Li Zhenhua is one of curators of the Main project of the 3rd Ural Industrial biennial of contemporary art. He has visited Ekaterinburg in April. We discussed what it means to be a curator, that a budget does not always play a definitive role and that a viewer is the same art object as a piece of art. To illustrate this interview we’ve chosen some projects of the artists who are working with Zhenhua.
We have very little personal information about you. Please, could you tell us how did you become a curator, what were you doing before this and what did you study?
In 1996 – by that time I have already been working as a chef for quite a long time – my friend has come up with an idea of opening a cafe-gallery in Beijing. After a while I have taken up the responsibility not only for cooking, but for the exposition as well. I can say that’s when it all began, but I must mention that at that time I had absolutely no idea what curation was, I used to be so insecure. So I started to ask different people questions, ask for some consultations, but in 1996 in Beijing there were not many people who could explain what it was all about. The only thing I knew for sure was that there was no market in China, so I couldn’t become an art dealer. At the same time I wasn’t sure that it was interesting enough for me. I would rather study how the art system was functioning, how the art process was organized in other countries. I wished to become a perfect curator in a country where nobody even knew what it was. Gradually I started working in film and music production, sometimes took on some projects with theaters.
Did you work as a producer?
Yes, as an event-manager and a producer. However, it is important to mention that everything concerning culture and arts back then was so unclear in China. Nowadays you can just point at someone and say that he is a person of fine arts, another one is in music, and that one is engaged in theatre and film and all of them communicate with people from their own field. Before that, you could meet a film-director together with a musician, accompanied by some foreigner. I think that this short and special period was the time when the process, which we now call contemporary art, began.
In 1999 I won an internship in England sponsored by British council and spent a couple of months there. The most interesting thing is that the projects which I was working on in China and presented as a method were in high demand in England and were understood in the art practice. Mixing together different genres and techniques was a popular method at that moment.
So, apart from my work, I was traveling the country and visiting different institutions. I was curious about their work and asked many «tricky» questions: “Where do you get the money from and what sums do you work with?”, “How do you spend the money?”, “Who’s your audience?”. After I have left England, I repeated it in almost every country I have visited, – Germany, Switzerland, Japan… I believe it is important to understand how the system is working, because it influences the art provided by creators.
Did you study art on your own?
I am a trained chef. I didn’t go to college, so everything including English is my personal achievement. Speaking about art history – I tried to go deeply into it, but at some point I realized that this information didn’t help me to see and understand what was going on in China at that moment. So, I decided to focus on the practice – interviewing artists, for example, which has led me to having my own column in one of the new Chinese magazines.
It is called “The Scope”, a new Chinese magazine; the first issue was published just last year. Although since 2010 I was curating a number of issues because for me magazines are a medium, like any other. I was curious to try magazine as a project. On the other hand, a printed product is good because it has an essence and a physical body–a paper and a statement of space, so dealing with printing arts is quite an interesting challenge for me.
Could you explain what curating means for you? What answer do you give yourself to this question?
Before answering the question directly I want to clarify that now I know way more about art by far, but still I am in a situation when I don’t have all the answers. For example: I am captivated by a question – what is the difference between a curator, a coordinator and a producer. Is there any difference at all? How can a researcher fit in this row?
But the most interesting thing is that all curators aren’t the same as well! Let’s take a curator working in some institution or an independent curator or someone who just got burned after curating one project and they will never go back to this experience. Also there is someone who goes back to curating by chance and doesn’t make it a profession.
I think everyone in art business has a temptation to become a curator once in a while?
Yes, because an artist knows how to build a project, he has a visual experience; he notices the parts of a prospective project. But for me it is important that a curator must be a creator as well, making something new. What can be done by a curator when everything is made by an artist? How can I say that a curator is making something new? I believe that the positive sequence of these two roles can only be possible when the artist doesn’t have a project for an exhibition and it is made in collaboration with a curator’s choice – everything from an idea to the final «product».
Are you this type of a curator?
This approach does impress me a lot, but I must state that I do not approve of any authoritativeness from a curator. I think the biggest mystery and the brightest moment is the process of collaboration. One thing for sure: a curator must not look down on an artist and tell him what to do, he must not be a director, – this is the problem that stops people from creating some really interesting projects. On the other hand, an artist should step aside from an “I am an artist, this is my vision” position and keep examining the concept of his project and, moreover, the essence of art. And the curator’s aim is not to direct an artist, but to keep asking him: “Why should you do this?” and ask himself why did he become a curator in the first place, why does he keep doing this, what can be done for an artist, how will the project look in the end? All these kinds of questions…over and over again.
And, certainly, the money issue.
Oh, this skill has nothing to do with curation, but certainly you have to be creative, because at some point a lack of funds can stop you.
So you have to be a good manager after all?
A creative manager, I’d say because either a large budget or no budget at all should be comprehended. Basically, this is what we had in 90-s, when there was no art funding at all. Making exhibitions, creating something–there is no money in store for you to invest in contemporary art, there is no institutional support. Finding a place used to be a problem and sometimes it was hard even to find something to eat. But, nevertheless, many artists started out in 70-80-90-s. They just worked harder.
Were they exhibiting?
Yes, in all sorts of public areas–on the streets, in some public places like flats, metro, etc. For me this outgo from an equipped exhibition area still looks quite up-to-date, because there are so many galleries and museums out there, that exhibiting has become some kind of a bad habit. Are we used to making exhibitions or do we really need them? Why do we need them – for our vanity only? I can contrast two approaches: “I am successful, because I create exhibitions” and “I create exhibitions, because I care, I feel the needs of art”. And the second approach is more appealing to me, without a doubt.
When you are speaking about “needs of art” what does “art” mean in this context? Art doesn’t exist independently, it is a result of constant struggle of specific people and each one of them has his own needs and overall understanding of what is going on.
