Interview: Wu Hung, Part 2

This is the second of two parts. Find Part 1 here.

Professor Wu Hung hosting the Director’s Seminar, March 29th, 2011. Photograph by Nita Roberts.

Robert Brennan: That might segue into another issue we wanted to discuss: the relationship between curating and teaching. We were curious about the role of teaching recent art in China and in Chinese universities, and to what extent they’ve gotten involved in making that part of the curriculum, part of university life, and whether universities have relationships with museums like they do in the States.

Wu Hung: I probably don’t know the whole picture because everything moves so fast in China. In my day there was no art history. My department was the only art history department in the entire country, and my class had ten people – that’s it. Art history in China was then basically in museums with connoisseurship. Only from my generation did people begin to study art history. Many people still don’t know what it is today. But now most universities have a particular department – they don’t call it art history, they call it the “discipline of art” or “art studies” or something like that. It includes art history and aesthetics, studio art and design. Both practice and curatorial, conservation. Somewhat like here, plus painting, printmaking, filmmaking. At some universities [in the United States] there’s a combination of studio art [and art history], but [in China] it’s more: anything having to do with visual art. [In the Chinese] model, art history is just one of several things. It’s not as prominent as it is here. Here art history is a pretty powerful humanistic discipline and very influential, in a way. But there it’s really just one of many possibilities. There are some schools that try to push art history. Some people have started here and now return to China and try to create that model.

So that’s one kind [of model] within the general, large universities – these comprehensive kinds of university settings. Then [there are] the art academies: you know, like Zhejiang, now called the China National Academy of Art, Art Academy, or the Beijing Central Academy. These kinds of academies also have [something] like a school of the humanities within the art academies. The art academies, in the past ten years, have grown into humungous institutions. In my day the Central Academy of Fine Arts—I graduated there—only had 150 students, 200 teachers and staff members. So it was tiny… But right now the same school every year takes in about 1500 or 1800 students of different kinds: painting, drawing, new media, including conservation, museum studies, and art history. All of these schools are just becoming bigger and bigger in China. Quite chaotic, I have to say. But there’s also a lot of energy. There are a lot of young people who want to study the arts, art history, or something. So again it’s quite different from here. They still need a lot of teachers. You can imagine, when you have a lot of students, you need good teachers from good schools. So different universities try to attract the teachers, people studying abroad.

RB: And are there people writing on art since the late ‘70s in an academic way, as an established practice? Or do you think that’s more in journals and criticism?

WH: That’s an interesting question. I can’t say now, but you know, Master’s theses and PhD dissertations are probably still predominantly in older art. I feel, now, that contemporary art is accepted. But most people, older scholars, still don’t feel very comfortable with it. And even here, you know, still some schools feel that contemporary art is not very suitable for PhDs. They have their own reasons. So it’s not just China…

RB: We were also curious about the role of the art community outside China in the development of Chinese contemporary art, and we were kind of surprised at the wide range of places that played a really prominent role: France, Germany, Australia, Japan, the US. Do you think there has ever been a kind of center, from the Chinese perspective, in the international art world? And if so, how has that developed, as certain artists move to one place or another? Has it shifted?

WH: For Chinese artists?

RB: For artists and critics in China.

WH: I feel it has been changing. Even from this course you have a sense of a shift in the landscape. [In] the ‘80s [the Chinese art world] was definitely all in China; very few people travelled outside. In the ‘90s there was a huge shift. In Paris there was really a powerful group…[but during that time] China didn’t produce a really powerful international curator. So domestic Chinese artists who were doing outside exhibitions really had to rely on [curators like] Hou Hanru [who was working in Paris]…So there was a sense of power outside China.

The United States is more academically oriented. There are some curators here, but not like in Europe. In Europe with this biennial, triennial – somehow a network emerged there. Here you have someone like me or other people, even artists like Xu Bing, who were more like working individuals. They didn’t form a cluster or a power group like in Paris. In Berlin there were a few people, but [they] didn’t form a group. Then the landscape shifted again, so that’s during the ‘90s. [Consider for example the 48th Venice Biennale, curated by Harald Szeemann.] Even today you talk about Cai Guoqiang: the curator was so powerful and really could now show not only Cai Guoqiang, who got the big award [at the 48th Venice Biennale], but also more than like fifteen Chinese artists during that particular Biennale – a really high [number] – brought there by Harald Szeemann.

