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An Interview with Hu Xiangqian

In early November, IFA MA student Cindy Qi interviewed Hu Xiangqian, whose work is currently exhibited at the Institute of Fine Arts, NYU as a part of the fall Duke House Exhibition chin(a)frica: an interface, on view through February 18, 2018. Hu Xiangqian (b. 1983) was born in Leizhou, Guangdong Province and graduated in 2007 from Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts. He currently lives and works in New York City. Hu’s artistic practice is grounded in performance and video works featuring an intentional amateurishness and crudeness. Notable exhibitions include the Gwangju Biennial (2014) and the Shanghai Biennial (2016).  A photographic still of his durational performance piece entitled The Sun (2008) hangs in the Institute’s Lecture Hall. The interview was conducted in mandarin Chinese and later translated to English by Cindy Qi.

CQ: Having been in New York for several months now, do you have any discoveries or inspirations you would like to share? Have you decided what kind of work to make during your time here?


HXQ: Yes, I have been preparing to get started in my studio. I live in Brooklyn and in my opinion, it’s a very isolated area that has nothing to do with art, but I like that place. It allows me to distance myself from all that is happening in Manhattan while also having the opportunity to be close to all of it. I really like this feeling of being able to pull away and engage at the same time.

我在我的工作室里准备啊,我现在住的地方比较远,在布鲁克林。 那个地方算是很荒凉的,跟艺术没有什么关系。但是我喜欢那个地方,所以我会在那里做作品。我还挺喜欢这种跟曼哈顿若即若离的感觉。

CQ: From an artist’s perspective do you think the New York art scene is much different than the one in Beijing?


HXQ: Oh, there’s a really big difference. There are a lot of artists congregated here and it’s really exciting. Nowadays, an artist can live pretty well off in Beijing, but I’m not quite sure whether that’s the case in New York. All my clients are from China and perhaps, to me, this is a big difference since now I’m starting from the beginning again in New York. So yes, to me, the difference is pretty big.

哦,区别很大的。毕竟这边的艺术家很多啊,这都是大家看得到的,所以会很刺激。但是,现在一个艺术家在北京也可以活得很好,可能在纽约我就不太知道了。我的钱都是中国来的,所以对我来说区别可能更大, 一切都要从头开始。对的,对于我来说区别很大。


CQ: I also saw you at the Guggenheim’s Art in China After 1989: Theatre of the World exhibition, what did you think of it? Were there any pieces that stood out to you?


HXQ: Oh, I have seen all of those works for almost a hundred times. To me, the works are all textbook. The only one I haven’t seen before is  Zhang Huan’s To Add One Metre to the Anonymous Mountain – I have never watched the video before and have only seen photographs of it. So I might say that it was the one that made the most striking impression on me. But I think it’s great – it’s an historical exhibition. I don’t think there’s anything bad that’s left in history, everything is good in history, everything that can survive the test of time is good.



CQ: Can you talk about why you don’t like being labeled as a “performance artist”?


HXQ: Well, it’s perhaps more obvious in China and in the Chinese language. Performance artists have a bad reputation. The Chinese, they think of performance artists as people who take off their clothes and run on the streets. I also wanted to create other works in different media and I didn’t want my artistic identity to be set in stone. For me, I like performing and I don’t consider a lot of my performances to be what people label as “performative”. For example, I don’t do a lot of live performances comparatively, and I do not really use my body to that extreme extent. I’m merely using the surface of my body to bring out a message. So, it’s not that I don’t like being labeled as a performance artist, I just want to emphasize what I am trying to make and you have to explain yourself a lot if you call yourself a performance artist in China, so that’s why I told the journalist [Hong Mai of Art Leap] during an interview that I don’t like being labeled as one.

因为可能在中国更加明显吧,行为艺术家是很糟糕的,名声不太好的。给人的感觉就是会把衣服脱光了在街上蹦跑的人吧。 我也想做别的东西,所以我不想自己的身份被固定。我只是喜欢做很多表演,而且我很多的作品并没有像大家所认为的那么行为。比如,我现场的表演做的比较少,我也不是说那么用身体在做艺术。我只是用身体的表面来传达一些想法, 所以我其实也不是不喜欢啦,只是想强调一下我在做什么而已。 你在中国要跟人解释很久,所以在洪迈采访我的时候我会这么讲。


CQ: You mentioned in past interviews that China’s history of performance art only spans for 20 years because the Chinese historically have been resistant to using the human body as a medium. Do you think this is something that still holds true now?


HXQ: Well, performance art and contemporary art both probably have a history of thirty years. Perhaps I miscalculated the number of years. But even now, there really isn’t a lot of performance art emerging in China. This art form is certainly less popular than any other form of art. And I think it’s really relative to culture. Chinese people do not like such direct interaction. So yes, for people, the acceptance of this form of art is really dependent on the culture. For me, it’s not really about it being good or bad: I like this form, so I engage with it.

其实行为跟当代艺术一样,大概三十年吧,可能说少了。 但就算现在,行为表演在中国可能还是算比较少的,绝对是少过所有的其他的艺术形式。因为真的可能跟文化很有关系,他可能不喜欢那么直接面对人啊。对啊,这接受程度跟文化很有关系。我觉得没有什么好坏,但是我喜欢所以我会做。


CQ: Do you think people are slowly starting to accept this mode of artistic expression ?


