Last autumn, when I was invited to put together the first monograph on controversial calligrapher and street artist Tsang Tsou Choi (1921–2007), I immediately caught a flight to Hong Kong, dropped my bags at the hotel and headed up Hollywood Road to the Asia Art Archive (AAA). There I was able to access resources that would otherwise be impossible to find: obscure, out-of-print exhibition catalogues featuring Tsang’s work and carefully preserved newspaper columns in which battles over the significance of his legacy raged following his death.
AAA started modestly back in 2000, at a time when institutional support for contemporary art throughout Asia was nearly nonexistent. The archive developed in response to an urgent question: without systematic efforts to collect and organize the fragile pieces of Asian art’s recent past – slides and invitation cards, handwritten correspondence and rare periodicals – how could contemporary Asian art be properly studied and, finally, historicized? With a growing collection of around 41,000 records (much of it digitized and accessible online), a network of researchers acquiring and cataloguing materials throughout the continent, and a dynamic roster of public programmes, aaa has grown from a single bookshelf to a focused, thriving research centre.
Still, mainland China needs its own specialized archives and libraries to facilitate scholarship and analysis of contemporary art. Although one hears about China’s museum-building boom, the details are often framed as though launching a new art institution were primarily a construction project – a series of problems to be solved by architects, real-estate developers and easily exploited labourers. The hardware is relatively easy to fabricate, but developing the software – a clear institutional vision, an ongoing series of exhibitions that cultivates public interest – is more difficult. So while speculation continues as to when (or whether) ground will be broken in Beijing’s Olympic Village on the new, Jean Nouvel-designed National Art Museum of China (touted as the world’s largest museum), a number of ambitious artists, curators and museum directors have taken matters into their own hands, rolling up their sleeves and adding to the country’s creative infrastructure.
Among the best of these new resources is Video Bureau, an organization with branches in Beijing and Guangzhou whose mission is to ‘collect and organize art works of video artists in order to build an archive that welcomes research and viewing for artists, critics, curators, researchers, art students, collectors and the general public’. Since its founding in 2012 by artists Fang Lu, Chen Tong and Zhu Jia (the latter provided the original space for the Beijing outpost but is no longer involved in the daily operations), Video Bureau has worked with 17 artists – from relative newcomers like Ma Qiusha to seasoned veterans, including China’s founding father of video art, Zhang Peili – to transfer their complete oeuvres onto dvds that can be viewed onsite. In the case of multi-channel pieces, one can choose to see the entire work at once or to view each channel separately, allowing for careful scrutiny. Each video is accompanied by an artist’s statement, details concerning the technical and spatial requirements for its display, its complete exhibition history and copies of preparatory sketches, notes and research materials from the artist’s archive. Everything at Video Bureau is well organized, with written materials available in both Chinese and English, and all of it presented in an open storage system that invites visitors to help themselves.
With around 250 dvds now available, Video Bureau is currently archiving the works of two artists per month and shows no signs of slowing down. As its collection grows, Video Bureau aims to reflect a diversity of artistic approaches. ‘Eventually,’ Fang Lu told me, ‘I hope everyone who engages with video art will be archived.’ In addition, Video Bureau invites each participating artist to give a public talk about his or her work in either the Beijing or Guangzhou space. More recently, the organization started extending its educational activities to lectures and screenings at non-profit spaces in cities such as Chengdu and Taipei.
Elsewhere in southern China, the library at the Shenzhen OCT Contemporary Art Terminal (OCAT) is rapidly distinguishing itself as a hub for contemporary art research. In addition to building a collection of books and reference materials based on recommendations from artists and thinkers participating in ocat Shenzhen’s exhibitions and public programmes, the library hosts a well-received lecture series – guests have included Rasheed Araeen, Hans Belting, Boris Groys and Huang Zhuan – that informs a series of related publications. ocat Director Carol Yinghua Lu (a former researcher for the aaa, and a contributing editor of frieze) told me that she and her colleagues are also currently developing a library and research centre in Beijing, scheduled to open in 2015. In addition to significant holdings in contemporary art and critical theory, Lu reports that the centre ‘will organize a residency programme for researchers and thinkers, present a themed lecture series and publish Chinese translations of recent theories from Europe and America, as well as supporting writing initiatives in Chinese’. With ocat building a constellation of privately funded contemporary art museums in Shanghai, Wuhan and Xi’an, one hopes that these, too, will become sites for the production of knowledge and preservation of documents and ephemera that will eventually help us to make sense of the art work being produced in China today. Time – measured here not in decades, but in months – will tell.