Around 2000, a lot of people returned to China. It actually started in the mid-‘90s: Zhang Dali, or someone like Lin Tianmiao, Wang Gongxin – some people already began to return to China. But after 2000 many, many people returned to China. Some, like Xu Bing, finally returned to China for good. Other people, [like] Cai Guoqiang, are still [in the United States], but spend more and more time [in China]; they make work there. So today there’s kind of a new feeling, like you belong [laughter]. So after 2000, this overseas picture…somehow this notion had weakened or almost disappeared. The other day I saw a Chinese artist in New York. We didn’t discuss him [in class], but he’s quite interesting: very early political pop person, probably even earlier than Wang Guangyi. He said that, now, there are very few Chinese artists here. Chinese artists have sort of moved back, or they lead some kind of complex lifestyle that they design for themselves.

To answer your question, probably things are shifting. As for the center in China, probably Beijing is a center, just [due to] the sheer number of artists. And in Shanghai, there’s a different style but still it’s very powerful. But probably Shanghai is more event-oriented. There’s the Shanghai Biennale, or the Shanghai Art Fair, or the Shanghai Expo. So there are many, many shows, but in Beijing it’s more throughout the year. Shanghai also has more of these private art museums, more than Beijing.

RB: And what about art schools? We saw that in the ‘80s people at the Zhejiang Academy and places like that [played a leading role], and of course the Central Academy. Are there any academies like these today?

WH: Hard to know. Even so-called contemporary Chinese art – the notion is a little bit murky: a lot of commercial art, a lot of good painters, a lot of video artists, but there isn’t a sense of a movement or challenging something. Really each person is challenging something, but you don’t sense this huge front somewhere, or the separation between these people. A lot of the avant-garde returned to school and are now professors, like Zhang Peili.

Holly Shen: Do you think that the institutionalization of art, which has been such a widely discussed issue regarding contemporary art in the West, is also a major issue in China? Do you think that its development has taken similar directions?

WH: Chinese art is still so intertwined with Chinese society. Now the academies are part of it. Most artists, once they’ve left the academy, become freelancers, really part of the society. I feel a lot of their inspirations, or whatever they want to do, are really influenced by China at a particular stage. So now the situation in China is quite different from the ‘90s, and the ‘90s again very different from the ‘80s. The ‘90s was urbanization, building – crazy. Now you don’t see a lot of ruins, scars, you don’t see a lot of high-rises, but the market has gotten so strong. So, I feel, after 2000 the market has really become the most important force in contemporary Chinese art. So many younger students immediately find a commercial gallery. Then they emerge with some good artists. The situation is different from the ‘90s. Yes, it’s institutionalized, but there are just so many factors. You don’t feel there is a front. You feel there are many individuals and many schools; some are very good, and they all train artists. But there’s no guarantee that the people from one school must be better or immediately have some kind of privilege. Also, you don’t sense that each particular school has a particular ideology. You can say that Zhejiang, the National Art Academy, still tries to push new art forms, new media and a lot of cutting-edge kind of stuff. The Central Academy still tries to emphasize basic training, classical kinds of education. But still, when you have Zhan Wang and Liu Xiaodong at the Central Academy, they’re still pushing and training interesting students.

So I don’t have a very clear idea about contemporary Chinese art. My work now, curatorial work, is more focused on individual artists. Older artists, they’re under pressure, actually. They have to reinvent themselves. You can feel this kind of anxiety; they’re very nervous. That’s an interesting issue.

Carrie Wladis: What kind of distance do you need to have to look at contemporary art? There doesn’t seem to be a movement or a front coming forward – but do you think you need a distance, a temporal distance, like ten years or something before you can turn back? The critics in ’85 [i.e., the ’85 New Wave art movement] were intensely self-aware. Do you think that is a matter of taking a kind of distance?

WH: I think as art historians, when you’re making a judgment you definitely need some kind of distance. If you want to see a bigger picture, of course you have to move slightly further. That’s for a historian. But for a curator, I feel, you cannot. You cannot, say, wait five years and say, “I see some movement.” That is more like an art historian at a museum; sometimes they do a big show and they have that mentality. But a curator, I feel, should be very sensitive. Some people sense something—some happening; probably they don’t even have a name for it, just something new, something different. That’s the beginning. So you have to see a lot, and you have to know history. As a curator you must know history, otherwise how can you know what’s new? When I started to do Transience I didn’t really think there was some kind of “domestic turn” or something like that. I was just fascinated by Yin Xiuzhen’s work – so different from [previous] painting, reacting to day-to-day life… Eventually, only later, I realized there was something bigger. So that’s something, I believe, that’s different from ’85. Because in ’85, there was an avant-garde mentality – they were making a movement. I didn’t make a movement [laughter]. I was more like an academic. So I feel there’s nothing wrong. That kind of creating is like an artwork; artists and critics belong to the same army, creating something. My position was, geographically and in terms of occupation, quite different. But probably in China now there are still younger people that try to create this. For example there was an exhibition, very interesting, called “Loud Noise.” It was created about four or five years ago by some very young people in Beijing, and it travelled to different cities. It was a very big show – more than a hundred artists, and very young. It was a pretty serious show. The curators who were involved are now historical…

Marci Kwon: I have a question. I think one thing looking at the reserve shelf: you have written so many books! How are you so prolific? Writing takes a really long time.

