“Space and Image” (June 20, 2016, 4–7 pm), “Space and Objects” (June 21, 4–7 pm) “Space and Total Art” (June 22, 4–7 pm), hosted by OCAT Institute, held at The University of Chicago Center in Beijing (20th floor, Culture Plaza, No. 59A Zhong Guan Cun Street, Haidian District, Beijing, China)
OCAT Institute (Jinchanxilu, Chaoyang District, Beijing), Jun 26–Oct 30, 2016
“Space in Art History” is the title Wu Hung chose for his lecture series at the OCAT Institute in Beijing this past summer. The title brilliantly encompasses his research endeavors in Chinese art history and contemporary art over the years. As Wu noted in his opening remarks, through the concept of “space”, he has sought to integrate his years of research from the methodological perspective.
For Wu Hung, the concept of “space” in a methodological sense—like a bridge spanning the full scope of his research—connects the two ends of Chinese art history, clearly demonstrating the continuity between his research into the history of early Chinese art and his research and curating in the sphere of contemporary art. Rather than saying that Wu Hung is an all-around scholar with wide-ranging research expertise, we should instead say that he is a scholar with a distinctive perspective and interest which he applies to multiple research subjects. Likewise, we see the coherence between this summer’s lecture series and Wu’s concurrent curated show “An Exhibition About Exhibitions: Displaying Contemporary Art in the 1990s.”
What exactly does Wu Hung mean by “space” here? In his attempt to define this concept, Wu cites Heidegger’s view, which regards “space” not as a thing-in-itself, but as a relationship formed by the interconnection of existing objects—otherwise known as “spatialization”. For instance, to understand an ancient artifact, one should consider the dynamics between the physical artifact and the space that surrounds it, as well as the artifact’s relationships with other objects, subjects, and the cultural environment in its own historical context. These relationships constitute space, which can be real, or virtual; not only objects depend on it, because the space itself is formulated through its dynamics with objects.
Obviously, when posited at the level of methodology in art history, space can be easily extended, say, from the concrete analysis of a specific object to the study of various contexts and relationships. As is demonstrated by Wu Hung’s work over the years, this is the locus of his efforts—within this framework of “space”, he has set out to understand various objects such as tombs, scrolls, painted screens, and contemporary art in multiple dimensions and at multiple levels; he has also drawn upon various interpretative approaches such as formal research, image interpretation, semiotics, and sociology (these, thanks to his expertise in art history and solid grounding in philosophy). As he pointed out in his lecture, “space” as a concept can defy traditional categorization, bridge artwork and imagery, integrate art’s intrinsic and extrinsic attributes, and constitute an all-encompassing vastness.
Nevertheless, this gigantic construct has an inherent risk—that is, with a powerful inclination towards holism, it is prone to presupposing the object of study as a whole; starting from this reverse perspective, “space” seeks meaningful associations between different “parts”, which in turn can result in over-interpretation. It is exactly due to this potential risk that iconographic study (that of visual imagery, its potential symbolism and interpretation) is frequently called into question. And yet Wu Hung’s research approach, especially regarding the history of early Chinese art, has noticeable iconographic traces. Take the ternary form of “Total Space” he proposed in the lecture with regard to research on early Chinese art—although it is not a reproduction of the “three phases/stages” in iconography, the approach nevertheless has some apparent affiliation with it. Wu Hung is a practical and prudent scholar; in describing “Total Space”, he made a point of noting that this approach is not universally applicable, and requires some preconditions. Even so, this highly expansionary concept of space prompts him towards some reductive conceptual reaches—when he attempts to extend the concept of “space” from a specific tomb to its relationship with its environment, its relationship with other works of art in its vicinity, and even its relationship with all works of art in a specific territory and with its natural and social environment (at the end of his lecture, for example, Wu proposed an understanding “Dunhuang Art” as a territorial aesthetic totality), the risk of over-interpretation was revealed.