HXQ: Oh, I think so. Because in China, if you don’t have pornographic content, which I don’t, then it’s relatively easy for them to accept it. It’s not like I purposely self censor this stuff, it’s just my personal preference and that’s why I don’t stage any political or violent elements either.



CQ: Do you think of the audience and  anticipate their reaction when you conceptualize and perform a piece?


HXQ: I don’t really consider it, but I will take it into account. But it’s also really hard. For example, in America when the audiences are watching my Sunbathing video, racial concerns come to mind. But I never thought about that when I was creating the work. It was only when I met these Western viewers that  I realized this. They really care a lot about this, and they always ask me to comment on this racial aspect. At first, I was really confounded by this, and I couldn’t really accept it, but after a while I came to terms with it: it’s just the way they culturally associate and think about art, but yeah, this is what I was saying about cultural differences.



CQ: Journalist Hong  Mai’s article on your work in Art Leap stated: “If one compares the contemporary art dynamic to the early twentieth century entertainment industry, then Hu Xiangxian is the trending and popular comedian.” [1]


What do you think about this comment and how do you feel about the humor people perceive in your art even if it was originally unintentional?


HXQ: I have heard about this statement too. Yeah. This is actually a really weird phenomena. I also discussed it with my friends. When I make art, I really don’t think it’s humorous or funny. And I don’t even think I’m a funny person with a great sense of humour. But for some reason, it keeps coming out like that. I would think it’s a very normal video but people would think it’s very funny or humorous. So I guess this is how viewers react independently from my expectations. People will always see what they want, so I don’t try to think of their reactions – I don’t intentionally try to make my art humourous or not.

我也听说过这句话。 对。其实这也是很奇怪的问题,我也跟我朋友讨论过。其实我自己做作品的时候我自己一点都不觉得滑稽幽默。其实我自己也不是幽默感那么强的人。但是它做出来总是那样子。我觉得很正常的事情,但别人就会觉得觉得很搞笑或者滑稽。所以这就是所谓的观众给你的反应跟你设想的不太一样。观众是那样子的,所以说我不去意料这个事,我不去设想它是滑稽的或者是不滑稽的。


CQ: Let’s talk about this piece that you are exhibiting at the Duke House:  why did you originally want to tan yourself and document this process?


HXQ: Yes of course. There is a really simple reason, and like I said, I have been asked a thousand times why. I had a lot of African American friends in Guangzhou at the time [in 2008], and we would always go out for meals together. So yeah, one day I thought that I should be like them and I thought it was really cool, so I started tanning. It’s not complicated, but the process for me was really interrelated with life. In the film, people often seem to overlook the props I used, the plants and hoses on the ground. To me, I think those props were really important.

嗯,当然这个事很简单的,当然也问是被问过一千次的问题了。当时我在广州有很多非洲朋友,我们会一起出去吃饭啊。所以我就觉得我也得像他们一样, 感觉很酷,就这样就开始了。并没那么复杂,但这个过程还是真的跟生命很有关系。其实那个做品里,我用了很多植物啊水管啊很多那种东西,大家都没有注意到。那些其实是我觉得很重要的。


CQ: So why did you decide to include these props?


HXQ: Because that’s vitality, that’s life. When you’re under the sun for so long, you begin to feel that those things have a life of their own as well. It’s a very direct relationship.

那个是很有生命的。你在太阳底下晒多了,你会开始感觉那些东西都是有生命的。 那是很直接的感受。


CQ: Do you have plans for your time in New York? Anything you would really like to do?


HXQ: My goal, of course, is to be the best artist. That’s really what I think about. But jokes aside, I just want to do my work, and to do it in peace and quiet. When I came here everything was so different, and it was what I expected. My friends always joke with me and say: “Aren’t you a really famous artist in China? No one knows you here in New York!” And I think to myself, “So what?.” It’s not like I’m losing anything. When I wanted to leave Beijing, I didn’t know where to go and since the world is becoming more and more the same, it didn’t really need to be in New York. However, I had a few friends in New York so I decided to move here. I think it’s pretty exciting. I think for me, creating is really important. I’m actually really curious of what I can make in New York. Everyone is really curious. My friends in Beijing asked me if I could still make works if I moved to the US,  and I wonder this myself: what can I make in New York? I really want to know the answer myself. Who knows, maybe I’ll move to another place in a few years.

当然,目标就是想做最牛逼的艺术家。就这这样想的。但是没有啦,我就是做作品,安静的做作品。其实来纽约真的完全不一样,这我也意料到了。我朋友都老拿我开玩笑说:“你不是中国很著名的艺术家吗?纽约谁都不认识你” 那又怎么样,我又不是少了什么东西。我是想在这边生活一下。当时我正要想要离开北京,也不知道要去哪。也不是非要去纽约,毕竟世界越来越相同了。不过,正好纽约这边有些朋友我就来纽约了。我觉得这边还是挺刺激的。对我来说做作品很重要。我其实很好奇我能在这里做些什么,所有人都很好奇。北京的朋友问我去美国还能做作品嘛,我也在问自己我在纽约还能做出什么。我自己也很想要知道。可能我过几年就搬去其他地方做作品了。


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