharing resources. Actually there is not a single thing with absolute value; value is inseparable from use in a particular context. Next I’d like to ask Wang Gongxin to speak. There is now a new brand on the market: “Long March Lecture Series.” I’d like to thank Wang Gongxin, who has already hosted two of these lectures at The Loft in Beijing. The first was German artist living in New York Ingo Gunther, the second was American feminist art Judy Chicago. Thanks to him!
Speaking of The Loft, I think my personal experience shares something with Ye Yongqing’s. I am first of all an artist, running this space at the same time. Perhaps most people are familiar with The Loft, perhaps they go there often. I just want to speak for a moment, first about the reasons for building this space. It may look like a very chance meeting, or perhaps like something that has to do with my personal experiences and those of my wife Lin Tianmiao. We spent seven years abroad and decided that there was room to develop this kind of space in China. Beijing is the capital, a political and cultural center. But in 1994 and 1995, spaces where one could exhibit contemporary art barely existed. At that time, when I held my Open Studio exhibition, I had no idea that so many artists would come to see, and I discovered that these artists had no place to call their own. Many works were realized abroad and never exhibited in China. This looked like a good thing in the beginning; it gave us that opportunity to go abroad. But little by little I realized it was becoming a serious problem, especially where young artists who had just started working were concerned. There was a sort of illusion, an understanding. They thought the point of doing works let foreigners see, to get their big break, to be selected for an international exhibition. Many of their works seemed to “choose the easy way out.” I had a hope that I could exert energy and put together a place like The Loft, because I especially wanted to create a place in China where artists could exchange ideas, and maybe in this way make people begin to accept contemporary art. If artists could have an opportunity to realize works, then everybody would have an opportunity to exchange ideas. So I think that if there were not this sort of physical place, that would be very bad. At that time, many artists were doubling as curators; this is a very abnormal state of affairs. When I was imagining the space, my thoughts were very innocent. Looking back on it, in certain places I may have been too idealistic or romantic. In New York, I discovered that alternative spaces were the most happening places to develop and discover rising artistic stars. I didn’t want artists to have to think commercially, but just to give young artists a place to exchange, a place to have exhibitions. My wife’s younger brother was able to find us a piece of land, and the location is fantastic-right in the center of town. My wife and I designed and decorated the place, spending a lot of energy. We said to her brother, we don’t want to be remunerated, we just want to have a trade: you give us a piece of land, we create an art space. So a chance opportunity turned into reality. Luckily, the place is still able to continue in relative stability. We don’t pay a cent of rent, and my wife’s brother even insisted on helping us to buy some of the equipment, which allows us to operate normally. He also helped us hire a secretary, which could be another reason for our relative stability. Although this place is quite different from what I had originally imagined, I can’t complain. Lin Tianmiao’s younger sister has more than ten years of gallery experience in Beijing, she has connections in the art world, and now it is basically she who runs the operations of the gallery there. I am just an “artistic director,” I help her find the right general direction. When the space just opened, I would invite people to hold very serious meetings there, on topics like “how do we continue to operate.” I see now that this was all very idealistic. But through this experience, I’ve discovered that there are some problems which arise in the course of planning an exhibition. The first of these is money. If you want to do a high-quality exhibition, there is always the question of budget. Another question is that of venue. Our space is not ideal for long-term display. But we can nonetheless make it very active, displaying many different works for relatively short periods of time, and holding meetings or conferences. This place has been around for nearly two years, and it has already hosted over 80 events. What I was just saying about being able to “go on in stability,” I was talking not only about the economy-which hopefully won’t have many bigger pressures-but about the fact that Beijing is a very sensitive place. There have been spaces similar to The Loft before, but they’ve all encountered problems. We discovered that to put an art space under the rubric of a restaurant/bar is rather safe; the government’s attitude toward this is relatively relaxed, they think it’s a sort of entertainment. That is one factor. The other is that the activities are somewhat concealed. Also, when we were picking a name for the place, we were not incredibly idealistic or ambitious, and decided to call it a “new media art space.” I don’t like to imagine what might have happened by now if we had decided to call it an “experimental art space,” because that may well have been too sensitive. So when the space opened, the first thing we did was hold a meeting and discuss very seriously the meaning of “new media.” One could define it narrowly or broadly, and I prefer to define it broadly.