But there is an essential difference between “space” and relationships within nature. Space is a relationship that is constructed, but at the same time it is also a physical object, or, put differently, it can occupy in a physical sense. It is precisely because of this that Wu Hung’s research about painted screens can be construed as research into the physicality of an artistic medium, whereas his survey of contemporary art can be construed as the analysis of exhibition space.
Thus, we also come to understand Wu Hung’s special interest in Chinese contemporary art during the 1990s. As indicated by the title “An Exhibition about Exhibitions”, the object of interest is not the totality of contemporary art in the 1990s, but a specific issue therein, namely, “the issue of exhibition”—to study this issue is to study the relationship between contemporary art in this period and its social context. From the outset, it is clear Wu’s discussion of contemporary art revolves around exhibition—he pays close attention to the selection of an exhibition space, the relationship between the mode of exhibition and the historical context, and the dynamics between exhibitions as objects and viewers as subjects. He is consistent in the belief that exhibition making is at the core of Chinese contemporary art in the 1990s. This thesis is twofold: firstly, the participants in contemporary art in the 1990s made strenuous efforts to find exhibition spaces and mechanisms for Chinese contemporary art that could be normalized; secondly, contemporary art in the 1990s paid special attention to getting involved in China’s societal restructuring and the transformation of social relations through harnessing the selection and organization of exhibitions. Wu also points out that such attention paid to exhibition space has to do with ever-increasing concern about local experience and an increasing tendency towards “domestic reorientation” in contemporary art during the 1990s.
“An Exhibition about Exhibitions” seems to be the substantiation of this line of reasoning. It is divided into two parts. The first opens with a display of historical documents on contemporary art exhibitions held in the 1990s comprised mainly of exhibition posters and invitations, which is followed by the sample of twelve exhibitions from late 1996 to 2000, including original manuscripts, video materials, and publications. These twelve exhibitions encompass almost the full variety of exhibition space ever used in the 1990s—including public art galleries, private museums, commercial spaces, “internal spaces” (within institutions, not open to the public), and non-spaces—and highlight the diversity and experimental quality of exhibition space and its close interaction with the social context, as well as the earnest aspirations for social engagement inherent in it.
The second part is an “exhibition with an exhibition”. In fact, it was a recreation of “Canceled: Exhibiting Experimental Art in China,” an exhibition curated by Wu Hung at University of Chicago’s Smart Museum of Art in 2000; “Canceled” is in itself a reconstruction and study of an aborted exhibition “It’s Me” curated by Leng Lin at the Taimiao Temple (Imperial Ancestral Temple) in Beijing in 1998. Wu Hung has written extensively on the relationship between “Canceled” and “It’s Me”. He notes that the temporary cancellation of the exhibition “It’s Me” prior to its opening led to the transition of its exhibition space from an indoor exhibition to an outdoor public event; on the other hand, “Canceled”, through the symbolic display of the dual-space, explored the complex dynamics between exhibitions, artists, curators, the public, the system, and the historical context. Therefore, “An Exhibition about Exhibitions” seems by and large to conduct a “spatial” study of the issue of exhibition in contemporary art of the 1990s by proceeding gradually from the totality to specific cases.
But this is only one facet of the issue. Further observation reveals that the exhibition space Wu Hung tries hard to describe in a neutral manner in fact has a clear ideological inclination, which is also reflected in the selection of twelve sample exhibitions. A general overview of these leads to the discovery that six of them were forced to close; among the other six that were spared such misfortune, three were informational exhibitions held in relatively private spaces and targeting a very small, specific audience—one was a “non-space, non-exhibition” with no physical artifacts, and the remaining two both used commercial spaces and for very short durations. It is perceptible that in Wu Hung’s observation of the relationship between contemporary art in the 1990s and its social context, emphasis has been placed on the tension between contemporary art and the system itself, as well as ideology.
