Ou Ning on Get it Louder – new voice in China’s visual arts scene

CHINESE CONTEMPORARY ART EXHIBITIONS ART PROFESSIONALS INTERVIEWS

The third edition of “Get It Louder” (GIL), perhaps one of the most ambitious Chinese exhibition events representing emerging young talent across multiple fields, ran from 19 September to 7 November this year in Beijing and Shanghai. Curious about GIL’s mission and its growth, Art Radar Asiahad an in-depth discussion with Ou Ning, the founder and chief curator of the event. Ou Ning himself is a wearer of many artistic hats and our interview also explores some of his experiences.

The GIL Pavilion, a freestanding structure designed by New York-based design practice SO-IL, served as a focal point, event hall and gathering space for GIL 2010. Image courtesy of getitlouder.com.

The GIL Pavilion, a freestanding structure designed by New York-based design practice SO-IL, served as a focal point, event hall and gathering space for GIL 2010. Image courtesy of getitlouder.com.

Click here to read more about Ou Ning, chief curator of “Get It Louder”, on the event’s website.

Themed “Sharism“, a new concept for creative practice and content sharing born on the World Wide Web, this year’s GIL featured participants and artist groups from mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Europe and the United States.

Central to the exhibition was the GIL Pavilion, a freestanding structure designed by New York-based design practice SO-IL. In the Pavilion, works spanning the fields of fine art, new media, product design and photography were shown for the duration of the exhibition. In parallel, GIL hosted a wide array of events in the form of artist talks and lectures, film screenings, literature and special spotlight projects… there was even a forum on Sharism.

Simply in terms of frequency and diversity of events, GIL now has a conceivably loud voice during the busy autumn art calendar in China. Let us do a round-up of GIL 2010 happenings: 66 pieces of works were shown, 35 lectures, talks and forums were held, 4 workshops were completed, 3 live performances were undertaken, 50 films were screened, 23 film directors gave talks and 74 artists and artist groups, 36 guest speakers and 15 independent film directors participated.

"Get It Louder" officially opened at Beijing Sanlitun SOHO on 19 September this year. Image courtesy of getitlouder.com.

"Get It Louder" officially opened at Beijing Sanlitun SOHO on 19 September this year. Image courtesy of getitlouder.com.

Ou Ning on “Get It Louder”

GIL was started in 2005. How did this happen? Did GIL enter an empty field in China’s art scene?

“I was approached by a few graduate students in Australia in 2005 [who were] conducting research on independent magazines in China, as I used to run an independent magazine. During our conversation, I realised that a lot of the young Chinese creative talents from around the globe were quite thoughtful and had a lot to offer, but there was not a platform [on which] to showcase their works. The launching of GIL was focused on design talents mostly.

I spoke to Thomas Shao at Modern Media, for whom I was a consultant, and we promptly identified ways to work together. Modern Media came on board to sponsor the exhibition in three travelling cities: Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou.”

Has the idea behind the exhibition changed over the past three editions. Fundamentally, what is the motivation of GIL?

“We root for young Chinese talent, which has not changed over the past five years. We want to make this underground voice heard. Of course, the definition of ‘young’ cannot be too rigid. For example, in Ai Weiwei we see the freshness and edginess of young artists, so his work was included this year.

In terms of executing the exhibition, the newer edition has always been informed by the previous one. In 2005, our Shanghai venue was at a shopping mall, which drew an unexpected audience [that doesn’t] usually come across art and design, and the feedback was great. So in 2007, we moved all the shows to shopping malls. Also, it was the boom market; lots of sponsors stepped in. In 2010, we are experimenting with a brand new format, as the first resident of a Sunlitun Mall, a much anticipated shopping space owned by the most famed property developer, Soho China Group. We are creating the buzz for them before their grand opening, and we got the space for free.”

In Chinese artist Chen Zhou’s performance work 'Character C' an actor in black walk around pieces of furniture with long, tapering ends resembling huge black cones. Image courtesy of getitlouder.com.

In Chinese artist Chen Zhou’s performance work 'Character C' an actor in black walk around pieces of furniture with long, tapering ends resembling huge black cones. Image courtesy of getitlouder.com.

We have noticed the flexibility of GIL and its acute ability to adopt the format that best suits it at a given time. We can revisit this topic later. Now, about the exhibition itself. Were the artists’ works commissioned for GIL or did you put out a general call-for-entry? How did you decide on the proportion of categories of works to show?

“Some works were specially commissioned for GIL. In 2005, we did have lots of visual design works, because that was the driver of the exhibition at that time. But we are not keen to place a tight grip on proportion in general – this year, there are more [mediums].”

We are amazed by the frequency of events.

“Yes, GIL should be more rightly called a ‘festival’ rather than an ‘exhibition.’ I am really drawn to the former, which signifies a celebration of young creative talent.”

Can you tell us a bit more about Sharism, the theme of GIL 2010?

“Sure. [Sharism] originates from issues of collaboration on Internet space, and explores the increasingly convoluted relationship between public and private realms. In the context of web 2.0 and social media, cloud intelligence and Twitter, it is especially relevant in 2010.”

The Sharism forum was just one of the special events held as part of this year's GIL. Image courtesy of getitlouder.com.

The Sharism forum was just one of the special events held as part of this year's GIL. Image courtesy of getitlouder.com.

