China – What, When, How?

My post titles have changed to China times now after arriving in Shanghai very early on Thursday morning, they’ll return back to Pantone when I get back to the UK. The first thing RJW and I discovered was that taxi’s don’t have functioning seat belts, though it’s the last thing you think about when you are jet-lagged at 2am. And our hotel is functional, that’s all I’m going to say about that.

I’m currently sitting in the lecture theatre at ShContemporary Art Fair, Shanghai, listening to the introduction of the conference ‘Collecting Asian Contemporary Art: What, When and How?’.

It is hot, almost unbearably hot outside and RJW and I packed mostly autumnal clothing. We reluctantly found Starbucks for breakfast with the help of an EXPO volunteer so we are sipping hot peppermint teas and lattes armed with Press and VIP passes for the next 4 days. If someone can tell me where to buy a Shanghai sim card for my phone I would really appreciate it, I don’t know where to go. So what will today hold?

RJW and I received and email this morning from Xiaoqian Li, Deputy Director of the Today Art Museum. We are working with them next week, as well as Jonathan Watkins, Director of the IKON Gallery. We are helping to install his exhibition ‘Negotiations’ of over 60+ artists (Chinese and IKON Gallery).

RJW will be helping international artists including Richard Deacon, which we were both incredibly excited about, and I will be helping to edit and clarify exhibition panels and texts as well as being liaison. We arrive in Beijing on Sunday 12th September and I know that week will fly by. Just booked a super nice “compact” apartment for our stay just a few blocks from the museum and super central, and right next to a Beijing TESCO of all things…you think you are so far away from home then it changes.

Hou Hanru began the day, with assistance from a translator, introducing the days sessions and how he is relevant to the art fair, highlighting the Asian reference as well as the Western reference, in the hope of raising interesting discussion about the understanding of contemporary Chinese art today. The first set of speakers look at Public Collections in the Chinese Context – Wang Huangsheng, Director of CAFA Museum, Beijing, and Zhang Zikang, Director of the Today Art Museum, Beijing.

Wang Huangsheng, founder of the Guangzhou Triennial, speaks of funding and the Chinese ideology to collect, where funding plans are still not yet defined and still not getting attention from the government. There’s not much support for the planning of complete collections for museums and galleries. It is a very common phenomenon in China, where funding and building a collection will be the platform for contemporary Chinese art and an important platform for a value judging system. It is also a means of cultural construction, where they are still not able to build an effective self-definition for contemporary Chinese art. Despite the 53 years of collecting at the CAFA Museum, they still don’t have a large collection of contemporary Chinese art. They collect young students works from CAFA as well as collecting from Asia and the Global context. Wang continues by referencing new additions to the CAFA Museum Collection.

Zhang Zikang continues the morning’s discussion by saying there are two types of Museums, state-run or government-run, and non-commercial funded by private money. They are neither public or private, unlike the American or Western system where there is only official guidance for the private museums. At the Today Art Museum they are trying to build a “societal” museum. Before 2005, the collection was bought by a real estate developer, after academic research some were kept for the public collection, others still remain with the developer. The governmental museums, like Shanghai Art Museum, face the funding problems from the government. Over the past two years, the focus of their collection is academic in order to make it more systematic. Contemporary Chinese art in China is never complete in any museums collection because it has not yet been historically defined, it is very diversified and self-defining at this moment. As he is part of the Chinese Art and Cultural Research Development Centre, he understands the difference between the cultural institutions.  One of his primary concerns is the position of contemporary Chinese art in the international context, therefore the collection is built on a national and international context, where the Today Art Museum’s collection is more international. They are paying more attention to collecting the documentation of this process rather than the artworks. If you cannot understand the artists experiences and social changes during the period he worked, you will not be able to understand his artworks. Contemporary Chinese art is a product of a special timing in history, of cultural and economic development in China, where this reality defines its importance and specialty. How do we avoid the intervention from the commercial force in the development of contemporary Chinese art? This is also a collecting system in the West, not one person can define an art movement, therefore a collection must be defined by a democratic system as it represents a collective memory of that time. The Today Art Museum are now focussing on the work of internationalisation through digital and online collections because the condition of contemporary Chinese art is still in discussion and debate and it is important to have a virtual presence to show the different perspectives whether traditional, contemporary and cultural contexts. In order to build a good museum in china, there needs to be academic research and a more democratic method of collecting. The knowledge from overseas museums is not only crucial to museums development, but it is crucial to cultural museums officers as it could start the next level of cultural production.This will take time.

Suhanya Raffel, Head of Asian and Pacific Art at Queensland Art Gallery, sees collections as sites of creativity, they not only talk of art and artists, but talk of a place and location – a history. As a public institution with limited budgets we try our best to build within those limitations. Raffell mentions many of the artists who are to be considered as interviews as part of my PhD including Xu Bing and Wenda Gu. She sees these individuals as making a huge impact on the gallery’s collection.

The afternoon wander round the art fair, a real mix of traditional influenced contemporary Chinese art and what RJW coined as “dynamic” contemporary Chinese art revealed familiar faces, including Alexandra Munroe who I worked with at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, and many people from the conference ‘Negotiating Difference’ I attended at the end of last year in Berlin, including Ronald Kiwitt and Davide Quadrio. My conversation with Ronald is shown below and I hope to attend the PV of his first exhibition in Beijing at the end of the month. RJW is naturally very good at being my documentary photographer for the trip.

The artwork above should hold some familiarity with my colleagues at Wolverhampton Art Gallery, it is an installation by the Korean artist Choi Jeong Hwa, whose solo show ‘Welcome’ we exhibited in 2007. The odour of fresh balloons was quite imposing, and it was colourful and bold as ever, though somewhat simplistic.

Davide Quadrio has agreed to be interviewed on Saturday 11th September 2010 after I have spoken to the Director of ShContemporary Art Fair Colin Chinnery. Following these two interviews I will go to AIVA to meet the new students for induction for this academic year, and then rush off to the launch of a new archival project ‘Materials of the Future: Documenting Contemporary Chinese Art from 1980-1990’ and a new book ‘Contemporary Chinese Art: Primary Documents’ at the Minsheng Art Museum.

Finally, on Thursday afternoon we got to catch up with my Director of Studies Joshua Jiang and see the AIVA offices in Shanghai where I will be doing a little teaching in October. This is the view from his Shanghai office, a little nicer than the brick wall he usually looks at from his BIAD office…


Post AIVA chatter and introductions to the team – Jimmy, Laura, Lily, Lisa – as well as finally setting up my Shanghai phone number (I got a sim courtesy of Lily), led us onto our first dinner in China at a place called Savish…and Joshua ordered pork pancakes and pak choi for us….RJW ordered this…one rose cooked chicken, including head. One thing is for sure though, Shanghai nights are beautiful…

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