Sun Yuan & Peng Yu “Unlived by What is Seen” – curator interview

by Ran Dian 燃点
translated by Fei Wu

Unlived by What is Seen” is an exhibition curated by the artists Sun Yuan and Peng Yu and the curator Cui Cancan. The exhibition is taking place simultaneously at three important Beijing art galleries—Galleria Continua, Pace Gallery Beijing and Tang Contemporary Art Center. The galleries were crowded with viewers for the exhibition’s opening; its large scale and forcefully articulated title attracted a multitude of viewers seeking to witness how artists and curators might act outside “what is seen”. Preparation for this project began in 2013, and after a year of communication and exploration, 34 artists were selected (including two art organizations and three artist groups). However, what is presented in the exhibition is not “art works” in the usual sense, but rather “evidence and specimens attesting to the artists’ actions”. Videos make up the majority of the exhibited “works”, and among these are artist’s statements about their actions and experiences; these attest to the crucial position the curators have given the personal experience. Recently, Randian interviewed the three curators to talk about the exhibition’s original intent, its curatorial concept, the participating artists and their actions.

Ran Dian 燃点: How did this project originally begin?

Cui Cancan (CCC): After 2008, we got the sense that Chinese contemporary art was heading in a new direction. As happens in the West, Chinese artists were beginning to question materialization, meaning that the art community was beginning to question what art is, its expression and presentation, its dissemination, and so on. Prior to this, contemporary art in China was basically dominated by materialization —in other words, it tended towards visualization, form and language. After 2008, some forms particular to contemporary art in China began to appear, so we attempted to seek out these particular forms, methods and individuals.

Sun Yuan (SY): There is a general awareness among the younger generation of artists. For many of them, the reality they encounter within art circles is completely different from what they imagined. Naturally, they want to do something else. They are at risk of being forgotten, but they should not be forgotten. This is perhaps what we wanted to do with this project.

Curator ( from left ): Sun Yuan, Peng Yu and Cui cancan策展人(左起):孙原、彭禹、崔灿灿

Curator ( from left ): Sun Yuan, Peng Yu and Cui cancan

Ran Dian 燃点: How did you decide which artists/performances to include in this exhibition?

CCC: At first, the three of us tried to have a discussion that excluded our personal tastes, but there was always this tentative hypothetical standard. Finally, we trusted our instincts. We don’t want historical experience to be a criterion for judging this exhibition, and our goal isn’t to enter into the future either. We were never aiming for a complete and flawless exhibition, because we are attempting to present a state of ambiguity. In the end, this exhibition is attempting to show its audience how we can re-energize possibilities and the imagination of life in this mediocre, insipid and tedious era.

Peng Yu (PY): Most of our decisions were intuitive–or rather, based on a certain sensitivity towards art. Selecting artists for a show is a very solemn process which needs assertiveness. This is why all of the artists in this exhibition possess a specific quality—a quality which might relate to the curatorial intent we have chosen and want to convey.

Ran Dian 燃点: The exhibition presents “a multitude of actions taken by individuals”, while some artists express their intent to distance themselves from the art scene as well as “attitudes of disengagement”.  Why put them back inside a very typical art environment like a gallery?

SY: I think there’s a misunderstanding here. If an artist announces he is no longer an artist, yet he is still being discussed within the context of art, has he truly departed from the art scene? In a system, the majority of its constituents must defer to its rules, while a minority is in opposition. These two parts together form a community, otherwise the system would be incomplete. Departure is merely an action, or even just an individual approach. Today, the boundary between life and art is seen as insubstantial. If all kinds of different actions and approaches can be included as part of art, then we can also view a particular approach as an artist’s creative method. So, in “Unlived by What is Seen”, whether you can actually break away from the visual and your desire to try to do so are two different things. Even though it all ends with the visual, an action remains an action.

Ran Dian 燃点: A large amount of video, graphics, text and other items are included in the exhibition—was there an archival concept behind this?

CCC: I don’t think it was archival, because archives are lifeless. They’ve been packaged, and they’re objects that have been demonstrated. We are attempting to maintain a state of something as original and native, something found growing wild in nature. These videos are mere vessels; their contents determine the functionality of the tools. The tools do not determine the content.

SY: There are objects in this exhibition, but these objects were set by the exhibition. When artists are unable to present what they want to present, they can pour these things into video, and the audience can gain an understanding by watching the videos. Some of the documentation requires video to give an account of them, because the documentation only captures bits and pieces of some part of the performance; it might also be evidence of the process of an event. When you view the evidence of something, you are not seeing the actual event. That’s why someone has to tell you the story of what happened. That’s all it is.

Ran Dian 燃点: In the context of art, is there an aspect of performance within this “life”?

CCC: There are grey areas to everything. Humans are a mixture of all sorts of different influences. Many young artists’ works originate from life’s demands. There is a crucial difference, though. If the artist’s intent is to create art, then there is an element of performance in it; but if the artist is only trying to change his life or resolve practical issues, then it isn’t any sort of performance. When our system of reference does not have art as its objective, it is a specialized object.

PY: With regard to performance, I think it’s all about intent. The artist’s intent is included in this. If it’s intentional, this means the artist has assimilated the values of a community (e.g. the art scene), and he believes he should perform. If it’s unintentional, that means there is a lack of consciousness following assimilation. As for the artists we’ve selected, I think they have all thought about this question, and chosen a method that allows them to truly face their real lives. This is the difference.

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