Between the lines, everyone seems to be talking about idealism and romanticism, and when we bring up these words, we always laugh to ourselves. But actually this isn’t a simple thing. Any independent space grows out of a kind of idealistic and romantic sentiment; I think it must be that way in any society. Wang Gongxin’s speech leaves me with the impression that there is a lot of meaning in both the place from which he started and in the existence of the space today. It seems that he wanted to get away from what Guan Yuda was saying yesterday about “assigning topics” for art. Every time someone goes to Wang Gongxin looking to use The Loft, he’ll say, “do whatever you want to do.” He’s just like Ye Yongqing. But to get to the point where he can say this, he’s already done a massive amount of work in your favor. So the advantage of a space like this is that everyone is creating for themselves, not creating because they were assigned a topic. Another point: he still has a very obvious tendency. Even though Wang Gongxin has held debates trying to deconstruct the meaning of “new media,” the fact remains that this phrase is one of the coolest theories of art right now in China, and I wouldn’t have thought he would need to find an explanation. Still, “new media” still has special characteristics. The lectures he hosts become a platform for exchange between artists in China and abroad, artists working in different styles and media. This is one very meaningful thing about The Loft. Speaking of our topic for this afternoon, our thought was that in the process of talking about independent spaces and alternative spaces, we would also talk repeatedly about independent curating and the sharing of resources. But in actuality, all of the speeches this afternoon have been from the perspective of the independent spaces. I actually don’t think that there is a specific definition of what is a “space,” but rather that it is whatever we’re accustomed to. The way I see it, from the artistic perspective, space can’t be replaced, but it can be chosen. If we say “spaces that can be chosen,” that’s a bit long, and “alternative spaces” sounds too self-consciously hip, so we say “substitute spaces.” As we continue to discuss, I hope everyone can return to the idea of “spaces that can be chosen.” Next I’d like to invite Jiang Yue of the Guangdong Museum of Art to introduce the significant work of that museum over the last several years.
I’ll briefly introduce the situation at our museum as it pertains to the topics of this conference. I think exhibition spaces for artists are very important. For many different reasons, these spaces have been limited in recent years; they have all been spaces that do not attract the attention of officials. In the last few years, owing to the loosening of some policies and adjustments within some of the government agencies, official museums have also begun to take notice of contemporary art. Guangdong Museum of Art was established very recently; it has been around for only five years, since 1997. Yesterday we talked about this, about how if the director of a museum has an interest in contemporary art, he might be able to support it. There are many state-run art museums in China, but only two of them do contemporary art: Shanghai Museum of Art and Guangdong Museum of Art. Our museum was founded in 1997, and before we got into contemporary art in 2000, the exhibitions we had held were Entering the Metropolis, Twenty Years of Experimental Chinese Ink and Wash Painting, New Metropolitanism, and Fake Future. These few exhibitions had a definite impact on society. And in November of this year, we will hold the first Guangzhou Triennial. This exhibition began preparations in 2000. The curator is Wu Hung from the University of Chicago, and the associate curators are Wang Huasheng, Huang Zhuan, and Feng Boyi. The goal of the Triennial is to do a re-reading of the developments of Chinese art during the past decade, to look back on what happened between the years of 1990 and 2000. There are three main themes, which I’d like to introduce with very little detail. The first is Memory and Reality, the second is Individual and Environment, and the third is Local and Global. We’ve also added a fourth theme, Continuing the Experiment. The first three themes are a summary, filtration, and retrospection on the past decade; the fourth involves several artists we have chosen to create some new works. The exhibition will fill all 13 exhibition rooms in our museum, as well as the outdoor courtyard, which will play home to some installations in the Continuing the Experiment section. In addition to this exhibition, we are also arranging an international curatorial conference, which has gained the support of the Hong Kong Arts Development Council, and which will be held partially in Hong Kong. The theme for the conference is Place and Pattern: Thinking and Creation in Contemporary Art Exhibitions. In this forum we have invited famous curators from China and abroad, as well as directors of top museums in China and abroad. In this way Guangzhou is going to become a very happening and ceremonious place come November. For this exhibition we are going to publish two catalogues, one in Chinese, the other in English. Feng Boyi is the man in charge of editing and producing these books. Contemporary art in China has just gotten very hot. Our museum director just went to Kassell a few days ago, where he met with some very important curators and shared some experiences with them, and introduced the situation of our Triennial to them. Our director is planning to hold a major exhbition of contemporary art every year. The Triennial is seasonal, but we also hope that the curators and artists gathered here will continue to be in contact with us. Our hardware and facilities are very good. In terms of capital, we may not be as strong as Shanghai, our government-allotted budget is around $1 million annually, which is barely enough to keep the water and electricity on and pay our employees. If we want to hold an exhibition, we need external support. But in terms of our work preferences, we tend toward contemporary art, because it is our strength. In this respect we have a great deal of contact with the Shanghai museum. In short, the Guangdong Museum of Art is willing to become a display space for contemporary artists, is willing to become a place for the curators gathered here to work, is willing to join hands and work with everyone today and afterwards, in order to help Chinese contemporary art move forward.
