An interview with Xu Zhen by Hans Ulrich Obrist, edited by Lorenza Baroncelli in occasion of the opening of the exhibition “1199″ at the Long Museum, Shanghai
Hans Ulrich Obrist: First of all I would like to thank you for taking the time for this interview, and for our last collaboration for the 14 Rooms exhibition in Basel.
Xu Zhen: I was very happy to collaborate with you in this exhibition and to have participated in it from the first moment.
HUO: Your contribution at 14 Rooms, called Long March, has become one of the most iconic pieces of the exhibition. Can you tell me how you had the idea for it?
XZ: When I started to work on this piece, it was a period in which I almost fell down, but I didn’t really fall. So I came up with the idea of the piece.
HUO: You almost fell down, was it an accident?
XZ: It wasn’t really an accident but there was a period where each day I almost fell unconscious. Very often we do some action of which we don’t know the results. The piece speaks about it.
HUO: What is the role of chance in your practice?
XZ: In the environment we live in, there are now a lot of chances. Areas of landscape grow very fast and there are many changes that we have to face very often. These kind of changes result in a lot of chance situations.
HUO: You were a graduate of the Shanghai Art and Design Academy, which is a technical college. Then you decided to continue your education by moving to Beijing and participating in the art scene there, then afterwards you returned to Shanghai. At the beginning of your career, how did you come to art, or rather, how did art come to you? Did chance play a role? Was it chance, destiny or epiphany?
XZ: Somehow, my beginning as artist was related to chance. When there is a child who draws very well, the parents decide that he can become an artist and there are a lot of expectations towards a future. That was how I started to do art. But when I started to be an artist, the way people thought about art or what they understood about art was very different from what art is today. This is why, when I create works, when I do art, I always think about how to move forward, about what art is going to be next.
HUO: I’m very interested in the moment in which an artist starts his catalogue raisonné. Before, there is the work of a student, but at a certain moment the artist decides the beginning of his work. Gerhard Richter, for example, numbered his catalogue raisonné starting from Tisch/Table (1962), his first photo painting, which he decided was the number 1. Which is the first work where you can recognize the beginning of your language? Which is the number one of your catalogue raisonné?
XZ: My number one is Not Doing Anything, the video performance where I throw the body of a cat on the floor again and again. The piece is from 1999. It’s a little bit like a performance but I presented it like a video.
HUO: Can you tell me about the genesis of Not Doing Anything?
XZ: At that time I was 19 or 20 years old and I had a lot of pressure from society. I tried to think about how to leave or go to society. All these feelings were mixed together. In that period I also started to think about death and whether the cat was dead or not, its body was something that I dealt with.
HUO: This was the beginning of your catalogue raisonné, but what would you say has been your main epiphany?
XZ: There are a lot of epiphanies in my production, but it is not so much about what I’m showing but more about where I’m going.
HUO: Where are you going?
XZ: For that I have to look at chances.
HUO: Today, for the exhibition at the Long Museum, we are talking about you also as a curator. When we met for the first time, eight years ago in May 2006 at the ShanghArt Gallery, I remember that you told me not only about your work in a solo exhibition, but also about the idea of you being a curator. When was the beginning of your activity as curator?
XZ: The very first exhibition we did as curators was in 1998, it was called Jin Yuan Road 310 which was the name of the avenue where we did the show. At that time it was not a very conscious curating work, we were just a group of friends and artists with the desire to present our pieces. This was how we started to curate exhibitions.
HUO: This idea of an artist-curated exhibition is something that exists quite a lot in China. Already in the previous generation, many artists were activists in curating as well. How do you see the idea of an artist also being a curator?
XZ: To be an artist you have also to be a curator. In the art creation process there are a lot of curatorial aspects, the two things are linked together. You must curate some exhibitions to become a good artist. Also a curator could be an artist as well.
HUO: Some of the most interesting experiences I have had with collections have come from the inspected approach of artists: as Erwin Panofsky said, “We often invent the future with fragments from the past”. During the time I worked for the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, Suzanne Pagé initiated an exhibition called Histoires de Musée for which she invited artists to revisit the entire collection of the museum. The artists came through many unexpected connections and rediscovered new links and junctions, which was very fruitful for the collection. A few years later we did an exhibition with Cerith Wyn Evans, an artist from Wales, and revisiting our collection in Zurich, he discovered a big oversight concerning one of the main individuals of the Beat Generation: the poet and artist, Brion Gysin. At that time no one really looked at Brion Gysin, there was a kind of amnesia. Only Cerith Wyn Evans, as artist, was able to look again, and to give us a new and fresh gaze on Brion Gysin, a once forgotten artist who has now been globally rediscovered. So when the Long Museum in Shanghai approached me for a suggestion of how to present their collection, I immediately said that the most unexpected and wonderful thing would be ask to an artist. Remembering our conversation in 2006 and also many collaborations that we had ever since, like China Power Station, 11, 13 and 14 Rooms, I thought of you, both because of your production as an artist but also as curator. Can you tell us how you reacted to this invitation and what you came up with?
