by Yu Hsiao-Hwei 余小蕙
translated by Peng Zuqiang 彭祖强
“Wang Jianwei: Time Temple”, the first part of a five-year,
ten-million-dollar joint initiative to support contemporary Chinese Art by the Guggenheim Museum and the Hong Kong-based Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation, was unveiled to the public on October 31 (through February 16, 2015) at the Guggenheim in New York. Launched in March 2013, The Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation Chinese Art Initiative at the Guggenheim Museum began with the appointment of Dr. Thomas J. Berghuis as curator to direct and coordinate this vast project involving research, exhibitions, collection, publications and educational programs. The author interviewed the three major players—Dr. Alexandra Munroe, Samsung Senior Curator of Asian Art at the Guggenheim Museum, Mr. Ted Lipman, CEO of the Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation and Dr. Thomas J. Berghuis—on the preview day of Wang Jianwei’s “Time Temple” to find more about this ambitious and unprecedented project as well as their reactions to this, the first of three commission-based exhibitions.
Yu Hsiao-Hwei: What has been your role in this project over the past year?
Ted Lipman: We are the funders, so we are not involved in the curatorial field….We basically were waiting patiently last year. It’s like going to a restaurant and ordering a chef’s surprise, and you don’t know what is going to be served; you might even have food allergies that you hadn’t told the chef about….In August, we were informed of the artist, whom of course we are familiar with and I had opportunities to visit the artist in his studio. That’s more or less what we’ve been doing.
Alexandra Monroe: I would say that we built the team with Thomas Berghuis, and in early March 2013 we launched the Chinese art initiative. It’s not just a single curator; we have an entire team to support the Robert H. N. Ho Family Chinese art initiative at the Guggenheim, including other appointments in education and two appointments in the exhibition management to manage the invitation, plus curatorial support for Thomas.
Thomas Berghuis: I would say that my role has been tripartite. In terms of Ted’s reference, I was the sous-chef in the kitchen. The chef was Wang Jianwei—he very much produced the work, and his intellectual take has been inspirational and important. He also changed the title from “The Texture of Reality” (my idea) to “Time Temple”. I’ve known him for many years, but I really delved into the research together with my colleague, the assistant curator Stephanie Kwan, who produced the chronology.
The other aspect has really been giving the artist an opportunity to work with an institution that is ground-breaking. With the mission statement of the foundation’s initiative to expand our knowledge about Chinese art and Chinese culture, we indeed thought about convening our Asian art Council and put China at the center of our discussion, and really asked “How do we perceive China today?”; “How does China relate itself to the world?”; and “How do we also obtain a broader perspective on China which is multicultural as well as transnational and international?”
YHH: This morning Wang talked about his wish to say farewell to specificity, his desire to get rid of all cultural, national and geographical labels…. You all have your own specific specialities and this project is called the Chinese Art Initiative. How do you negotiate this throughout the process? Or was “Chinese” ever an issue for you?
TL: Our mandate, our mission, is to promote Chinese culture, so we consider this is an important—maybe the most dynamic—aspect of contemporary Chinese culture. But the creative process comes from the individual, not from the funder—or even from the presenter, which is the Guggenheim. I haven’t spoken to Wang, but he wants to be presented as a contemporary artist who happens to be Chinese. I don’t think there is necessarily a contradiction there. We do have some common goals in that we would like to present the very best and most creative contemporary art that is coming out of China. How one defines China depends very much on the person. If you speak to someone like the scholar Zhu Weiming who said that the Chinese culture is a global culture, then there are Chinese people or where there are people who speak Chinese but who may not be Chinese. So we may have different agendas, but I think they are not necessarily contradictory
AM: That’s what is so important about this project. I think that there’s been a lot of Chinese art produced over the last 20 years that set out to represent China—sort of screaming “I am Chinese!”. That’s important, as it’s a significant part of the Chinese political pop movement—certain artists were referencing the Cultural Revolution as a very genuine and authentic aspect of Chinese art. But it’s not the only aspect, and representing China is very different from presenting China. I feel that Wang Jianwei, in his forward-looking ideas about contemporary Chinese society and his commitment to not being specific, is extremely contemporary and extremely global, and he doesn’t lose his Chinese-ness because of that. His Chinese-ness is one aspect of a complicated reality which is to be a citizen of the world in 2014—wherever he might be—and I think it’s also a sign of the evolution of Chinese cultural discourse that an artist can think of himself as equal to artists all around the world. He doesn’t need to clothe himself in a Chinese flag to feel comfortable in his own skin. This kind of artist is a truly universal artist, and it’s that kind of artist that belongs in the Guggenheim collection.