The Guangdong Museum of Art has also made its main exhibition space into a training ground for China’s youngest curators. Next, I think we can see, regardless of whether it’s a mainstream space or an alternative space, there is always the question of how to expand resources, for example the Guangdong Museum of Art working with the Hong Kong Arts Development Council is actually a way of expanding and integrating resources. At today’s meeting, we not only want to debate the meaning of integrating resources, but also to suggest a direction for that sort of integration. For example, today Jiang Yue has made a call to us, and perhaps in 2003 there will be an exhibition of contemporary art at the Guangdong Museum of Art that is curated by one of the people sitting in this room.
Last night I was talking with Johnson Chang, and I heard some very exciting news. At the Asia Art Archive, the resources which have been gathered are there for everyone to share. I think that this is a very good example. If anyone still has opinions or points to make, please contribute.
I hear everyone giving all these examples of alternative spaces, and I think, we can look at today’s topic of alternative spaces from another perspective, which is the openness or public nature of contemporary art. If we think of space solely as a place where an artist can hold an exhibition, perhaps our definition is too narrow. The expansion of spaces has two sides, one is that the roles of artists, curators, and critics have already undergone significant changes. The second is that before 1989, the boundaries between these fields were rigidly drawn, and today it seems that have nearly disappeared. I am aware of several very important exhibition formats to come about in the years since 1989, which should also be in the scope of our discussion. In the event that exhibition space is hard to come by, you have exhibitions like the small ones that Chen Tong talked about holding at his bookstore, whose real value is textual and documentary. There are many artists who independently hold exhibitions in their own studios. And then there are exhibitions like Gu Zhenqing’s Man and Animal exhibition, which also used a fluid style. There are exhibitions like the ones curated by Guangxi artist Huang Shaopeng. So I want to explain that in utilizing space resources, we can’t just understand them as an environment for an exhibition. I think that the idea of “alternative space” is a mixed-up, chaotic notion. If we want to talk about questions of art and accessibility to the public, I think we should use the term “public space” instead of “alternative space,” because just as Lu Jie said, space is something to which there is no alternative. I understand that this Long March is mainly happening through a network, not through one or another particular spaces or exhibitions.
I agree totally with you. Actually we could say that Wu Hong and Jiang Yuanlun, along with several other media people who have come here today, are a kind of “space.”
I just heard Ye Yongqing speak, and it made me think of many years ago when Xu Bing came to visit, and he spoke of his so-called experimental art. He thought his own works were not as influential as those of Chen Yifei and others. I haven’t been to Ye Yongqing’s space, but hearing his introduction and description, I have an urge to go and see it for myself. I think it is not simply an exhibition space, but an integrated multi-purpose space. It provides a new lifestyle, a new kind of taste, and this is very useful. Perhaps many intellectuals in Kunming know about this place, and regular people might think it is a place to see some new and interesting stuff. Ye Yongqing, I think this is even more useful than when you do experimental painting. This approach is not limited only to an exhibition, but also includes things like The Long March, which came through your space just a few days ago. I was terribly moved by Xiao Xiong’s work which we just saw. He quietly kept on going (traveling the route of the Long March in reverse), without making a scene. It makes me think of the early 1990s, when there was a group of artists assembled in Beijing, working painstakingly, not at all sure in which direction their art was going to develop. Their attitude then was quite similar to the feeling I had just a moment ago, a sort of piety and passion about art. I think the most special thing about the Long March is that its spirit has attracted a great many people, and particularly many young people. So I think that in this exhibition, the works themselves are already not the most important thing, but rather that the kind of wake-up call the Long March brings to people’s hearts, perhaps that is the most important.
