Artists Fairs China

In the footsteps of Big Hans

Beijing and Rotterdam shows celebrate the Dutchman who first chronicled China’s contemporary art

Hans van Dijk with the artist Ai Weiwei in the China Art Archive and Warehouse

The title of the exhibition, “5,000 Names”, is born of a mystery. It alludes to the unfinished project of Hans van Dijk, a Dutchman who arrived at Nanjing University in 1986 to study Chinese, and went on to become a key figure in contemporary art in China until his death in 2002. His legacy is a rich archive of photographs, letters, books, catalogues and magazines recording his life and work within an emergent art scene. He also devoted his energies to compiling an index of Chinese artists born between 1880 and 1980—more than 5,000 of them.

Van Dijk, who is the subject of a talk at Art Basel in Hong Kong, championed Chinese contemporary artists, travelling throughout the country to meet them; they sent him photographs of their work and discussed their ideas in letters to him. An early major success was curating the first show of Chinese contemporary art in Europe: “China Avant-Garde” was shown at Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin in 1993 and included work by Ding Yi, Geng Jianyi, Fang Lijun, Zhang Peili, Wang Guangyi and Huang Yongping.

In 1994, Van Dijk established the New Amsterdam Art Consultancy in Beijing, introducing Chinese artists to Western curators, collectors and academics and organising exhibitions in temporary spaces across the city. In 1998 he set up the China Art Archive and Warehouse, which brought together images, books, catalogues, magazines and letters on the subject of Modern and contemporary Chinese art. The Hans van Dijk Archive, now part of the Asia Art Archive in Hong Kong, is the treasure trove that results from this industry.

The exhibition that draws upon this archive links China with the Netherlands once again. It is due to open at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA) in Beijing (24 May-10 August) and the Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art in Rotterdam (4 September-4 January 2015).

Philip Tinari, the director of the UCCA, says: “Hans van Dijk is a legend in Beijing art circles. In fact, Hans Ulrich Obrist [a co-director of the Serpentine Galleries, London] is known as Little Hans, because Hans van Dijk is still Big Hans—even now.” This exhibition, Tinari says, “is his unrealised project. He started his index of Chinese artists and kept all the names on cards. It was this idea of a key that would unlock all the art, like the Encyclopaedic Palace [the theme of the Venice Biennale in 2013].”

It was the curator of the exhibition, Marianne Brouwer, who, through detective work, discovered Van Dijk’s index. “Everyone had been talking about these 5,000 artists’ names. The Asia Art Archive had just finished [digitising] the entire Hans Van Dijk archive. I asked how many artists they had in the archive and they said 480.” Brouwer knew that Van Dijk was writing his cards at night then, during the day typing them into his computer. “I knew there was a lexicon on that computer. There was a printed version, but it was not finished: it had half an introduction and a title page. The title page said ‘5,000 artists in China born between 1880 and 1980’. I never expected it to go so far back.” With the help of a friend in the Netherlands she managed to hack into the hard drive—and unlocked the key to the mystery.

Brouwer says that the shows in Beijing and Rotterdam will be different. “In Holland, no one really knows him or what he was doing in China, so there is a gap to be filled in the art history.”

Defne Ayas, the director of the Witte de With, says: “I realised that [the centre] had only worked with one artist from China in its 24-year history—the late Chen Zhen was invited here by Daniel Buren in 1994. In 2012 we started changing this with Chinese artist and thinker Qiu Zhijie’s exhibition ‘Blueprints’. So when Marianne Brouwer approached us with her research and exhibition plans, we immediately said yes.”

For the Rotterdam show, “We are commissioning five artists who have been known to be very close to Hans van Dijk, including Zheng Guogu, Ding Yi, Zhang Peili and Wang Xingwei, and displaying loans as well as archival materials from across Europe,” Ayas says.

Apart from the exhibitions, there will be a programme of events, a conference and a book co-published by the UCCA and Witte de With. “We are also exploring the start-up of a foundation in Europe as a result of this exhibition,” Ayas says, “which is a way of giving back and creating a meaningful results from the show. It is about finding common ground and building new and fruitful relationships.” Which is very much in the spirit of Hans van Dijk.

ABHK Salon: Hans van Dijk, Friday, 16 May, 2pm

Clarification: The exhibition on the Hans van Dijk Archive is in two parts, showing at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing and the Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art in Rotterdam, with different artists in each show.

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