For me it is a complex open question, because I have never seen art as a profession. It only became a profession in the past few years which led to an uprise of a large number of professions such as curators, which are a recent innovation. An art scene, where everybody had his role, appeared and an important question is – how can you study contemporary art?
You can study contemporary art in many institutions.
Yes, there is no doubt about that and you can find a large number of links, a wide context, but what you can teach is not contemporary by definition. It is history. Contemporary art is at least 40 years old–depending on the theory that we support and we have to constantly re-examine and revise contemporary art.
Not even every year – every day.
It truly depends on the perception of time. The Indians, for example, see future, past and present as inseparable, and their sequence makes what you know as “contemporary”. Contemporary art is impossible if taken out of its context–it is based on the world’s ontology, its history and recent events. At the same time, we keep thinking a lot about the future–with a technical approach–it is done to bring the future closer. And this is a topic of art, too. For example, I really like the way an intellectual was seen in the past–you could call a man intellectual not only if he was a professor or related to science somehow. Those were the people who had great influence on the society, – not criticizing or questioning, but those who created, were useful in a way, policemen, firemen. I think art should aspire to this.
In your opinion, does art mater?
Yes, very much, I suppose, because art today is about communication. And, I think, this is what we’ve been leaving behind for years.
I’d like to ask you to talk a little more about communication. And why did we lack it in the times before contemporary, as you say. Many researches, art researchers and philosophers say that these days communication is escalating, but it has changed its meaning.
I’d rather speak about communication between art and people. How art communicates with kids, disabled people, what it does to the “wide audience”. Art has never been so important in the past, because now it takes people to the public space, it makes them equal. An artist is no longer a Hand of God or a creator of something unattainable. Today artists offer some prospect and share it with other people. Modern artists work in the fields of biology, economy, philosophy… basically, contemporary art pervades every aspect of life. I’d state that art is in the middle of the individuality, freedom, and knowledge. And, of course, you should not forget the matter of money. This is why artists make big sculptures, small sculptures, big paintings, small paintings, landscapes, portraits… I am not saying this is not art, but it is created to be consumed. In other cases–unconventional–we have to kind of ask ourselves, why do we need art, why is artist important. I think it just must be there, to state something you can’t pass by.
At the same time, is it important for an artist to be clear?
Yes, but not in a traditional sense. Today, having a large scale of opportunities and instruments, an artist can make you understand something without showing or explaining it. You can see/hear/touch/smell the work of art and feel cold or hot, feel pain or sexual satisfaction. You will literally FEEL something and THIS is the contemporary art. A friend of mine, an artist from Norway, makes projects about smell. You can never understand the construction of smell, but you will feel it. I’ve learned from her the way we see the world, because we learn from the smell as well. I’ll make it clear: the smell of gas, for example. Notoriously, the natural gas has no smell, but in order to deal with it and make the gas noticeable, to prevent accidents, we add this smell to it. And this smell is no longer just a chemical combination, it is a threat. But this is a synthetic smell, it was created by humans. The same is with baking. So, what we’re speaking of here is not understanding, it is immersion into the process, re-activation of the human body and perception without using our head or body.
Pushing the boundaries of understanding and perception.
Exactly. Communication, in this case, is giving some new emotions to the viewer. Once there were some curious debates in China dedicated to the innovations in art. Many people with classic education do not see contemporary art as real art, because it doesn’t operate with familiar symbols and is aimed to reflect the current situation. Do we have to study art in order to operate the images coming from design? I think it is a crucial question. Is there something we don’t know yet? Why do we need to place some of those images into a white cube to expose them? What do they have to tell us? This morning I visited an exhibition by Leonid Tishkov–no question it wasn’t about the art presented there, – it is about nostalgia, emotions. Not everyone can see this.
I believe that contemporary art today is not a process of creating an image, it is an art of explanation, an art of interpretation.
On the one hand it is, because artists frequently have to work outside of the visual aspect, but also they sometimes make double objects or reflecting objects. For example, Koons’ work. What is it about? It is about luxury. The viewer is reflected in this luxury, gets inside it, and for me that is really interesting. Or, let’s say, Michelangelo Pistoletto constantly breaks the mirrors and the viewer is reflected in this broken glass, re-examining his own image. I believe this is the way the viewer can comprehend art and it is not about creating an object, it is about making the person take part in the art-process.
Something similar happens in quantum physics which says that there is no space without the viewer.
Well, yes, and here we are back to the Indian world view: what comes first? In fact, none of the elements does, and we live in this religious context, where you know not who the subject is or where it is.
You were speaking about James Tarell’s project in Oslo, where people go inside a hill to look at the sky through a hole in the roof. It turns out that previously people used to look at a masterpiece and realized that it was made by DaVinci or Rembrandt, while now they are a masterpiece themselves? What is art in this case? A hole in the sky or the viewer?
For the viewer it is the hole, I guess, but without a doubt for an artist it was important to create this atmosphere, – this is the object, the connection between the viewer and the artist, which can’t be articulated. For some people art is the color, for others it’s a hole in the floor. An artist plays with people’s notions. You come to see an artwork, but I think we often get deceived by our own vision, which tells us what we see and what we know. Generally speaking, knowledge today is a curious substance. A person with an iPhone “knows” a lot more than a professor. This is why today we must ask ourselves: “Why the hell do we need all this knowledge at all?”
Yes, and as Sherlock Holmes used to say: «If I remember that the Earth is round, I will have no room in my head for some really important information».
Therefore, today is not only about delivering facts to the audience, but also emotions. However, we should realize that emotions are certainly something difficult to deliver. You can only share them with your closest ones and for an artist the closest one is the beholder of his art. You should not forget that.