How should we view this tendency? Taking into account the complexity of contemporary art in the 1990s, any one dimensional approach is bound to be overly simplistic. Here is where the complications come from: on one hand, the tense relationship between contemporary art exhibitions and the system as well as mainstream ideology was one of the major pressures faced by Chinese contemporary art in the 1990s, especially in the second half of the decade when seeking exhibition channels that could become “normal” became a focus for contemporary art due to the experience of having exhibitions shut down multiple times. On the other hand, repeated presentations of such experience have made Chinese contemporary art susceptible to being captured from post-colonial perspectives, particularly because of the close connection between the development of Chinese contemporary art and the involvement of international curators and sponsors—which is anything but neutral. As Wu Hung has observed, aggressive involvement from international art circles with a specific perspective has sounded a note of warning among Chinese contemporary artists, critics, and curators. They have noticed that such involvement more often than not results in a flattening of the work and its presentation as a political and cultural symbol of sorts; this not only conceals its richness, but also imposes an ideology on it, reducing it to a mere “cultural spectacle” on the world stage. The “domestic reorientation” evident in Chinese art of the 1990s was to a large extent propelled by such self-awareness.
How to handle this tense relationship is what any effort to present and elucidate contemporary art of the 1990s will have to confront. In particular, different receptive contexts will lead to different interpretations. Take the exhibition “Canceled” held at the Smart Museum of Art in 2000 and the one held at OCAT in 2016: although there are few changes to the mode of exhibition and spatial research plan, they differ in their receptive contexts. Take another example—again, the exhibition “Cancelled” held at OCAT: if it was presented on its own, as opposed to together with the twelve exhibitions that hone in on ideological tension, its significance would have been different. So far, at least, judging from the outcome of the twice-presented “Cancelled”, we can only say that despite Wu Hung’s meticulous and cautious academic approach, and despite his utmost effort to describe “Cancelled” as a spatial study, he has ultimately been unable to ward off an ideological inclination or prevent his work from being placed inside a post-colonial framework.
Why is that? The most important reason is that although Wu Hung can conduct comprehensive, meticulous, in-depth, and concrete study of Chinese contemporary art, his work was embarked on in the first place with a preconceived perspective. In other words, he has presupposed international contemporary art as a neutral structure, and holds that the goal of Chinese contemporary art is to develop a structure in parallel with it. This by no means indicates that Chinese contemporary art needs to cater to the expectations and standards of the international community; but given that the structural model in itself is a standard, as long as they exist within such a structure, those artworks and exhibitions rooted in native locality and concerned with everyday experience will still be captured within a specific framework—only this is no longer a framework based on simple cultural symbols, but one formulated by specific philosophical perspectives and methodologies.
This immediately reminds us of Wu Hung’s “Total Space”. This concept derives from Richard Wagner’s “gesamtkunstwerk” or “Total Work of Art”. Yet the similarities between the two are by no means limited to the borrowing of words. More importantly, both have a certain holism as a base, and it is ultimately utopian. One might say that the starting point for both is in itself a utopian presupposition. Or, we can take it one step further: “presupposition” itself signals Utopia.
Over one decade later, looking back at contemporary art in the 1990s, we can see that the goals that were pursued back then, such as the normalization and diversification of exhibition channels for contemporary art, have for the most part been realized. The result, though, is another system; under this new system, the tension between contemporary art and mainstream ideology is replaced by another tension, that is, one between contemporary art and commerce and entertainment—over which we have not yet seen powerful reflections.
And so what is the point of holding “An Exhibition about Exhibitions” in 2016? As an exquisite exhibition, a concrete presentation of Wu Hung’s reflections from over ten years ago, a specific recreation of a historical episode, or even as a visual interpretation of Wu Hung’s notion of “space”, this exhibition is flawless. Nevertheless, it was unable to provide new knowledge, new observations, or new insights. When we search its relevance to present reality, we find only a Utopia covered in dust.