I recently went to Gwangju following an invitation to be one of the six female Asian artistic directors of next year’s Gwangju Biennale. As I left Beijing for Korea, I was mindful of the disappearance last month of Ai Weiwei, who is the co-artistic director for 2011 Gwangju Design Biennale (which opens on 2 September). There hasn’t yet been any news about Ai’s condition or contact with his family – it’s as if he has fallen into an unfathomable black hole. At this stage, no one seems to know what is the best thing to do.
Though geographically, my trip was extended due to a transfer from Seoul Airport to Gimpo Airport, where domestic flights from Seoul to Gwangju operate frequently. At Gimpo I met up with Mami Kataoka, Chief Curator of Mori Art Museum and a fellow artistic director for the 2012 Gwangju Biennale. Kataoka had flown in from Tokyo, a city still working through the aftermath of the earthquake, tsunami and the nuclear accident. In China, people have been gripped by the fear of nuclear radiation blown in by wind. Despite the countries’ proximity, it has been difficult for us to measure the real effect of this unprecedented disaster on the daily lives of the Japanese. ‘How do people cope with the situation?’ I asked Kataoka. Her answer was surprisingly calm: ‘We try to get on with life as much as possible. We are kind of used to it and we still go to work, try to eat outside, and buy in supermarkets so that the economy of the area can maintain a certain level. We are used to earthquakes so we would be having a coffee in the office and the quake happens and we would say, “there it goes again…“’
Her answer struck me deeply, as, in China, the media’s coverage of the disaster-struck area has been ubiquitously one-dimensional; much of the focus has been on the damage caused and the potential harm on us, rather than on the surviving and the everyday. Speaking to Kataoka I felt immediately closer to Japan and more relaxed about being in Korea, even though friends had warned me about the higher risks of nuclear radiation exposure there.
In Gwangju we met up with Nancy Adajania (an independent critic and curator from Mumbai), Wassan Al-Khudhairi (chief curator and acting director of Mathaf, Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha), Kim Sunjung (a Seoul-based independent curator and professor at the Korea National University of Arts), to be presented to the Biennale’s board of directors for approval of our appointments to be the co-artistic directors of the 2012 Gwangju Biennale. We began our three-day site visit at the Gwangju Museum of Art, which is adjacent to the Biennale building in Jungwoi Park. The museum’s programme is a mixture of exhibitions of traditional, modern or contemporary art and craft, as well as local and international projects, arts and cultural events. When we were there, an exhibition of works concerned with the relationship of human beings with the nature by local artists entitled ‘Dream of Butterfly’ was on view. There was also an intriguing documentary exhibition on Choi Seung-hee, a legendary Korean modern dancer that was born in Seoul, went to North Korea as a member of the Workers’ Party of Korea after the second world war but was purged by the party, and disappeared from public view in 1967. She died in 1969.
We also visited one of the downtown venues of the Gwangju Museum of Art, the Sangrok Gallery (above), the building of which was initially established in 1982 as the official residence of a local governor. Overlooking a beautiful forest, this site was launched as a branch gallery of the Gwangju Museum of Art to provide the people in the city with better access to cultural events. There was another nature-inspired exhibition of local Gwangju artists on display. As we continued our trip, we were to discover the dedication of the city to providing local Gwangju artists with possibilities of work and exhibition is remarkably consistent.
While most of the Biennale’s history is recorded in writing, the Daein traditional market in Gwangju is like a living record of the Bokdukbang Project, which was part of the 7th edition of the Biennale. Curated by Sung-Hyen Park, the project invited artists to set up workshops and initiate events throughout the market. Afterwards, the workshops remained and more artists have since rented small spaces inside the market, among vendors of seafood, vegetable, meat, spices and snacks. Subsidized by the local government, the artist studios are cheap and well managed. They are relatively small, cute and pleasant, funky storefronts blended well with the neatly organized market. We learned that the market was on the edge of closing yet the project brought energy and renewed business interest to the area. Soon after, a local magazine also moved into create their basis there (above). The market has also gradually recovered its liveliness and continued to exist.