This has to do with the spirit of the artists. That day I was talking with Pan Dehai at The Loft about whether if we say that the Yuanmingyuan artists’ community was “undergraduate,” if today’s Tongzhou community is “graduate student level.” These attitudes have a huge difference. The goal of the artists who went to Yuanmingyuan was precisely to leave Yuanmingyuan as soon as they became famous. But the artists who came to The Loft that day, some of them are prepared to stay here for a lifetime. The Loft is a successful space, because it is not just an exhibition hall, not just a place to consume art, but a place to produce art. I think that something like Yuanmingyuan didn’t have a way to go on, that as soon as something like The Loft came about, it immediately began to play a larger and more important role. The majority of official museums and commercial galleries are dismissive of contemporary art. And so artists adjust themselves, first gaining a strong consciousness of how things work, and then hoping to enter the mainstream. One change that happened in the 90s is that artists began to think more about the meaning of art in their everyday lives. As Wang Gongxin just said, he held an open studio exhibition in his own home. Then there is the phenomenon that the ranks of those who work in contemporary art are swelling, creating a half-underground, half-public circle. Actually, I believe that the mass appeal of a place like The Loft is still very limited, it is still a place for self-consumption by the art circle, and it is very obvious that those who come to The Loft are already part of the art scene. For this reason I think that the “alternative space” we have been talking about can already be divided into many different levels. There are places like The Loft, stable places which are often used by independent curators. But there are also temporary venues, and actually, the most important exhibitions of the late 90s took place in these sorts of spaces. Now we are using these temporary venues less and less, and we are more prone to gather in stable places like The Loft. I think this bespeaks a change in our attitudes, and that this diligent drive to build a connection with the society in which we exist is something that should happen.
Actually the space in Kunming is separated into many units for purposes of operation, and each person’s ideas and understanding of the value of different things is not quite the same. Generally speaking, it should be richer and more complex. I feel that the place is rather appropriate for an inland city like Kunming. If we did something very specialized in Kunming, it would definitely have problems supporting itself, so this is also decided by the concrete situation. Because of these interactions among many different kinds of people, the space is constantly giving rise to conflicts with its locality. However, it certainly is able to attract a number of people. I have always thought of it as a scene, a place where things can happen.
No matter what country, society, or culture, these so-called alternative spaces are constantly changing.
I believe that art and commerce can influence each other, and that in this process, if the influence is good, it may help both parties. But we need to be careful in this process that art doesn’t become merely a fashionable product, that it doesn’t lose its experimental quality. There is another question, and that is the entry of government into contemporary art. I think that in any country, when the government gets involved in contemporary art, it will bring with it very strict limits. As soon as conflicts arise between a work and these limits, art may begin to go in a different direction. I think the example of the incident with Huang Yongping’s sculpture last year is a very good example. So we need to be careful that when the government gets involved in contemporary art, it may turn art into something that looks experimental only in form, but in actuality raises no questions.
I think that regardless of the situation, artists have a yardstick of their own, a yardstick that allows them to determine who is a good artist.
On this topic, we still have someone yet to speak who can share valuable experience. Chen Tong runs a bookstore in Guangzhou. The Borges Bookstore has become a meeting place for people involved in art and literature, as well as a venue for exhibitions. On the question of “integrating resources,” Chen Tong has relatively rich experience.