WH: I feel that as an academic it’s slow. I don’t encourage you to write and publish immediately. You have to take it seriously, especially if you pursue an academic career. People take your first book very seriously, so it should be very solid; it should really demonstrate your thinking, not just information. I tell my students, when you think about the dissertation, there are two different approaches. The old way is that you just write it as the last step in your academic training. So basically, you write it for your advisors. If they say “yes” then you’re off, and you write your new study. That was the old way. I just feel it’s wasteful, because then you have to spend five years to revise. When you revise it and polish it up, it might be better, but also you lose a lot of energy. I feel, today, there’s a lot of publishing. It’s better to see the dissertation as a book. You need to have a structure, and you write for certain people. If you write just for your professor, you write in a particular way. If you write for a larger readership, then you have to think about it in a certain way: that’s not to say that you make it simple, but you have to make it understandable. So that saves some time. Sometimes you can save like three years! [Laughter] But then, I think then you can work with other types of writing. The dissertation or academic monograph is just one type – you have many different types. One person, I hope, can produce different things; otherwise it’s just very boring. So for shows, you just have to immediately write something. Maybe it’s not that scholarly, but maybe there can be more energy – there are other virtues. Or you can imagine something in between. You get a group of people together to do something and it’s all possible. That’s the key.

HS: I read some of your work when I was in Professor Shen’s ancient Chinese class, and I’m wondering when you really started becoming passionate about or enamored with contemporary Chinese art. I read, in particular, The Double Screen, which I thought was fascinating, about the motif of framing a picture on a screen, the scroll format. And then all of the sudden it seems there was a vast changeover [in your work, from ancient to contemporary]. So was there a moment when you knew you wanted to shift your focus, or was it a slower, more organic process?

WH: The difference maybe is not that big. Of course in terms of subject matter [they’re] very different: that’s a thousand years ago; here’s the contemporary. I feel, to me, they are connected. So in my mind I don’t have like a two-tier brain… [Laughter] But still, I feel your question deserves an answer.

I came [to the US] in 1980, so in 1979 I was [in China]. I belonged, like maybe you did when you were younger, to this sort of avant-garde group. Even during the Cultural Revolution we had these kinds of little, what we called, salons: we read forbidden books, listened to forbidden music like The Beatles – whatever you could get. And painting. In our generation, even before the Xing Xing (Stars Group), there were groups in China for underground poetry. So I was in it, but I was not a scholar. After I moved here I shifted gears. I entered Harvard and became a student, so that was the past. But I still was connected. In the ‘80s in New York we founded the Overseas Chinese Artist Association. I was part of it, so we were connected. In ‘80 I did quite a few shows at Harvard of Chinese art, but at that time most Chinese art was not here. I did the first American show of Chen Danqing at Harvard – a very small show. We just carried the paintings there and hung them on the walls. We drove from New York and tied a lot of paintings on the roof, and when we started [the car] all the paintings came off [laughing]. So back in ’80 it was like pre-history.

I became really serious and began to organize a bigger exhibition with [the Art Institute of] Chicago, and that was when I moved to Chicago. But Harvard was very difficult, including in the early 1990s. In ‘91 I went to China and we had this Travelling Documents exhibition that Wang Li organized. After ‘89 a lot of art was banned, so we organized this Documents exhibition with the Chinese avant-garde. We had a group, including Professor [James] Cahill [of UC Berkeley]. Each person put in about $100 and we [made copies of all of the work] to have a show here [of the reproductions]. We brought them back and Harvard said, “No, no, no, we don’t want to show it. It’s not real, not to mention that it’s Chinese art.” That was a terrible feeling. Chicago was much better. The Smart Museum went for it immediately. They saw the quality of the work. So that was part of the attraction to the Chicago job.

Also at that point in the later ‘90s, not just I but quite a few people began to sense this difference between Chinese art history and western art history. In western art, by the late ‘90s, basically most or more than half of professors, and maybe more than 70 percent of students, were studying modern art, basically eighteenth-century and later. So earlier periods had become less prominent than modern and contemporary. But non-western art, by the late ‘90s, was still maybe 95% pre-twentieth-century. So I realized that there was a huge difference, not just in terms of geography—east and west—but actually of time. It seemed like the west was modern, and other people, they were history. So I saw this. There was a self-conscious push to change priorities a bit: more shows, put it on the map – not just me, but other people were doing that too. So I feel that we became more self-conscious.

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