We stopped at a shop in front of which an old woman was pealing chestnuts. She pointed at a picture of her with Okwui Enwezor hung in front of her shop. Along the way, we also saw colourful seafood stands that had been painted by artists, as well as a tea vendor whose cart had been painted. We were shown around in the market by Seungki Cho, director of Mite-Ugro, a non-profit organization established by local young artists and curators. Occupying a few places including a basement level exhibition space, a rooftop, a street-level office, Mite-Ugro is more like a community centre for artists working in the market and visiting for residencies at their guesthouse. There, we met a group of young artists (from Thailand, Taiwan, Japan as well as other cities in Korea) who were participating in the Asian Young Artist Festival that was on in Gwangju throughout April. Mite-Ugro was showing a range of interactive installations and sculptural works by five artists working locally. On the roof-top of Mite-Ugro, a number of artists was testing a sound-piece based on recording from the market and would be showing in an event at the Gwangju Kunsthalle over the weekend.
Opened during the last Gwangju Biennale in 2010, the Gwangju Kunsthalle (above) is made up of 29 dark grey and orange cargo containers that provide an airy space. It operates as a platform for interactive and performance-based events, including lectures, music, night markets and new-media projects. It’s located in the middle of the site for the Asian Culture Complex that is currently under construction in downtown Gwangju, a key site of the 1980 civil uprising, and is scheduled to open in 2014. Standing on top of the Kunsthalle, the now derelict provincial office building from the 1980 was still in sight, reminding a turning point in the recent history of Korea. When completed, the ambitious compound will be showcasing many aspects of Asian culture, including music, performance and art. The Gwangju Kunsthalle will also terminate its container-based existence and move into a new venue then.
Hopping onto a 45-minute plane ride to Seoul felt as convenient as a taxi ride. Once there, the visits consisted largely of museums, art centres and commercial galleries, and we were exposed to another scene and dynamic that felt more institutionalized and less street-level than that in Gwangju. Our first stop was the state-of-the-art Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art (above), a complex of three connected building annexes, designed by Mario Botta, Jean Nouvel and Rem Koolhaas. In Museum 1 was a perfect example of traditional Korean art and antiquity, including many national treasures which worked well with the contemporary architecture. In Museum 2, Korean modern art was displayed next to some of the most recognizable international art stars, the usual suspects such as Yves Klein, Jeff Koons, Damient Hirst and so on – an attempt at re-examining the relationship of Korean modern and contemporary art to practices elsewhere in the world, an issue that many curators and institutions have consciously addressed and considered in recent exhibition and research projects. Museum 3 housed an exhibition entitled ‘Korean Rhapsody: A Montage of History and Memory’, a very interesting survey of Korean art in the past 100 years that questions and reconsiders the narrative of Korean Modern history and cultural identity. A commendable effort of the museum to raise more attention of modern Korean art history through a socially and politically engaged narrative, the exhibition was however suffering from uneven qualities and works included more for their political and historical relevance than artistic excellence.
Much of the discussion following the visit revealed a certain desire for self-definition in Korean art, both in the Asian and global contexts. The recent market boom of Chinese art had also inflicted a certain anxiety among the Korean art community to reassert its presence and participation in the international art world. Through this exchange, my Asian colleagues also realized how little we actually knew about each other – much less than what we have learned about our Western counterparts. In an attempt to find out about our own relevance in the world, it’s also equally necessary to learn more about our immediate neighbours and our interrelationships. This issue is probably what makes the choice of six Asian curators for the next Gwangju Biennale timely and necessary.
I went to Shanghai on the occasion of ‘The Last Two Decades Revisited’, which was the public lecture and discussion programme for the exhibition ‘Double Infinity’. The show that engaged Asian and European artists to create works in response to a selection of art works from the collection of the Van Abbemuseum was a joint effort between the Van Abbemuseum and Arthub Asia that took place from April 29 to May 23 at the Dutch Culture Centre in Shanghai, as a satellite event to Holland’s participation in the World Expo 2010. To activate a collection, archival materials and past memories through commissioning new works and initiating conversations surrounding their collection is very much in line with Van Abbemuseum’s past and present programmes such as Plug In and Play Van Abbe, the latter of which is currently running in the museum for 18 months. The two-day public programme on May 15th and 16th brought together Chinese and international artists, critics, theoreticians and art historians to question the given accounts of Chinese art history. This was a timely and necessary discussion in light of the current phenomenon of staging exhibitions with a historical claim in Beijing and Shanghai. The beginning of May just saw the opening of Reshaping History in Beijing, a rather extensive survey of Chinese art produced in the last decade comprising over a thousand pieces of works by more than 200 contemporary Chinese artists. The show triggered a great deal of controversy as it turned out to be an occasion that clearly favored quantity over quality, power play over respect for art, tacky sensation over thoughtful treatment of ideas.
