Do internationalisation and individualisation undermine the notion of “Chinese contemporary art”?

The Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art (UCCA) in Beijing’s landmark exhibition “On | Off: Young Artists in Theory and Practice” wraps up this Sunday, 14 April 2013. Art Radar recently sat down with curators Bao Dong and Sun Dongdong to talk about their curatorial process and what they see emerging from young Chinese artists.

Installation view of "On | Off" at UCCA. Photo by Dora Tang; courtesy UCCA.

Installation view of “On | Off” at UCCA. Photograph by Dora Tang; courtesy UCCA.

The exhibition, which opened on 13 January 2013, brings together fifty young and mid-career artists working in a diverse range of styles, from machine-made abstract art to interactive multimedia installation. According to the exhibition materials, UCCA is billing it as “the most comprehensive survey to date of the generation of artists born after the death of Mao and the end of the Cultural Revolution”.

For a look at the full artist list and a sample of images from the exhibition “On | Off: China’s Young Artists in Theory and Practice”, take a look at Art Radar‘s picture feast article on the show.

Origins of On | Off

Can you first talk about how you chose the exhibition title “ON | OFF”?

Bao Dong (BD): There are a few layers. The first layer … comes from when we were curating, we had a VPN [fanqiang ruanjian, software used to get beyond the “Great Firewall“, China’s internet censorship]…

Sun Dongdong (SD): Astrill.

BD: Astrill, a VPN,… has a large ON-OFF [display].

SD: The working interface is ON-OFF. ON means people are surfing the internet beyond the firewall, while OFF means it’s turned off.

BD: Now it’s a little better. At that time, around this time last year, they were blocking Google a lot. You would often get disconnected. If you wanted to use Google, you had to get beyond the Great Firewall.

SD: I first started using it because of Gmail. Because of various issues, Gmail had to move their servers to Hong Kong. Then Gmail became hard to use. To make my work a little smoother, I … bought a VPN.

BD: But also, sometimes it’s funny, when you want to search Chinese resources, you’ll discover that using the VPN doesn’t work. You have to exit [the programme] and use the OFF mode. So this concept, ON | OFF, you wouldn’t say that it’s a national restriction. Within these boundaries, … it’s a free world. Not like dictatorship and freedom, confinement and escape, that kind of relationship. It’s more of a relationship of coexistence.

At the time we were considering how to do this kind of exhibition, what sort of theme to use to summarise the situation of this generation of young artists. I was hesitant, because it’s difficult to pick a word to summarise them. It was then that I thought this idea was interesting because…, firstly, it’s a symbol. Electronics have a switch, any operation has a switch, everything has this ON | OFF. Moreover, it has this special metaphorical [meaning], concerning the Great Firewall, concerning the state of different systems. We also thought that, conceptually, this was a very open theme. Within the exhibition structure, we also have this ON | OFF relationship. The exhibition is split into different parts, and the exhibition space is split into different parts, which in itself has this implicit ON | OFF. So [that’s why] we chose this theme.

Did you have this idea from the very beginning? Or was there a process?

BD: A general process. From the beginning we had a general notion.

What sort of notion?

BD: From the start we wanted to avoid previous, superficial definitions of young artists.

"ON / OFF" co-curator Sun Dongdong.

“ON / OFF” co-curator Sun Dongdong.

SD: Yes, actually, young artistic practice has always existed in this art system. Youth is a natural physiological phenomenon. There is youth in any era. In previous experience, they were excessively delineated by specifics, such as post-70s artists or post-80s artists, or they would use a simple concept, like the ‘cartoon generation’…, these sorts of concepts. I think these concepts all latch onto some small thing to incorporate the entirety of young people, who span generations. It’s a conventional approach that takes a part for the whole. They’re only focused on the participation of consumers in society, while they’ve neglected the individual in this practice, the depth of practice and its diversity.

From the very beginning, we wanted to avoid these preexisting concepts, so we were constantly thinking about how to talk about or explain the characteristics of the so-called younger generation’s practice. In the end, we discovered that, looking at their art from an internal perspective, it was difficult to find a word to summarise them as a whole. It was better to describe their practice, to illuminate their practice, from the level of systems and social structures, from the systems that they are immersed in. Bao Dong and I thought that this way would be more accurate.

