Thoughts can be art! Chinese artist-curator duo Liu Ding, Carol Yinghua Lu interview

CONCEPTUAL ART CURATORIAL PRACTICE

Beijing-based artist and curator Liu Ding and Chinese curator Carol Yinghua Lu recently wrapped up a European tour of two unique collaborative projects, Liu Ding’s Store and Little Movements, in which conversations about art become artworks in their own right.

Liu Ding, 'Nº 15', oil on canvas, 60 cm x 90 cm, price: RMB 2,500. Each painting is hand-signed by the artist; the exact place of signing will vary for each work. From the Liu Ding's Store product line called Take Home and Make Real the Priceless in Your Heart. Image courtesy artist.

Liu Ding, 'Nº 15', oil on canvas, 60 cm x 90 cm, price: RMB 2,500. Each painting is hand-signed by the artist; the exact place of signing will vary for each work. From the Liu Ding's Store product line called Take Home and Make Real the Priceless in Your Heart. Image courtesy artist.

Liu Ding, 'Nº 15 (back view)', oil on canvas, 60 cm x 90 cm, price: RMB 2,500. Each painting is hand-signed by the artist; the exact place of signing will vary for each work. From the Liu Ding's Store product line called Take Home and Make Real the Priceless in Your Heart. Image courtesy artist.

Liu Ding, 'Nº 15 (back view)', oil on canvas, 60 cm x 90 cm, price: RMB 2,500. Each painting is hand-signed by the artist; the exact place of signing will vary for each work. From the Liu Ding's Store product line called Take Home and Make Real the Priceless in Your Heart. Image courtesy artist.

Ding recently completed a one-month residency at the Chinese Arts Centre in Manchester, where he built on an ongoing project called Liu Ding’s Store – In Conversations. The project was facilitated by Carol Yinghua Lu, who is one of the most dynamic critics and curators in China today. At the close of the residency the duo travelled to Liverpool, London, Vienna and Winterthur, taking another related collaborative project, Little Movements, with them.

Liu Ding’s Store: Art ideas for sale

Liu Ding’s Store, which was launched in 2008, employs the concept of a shop to establish an ongoing platform for thinking and discussion around the value of art, focussing on art practice. The Store has four of what Liu calls “product lines” – unfinished paintings with the artist’s signature, themed store fronts showcasing high and low cultural products, private conversations the artist has conducted with art practitioners in specific contexts, and a psychological space and physical setting for making friends – and is used as a tool by the artist to rethink of some of the most fundamental issues influencing contemporary art today.

The focus for the European tour was on conversation, and through effective discussions on subjects such as the power artists hold (or do not hold), classification in art and how and what intellectual and economic values are embedded in artworks and human relationships, the project sought to generate new forms of institutional critique. Discussion partners and topics are selected by Ding but the location and time the talk is to be held is decided by all participants. Conversations are private, an audience is not required or desired, although Carol Lu sits in as moderator.

'The Utopian Future of Art, Our Reality: The Weight of An Art History Book + antiques' (2009-10). Installation view at Galerie Urs Meile. Image courtesy artist.

We asked Carol Yinghua Lu and Liu Ding to answer some questions surrounding the development of the Liu Ding’s Store concept and how the project challenges and emphasises current artistic and curatorial concerns in China and globally.

Can you share with us how the concept of Liu Ding’s Store evolved?

Liu Ding (LD): Through my work as an artist and curator, I have been thinking about relationships and possibilities embedded in art systems. My Store is an ongoing investigation of these concerns. It is constantly evolving and changing, but the main debate centres on the politics of art value.

Is the Store a crystallisation of all your artistic thinking and production?

LD: It is only a part of my art. I have other photography works and experience-based projects, but the common thread [that runs between these projects] deals with how we as individuals relate to the art system. The current four ‘[product] lines’ [for the Store] take on different directions in an interrogation of the art system.

Theme store: The Perfect Sphere, Product line 'The Utopian Future of Art, Our Reality'. There are 40 items in this cabinet. The unit price is the result of the total amount divided by 40. Image courtesy artist.

Which objects in the Store are for sale and which are purely non-sellable “thoughts”?

LD: Everything [in the Store] is sellable. Intellectual exchange and psychological space are all sellable. Prices range from … cheaper than [what you might find in a] supermarket to … as high as a painting sold in a gallery. Fundamentally, my Store is not a gallery or an institution, so it does not need to bear the task of following a strict ‘objective’. This leaves me with room to adjust my agenda so I have more self-dependent control of the project.

The project began in 2008. Does this inception date have anything to do with the beginning of the global financial crisis, or is it a pure coincidence?

LD: More the latter. Nav Haq, the curator of Arnolfini in Bristol conceived “Far West“, an exhibition in the form of a concept store. I was invited to the show [and] I [had] just started to consider using a ‘store’ as a form around that time, too. So it was a coincidence that solidified my decision to establish Liu Ding’s Store, but it still took me about one year to become clear on the running and structure of such a project.

Can you talk more specifically about the conversations you developed while an artist in residence at Manchester’s Chinese Arts Centre? Also, can you identify some of the formal parameters surrounding the conversations held in your Store?

LD: I had two conversations with [Chief Executive of the Chinese Arts Centre] Sally Lai and [Chinese Arts Centre] curator Ying Kwok on the direction of institutions and how to become an institution. They each lasted two hours. Beyond this we visited other artists and curators, a crucial part of this residency.