Despite their grandiose ambitions, most of these attempts at establishing historic accounts ended up repeating the same simplified chronology that has been overexposed rather than carefully examined. On April 18, Minsheng Art Museum was officially opened with a 30-year survey of Chinese paintings from 1979 to 2009. Minsheng Art Museum is the latest addition to the roster of private art museums mushrooming in Shanghai in the past few years. Most of these museums are supported by private enterprises from property developers to private banks and they constitute a unique part of the institutional scene in the city. Shanghai artist Zhou Tiehai, vice director of the Minsheng Art Museum and curator of the exhibition walked us through the nearly 100 paintings by more than 80 artists that are on view until July 18th. Apart from the usual suspects, a few of the names are no longer familiar today but were relevant to the art scene of the former decades. The show wasn’t organized strictly chronologically but evolved organically taking into accounts of the manifold associations among the works in terms of their conceptual, stylistic, aesthetic, and mostly relational relevance and legacy. It was overall a tasteful selection yet as a statement for 30 years of Chinese contemporary art as it aspired to be, such a personal, intuitive and loosely constructed narrative left ample room for in-depth research and theoretical discussions.
Just a few days before my visit, Biljana Ciric, a Serbian curator based in Shanghai, launched her Chinese language publication ‘History in Making: Shanghai 1979–2009’ on May 11 in Art House in Shanghai. The publication was an archive of interviews with artists and documents collected from her research for an exhibition of the same title that was opened last September. Along with this exhibition, the publication revealed many lesser known but important facts, practices, and thinking in the current circulation of knowledge about the art history in Shanghai.
Rock Bund Art Museum is another new venue in town for contemporary art that opened on May 7th with Cai Guo-Qiang’s solo exhibition: ‘Peasant Da Vincis’. The museum is housed in the handsome Royal Asiatic Society building, a site of historic heritage completed in 1932 and formally a museum that collected natural specimens and cultural artifacts, with a recently renovated interior. In a recent interview with Hi Art, a Chinese art monthly magazine, Cai has said that he’s done with those government-level commissions of choreographing firework displays for the Olympics or the 60th National Day Celebration of China and is now turning his attention to the common people.
This inaugural exhibition of the Rock Bund Art Museum claimed to celebrate and showcase the creativity of Chinese farmers and presented a number of makeshift mechanical inventions by peasants discovered by Cai Guo-Qiang from all over the country, among them, airplanes, helicopters, flying saucers, submarines, racing cars and robots. The peasant inventors had impressed Cai with their unbound imagination and dedication to carry on their dreams sometimes at the risk of their own livelihood and even lives. One of them died at a test fly of his homemade plane. While these inventions with rather unassuming appearances bear inspiring stories of these individuals who have invested their interest, time, energy, dreams and often scarce resources into these creations, it remained questionable to me whether these projects and aspirations really belonged there in the museum but more importantly how genuine was Cai’s glorification of these common people and how convincing was his emphasis on the power of peasants, who are among the most underprivileged and vulnerable of our society. Although I am not against appropriation strategies and ‘relational’ approaches in which other practitioners – be they ‘hobby’ or ‘professional’ – are incorporated into the artist’s work, I especially question Cai’s motivation to temporarily lift these peasants from their own lives and grant them such a possibility for their creations to be seen in the context of the art museum for the sake of his own practice. We will probably never know what would happen to these farmers and their lives after this small adventure and detour. Cai has positioned himself as a discoverer, collector and owner of these inventions and thus the dreams of these farmers. He had the means, privilege and authority as an artist to place them in a museum and turn the display of these machines into an art project of his own. Cai also organized a series of lectures and conferences organized in association with the exhibition to address and recognize the imagination and creative power of Chinese farmers. There were also large banners and graffiti writings on the surrounding walls outside the museum with sentences such as ‘What Matters Isn’t Whether It Could Take Off’ and ‘Peasants-Making a better city, a better life’, echoing the theme of the 2010 World Expo: ‘Better City, Better Life’.