When we started the bookstore we didn’t have any money. We didn’t have many books, and we certainly didn’t sell paintings. My real interest then was in publishing, and in understanding literature and movies. I thought that running a bookstore would be conducive to these goals, so in 1993 I began to cooperate with some other people to open a bookstore, first on a temporary basis. Some conflicts arose a few months later, and the cooperation ended. Borges opened formally in 1994, and has been running now for over eight years. Through 1997 business was very good, and at this time we began to organize activities, exhibitions, and lectures. I am after all an artist and a teacher of art at an art academy, not an ideal store manager. In these circumstances, planning activities was the only outlet for my creativity. Speaking globally, there are a number of bookstores that also organize activities. In the very beginning, my store was on the campus of the art academy, the rent was quite cheap, and there was not even a contract. The situation grew sensitive, perhaps because of some of the paintings we were selling, but perhaps also because of the sources of our books. Many of our goods were Taiwanese, purchased in Hong Kong, for example books by Foucault and Derrida which at that time, Sanlian had yet to publish on the mainland. This attracted a great deal of attention, especially from the media, and even from abroad. I was then most interested in promoting french literature and theory, so there were often people from the French consulate and other diplomatic operations coming through. In this way the store became a base, and many people came to believe that we had lots of things going on. Around the time of the Hong Kong reversion, people from the News and Publishing Bureau came and told me that I could no longer sell books without ISBNs, but this did not scare me. Then about a month before the reversion, I ran into the assistant director of our college, and he said that if he saw my bookstore open the following day, he would be very upset. I thought he was quite rude, that he didn’t know how to deal with people, so my response was to immediately move the store. Once we moved, the situation immediately changed because our costs went up. We moved to the eighteenth floor of a building, becoming what must have been the world’s highest bookstore. Immediately the safety department, the college, and the publishing department all came to make trouble, taking away RMB 30,000 worth of books for inspection. They inspected for four months, finding out that I was indeed just someone interested in art. Then they stopped searching me. We realized that having moved the space to the 18th floor, it was not going to be possible to attract people’s attention, so we quickly moved down again, to a relatively expensive building. In this location we did seven or eight exhibitions. You could say we successfully promoted the work of Yang Yong and Cao Fei-Cao Fei’s first work was displayed in our store. We also held some documentary exhibitions, including one of the diary of Hu Yichuan. I thought this was a relatively “red” exhibition, so I gave announcements to the leaders of our college. Not one of them showed. Perhaps they thought they couldn’t come to a place like that. Even though they pay my salary and arrange my course roster, they still couldn’t come. Maybe this is because I have never been willing to play the guanxi game with them. If I did, maybe the situation would be better. After operating there for a nine months, the costs rose once again. I lost tens of thousands of RMB, so I had no choice but to move on. Altogether we have moved seven times, but never more than a few hundred meters away from the gate of the college. Why do we have this concern? In this space we find an echelon of artists not far from professional success. This is a population with potential to develop, quite unlike the broad masses. It is like I said yesterday, my degree of dissatisfaction with the leaders of China’s arts education system varies. Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts is a very old school, and indeed a very powerful school, especially in terms of fundamental pedagogy. But it has nothing to contribute to contemporary art; it never gets more radical than the pretty paintings of some modernist masters. They are absolutely opposed to avant-garde art. But art academy students still have this potential. Throughout its history, my bookstore has encouraged students’ desires to work in contemporary art; this includes writing and filmmaking. They need something like my store. If I didn’t do this, they would be drawn into the commercial society or confined by the education of the academy. I am driven by this responsibility; I feel I should be doing what I am doing. This touches back on what we have been saying about problems of exhibition space. And that in turn stems from the fact that there are not enough resources in Guangzhou. Contemporary artists in Guangzhou are poor; the rich artists are the ones who do Chinese painting. I know these people, but only as acquaintances. I’m not interested in sitting down to eat and drink with them. When I meet with friends we always go Dutch, we always go to the cheapest restaurants. I have discovered a problem in all the exhibitions I have held. (Because the venue is small, these exhibitions generally last for just two weeks at a time). When one holds an exhibition in a bookstore, people think it is an appendix to the bookstore, a way to get people to buy books. I don’t mean it to be this way. The first time I let someone know about an exhibition, they are very happy. But the second time, it is like a kind of punishment. I am not able to use “modern” methods to spread the word; I can only call people on the phone and mail invitations. When I call people, I feel like I am burdening them, like they think I am calling them to come and buy books, and they think this is annoying. This is a problem of resources. In the same