Curatorial decisions

What elements did you want to stress in your curatorial process?

BD: After we chose the concept ON | OFF, we felt the general character of the exhibition was already set. That is, we didn’t want to make those sorts of simplistic judgments. We wanted it to be as multifaceted and diverse as possible. At the time, we had a reliable concept, which was multiplicity and criticality, because ON | OFF is a way of dividing and switching between modes. … At the same time, we wanted to bring out the multiplicity of conditions of young artists.

"ON / OFF" co-curator Bao Dong.

“ON / OFF” co-curator Bao Dong.

On the one hand, this multiplicity is a question of the multiplicity of society, the various systems in operation from 1979 onward, since the Reform and Opening Up: economics; politics; one country two systems; … the differences between the east and west of China; cultural differences between the north and south. China’s such a big country, and its realities so complicated. But this concept … allows young artists, in the external systems of contemporary art and institutional systems, to choose their methods and their mode of practice.

It’s extremely diverse. An artist can choose to work with the gallery market, and he can also reflect on the gallery system. He’s [an artist in the “On | Off” exhibition] a graduate of a traditional art academy, yet he uses this to critique traditional art academies. Perhaps he is familiar with [traditional art practice], yet he uses contemporary art concepts. Because of the influence the realities of China have on art systems, young artists produced within these art systems are able to find their most appropriate methods from within the restrictions of these multifaceted systems and multifaceted conditions. So [young contemporary art] is a very lively thing. We didn’t want to define it, nor did we want to make demands of [the artists] with some simplistic standard. So once we had the concept of ON | OFF, we were pretty much certain [of the concept]: open, diverse, multifaceted, dynamic.

SD: We imagined that in this exhibition, once they entered the exhibition space, the audience must have a sense of encounter. Outside of the internal questions of the art systems, when the audience confronts a work of art, they have the sense that they and the artist are in the same state of existence, the same life. We stressed this aspect in our installation methods.

Talking about the gallery system, you have previously said that you deliberately invited artists who both had and had not previously worked with galleries. Why was it important that you include these two groups?

SD: Actually, this goes back to when we were first considering [the exhibition] and UCCA, the nature of this sort of non-profit institution. When Bao Dong and I first looked at the list of [artist] candidates, we realised that the majority had worked closely with galleries.

Of course, when we say [artists that] haven’t worked with galleries, it’d be more accurate to say they haven’t worked that closely with galleries. Their livelihoods or their salaries don’t come from gallery art sales…, yet they’re still making artwork. They’re not what we think of when we think of ‘professional artists’, yet they hope to have art as a lifelong activity. So I think their practice also has its own system. … So the two of us decided that we should also include these artists within the scope of our investigations.

BD: On the one hand, galleries help artists as an existing method of participation. On the other hand, they also act as an artificial filter, in that they filter artists. There are some things that they discard. So when we were making this exhibition, we wanted it to be relatively comprehensive. It’s impossible to be completely comprehensive, but [we wanted to be] relatively diverse in dealing with the state of art practice for this generation. Which is to say, there must be some artists that are deserving of attention apart from those that have been filtered through.

Yet in this there are a lot of other problems. To a certain extent, galleries constitute a basic standard. This is one advantage of galleries. They helped us avoid having to make preliminary candidate choices. There’s no way to choose fifty artists from tens of thousands. At the time, we only looked at a few hundred artists to choose our fifty. So the main role of galleries was a sort of preliminary endorsement. This was helpful, but this sort of preliminary endorsement has its limitations.

What sort of limitations?

SD: The limitations are that, for example, galleries are going to do things that are more market-friendly, or, put simply, things that sell well, things that are more likely to gain exposure. But different galleries also have different tastes.

BD: In terms of medium, they still favour painting, 2D art or, say, ‘movable art’. There’s also problems in terms of taste, limitations in terms of taste. Perhaps art that is too extreme, … like art where there is no art piece, but a project methodology, such that there is no artwork per se, where [artists] even espouse a certain uncollectable attitude, these would perhaps would be left out.

Choosing the artists

Can you describe your selection process?