Back to the city where most peasant workers whose hard labor have been responsible for all the constructions and radical transformations of Chinese cities since the 1990s, had been kept out of sight for the duration of the World Expo, one wonders whether an exhibition like Cai’s has made Chinese peasants seem more present or less in control of where they can be.
On the morning after the 60th anniversary celebration of the founding of the People’s Republic of China of October 1, I overheard a conversation among three volunteers on the street, who belonged to the community of 800,000 uniformed citizens mobilized prior and during the National Holiday to safeguard the city at every street corner. One of them had witnessed the fireworks on the official gala performance of the previous night on Tian’anmen Square and was describing in detail and excitement to the other two the changing of colors and patterns of the fireworks. I witnessed briefly the animated exchanges and was deeply moved by such a simple human gesture of appreciating and sharing the splendor of fireworks out of a situation where human individuals were reduced to faceless performers and executors of repetitive and robotic movements and the feeling of being an insignificant person in the face of the government’s grandiose ambition and claims was more than ever present. Tian’anmen Square and the extended area around it were blocked off for days during the celebration and only the leaders, the performers and the selected few had access to it. Cai Guoqiang was one of the privileged, who were granted exclusive entry into this heavily secured area, as he had an enormous task to fulfill. Following his design and directing of the fireworks display at the opening of the 2008 Beijing Olympics Games, he was again appointed to design the fireworks for the evening of the 60th National Day celebration, which led to the street conversation mentioned above.
There was no question that Cai’s fireworks display was a rather usual art project, unprecedented in scale, complexity, technical sophistication, the extent of public presence and influence, as well as the number of its audience. Cai’s contribution to the evening’s extravaganza included his usual fare of splendid and awe-inspiring explosions as well as a roster of crowd-pleasing realist configurations, including 60 “birthday candles”, the number of 60, as well as three giant ‘fireworks paintings’ depicting Chinese landscapes against a 90-meter by 25-meter pyrotechnic “curtain” hung by 250-tonne cranes over Tiananmen Square. One of the ‘fireworks paintings’ portrayed the ‘Qinghai-Tibetan’ train, which was more of a symbol for territorial unity than a transportation achievement, and the other an ink wash painting by master Fu Baoshi. Carefully constructed to convey and embody desired political messages and ambitions, these fireworks at the same time provided an enormous amount of visual sensations and satisfactions. Cai’s project of the evening was an aesthetic and artistic triumph yet it remains a question whether the ideological purpose an art project serves should be something to waive against it.
The festive and highly elevated mood trumpeted all over the media around the 60th anniversary celebration was contrasted by the emptiness and quietness of the streets in Beijing. A few bus and subway stops near Tian’anmen Square were closed off as early as one day before Oct 1st and made it difficult for some people to go to work even. Many major hotels, restaurants and public entities along the Chang’an Avenue and in the neighborhood were ordered to close business for a few days. The extensive roadblocks and the armed police force and police cars patrolling and positioned all through the city cast a rather solemn and gloomy atmosphere and made it less desirable to travel within the city. Besides, many people were on leave and away for the extended official eight-day National Holiday. Almost half of the population in Beijing consists of new immigrants or temporary residents from all over the country, many of whom choose to return to their hometowns during long breaks.
In the art circuit, things had also settled down quite a bit following two momentous openings on the previous weekend. On September 26th, Pace Beijing, the Beijing branch of PaceWildenstein from New York, reopened its door after a year of renovation to defy ongoing speculations of its premature demise as a result of the economic crisis. The inaugural exhibition of the gallery Encounters was opened last August, six days before the opening of the Beijing Olympic Games and paired up works by international big shot artists with those of their local counterparts. The lineup of names – including Andy Warhol, Alex Katz, Chuck Close, Cindy Sherman, Georg Baselitz, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Jeff Koons, Marlene Dumas, Richard Prince, Tim Eitel, Fang Lijun, Qi Zhilong, Takashi Murakami, Wang Guangyi, Zhang Huan, and Zhang Xiaogang, among many others – gave an impression of Pace Beijing as the bastion for showing artists who are mature both artistically and commercially. The 22,000 square feet gallery was closed at the end of the exhibition and went through a exhaustive and expensive reformation involving state-of-art temperature and humidity controlled facilities.