way, if I want to invite artists from beyond Guangzhou, there is the problem of expenses. Another problem is that people seem to think that Guangzhou’s economy is fully developed. In fact, it did develop relatively early, and there are a great number of people there with money, but getting support for the arts in Guangzhou is nonetheless impossibly difficult. The entire budget for the Guangzhou Triennial is RMB 7 million. A friend of mine got Philips to invest 20 million French Francs in a less-than-ambitious film of his. These are not comparable. In addition to my role as an artist, I am also active in literary circles. Literature is a very low-cost activity, but the returns it can reap are correspondingly very low. No one would invest in literature. Accordingly, running this sort of alternative space in Guangzhou one faces several serious problems. But we are confident nonetheless. Recently I rearranged the space. I want the bookstore to keep on going, but how that will happen, I can’t say at the moment. I need to discuss things with more friends. Listening to Ye Yongqing and Wang Gongxin at this meeting, I feel quite excited already. I know their conditions are not like mine-that didn’t sound so great-Wang Gongxin is a rich man, Ye Yongqing is a hero. But my operating conditions are not fixed, and my power to support things is quite lacking. And needless to say, none of my friends has any money. But the situation in the arts in Guangzhou is quite interesting, and sometimes we are able to do some quite unconventional things. Still I remain skeptical of how many more things we can do in such a limited atmosphere. Every time I go out, friends in the arts and literary circles ask me if I will keep running that bookstore. This is tough to answer. Judging from the looks in everyone’s eyes, of course I want to keep going. But the risk belongs to me, and not to everyone.
Thank you so much, Chen Tong. Speaking of costs, Ye Yongqing and Wang Gongxin’s experiences are very precious. Only in a world without the pressures of costs can the sort of romanticism and idealism of which they spoke continue to exist. But I want to point out that there is actually something everyone in this room has that is very valuable-knowledge capital. If we could integrate resources well, then this knowledge could become a sort of infinite capital. Now we’d like to invite Wu Meichun to speak from her personal experience, first of being an independent curator and now of where she fits into this consolidation of resources. I believe that the New Media Arts Center which she runs at my alma mater, the China Academy of Fine Arts, is a new kind of possible space within the very conservative framework of that school. So I would like to ask her to speak from these two perspectives.
Every exhibition I have been involved with is unique; it is quite hard to use one experience to sum up my entire experience as a curator. The school chose to do new media because in the process of expanding, it wants to use this pedagogy to interact with countries abroad, and they chose me because I had some knowledge of new media from its earliest beginnings in China. As far as I am concerned, “new media” is just a way into the academy; it allows me to maintain a new media space within the academy. How this space will be operated, this is going to be a process of compromise and struggle. Listening just now to Wu Hong’s concerns about selling out, I believe that selling out is not a question of form. If one’s heart has sold out, that is of course a treacherous thing. In the academy, you have very clear-cut ideas about how to do a particular thing, and once you do it, it is visible for all, and at that point no one will care whether you are in the academy or an independent curator. So I have nothing else to say, save that I hope everyone will pay attention to what I do in the future.
We were talking after last night’s meeting, first about curating exhibitions, and then we returned to everyone’s experience of the market. We said that in curating and operating spaces, it doesn’t matter whether one’s contribution is to the theoretical discourse or to the progress of art itself. In the end, we kept returning to the question of our artistic educations. I think what Wu Meichun is doing, to enter the academy, to use it as a starting point, to bring in many of the things which have been outside the system until now, to build a base of support, to consolidate resources there, to plan some novel activities and expand the scope of scholarship-I think this is extraordinarily meaningful. Because of time concerns, today’s meeting must end here. Thanks to every participant. We can say with confidence that this is China’s first international curatorial conference. It has been very successful and I am quite satisfied. It has led to some very interesting topics, and to discourse based on these topics. I want to thank everyone for coming from so far away, and to those of you who came at your own expense. I especially want to thank Gu Zhenqing. He is an exceptionally busy curator in his own right, but he was able to find time to direct our conference, to make this conference happen. I would also like to say that the space we chose for today is itself particularly meaningful. Across the street is a Catholic church, but it has been Disneyfied-this is a special kind of space in China. Near the entrance there is an infant haircut studio, full of advertisements bearing pictures of foreign babies. This is the kind of space we as curators are particularly sensitive to. Next door is an old Red Army bank, a fundamental protector of resources during the historical Long March. Surely everyone understands our motives for choosing to hold this roundtable meeting across from these two landmarks in Zunyi. I’d like to thank the person who lent this space to us, the director of this school. She has allowed us to use this space without restrictions, and we have in turn filled it with our discourse. We are extremely grateful!
