Sans Song: Interview with Jérôme Sans

by Iona Whittaker 爱安阿
translated by Song Jing

Last week it was announced that Jérôme Sans is to be replaced as Director of the Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art, a post he has held since early 2008, by Leap magazine’s Editorial Director Phil Tinari in December.

Sans came to UCCA with a strong international background in art and management. His curatorial and promotional activities include founding and co-directing the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, co-curating at the Lyon and Taipei Biennales and acting as Cultural Curator for Le Méridien Hotel group. Sans has realised an active exhibition program at UCCA which has seen spectacular shows by the likes of Zhang Huan, Liu Xiaodong and Qiu Zhijie occupy its Bauhaus factory space in Beijing’s 798 art district. He is also responsible for the Curated By… series there, which invites mature artists to arrange and direct exhibitions by emerging names. His departure arises amid a lack of clarity surrounding the future and structure of the organization.

Randian’s Iona Whittaker spoke to Sans shortly before, and just after, the news was announced. He responded with characteristic candor.

Jérôme Sans

Iona Whittaker: Jérôme Sans, how and why did you come to be in China and at UCCA (Ullens Center for Contemporary Art)?

Jérôme Sans: I keep saying that life is a boomerang. This brings me back to 1985, when I met Yan Peiming for the first time; a few months later I had the chance to meet Chen Zhen who had just arrived in Paris, and from that point I had a very strong relationship with this first generation of Chinese artists. Later came Wang Du, Huang Yongping, Gu Wenda, Shen Yuan, Cai Guoqiang — all those guys. At that time, no one in Europe was looking at contemporary Chinese art and I understood the importance of their difference in attitude and vocabulary and the language they were using to completely reinvent our modernity.

Three years before the opening of UCCA, I was invited to the first Beijing art fair to be a panellist; I came here with Wang Du, and I asked him to take me to see some galleries. We went to 798 where there was still mud on the floor, very few galleries, no bars, nothing. Walking down an alley we met Fei Dawei, who was working on the setup for the place for Ullens, and we went into this place and looked at it, and we said ‘‘Wow, this has fantastic potential.’’ In January ’08, I received a phone call: ‘‘Mr. Ullens is coming to Paris, are you here?’’ I said ‘‘Yes, I’m here.’’ We met for lunch, and they told me they were looking for someone to help give the UCCA direction and an identity.

IW: So you never expected to become a curator?

JS: I understood at the age of fifteen that my only charisma was to understand others faster than themselves and to have the energy to orient people who have some doubts or uncertainties about what to do, to give them the power to believe in their work and direction. I chose visual art because at the time it was something very underground; there were very few people, on their own, supporting artists and contemporary art.

IW: And when you first started here, did you look at the work of other curators?

JS: When I came here I dove immediately into what I was doing. I wanted to meet all the artists I had heard of before in order to see if what I had heard about the art out of China was right, or completely wrong. I decided to do the interviews with Chinese artists to show my friends that the vision they had of China at that time was wrong, and that the Chinese were not producing only for the market: they were producing first for the mind and they are reinventing something very smart. So I made this collection of interviews then as the first way to say ‘‘I’m a newcomer; I came here to understand you… Many people have misunderstood what you are, many people see you just as flags of your country.’’

IW: Did you liaise with the Ullens often, or did they leave you to it?

JS: The beauty with them was that I had full freedom to implement all the ideas I had — of course you have to express it as is the case for a person you are living with if you want to change their house. I have always explained what I wanted to do and they have 90% agreed to everything. They really gave me confidence in my vision.

IW: UCCA is a very prominent organization. Do you think its positioning is always a positive thing?

JS: I have to say, I think it’s very important. We never look to be prominent or whatever but we understand that we are now entering the field of responsibility towards cultural actors here, including of course the artists on the first row. Having started like this, we understand that you cannot stop the motor — it’s impossible.

IW: Can you comment on how you see the future of UCCA, now that you are leaving, and say honestly what you think about the state of the organization and its future?

JS: UCCA is somehow like the baby I made with Guy and Miriam Ullens and all the UCCA staff, so my only wish is LONG LIVE UCCA!

IW: How do you feel the Ullens envision the future of the organization?

JS: Guy and Miriam’s dream has always been to make this place completely Chinese and try to give more and more space to other people, not to disappear but to be behind the scenes.

IW: So they want the Chinese to have ownership?

JS: Yes. And I think they have the right idea because a Westerner is still a foreigner here. This is their dream; I would say we have accomplished a part of it and now this is the second step.

IW: How is the collection evolving — can we expect to see it traveling in the future?

JS: It is a true remark and it is Guy’s desire to expand. I think this is exactly where UCCA is going.

IW: What is your attitude to the relationship between the Ullens’ organisation here and their personal collection, some of which has of course been sold off (that which featured in the exhibitions here)?

JS: My attitude when I came here was to make a clear distinction between the two things so that this place would not be just a warehouse or a showroom for the collection for a simple reason: you can take the collection, or a fragment, and make it interesting once, maybe twice, but what about the third time? It’s not so exciting because it becomes too…egotistical. The proposal we had was really to make UCCA into a house dedicated to Chinese artists and creators, meaning a place to experiment, a place to share, and not just a place to display what Guy and Miriam are or would be interested in. For me it was maybe one of the reasons for the success as well, that we are not obliged to refer to the market or to the collection, but to possibility.

Zhan Wang: My Personal Universe, 2011, Still from HD video. Courtesy of the artist.

IW: You will leave UCCA in December. What ideas you are incubating at the moment? What is next?

JS: My mind is incubating every minute! I react to what people say next to me so I adapt, always, on site, with the context and with the people around me. In other words, I am not abandoning China. My contact with UCCA has been a fantastic chance that Guy and Miriam have given me — I don’t know how to explain to you — to give back to China what my Chinese friends have been giving me all these years. There is no reason for me to leave.

IW: What have been the high points — and the low points — of working at UCCA?

JS: It has been a truly unique and marvelous experience that has changed my life and perspective.

IW: What bores you about the art world?

JS: (Laughs). The non-creativity of people who play the game, who feel they are creative but who are not. What bores me most is when there is no engagement, no difference, and the obsession sometimes of the art world with looking the same as their neighbors. I never understand why all museums are the same, the entrances are the same, they all communicate in the same way…Most of the time, museum directors look like bankers. I don’t understand why there is this fear of being different.

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