Zhang Xiaogang was a both natural and challenging choice to start a new chapter of the gallery with. Zhang is one of the most sought-after and iconic artists in the Chinese art scene. The curator of the exhibition, Leng Lin, the president of Pace Beijing, has been working tightly with Zhang Xiaogang for many years now. Zhang was one of the artists he represented in his own gallery Beijing Commune, which he established in 2005 and still owns. Leng knows Zhang’s work by heart and has written many essays and curated shows on his work. However, like many artists of his generation, Zhang has, over years, produced very many of his signature paintings based on family portraits, which had granted him generous recognition and market success. While constantly complaining about established artists repeating themselves, people tended to feel less enthusiastic about the possible transformations someone like Zhang would make to his work after seeing too many artists of his generation having failed miserably in that account. The success stories of many Chinese artists have been more coincidental than logical and many operate on intuitive feelings instead of having any methodology or coherent line of thinking. For that matter, people are always ready to write off new works by well-known artists, be it Zhang Xiaogang or any others.
Zhang Xiaogang: The Records took its title from Records of the Great Historian, an ancient documentation of the history of China and its neighboring countries covering more than two thousand years from the Yellow Emperor to Emperor Han Wudi (156 BC–87 BC) by the first major Chinese historian Sima Qian (135 BC–86 BC). The works presented were all recent and shown for the first time, including thirteen stainless steel plates painting and a series of sculptures made of cement and bronze. Zhang’s records were more personal than public. The polished stainless steel paintings still carried some of his most recognizable visual motifs including the half-painted green walls, light bulbs, freely traveling electronic wires, TV sets, trails of tears and bloodlines. These melancholic paintings allowed the viewers to see their own reflections on the small patches of unpainted surfaces but more importantly provided a fitting backdrop to the personal diary of Zhang Xiaogang hand-written across these surfaces. Zhang proved himself to be a great writer, a natural one. He would start with the most unassuming sentence but it hit hard. On the painting of Green Wall – Study Room No. 2, he wrote, ‘I feel tired and empty due to another one of those “parties”.’ His notes of his daily activities, meetings with friends, weather conditions, his diets, regular records of his blood pressure, his emotions and responses, thoughts over another artist’s work or general reflections on art making, rendered the objects he depicted in his paintings or cast in concrete or bronze in small or large sizes, less empty signifiers of a certain point of time or collective memory and more concrete, specific, accessible, and endearing references to this one person’s real life, which is Zhang Xiaogang’s. It’s worthwhile to spend a few hours of an afternoon strolling through this exhibition on one’s own, just to read carefully through the words and take in the reflective and emotional input of the artist.
Zhang Xiaogang’s opening at Pace Beijing on that Saturday was so highkey and attracted so many celebrities, important people in the art world, Mercedes and Audis that it created a traffic jam on the road near the gallery inside the art district. A few streets away in the same compound, Wang Yin’s exhibition in Iberia Center for Contemporary Art, situated in the same compound, wasn’t as star-studded or well-attended as Zhang’s yet equally attractive and significant to the art world. Wang Yin, an artist that many people hadn’t heard of before and whose work wasn’t familiar to many at all, is not to be missed. His paintings were a challenge to both the viewers and China’s modern painting history. Without understanding the development of oil paintings in China, which was exposed to all sorts of external influences from the West and shaped by ideological and political changes inside the country, the audience would find Wang Yin’s paintings inaccessible, if not utterly incomprehensible. This also partly explains why Wang Yin has not yet made it to the radar of the art market or art media despite the inarguable value of his years of practice and thinking. The alternations and mixture of the Soviet painting tradition, the Cultural Revolution painting tradition, Western modern art movements, conventional art academic trainings and powerful official ideological settings, have all left their marks on the modernization of the practice of oil paintings in China in terms of subject matters, training methods, techniques and stylistic preferences. Wang’s paintings made thought-provoking references to and telling revelations of these elements in a myriad of ways, an ongoing exploration of the artist that deserves more critical engagements and discussion.