‘Conversations’ started last year. They are private – not a negotiation, not a debate, not an interview – and are extremely specific on one pre-agreed topic. I held six conversations last year. There are so many public or educational talks … on contemporary art, but art practitioners have become too busy to share with their peers. This kind of conversation has an urgency; the over-materialism of art in art fairs prompts us to come back to the question, What is the thinking behind these products?

Conversation - 'Jungle', 3 April 2010. Image courtesy artist.

Are there any exhibitions of Liu Ding’s Store on the horizon?

LD: Yes, the Store will participate in a big group show called “The Global Contemporary Art Worlds After 1989” at ZKM (Centre for Art and Media), Museum of Contemporary Art in Karlsruhe, Germany.

[Editor’s note: Click here to learn more about “The Global Contemporary Art Worlds After 1989”, which will run at ZKM in Germany from 17 September 2011 to 5 February 2012.]

Classifying ‘conceptual’ art

Are there many conceptual artists who pursue practices similar to you both?

LD: There are… but it really depends on the definition of conceptual. Is it really necessary to be a pure conceptual artist [in the original Sixties and Seventies sense] at this moment in history? … If we have to give it a name, I prefer to call my practice an ‘event’.

Carol Lu (CL): While many artists might adopt conceptual strategies and methods, it is now impossible to categorise them [as purely conceptual artists].

LD: Am I an artist? A curator? Do I create paintings or installations? You need a description of an artist’s practice to really understand it. A word is simply not enough.

In China, do you find that it is difficult for more intellectually demanding and less intuitive art to circulate through the art system, especially when compared to, say, paintings?

LD: It is a common phenomenon globally for viewer, collector, curator and gallery alike.

CL: It’s even more difficult in China, as art education and awareness is lagging behind the West. The communication and acceptance of certain art language is more challenging, especially in a country where consuming or investment is still the main purpose for engagement with art.

LD: It will take time. Collectors need to build a context for ‘conceptual’ works. For example, it does not make sense to collect [a work by] Duchamp … in isolation. It’s normal that more intellectual pursuits are consumed slowly [and] as an artist working in this field I have learned to wait. More broadly, many theorists and scientists are facing similar situations.

Conversation: Xiangyang Road 38. Image courtesy artist.

Conversation - 'Xiangyang Road 38', 16 May 2010. Image courtesy artist.

Artist as institution

What other places did you visit on this tour? Which places stood out for you and what about them stuck in your mind?

LD: The Vienna Art Fair [VIENNAFAIR]. Artist projects are displayed in the centre of the fair and galleries exhibit around the centre,… demonstrating an attempt to reevaluate the art system and its structure.

CL: Winterthur and Liverpool. Our programme of visits is related to our projects – [exploring] how an individual can build a system. I am also conducting research for Gwangju Biennale 2012.

[Editor’s note: Carol Yinghau Lu was named Joint Artistic Director of the 9th Gwangju Biennale 2012 in July 2011.]

Can you elaborate on how your projects relate to the individual in the art system?

CL: We are testing the possibility that an individual doesn’t need the existence of an institution to function. Thus, the artist is not limited by the educational and public obligations of an institution. The British curatorial collective Formcontent is a good example [of an organisation that works in this way].

Is your interest in this concept linked to the project Little Movements?

CL: Yes. Little Movements is really an extension of Liu Ding’s Conversations. It exists in three forms: ongoing roundtable private discussions, publications and exhibitions. In a way that is similar to those of Liu Ding’s shop, the discussions [in Little Movements] are very in-depth and involve seven or eight people, with Liu Ding and myself as the moderators. We want to raise questions around the kinds of motives and methods an individual should adopt in order to continue working when they are placed in the art system, with all its obligations of education, publication and curation.

Where will Little Movements be exhibited?

CL: In September [2011], it will be shown at Shenzhen OCAT (Shenzen OCT Contemporary Art Terminal), entitled “Little Movements: Self-Practice in Contemporary Art”. In July [2011], we participated in an international forum on alternative practice, State of Independence, at REDCAT in Los Angeles. We will also show in Italy in 2013.

Liu Ding, 'Liu Ding's Store - The Utopian Future of Art, Our Reality', 53rd Venice Biennale, Chinese Pavilion, Venice, Italy, 2009, installation view. Image courtesy artist.

Liu Ding, 'Liu Ding's Store - The Utopian Future of Art, Our Reality', 53rd Venice Biennale, Chinese Pavilion, Venice, Italy, 2009, installation view. Image courtesy artist.

This sounds like a very busy calendar. Are there any other upcoming plans we haven’t touched upon?

CL: We will continue with our Little Movements research. Actually, we have an office called 艺术与理论办公室 (Office for Art Theory). Our dream is to promote a possible parallel discussion between art and theory, rather than a strict separation of the two.

LD: How can both [art and theory] be creative subjects? We are interested in the creativity of theory.

Would it be correct to suggest that a rethinking of this nature is urgently needed in China?

CL: It’s universally needed. During our discussions with peers in the United Kingdom, they shared a similar sense of urgency for this reconsideration of creativity. As creators, we need to reconsider and recreate the existing theory, not just learn and memorise it.

SXB/KN/HH

Related Topics: art curatorscuratorial practiceconceptual art, Chinese artists

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