BD: From the beginning we had a rough list of names. On this list, there were some artists that we were already relatively familiar with because we had worked with them before; … there were some artists that we weren’t that familiar with, but we knew who they were; and then there was a group of artists that we knew of, but we didn’t know what [sort of work] they were doing. To make our decision, we had to go and investigate. … During our investigative project, we also added names to our list according to the situation. Ultimately, we finalised the list in September [of last year]. In fact, at that time, we didn’t know what works would be in the exhibition.

SD: Last year, around this time, there were a lot of group exhibitions of young artists. We think that where we differ is that we wanted to communicate with these artists face-to-face, and then discuss their art practice within the conceptual categories that they defined. From there we would select artworks from their upcoming projects to use in our exhibition. It was this kind of process. So, in some cases, once the artist was selected, the artwork was also selected.

So you were not selecting artists, you were selecting art works?

BD: We were selecting them both at the same time. Things in an exhibition also need to fit the logic of the exhibition, for example, the relationship between the objects in the exhibition space. … We hoped that the art works that we selected were both in line with the consistent context of the artist…, and also fit with the basic requirements of our exhibition space, for example, the physical size of the space…. A lot of times we chose works based on these spatial considerations.

Wang Sishun, 'Uncertain Capital', 2009, coins. Photo by Dora Tang; courtesy UCCA.

Wang Sishun, ‘Uncertain Capital’, 2009, coins. Photograph by Dora Tang; courtesy UCCA.

In your opinion, what is the contemporary context for young Chinese artists? You also mentioned the logic of the exhibition. What do you consider to be the logic of this exhibition?

BD: In reality, we didn’t explicitly state what was what context, because this is a historical question. This can only be discussed once art history has contextualised it. First, this generation of artists is still very young. The oldest is only in his thirties, thirty-six. … They still haven’t matured. They still haven’t formed an artistic logic for us to research. Yet we can see some preliminary traces. But also, with this exhibition, we didn’t want to make any summary conclusions, because once you make a summary conclusion, it becomes a trend. In China, in ’02, ’03, ’04, there were all sorts of these exhibitions, like the ‘cartoon generation’. They then became a trend, quickly consumed by the market and the media. It became a sort of imitative appreciation.

SD: And the opposite occurred, where it began to restrict artists’ practice, as well. Because those artists who were just validated by the market will perhaps start to see the market as a form of pressure. The result is that they have no way to [develop] other systems within their practice that [were also part] of their context. … It’s not even necessarily something that they’re aware of. What we wanted to stress was self-consciousness in the artist’s practice.

BD: Simply put, [our exhibition] also summed up a few rough, preliminary traces, like what you said about the logic of the exhibition. Looking at the production of the art works, it includes some things that concern, for example, reflections on the institutions they work through, like galleries or museums as institutions. For example, Zhao Yao and all that he recycled, he works with a presentation of what goes on behind the scenes of the exhibition.

There were also some works that were about a project. Li Fuchun, He Xiangyu, these artists, including Wang Sishun, Wang Yuyang. In reality, they aren’t exhibiting one work, one object. It’s a series of objects, and this exhibition only shows a segment. The full project is incomplete. This is a method of breaking out of their regular work. This sort of breaking out is already a basic attitude shared by a lot of people, because they use this attitude to resist, to adjust the sort of passivity brought on by the gallery’s [system] of solo exhibition after solo exhibition. It preserves the artist’s self-consciousness.

There are also some of what our people have called ‘abstract’ [art works], though I don’t think that you can call them abstract art. They’re pure visual experiments. [This] visuality is not an aesthetic thing, not a purely formalist visuality. It’s an infatuation with objects, with work procedures, with the idea of meaningless visuals. This is also an extant phenomenon.

Li Shurui, 'Heiqiao Tower of Babel', 2012, wood, acrylic, marker, paint. Photo by Dora Tang; courtesy UCCA.

Li Shurui, ‘Heiqiao Tower of Babel’, 2012, wood, acrylic, marker, paint. Photograph by Dora Tang; courtesy UCCA.

So when you were speaking with artists, what kinds of practice would appeal to you? What sorts of projects?

SD: This is from our understanding of the artist. We already had some understanding of a lot of these artists. When we would meet with them, we could get into very specific questions when discussing their artwork, and in this way decide upon the work [in the exhibition]. This is something that we felt was a risk on our part. We were taking a risk in believing in them, because we weren’t just looking at their old works and selecting some safer work to exhibit here.