Does that also explain why many events might not be directly related to the exhibited works?

“Precisely. [With] Sharism being an Internet concept, GIL’s goal is to build an off-line platform for people to ‘share.’ The Pavilion made it possible for off-line sharing across a wide spectrum of events to happen. For me, I am especially interested in the audience’s feedback and reactions; an exhibition without audience input is a failure to me. Technology has enabled us to receive instant feedback – via many Chinese social media tools, Sina Weibo being one of them – and to provide instant updates and gain quick attention. I am just a bit tired of the gallery shows in the white cube, which live in a confined circle of art professionals. I want to see art and design that viewers can relate to, provoking them to think about their lives.”

Who are the typical viewers at GIL?

“Lots of young people and many media-savvy and fashionable people are interested and curious about new things. Maybe it has to do with Modern Media’s image. I was also very glad to notice many retirees at the film screenings.”

Finally, we want to gain a deeper understanding of the operating model of GIL. We know it is run as a not-for-profit (NFP). Do you think its NFP nature is a prerequisite for a high-quality show that is flexible enough to cross many artistic fields?

“GIL is indeed in a very privileged position thanks to Modern Media. The way we secure business sponsors is through exchange of advertising space in Modern Media’s publications, which include some of the most widely-read weeklies in China. This approach frees GIL from inserting soft-advertisement for sponsors in the exhibition itself, a big relief for me. Of course, we do collaborate on special projects if the sponsor prefers, for example, the City Travelogue SMART project this year.

Of course, depending on one big backer with such a vision is far from sustainable. Eventually, I really hope to institutionalise GIL.”

For Li Jinghu's work 'Life is so beautiful' the artist asked some manual workers to use the tools of their trade to paint with oil paint on canvas. Image courtesy of getitlouder.com.

For Li Jinghu's work 'Life is so beautiful' the artist asked some manual workers to use the tools of their trade to paint with oil paint on canvas. Image courtesy of getitlouder.com.

Can you please expand on the institutionalising of GIL?

“There needs to be an entity run year-round for the exhibition. Its role [would] include expanding private patrons [and] establishing business sponsorships under the supervision of a fully committed Board of Directors. The Shao Foundation does currently function similar to this, but the current Chinese policy on NGO/charity status is a bottleneck.”

Ou Ning’s own contemporary art career

How many hats do you actually wear? Publisher of an independent music magazine, designer, curator, writer, artist (movie-making)… Which came first and how did it evolve from there?

(laughs) “Well, they each occurred at different stages. I was a poet first in the 1980s, but after 1989, I became disillusioned by the poem. I got involved in creating magazines on music and film. To save time I had to teach myself graphic design, too. 1999-2003 were my designer years. One of my films was selected for the 50th Venice Biennale, so I received more commissions as an artist. In 2005, I officially started working for Modern Media, as director of the Shao Foundation and curated three GIL exhibitions. In 2009, I was appointed the chief curator of the Shenzhen & Hong Kong Bi-city Biennale of Urbanism & Architecture. Most recent project is a new literary magazine Chutzpah (Tian Nan or 天南 in Chinese), so my journey so far comes back in a full circle to literature again.”

So I guess it is hard to pin down an overarching theme among all the things you have done?

“I have always been curious in many things and fields. On a cultural level though, I do observe a commonality; writing was, is and forever will be, my basic ability and instinct, which can be converted into many fields. Also, my formative years as an idealist poet in the 80s probably set a utopian tone for what I do and informed me in my responsibility as an intellectual.”

Working at Shao Foundation is a full-time job. Do you have more freedom under this job or more restrictions, especially in terms of time?

“I keep on doing it because it still interests me and I do love what I do under the Foundation platform, so it is fine.”

Executives of Modern Media pose with the "Get It Louder" curatorial team on stage at the event's opening. Image courtesy of getitlouder.com.

Executives of Modern Media pose with the "Get It Louder" curatorial team on stage at the event's opening. Image courtesy of getitlouder.com.

What do you think of the ‘Post-80s‘ (people born in China in the 1980s and who are currently rising to become a social voice and force in China, also the first generation to be born into China’s one-child policy) in the context of art and the culture scene?

“I am very interested in their energy and I work with many of them, too. Under one pole, some of them are very satisfied with their well-off lives and produce ‘comfortable’ works. Under another pole, some are creating meaningful impact already. For example, Post-80s Anti-Express Railway Group in Hong Kong has become very influential and a headache for the government, too. Chinese Post-80s youth could be inspired by this, as demonstrated in recent wave of ‘Support Cantonese!’ voiced by Post-80s in Guangzhou. Of course, between the two poles, there is a lot more diversity amongst Post-80s. I see both conservatism and hopes.”

Based on your experience, does working on meaningful art and culture projects in China necessarily suggest an unavoidable ‘small circle’, that is anti-mainstream? We see this perception as troublesome sometimes.

“When one starts something nascent, it is of course small by definition. But one shouldn’t intentionally position oneself against the mainstream. That would be a kind of laziness. You must use your own brain to think through what your position and goal is. The mainstream exists for its reason. But the alternative is there for people to choose from, too. I am deep believer in the co-existence of the two.”

SXB/KN

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Ou Ning on Get it Louder – new voice in China’s visual arts scene — 2 Comments

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