TB: The institution itself is also very important. Why the Guggenheim? The Guggenheim is an institution which is global, and it has its mandate to focus on international art and is expanding this as we speak. From an international perspective, [the Guggenheim] offers a very close relationship to abstraction and the legacies of abstractions, linking back to its origin as a museum of non-objective painting. What Wang is challenging are notions about what is real and what is abstract, and what he is technically doing is very important to exhibitions of Chinese art—which have meant that a lot of those artists have been presented through a continuation of the Socialist Realist model. Wang, as I understand his practice, is challenging this realist discourse around Chinese art and creating a new form which is about abstraction and realism. The Guggenheim has also been investing in the art of the present—art that challenges perspectives on what contemporary art can be. Wang Jianwei, for me, was very brave, but also an obvious choice because he is such a versatile artist that he not only shows us what a painter or a sculptor can actually do in China, but also—because of his links to theater—he also shows us that China has a great tradition of modern and contemporary performance and new media practice.
TL: What’s important for us is putting Chinese art into the mainstream—not on the bookshelf of Chinese art, but on the contemporary art shelf. I think it also speaks to confidence. China is very confident in its geopolitics, but we don’t talk about its culture. I attended early contemporary Chinese exhibitions in the late 1970s. Chinese art was reminiscent of other scenes. Now, there is a certain confidence which is very distinctive. It may be distinctively Chinese—I think that speaks to one of the objectives that we have in terms of placing Chinese culture as part of the mainstream global culture that is developing.
TB: I think we spoke of that last time as well. Curatorially, I make very conscious decisions; we have these book shelves….To have started the initiative with a monograph of an artist, it immediately means allowing this artist to be go onto the shelf of monographs, so this artist is then suddenly in contact with the other artists he is on the shelf with. Josef Kosuth, with many other artists as well as other artists from China, is on that shelf. That’s why I started with a monograph of an artist.
YHH: Could you talk about commissioning instead of collecting after an artist finishes a work? What does this mean for you?
TB: I spent last year not only visiting the artists but looking at what’s happening in China, with the development of new museums—especially private museums. One of the questions I get a lot from those museums, collectors and owners is “What is a curator doing?” They see the curator as an extension of a collector—a curator goes to an artist’s studio, selects existing works and puts them into a museum. I think that is a rather outdated understanding. One of the things that a commission does is to allow the artist to delve into the space and the context in which he is going to exhibit. The Guggenheim’s history and building are very important. Also—just to bring it back to the basics—you are giving the artist an opportunity: “What project have you always dreamt of doing?” With a commission, you say, “Let’s try to pursue that dream—let’s create something new.”
AM: We have a tradition of site-specific collaboration, co-producing site-specific works for the Guggenheim because our architecture is so extraordinary. It goes back to Joseph Beuys in 1977, who used the entire ramp as a site-specific installation—later came Cai Guo-Qiang, Dan Flavin, Nam Jun Paik, Jenny Holzer….But we have also taken that tradition and adapted it other areas—as an inspiration for the construction of initiatives, such as our ten-year-long collaboration with Deutsche Bank. This, in turn, has inspired this initiative with the Robert H. N. Ho Foundation.
