Art, Interviews

From Beijing to Paris to San Francisco

Recently, I had an opportunity to speak with Hou Hanru, a prolific curator and writer who has been inventing and reinventing himself and his profession for two decades. In 2006 he was appointed Director of Exhibitions and Public Programs and Chair of Exhibition Studies and Museum Studies program at the San Francisco Art Institute, and in 2007 he served as the curator of the Chinese Pavilion at the Venice Biennale and curator of the 10th Istanbul Biennale. Our conversation revolved around a consideration of new conditions engulfing art and exhibition practices in the 90s, when Biennales came to be increasingly organized by a new professional class. Hou’s curatorial practice has developed through keen instincts within the context of dramatic changes in a world fuelled by economical globalization and post-colonial migration. As a consequence, he offers ways to make sense of contemporary art in a globalizing world.

JOHAN LUNDH Since this issue of C magazine is devoted to diasporas, I want to start off by asking you why you decided to move from Beijing, China, to Paris, France, in 1990?

HOU HANRU I have always wanted to go beyond my own cultural context but it was a coincidence that I ended up in Paris. I was working on a project in the south of France at the time. During the trip, I met my girlfriend, who later became my wife, so I decided to stay. I belong to a generation in China that really grew up with the transition from the Cultural Revolution to the opening of the 1980s, culminating in the end of the Cold War. I think my generation shared a desire to go beyond the experiences of our forefathers. We valued and faced new kinds of social and political questions. Ultimately, we also wanted to see what we could achieve in the world. On one hand, moving from Beijing to Paris was a significant change for me. On the other, I had a similar experience moving from Guangzhou to Beijing to attend the Central Institute of Fine Arts. China only pretends to be one country. In reality, it is a patchwork of languages, cultures and traditions. Living in Guangzhou and in Beijing is almost as different as living in Beijing and Paris. I guess that was one of the reasons I accepted the transition. After the fact, it became a very important shift in my life and my career.


JL You were one of the first curators and writers to examine nomadic identity, hybridity, globalized mobility and artists living as part of diasporas. How much did your own experiences shape your curatorial practice?

HH As an immigrant from a so-called non-Western background, your identity is always in question. One of the key issues then becomes how to resist a fixed, stereotypical, representation of the Other. When I moved to Paris, I found myself in a position where I couldn’t identify with anything around me. Consequently, it was natural for me to raise questions about identity, globalization and so on.

More important than my own cultural background were the historic changes during the end of the 80s and the beginning of the 90s. After the Cold War, we found ourselves living in a new paradigm. A handful of issues stood out in this new world order: globalization of economy, postcolonial migration and modernization outside the Western world. This was perceived as a crisis or a possibility, depending on your perspective. At the same time, post-colonial theories became a driving force for cultural transformation. When you look at that, it is important to understand that globalization is not simply a prevailing American or Euro-American model. There are a lot of other possibilities that have been circulating around the world, and even coming back to influence the West.

With that said, as a Chinese curator living abroad, I believe it is important that the exhibitions I curate are related to my own life experiences. I hope that my projects possess something that is different than what you see in the mainstream art world. I am not talking about redefining the mainstream, but about breaking down the barriers that separate the ordinary from the exceptional, allowing everyone an opportunity for equal existence. However, my personal ambition has always been to take part in a global dialogue, rather than simply representing China.

JL You have often stated that the main task for a curator is to raise questions and challenge the condition of things. Looking back on more than 15 years as an independent curator and writer, there is a strong consistency in your practice with certain themes and questions. Could you discuss a few of the more than 50 exhibitions you have done so far?

HH The China/Avant-Garde exhibition, which I co-curated with Gao Minglu at China’s National Art Gallery in Beijing in 1989, was a very important event for me. In a sense, it was less important to the Chinese art world than society at large. In other words, the avant-garde movement had reached the point where it would have an inevitable presence in the society–and society started reacting to it. In many ways it was more like a social or political event than an art exhibition. I think China/Avant-Garde was fundamental for developing my curatorial practice, and how I think contemporary art can make sense in society.

In 1994, I curated an exhibition called Out of the Centre–Chinese Contemporary Art, for the Pori Art Museum. The exhibition was exploring different aspects of centre and periphery by drawing a link between China and Finland. Both countries have continuously been negotiating their own national identity and relationships to their neighbours. Finland is constantly dealing with neighbouring Russia, and China is in the process of construction and deconstruction itself. Both countries are navigating through a kind of borderline situation.

Another important exhibition was Parisien(ne)s for the Camden Arts Centre in London. The project brought together the work of nine artists from different generations who lived and worked in Paris but came from different countries. The works explored ideas around location and dislocation within and across the cultural and geographical boundaries of the European metropolis. The fact that all of these so-called foreigners played a vital role in shaping the contemporary art scene in Paris was something that had never been recognized before I did my show.

