In Conversation with Hou Hanru…

On Tuesday evening, after a very long day of bookbinding and bookbinding workshop preparation in the print studio at Loughborough University School of Arts (my old home – I miss those days), I went to listen to the ‘In Conversation’ event between Alex Farquharson (Director of Nottingham Contemporary) and Hou Hanru (Curator and Director of Exhibitions and Public Programs and Chair of the Exhibitions and Museum Studies program at San Francisco Art Institute). Hou had recently advised with Huang Yong Ping’s solo exhibition at Nottingham Contemporary, on display until the 26th June 2011. I will be reviewing the exhibition for Art Radar Asia this month…I will post links when it is live. The ‘In Conversation’ event examined Huang Yong Ping’s work is a wider context, focussing on the international reception of Chinese art from the 1980s and 1990s onwards, questioning where this discussion and impact has gone recently.

Q: How did you first encounter Huang Yong Ping?

HH: It was in 1996…the time when China first saw the first wave of the avant-garde movement. Social, political and cultural modernisation was happening since the Cultural Revolution. HYP was born in early 1950s, out of a generation that is 10 years younger, where high school years were interrupted by the Cultural Revolution…they went through a different trajectory of studies. In the late 1970s, the so-called reform and opening was bringing the possibility of looking outside the country and limited space defined by the political government. 2-3 generations were imprisoned within this time then given freedom…the coming back of university and higher education system meant everything was a new discovery. The late 1970s to early 1980s produced the first experimental artists that went beyond the Maoist system. The early 1980s…from 84-85…a new generation of artists were to have a different kind of arts education. They produced experimental art and exhibitions, published their own magazines, catalogues…they reinterpreted traditions. There was intense debate as to what modern and contemporary art should be produced in China…this was called ‘New Wave’ in 85-86.

HYP was part of the early 1980s generation who went through a very particular debate in that context. He started experimenting with painting, where instead of traditional or academic social realist painting, he discovered something else. He is very inspired by Duchamp and the whole Dada movement, so he created “anti-painting”…very unique in terms of what he did. They would organise exhibitions of what they accumulated in terms of work in the back yard of the museum, a radical action…another action they did was instead of using the gallery in the provincial museum in the city, they went to the construction site next door and moved all the materials in site…that was the exhibition. It was a very typical Dada action, embracing the idea change, accident, breaking the boundary between life and art…on the other hand it referred to some forgotten Chinese traditional ideas or concepts. HYP understood early the relationship between experiments, Duchamp, Dada, John Cage, Rauschenberg…ideas coming from other cultures including Chinese tradition. HYP shouldered anti-culture, whilst re-interpreting what culture is, then he explored a lot of issues advanced by Wittgenstein to talk about the limit of language, the limit of signifier..the difference between real facts and language, an important philosophical ideal for him….geopolitical conflicts, understanding of different cultures, the paradox of all this desire of understanding the other.

There are only a few 100 people active within the country that network regularly, bringing people together through letters or occasionally travel between cities, there was no emails or internet at that time…conferences would bring the chance to meet each other. Major writers and curators graduated from CAFA…and it was when these two different people encountered each other that things happened.

In 1988 there was a famous meeting…the art community organised a conference of over 200-300 people to prepare for a major exhibition ‘China Avant-Garde’ in 1989. There were 13-14 people for the curatorial board including Fei Dawei, Li Xianting, Gao Minglu…February 1989 at the National Gallery in Beijing, 300-400 works to show their experiments of the last ten years. This was the moment right before HYP was invited to participate in ‘Magiciens de la Terre’ in Paris. He left China for Paris in 1989, then he ended up staying there forever…

Q: Tiananmen Square. Is it important to his and your artistic generation?

HH: There’s an accidental coincidence…those events happened more or less at the same time. 88-89 was an intense time for the social and political…a summit…you either go over this line of socialist regime or you have to step back…a really interesting moment. Accidental events in art, social life, political life and power and struggle…they are all interconnected, a necessity for this radical event. This shows there is a  common utopian vision of social change in reality as we arrive at social limits…more pragmatic ground for negotiation…not competition, ground for negotiation.

HYP has to go to Paris to express himself. It is also related to the moment how the cold war was ending, the two camps between the Eastern and Western camps were changing…’Magicien de la Terre’…artists from different cultures to co-exist at the same level…it was an interesting attempt, controversial. When you look back, there was an interesting necessity, interesting global change from a traditional modernisation project…eurocentric logic and colonial history. HYP life shifted from the Chinese to the global. He travels between Europe and China, now doing things back in China…how globalisation happened…he is a re-embodiment of this process, in a unique position.

Q: What was the reason for some many artists moving to Paris? How is that generation distinct? Did this move affect their work?

HH: There are 7 to 8 major Chinese artists living in Paris today. In the early 1980s China allowed students out of the country to study abroad. The French education system was open, a free system and in terms of art, Paris remained the ultimate destination for us at the time. Paris represents a very important centre…there is a motivation to be more open to the “others”…activity happening between the two countries at the time. The artist who studied in Germany or America all ended up having a different ways of doing things. The group in Paris became somehow more connected, like a family. Most of them came over as students or established artists so could get into the mainstream quickly…easier to form a solidarity. The French art community is somehow very much used to the co-existence of artists. Paris has very much been a place of international encounters, where this dialogue happened in a more favourite manner, all this together makes things a little bit easier for this community of artists to survive and exist as part of the established art system. On the other hand, when we look back to the transition of the early 1990s, the whole world was looking to redefine what was international…in the UK there was Hayward, ‘Another Story’ and Third Text, Iniva…in the West there is a tendency to go beyond the Eurocentric kind of tradition, a conjunction of different things happening.

