“SEE/SAW” Q and A with curator Paula Tsai

by Iona Whittaker 爱安阿

“SEE/SAW” is the current exhibition series at UCCA examining artists’ collectives at work in China now. The series features — in collaborative guise — many of those who will participate in “ON|OFF: China’s Young Artists in Concept and Practice,” which will open in early 2013. Every week for six weeks, there will be a new installation in the Long Gallery showcasing the work of two or three collectives, of which there are fourteen in total. Now in its third week, the series has allowed artists to work actively in the space and to intervene in the exhibitions as they unfold. The series is designed not only to introduce the work of these groups to audiences in Beijing, but also to bring them into contact with each other and with an institution (an environment wherein one would not usually encounter this kind of work) to see what this might bring about.

Randian met curator Paula Tsai to talk about “SEE/SAW.”

Iona Whittaker: How does the installation work? It must be a very quick process.

Paula Tsai: The format is 6 weeks and 14 collectives, with a new show every week. On Sunday night after we close we start taking down the previous week’s exhibitions, then we start fixing the walls etc., and then Monday is the day people usually move in and start installing the next show. But it works because the nature of some of these collectives is more performative — they don’t really do much on-site, like both of this week’s participants 8mg and Irrelevant Commission.

IW: How long have you been working on this exhibition project?

PT: Since August. This show came about because I went on a couple of research trips with Bao Dong and Sun Dongdong for our forthcoming “ON | OFF” exhibition; the idea was further developed during the ICI Curatorial Intensive session at UCCA. I met these collectives for the first time and thought, “Wow, I like what they’re doing.” I wanted to do a show, because I think that how collectives practice is so interesting — in particular their relationship with institutions, because we have a different structure.

IW: In what sense?

PT: Well, we have never really worked with an experimental format such as changing the show every week and letting the artists push the rules inside the museum.

IW: That’s what’s nice about it.

PT: Usually our process is that we work with an artist for months, incubating a final proposal, and then it’s so refined, so beautifully executed — which is great, and that’s how an institution should function, but then one also thinks about other possibilities for working.

IW: And you have that nice space aside from the main hall…

PT: Yes, and it’s good to do this because we are presenting these collective voices and saying “We recognise you, and we know you’re there.” I think that’s important.

IW: But there aren’t going to be any collectives in “ON | OFF,” only individual artists?

PT: No, but many of those individual artists are in collectives, so it’s a nice lead-up, seeing their collective practice first and then their individual practice.

IW: So how many of the artists in “ON | OFF” are also involved in collectives, roughly?

PT: There’s a good 20%.

IW: It really seems as if collectives are on the up at the moment.

PT: That’s definitely the trend, or the hash tag at the moment.

IW: Why now, do you think?

PT: I think it’s something that’s particular to this generation. You’ve always had collectives, but more so now just because a lot of them come out of the academic system; they’re all in studios together — Double Fly, for example, are all classmates who got together because they wanted to continue working together and hanging out after they graduated. This is very much in the spirit of that generation. Then you have ones like Guest. They didn’t go to school together but they met and then decided to come together. For a lot of them it’s about the sharing of information — they all have an abundance of information coming to them every day, and it’s much quicker and more efficient to process it within a group. What they contribute to the group and what they take away from it is significant.

IW: I wonder if anything significant has come out of it for you, thoughts it has provoked?

PT: In the beginning it was the whole notion of collaborative and collective efforts. Each collective interprets this very differently and that impression was pretty immediate. We chose the ones that are still producing works, not considering whether they were practising collectively in the sense of making one work together or in the sense of doing projects together — there was no discrimination: “If you’re still creating works, then you’re invited.” Then we see how they want to present themselves as a collective. The way they react to how the show is scheduled each week and who they’re paired with gives a sense of what they think collectivity or collaboration is about.

IW: So that is part of what audiences can get from seeing SEE/SAW?

PT: Yes. It’s very interesting — and also because an institution, by definition, is also a collective. So it’s a big collective working with smaller collectives, and how these collectives view that relationship and how they engage with us is relevant. I also want to do things that break away from institutional norms; collectives are a really good way to do that.

IW: I wondered also about these “ON | OFF” and “SEE/SAW” titles. Is there something significant for you in the idea of a see-saw?

PT: Well, the format was one of the first things that was decided. Two equal sides with something in the middle that can connect or separate them — therefore, something between the two connected rooms that form the space in which SEE/SAW is shown…. And then trying to find a good name for it. Splitting it up doesn’t mean you want to compare and contrast; keeping that hole or passage in the middle means that the passing of information should be uninhibited. But not a lot of the collectives have been using that channel yet; those who have been in there so far have effectively seen it as two separate spaces, but I hope that somebody will approach it differently. In the beginning I had fantasies about them going crazy and running between the spaces or playing games. “SEE/SAW” is supposedly more lively than stable. There is not supposed to be a winner — it’s something that’s quite back and forth, but never gets off track. That’s the idea. And then of course see-saw plays also with the act of changing the show once a week.

Double Fly Art Center, “SEE/SAW” week 1 exhibition view. (Photo: Peter Le, courtesy of UCCA).

IW: How closely did you work with the artists in terms of what they designed for the space?

PT: I wanted to leave it in their hands by saying, “Okay, this is the idea of the show and this is what we’re going to be looking at. Please propose something.” But it was not as if I was saying, “You give me a proposal, and I say ‘yes’ or ‘no.’” It was more that I was going to say “yes” to pretty much anything they wanted to do, within the boundaries of certain rules like setting things on fire and appropriateness…. Unfortunately not all of them have been that risky.  8mg did ask me if they could take a brick out of the UCCA façade and replace it with their own. Technically, I have to say, “No, you can’t.” But I wanted to encourage them to push this boundary.

IW: Any feedback yet from the public or press?

PT: I think many people’s impression is a bit “What? Why is this exhibition so unrefined, and how do we read it?”; we do try to bring in as much didacticism as we can without being overwhelming. The feedback I’ve received so far is that a lot of the collectives are saying, “Oh, what are those guys doing?” and looking at each other. And some of them say, “Oh, been there, done that!” or “Oh, that’s what they always do”!

IW: So, inter-collective politics!?

PT: Yes! I am not sure yet what the public are getting out of it. This is one of very few occasions where UCCA has actually had on-site performances, or when artists have just come and gone as they wished and can put something into the exhibition space if and when they choose. Artists are constantly at work in the space, for instance when Double Fly were painting in there every day — that’s something that’s never been done at UCCA.

SEE/SAW: Collective Practice in China Now

UCCA (798 Art District, No. 4 Jiuxianqiao Lu, Chaoyang District, Beijing, China) Nov 20 – Dec 30, 2012.

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