The commission process also gives whatever we acquire an institutional history—we are a museum, so we don’t just go shopping. We have a very big collection acquired from many different sources, including gallery exhibitions and biennials. But by commissioning the works, the artist does not only deal with the site, but also the institution. This show is Wang Jianwei’s response; especially on the opening night, the performance “Spiral Ramp Library” at the Rotunda is a complete response to the architecture of the Guggenheim.
TL: And the risks are always bigger, too.
YHH: What about afterwards? What are your plans for the works? How are you going to reactivate these site-specific works elsewhere?
TL: From our point of view, one of the attractions of the Guggenheim is that it’s a global institution; as a foundation, of course, we would like to see the collection—or part of the collection—to be presented elsewhere, whether in Bilbao or another museum elsewhere, because we don’t know how it’s going to look like in a couple of years when it appear in other venues. But the process is probably a little bit early to decide where it might be, but that certainly is our intention.
TB: All the works in Wang’s show are choreographed to adapt to the Rotunda. But as the captions say, they can be re-ordered and re-exhibited. The beauty of those pieces is that any curator can curate the show and say, “I want to have a representation of Wang Jianwei’s ‘Time Temple’ here.” The performance happens within the spiral ramp, but another idea about the performance is that it’s an unscripted event that would lead to something which is scripted and choreographed theater. This is something that the artist came up with—as a very important idea, he is challenging our notion of performance; he is bringing the ideas of performance, happening, ceremony and, unscripted, unconventional performance space for performance into contact with conventional theater.
AM: One more thing I would like to add about the collection aspect is that the Asian art initiative has been responsible for the programming of a great number of exhibitions, and producing a great deal of scholarship in both the modern and contemporary areas for East and South Asia—more than any other museum of modern and contemporary art in the world. Compared with the Tate or Tate Modern, we have produced a lot. But what do we have in our collection? It occurred to us a few years ago that it’s not enough to have excellent programming unless our ideas can be preserved in that collection; artworks might have limited impact, but to have a work in a collection means that you are ensuring—you are mandating—that that work and that region will continue to be subjects of exhibitions and research. For me, to have a permanent collection in this museum is to going to have an impact that no single exhibition can have—we call this “DNA”; you have to change the DNA of an institution—we’re changing the behavior of the museum, but to ensure that it won’t revert to the old pattern, you have to have a collection. That represents the tremendous generosity of the foundation.
YHH: What’s your feeling about the first project? And based on the your experience of this first project, are you going to readjust your way of doing things in over the next three years?
TL: As for the second part of the question, it’s for the curator to answer and not us. We left the selection, curation and presentation to the experts, but obviously contemporary Chinese art is something that we are not unfamiliar with. The artist’s work spans certain periods of time; I think he has a very crucial understanding…of the development of new genres in China, having begun beginning as a traditional painter and moved towards a whole bunch of media. For me, this is a very good choice, because he represents a period of time which is crucial to the understanding of contemporary China, and it offers a balance of different medias which is sort of what’s going on in the art world in China today. There are very few—maybe no other—single artist who turned out with that many different kinds of works within the period of time and the strength, the resources provided. Also, the fact that he is not that well-known outside of China also satisfied our intent to support deserving artists who need more global recognition.
YHH: Does the outcome correspond to what you expected one or two years ago?
AM: Yes, in many ways it surpasses that, and also we don’t know yet, we still have the reviews to come out! The reviews, of course, count; we don’t know what the reviews are going to say. I think Wang is an artist whom China knows very well, but an artist who is going to take some time for the audience here to appreciate—so there are many ways to measure the success of an exhibition. I am really excited and very satisfied, but my opinion doesn’t matter, it depends on the opinion of the critics and that of the public, but from the institutional point of view, we are very satisfied. A big part of our work is to build a relationship and an open door with China, and that’s what the foundation is making possible for us.