Of course, there must have been many artists that you did not select. What kind of standards or factors?

SD: Oh, I know. Our standard was that, when we went to look at their practice, we would evaluate them within the conceptual categories that they had established. We would look at how they expressed their practice, whether their logic was clear, whether their working methods were appealing. This was our standard.

BD: With this method, we would choose a work or encourage an artist to make a new work. The majority of works in this exhibition are new pieces.

Young artists and an international China

In your view, what do these artists have in common? Common backgrounds? Common influences? Common socio-political situations?

BD: There are common socio-political situations, but I must admit that the scope of artists we selected was very wide, from 1976 to 1989. An artist born in 1976 is already 36, while one born in 1989 is only 23. This means that they, this ‘generation’ of artists, in reality, isn’t one generation.

SD: Perhaps every five years would be considered a new generation.

BD: The renewal of culture is so fast. So within this, it’s hard to talk about them as one generation. There are certainly general commonalities in their backgrounds. For example, growing up after the Reform and Opening Up, they’re no longer dealing with a closed-off country. They’ve never experienced that sort of intense Cultural Revolution or Socialism or… those sorts of Socialist symbols, such as Mao Zedong. They’ve never experienced that generation.

But the majority of people have experienced the emergence of a commercial society. It’s already a commercial society, and the relationship with the West and with the international world is getting closer and closer. … And on top of this background, there’s also the internet as a common working method. This is true all around the world. Everyone’s online.

In the past, in China, for art in the nineties, there was the sense that it was being produced for the international world. Chinese artists were participating in Western exhibitions and Western biennales, in Berlin, in Kassel. It was international output. Now, it’s not like this, because the international is all around us. The international is everywhere. … That’s something very different about this generation of artists. So they really aren’t a group of ‘Chinese’ artists. They don’t [come from] a Chinese identity or an Eastern identity.

So how does this internationalisation affect their art practice?

BD: Like I said, you already can’t see ‘Chinese’ schools of practice. If you look at previous artists that you know, like Cai Guoqiang, Xu Bing, Gu Wenda, … they are recognised by the West as Chinese contemporary artists. Now, this is no longer the case, they no longer need this recognition. China, perhaps, is already an international… well, if not an international art centre, then a major international hub.

So there’s no more recognition, no separation?

BD: There’s no longer this requirement of identity. They’re already within the international.

So do they have more artistic choices or more freedom in their choices?

SD: I think they’re more individualised.

BD: They no longer have this pressure.

SD: Within China, those artists who are able to become famous do so through individualisation. They don’t represent anything.

Are there any drawbacks to this sort of individualisation?

SD: Yes, individualisation has both its advantages and its drawbacks. But this individualisation can become… once you discover your own requirements, only then can you form so-called collectives. … When people are together, it’s not because of material benefit, but rather they’re formed after a sort of endorsement of themselves or of others.

BD: Because, you know, in the past, we’d talk about so-called ‘Chinese art’ or ‘Chinese contemporary art’. We never talk about ‘German contemporary art’, ‘American contemporary art’ or ‘English contemporary art’. Why is that? Because they don’t emphasise this national or regional identity. But China still stresses this. To the extent that the German Pavilion at the Venice Biennale invited Ai Weiwei to participate. … Germany doesn’t stress that their pavilion represents the image of a nation. Instead, they emphasise the country’s openness, their openness with regard to race and human rights, and their openness with regard to culture. China’s participation, to a large extent, is still more of an … official participation, and the public supports this. … But now what’s important is not what nation or what group you represent, but whether your own works are reliable, whether they’re up to snuff, whether [they have a certain degree of] quality. And this quality is not evaluated in a regional context.


Related Topics: Chinese artists, curatorial practiceemerging artistsart in Beijing, globalisation of art

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By Brittney

Brittney is a writer, curator and contemporary art gallerist. Born in Singapore and based in New York City, Brittney maintains a deep interest in the contemporary art landscape of Southeast Asia. This is combined with an equally strong interest in contemporary art from the Asian diasporas, alongside the issues of identity, transmigration and global relations.

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