XZ: There were a few points that I thought were really interesting about revisiting the collection of the Long Museum. One of the first points that pushed me to accept the invitation was that by revisiting a collection, you can understand what kind of art someone who is quite wealthy in China collected within about ten years. This is really something quite special here. No matter whether it’s for the public or for artists, everyone has their own art history: some works are maybe more important than others, some works have more “historical” aspects than others, and even today you can see some works are more expensive than others. To revisit a collection is a different way to understand art in China. For some people the history of painting in China from the last ten to twenty years is not very important because it has often been an imitation of the West. Before, the collections were very personal, they were according to the taste of the collectors. The collection of the Long Museum is quite different. It’s very broad and compares a lot of different periods and styles. When we got the list of the Long Museum’s collection with all the works we went through it and found out that the paintings they collected in the last thirty years were mainly about people. Portraiture is probably one of the main topics for the history of art in the last 200 years, but when we look at the collection of the Long Museum we can see the evolution of the people themselves in China: the different styles of how artists see people through the different periods. This is the reaction that I had when I was invited for this exhibition.
HUO: Richard Hamilton said about Marcel Duchamp that he invented a new rule of the game or a new display feature, a new way of installing the works. This is what artists often do, they come up with a new rule of the game for exhibitions. Here you come up with a very unexpected way of classifying the works, not according to chronology, not according to style, not according to contents, not according to some particular thematic sample, but through the creation of four groups: paintings with single female images, paintings with single male images, paintings with two figures, and paintings with a group of figures. You also decided, and this is a very important detail, to install the paintings in a line on the wall from the bottom to the top, in order from group one to group four. You define a systematic way of approaching the collection. Can you tell us more about these four groups and how you decided to install them?
XZ: I actually didn’t think of changing the rules of the game but I wanted to remind people that they also have their own rules. For example, the first line of paintings is of women because we often talk about feminism and the different aspects of the rights of women in society. It is something quite close to artists and that’s why I decided to put these in the very first line. Then, at the very top, there are the groups of people: it’s a little bit like an allegory for Paradise. People won’t be alone anymore, they are together. But it’s also a kind of evolution of the person in society, you come from a woman and you go to society.
HUO: Are there any works in the collection that you particularly like or dislike?
XZ: Yes, there are some works that I like more than others, and others that I don’t like but when I came up with the idea for the exhibition, what I like doesn’t matter anymore. My approach is just a structure.
HUO: Once you said: “my conception can be the beginning of awareness and understanding”. How do you imagine that your conception in terms of curating this show can be the beginning of awareness and understanding?
XZ: One of the awareness aspects in the exhibition at the Long Museum, for example, has been to emphasize the fact that art is always focusing on the evolution of people, and how history also focusses on people. What is interesting is that actually a lot of people are talking a lot of nonsense when, at the end, what they are talking about is people. Another aspect that can be related to the idea of awareness is the act of making explicit that when you look at an exhibition you are also actively looking.
HUO: If you think about collections of the past, you realize that the most interesting were the ones in which collectors had a constant dialogue with artists. Peggy Guggenheim, for example, was close to artists such as Marcel Duchamp and Max Ernst and the proximity that she had with them made her collection so unique. What is your advice to the Long Museum for the next step of the collection?
XZ: Today in China is a period in which collectors are one of the most important links in the art chain. There are different kinds of relationships between collectors and artists, and some conflicts of power as well. The Chinese situation for collectors is quite particular, it’s not about an individual artist that they like just because it is bizarre. It’s not very easy for collectors. Some collectors buy works according to their taste, some are influenced by other people. And now everything is becoming internationalized. In the past many people will have been influenced by Western collectors but now the Chinese collectors start to be self confident, maybe not as specialized as the people from the West, but they are willing to take part in dialogues with other people. For the collectors of the New Museum it’s also quite special because they are between the country and the government, they are building museums and presenting art. They have a strong role in the cultural environment as well. What is interesting for me is to see how collectors build their own values. This is something that they can not find by themselves and I think that this is something on which everyone should work together.
HUO: What does it mean today to focus a collection mostly on Chinese art? Could it be interesting to combine Chinese art and international art?
XZ: They are already preparing a lot of exhibitions with Western artists or international artists. They have also a lot of educational programs as well and there are more and more Chinese collectors collecting international artists.
HUO: During our previous interview in 2006, your organization MadeIn Company didn’t exist. In the last eight years you created the company, under which name you have curated exhibitions. You have, now, another new label that is an organization structure which declares to not have democracy. Can you tell us how you come out with MadeIn Company and how democracy, unDemocracy and MadeIn Company are related to your art production? How do you decide what to sign as Xu Zhen and what as MadeIn Company? How will the exhibition at the Long Museum be signed?
XZ: MadeIn Company is more like a method than the solution to what artists may face in the art field. MadeIn Company is also an important team but it is not related to democracy. The majority of my works are signed with my name but supported by the name of MadeIn Company. The same will happen with this exhibition at the Long Museum.
HUO: How should a museum rethink itself in the era of the Internet where you can share, copy, edit, and build many things for free and without ownership? How has the Internet influenced your practice?
XZ: Also in China, the Internet is one of the most important communication tools. When we look at the things that Chinese artists are doing, sometimes they look like Western art. The Internet is influencing the process of internationalization of Chinese art. Critics in China are very poor, so one of the main ways that Chinese artists are becoming internationalized is through the selling of art. The internationalization of Chinese artists is different from what is happening outside.
HUO: Many students will read our interview, what would be your advice for a young art student?
XZ: My advice would be to focus, it seems that there are a lot of possibilities around but there aren’t so much. My advice to them is to focus on their work.
HUO: There could not be a better conclusion. Many thanks again for accepting the suggestion to curate this exhibition and I hope to see you soon.
XZ: Thank you very much for recommending me and I hope to see you soon in Shanghai.