Most recently, I curated the 10th Istanbul Biennale: Not Only Possible, But Also Necessary: Optimism in the Age of Global War. My ambition was to conceptualize a very particular framework based on my understanding of the city. I wanted to make it into an urban event that would be physically integrated with the city. First of all, the biennale consists of several different exhibitions that are organically integrated into architectural contexts. These environments underlined statements about particular issues such as political/ social projects; economic issues/production; exchange/migration and self-organization. For me, these are some of the most urgent questions today, and are, again, related to my understanding of globalization. It was equally important to make the Biennale an integrated part of everyday life. I wanted everyone in the city to have at least a little bite of the cake. Basically, the Istanbul Biennale is a summary of my work for the last 10 years or so. I really made an effort to make the effects of globalization more visible and tangible.

JL My understanding is that the rise of the independent curator and the dawn of Biennales in the 90s are directly linked to the end of the Cold War. Could you shed light on this particular point in time, and discuss whether or not Biennales still make sense today?

HH Yes, that is my understanding, too. I belong to a generation of curators who came from this very particular social or political shift. Simultaneously, Okwui Enwezor, Vasif Kortun and many others came from non-Western backgrounds to contribute to the discourse. I mean, before my generation of curators you only had Harold Szeemann and a few others who had been independent. They were mainly concerned with the transformation of art itself. I think my generation understands that it is not only a question of making art differently or evolving according to the logic of art history, it is constantly drawing upon the relationship between what we call art and its social position. For me, art event is a platform for discussing social issues and ways of transforming the world, from a particular point of view, using a particular language; in other words, engineering new laboratories for social change. This is my understanding of my own practice, and perhaps the force that causes me to constantly invent and reinvent myself.

When I see a work of contemporary art,
I don’t see it as a closed system that only
carries one meaning. It is open to different
interpretations, different contexts, and continues
to generate meaning. It is no longer
a self-contained, self-sufficient system that
makes people reconfigure their relationships
to each other and the world. So, for me, an
art exhibition is not merely a presentation of
existing objects and discourses, but a process
that creates new meanings and social interaction
by responding to a cultural context.

If you talk about Biennales, you have to realize that they are models as much as they are phenomena. Biennales have created a space, a platform, where people can understand their own locality through artistic projects. They are creating new centres for creation and that allows a leap forward in history while short-circuiting the Western style of infrastructure. The Biennales are becoming the most innovative, most powerful network across the globe. They facilitate the worldwide circulation of ideas, images and people. Their diversity is also amazing, contrary to what some people say. The Venice Biennale, for example, is a very traditional exhibition, but the ones in Havana, Shanghai and Korea are extraordinary. Unlike the Venice Biennale, they are grounded in their own locality. By connecting the local with the global, they produce something “in-between.” (I have elaborated on that concept in an essay called “Towards New Localities” in my 2003 book On The Mid-Ground.) This allows the artworks to obtain new senses, new meanings and new significance.

JL Since 2006, you have been working as the Director of Exhibitions and Public Programs and Chair of the Exhibitions and Museum Studies program at the San Francisco Art Institute. After so many years as an independent curator, I am curious to hear why you decided to become part of an institution?

HH Yes, it is my first full-time job [laughs]. I have never worked in an institution in the past although I have collaborated with–worked with–different institutions. It was a coincidence that I started working there. Okwui Enwezor, who is the Dean of the San Francisco Art Institute, called me up and asked me if I wanted the job, and I said yes. It is a totally new challenge for me. To make it even more complicated, I also have two different jobs: I am curating my own exhibitions and managing an academic program. Luckily for me, it is a small and well-run institution. The position gives me an opportunity to do different things, to construct an ongoing program in one place, over time. What I did before was a kind of punctual response to an urgent situation. And now, I have to think more about a prediction of what is going on, what is to come. On one hand, things take a bit longer then I am used to. On the other, an organization like this can consolidate certain experiences. Even though I have a full-time job, I haven’t given up my independent practice. I have used the San Francisco Art Institute as a testing ground for my own projects. I initiated a small project here that later became part of the Istanbul Biennale, for example. Right now I am in the process of inviting some of the people I worked with in Istanbul to come here to continue developing our dialogue, our collaboration.

The overarching goal for the program here at the San Francisco Art Institute is exploring how global contemporary society can be understood from a local perspective. How we can look beyond a Euro-centric tradition by connecting what is happening around the world. We call this program the Global Institute. We want to create an outlook that can connect international discourses with local communities. In the long run, I hope we can create a somewhat stable mechanism that can generate these relationships. I think that is the most important thing I can do.

* Johan Lundh is an artist, curator and writer, dividing his time between Stockholm and Vancouver. He holds a MFA and a post-graduate degree in Curatorial Practice from Konstfack University College of Arts, Crafts and Design, in Stockholm. His current research interests include interdisciplinary dialogues and collaborations.