Wang Chuyu, Democratic Long March, performance, 2002
The last part of the afternoon meeting was Wang Chuyu’s performance work Democratic Long March. In his proposal, Wang Chuyu pointed out that Lu Jie and Qiu Zhijie had not been democratically elected as curators of the Long March, and required that they be voted upon on-site. To this purpose, Wang Chuyu printed a series of ballots and wrote a strict set of election rules. In this election, there were no particular candidates, or rather, everyone present was a potential candidate. The first round would choose five of those present to make speeches, and the second round would choose two winners from those five.
At 6:30 that evening, Wang Chuyu read the election rules and the voting began. Participants neatly filled out their ballots and lined up to drop them in the box. The atmosphere was jovial until the ballot-counting began, at which point things got tense. Some participants asked Lu Jie if the exercise was real, if he would genuinely resign his post if not selected. How had they dared to accept this proposal, people asked. The initial voting was scattered—of the fifty-plus participants, 32 received one or more vote. The majority of these however received only one or two votes. Those receiving multiple votes included Lu Jie, Qiu Zhijie, Johnson Chang, Wu Meichun, and Ye Yongqing. These five became the candidates for round two, and were thus required by Wang Chuyu to give a candidacy speech.
Wu Meichun’s speech was an appeal that people not vote for her. She said: “I saw the presentation last night. Lu Jie and Qiu Zhijie are ironmen. I am not an ironwoman. I can’t take it, I couldn’t do this.”
Ye Yongqing said: “Those two have run the thing up to now, and they’re too tired to go on. I’m quite willing to usurp the fruits of their revolution. If everyone goes on the Long March with me, we’ll eat well and drink well, things won’t be so tough as they are now.”
Johnson Chang said: “I’ll run as their assistant.” (One ballot for the Hong Kong gallerist listed a reason: ”because he has money.”)
Lu Jie said that he hoped someone else was elected, that way he wouldn’t have to continue spending money to finish the project.
Qiu Zhijie said that he needed to keep on going because he couldn’t stand to see Lu Jie running the project alone. “Besides,” he said, “I have a great digital camera, and curators must be able to take good pictures!”
The speeches were full of jokes, but again, when the ballots were counted, the mood of the room grew tense.
The result of the election? Lu Jie and Qiu Zhijie were chosen to continue on as curators of the Long March, and the gathered group warmly applauded their victory. Wang Chuyu’s subversive machinations had actually legitimized the standing curators of the project.
Xiao Xiong, Enter and Exit, performance/installation, 2002
At the site, the group encountered the artist Xiao Xiong, whose work was to walk the route of the Long March in reverse, from Yan’an to Ruijin, exchanging an article with a passerby each day as a way of exploring ideas of exchange and memory. In the room where the actual Zunyi Meeting is said to have occurred, he traded an article for Johnson Chang’s cigar holder, and went on, alone. Upon seeing this, curator Feng Boyi exclaimed that because of the Long March, artists in China had rediscovered a new energy.
Exhibition of Leaders’ Portraits by international and local artists, 2002
One man called Philip Tinari, known in Chinese as Tian Feiyu, a young American critic, joined the group. During a lunch at the conference in Guiyang, he asked Qiu Zhijie if he could remain on the Long March route and it is said that at the time Qiu agreed. The next day in Zunyi, Lu Jie found the extra member and asked Qiu Zhijie, who categorically denied having agreed to Tinari’s accession. Phil, hereafter known to the Marchers as “Fei-er” (the literal translation of “Phil”), became a Long Marcher. Phil began to work for the Long March, helping translate and edit materials for the English website, becoming an important figure in the detachment.
Works exhibited in the Exhibition of “Leader Portraits”