Q: Was the reception of HYP’s work precise? Or was there mis-recognition?

HYP…the centre of his work from my understanding, he would position himself as continuously trying to evoke this paradox of cultural understanding and exchange, continuing kinds of resistance to essentialism in cultural exchange. He puts the notion of misunderstanding at the centre of his projects…history…politics. He would add another level of communication and of questioning…what he believes philosophically in the limit and paradox of language and the picture of the word. Does the picture of the word reflect the work? This is essential in his interventions. The contemporary ground…the late 1990s, he tries to deal with geopolitical events, evolving from his original position, with a site specific strategy to do with cultural understanding.

“…in terms of message…the more you want to make things clean, the more dirty and messy things get” – Hou Hanru

In ‘Bat Project’, he comments on very direct diplomatic crisis. He uses this as an anecdotal thing to dig deeper into historical complexity, that provoke other consequences. This is really fantastic in his work, all his work has consequence…real political, social sturggle or negotiation. The censorship of Bat Project in China three times…other events or situations would cause other questions. HYP’s work on one hand is artistically sophisticated and complex…on the other hand always provoke real effect on real life.

Q: Mythological time and a political time…are these different kinds of times converging in his work?

HH: HYP’s early thoughts on the Dadaist attitude and established conclusions in cultural concepts…embracement of anarchism or facing the established hierarchy of culture, of different value systems defined by different cultures. HYP important influence is Michel Foucault…early 1990s related to inspired by Foucault’s observation of how political relationships have built up in the hierarchy of knowledge…’The Birth of the Clinic’ by Foucault…the power how the western power establish itself in such an institution through the observation of death. HYP challenged the hierarchy of different cultures, how the division of cultures somehow should be re-understood. He looks into how to redefine the contemporary by introducing time systems, behind them are different cultures, especially those cultures which are marginalised, forgotten or censored in different moments of history…so they are on the same platform as an ongoing negotiation, not coming up with a conclusion.

Q: There are not may humans present within his work.

HH: Human beings are part of the inevitable natural system and change, not a separate entity. HYP is not particularly interested in animals per say but how humans build a relationship with animals, incorporate them into his own life and vice versa…how Chinese medicine use animals or other non-human objects, materials, that turn them into the life system of human beings. He explains the concept of life from this relationship, or this mixture of human and animal. He references Shan Hai Jin, a Chinese mythology book…how human beings look into themselves by mirroring the imagined other. This was a beginning for him to think about the origin of the concept between the self and the other, translated into a colonial reading of the other…two levels of using animals. Another level is to bring this discussion back into the contemporary as a live event so he puts live animals in front of you to let them perform their live situation in their equality. It is hard for us to understand under our institutional regards of culture…it has caused controversy and censorship…using animals as a testing ground for social norms and regulations in a cultural context…not simply using them as a symbol but a live event.

“We have to go beyond the notion of the beginning and the end. Time is circular, it’s not linear…the distinction and separation between man and nature…evolution cannot sustain anymore.” – Hou Hanru

In the 1980s to 1990s it was about China….part of a diaspora of moving somewhere else…Xu Bing…artists who use Chinese culture to represent themselves in a different culture…how easy is it for artists in China to create art about their own culture. It is very difficult to generalise as the situation now is very different. The Chinese art scene is now part of the global art scene, different conditional existence for the artists. Some artists continue to deal with social and political issues. This generation deals with these issues in a much more individual position so they would deal with that in a much more distant kind of perspective, they would not simply come up with slogans, much more the strategy of irony or independence. So a lot of artists continue to work with those issues but very often instead of making any clear statement or conclusion they will go into something much more personal and much more profound. Another thing is, for example, lately there has been some very interesting artists working in animation Sun Xun, Cao Fei…how history and political discourses today have been formatted by different ways of writing history and so on. They have developed animations by introducing their personal interpretation of historical events in a subtle way. There’s a consciousness in terms of language. They will use paintings to make those animations as a kind of answer to the pressure of being global…a double positioning…on the one hand digging into the political situation now, positioned in the global forms, emphasising their own personal choice. It is much more complex than 20 years ago…much more complicated and individual…artists are working on a much more personal or complex languages. Cao Fei uses performance, theatre, internet, animation, photography, writing, video games. Artists are not limiting themselves as an agent of contemporary art. They simply become an agent of contemporary culture in general…not the politics to a great extent. It is how you negotiate the market system. Negotiating the everyday condition, which is a mixture of economic pressure and corruption, and how to find out social justice out of this negotiations. It is more about negotiating this new ecological condition, this biopolitics…different approaches to distant from the mainstream concept and values. There’s a lot of political implications in the original works.

Q: Do you think the mission of the curator is less clear? How do you approach this new generation of work now?

HH: Not to lose contact with the situation. You can easily lose contact with the ground. You can project your expectation…so what is really important is I really try to learn about new situations and how artists change their position. ‘Power of Doubt’ – Madrid…one of the inspirations was my observation of the artist Sun Xun and so on. How do they come up with this chaotic moment? How do they come up with their interpretations of these histories?…rewriting history?…providing not simply a magical conclusion, but the magic of creating suspicion, doubt and questioning. For me is trying to continue to engage in following these changes, trying to provide platforms to make these thing visible to help them….render them visible. How to provide the possibility for them to grow. Working with artists is always about making conditions for them to create new projects, not just about representing new works. As a curator for me it is about providing possibility…have the possibility to introduce new relationships, new systems of times.

“Good to talk to you from a distance…distance is important somehow.” – Hou Hanru

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