Contemporary art Fairs Features China

The credibility gap

There’s a lot of space to show new art in China today, but experienced curators to fill it and critics to assess their work are in short supply

“Xu Zhen: A MadeIn Company Production” and the artist-curator Xu Zhen. Photo: Eric Powell, courtesy of UCCA

The past few decades have seen a sea change for Chinese contemporary art from a scruffy, DIY avant garde to a global moneyed phenomenon. In the 1980s and 90s, almost the only opportunities for exhibiting work were created by artists themselves.

Shi Yong, an artist who co-organised many early shows, and now manages the ShanghArt Gallery, recalls a time when artists would show their work in each other’s homes. “We would get a critic to write something, but even the artists would write and do it themselves. Sometimes the works were tossed out after: there was nowhere to put them. The media would not cover avant garde art, and we did shows anywhere we could.”

Artist-curators

Until the mid-2000s, now-established artists including Shi, Yang Zhenzhong, Xu Zhen and Ai Weiwei compiled provocative and compelling conceptual group shows in non-traditional spaces such as abandoned warehouses and half-completed malls. Exhibitions such as “Home” and “Fuck Off” would eventually propel Chinese contemporary art to its current global fame.

Some Chinese artists continue to curate, out of necessity or passion: Shi describes how young artists curate themselves and their contemporaries, since professional curators and institutions show little interest. Across the spectrum, several top Chinese artists double as curators. Xu runs the collective MadeIn Company, combining running a business and a website with his artistic practice. Qiu Zhijie, a professor at the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou and an installation artist, regularly organises big shows. Multimedia art godfather Zhang Peili has taken the helm of the OCT Contemporary Art Terminal (OCAT) in Shanghai, and painter Zhou Tiehai ran the Minsheng Art Museum for several years. Beijing artist Colin Chinnery has overseen the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA), the SH Contemporary Art Fair, and is currently the artistic director of the Wuhan Art Terminus. Though less active than in earlier years, artist-curators remain one of Chinese curation’s few strengths.

Meanwhile, the rise in institutionalism has begun to create a professional curatorial class, though the proliferation of museums, with massive but often hastily organised exhibitions, mean that many suffer from indifferent curation. Market forces dictate a focus on blockbuster shows to attract crowds by featuring big-name curators and artists at the expense of collaboration and compatibility. Emerging talent gets sidelined, and established artists are rarely challenged to develop further. Little room is given for critique, research or reflection. Cui Cancan, an independent curator in Beijing known for championing young and performance artists, estimates that only 30%-40% of museums have curators on the staff; others say it is less. Nor do Chinese art academies emphasise curatorial studies, though the interest in international study means a young generation are trickling back into the country with curatorial MFAs and higher standards.

Breaking boundaries

According to Qiu Zhijie: “China doesn’t have a rooted curatorial tradition. We don’t have the traditional art foundations and donations. In art institutions, which in China have only been around a couple of years, there is still some trouble reconciling the work between that of the curator and that of the management department. On the other hand, the development of Chinese art curation is very fast and promises a lot of chances. It can be odd, irregular, without many restrictions or taboos—breaking boundaries, which is actually a good thing.”

“Because it so scattered, not established, there is a liberty of space,” says Gu Ling, the head of marketing and development at Shanghai’s Rockbund Art Museum (RAM). “I am not really impressed by museum shows.” She says only Rockbund and a few others, such Guangzhou’s Vitamin Creative Space and Beijing’s Taikang Space, put on “good quality exhibitions”. “Few museums spend a month on installation or lighting. We are lucky to have this luxury, but we still cannot compete with world-class institutions like Tate.”

There are a handful of other bright spots. Qiu points to the Guangdong Museum of Art; OCAT in Shenzhen; UCCA, Long March Space, Magician Space, Chambers Fine Art and PIFO New Art Gallery in Beijing; and RAM and Leo Xu Projects in Shanghai.

Shanghai’s Power Station of Art (PSA), where Qiu organised the 2012 Shanghai Biennale, has just launched a prize for three young curators that will award them 330,000 yuan ($53,000) to curate segments of this year’s biennale. “It is good that they have the awareness, and good that they are doing this,” says Shanghai-based independent curator Biljana Ciric and author of Alternatives to Ritual: Exhibition as a Medium in China. “But it would be better to use the money to educate ten young curators, to work and bring change.”

Critics as curators

Last year Ciric organised “One Step Forward, Two Steps Back: Us and Institution, Us as Institution” at Guangdong’s Times Museum. “The recognition of the necessity of curators defines our programming,” says Nikita Yingqian Cai, one of two staff curators at Times. “A lot of exhibitions in China are prepared within a short period of time, even for big-scale exhibitions such as biennials. There is usually not enough time for exhibition research, or for exhibition making. I never heard much criticism from the media about art works that haven’t been installed properly until the day of opening—we tend to take it for granted.”

She says that there is little debate about the “ethical issues behind the scenes, such as how, what and where the money has been and should be spent, especially in big events like biennials, or why some of the exhibitions simply don’t have enough female artists. The position of critics has been complicated, since most of the active writers are curators as well. Most independent curators in China have to work with different commercial galleries, and it could be difficult for them to take a neutral position.”

Ciric believes that “the whole art system in China is run by the international market… Now shows and institutions are like business deals. That is unfortunate because artists used to be the ones challenging institutions.”

Rockbund’s Gu Ling agrees. She says most exhibitions “serve the consumer”, with splashy, entertaining, unprovocative shows. “To attract sponsors and be financially sustainable, they need to show they can attract enough people. It serves the public, but in a negative way.

They consume because it is easy, entertaining, and they do not ask questions… They are missing the point of contemporary art, which is to be challenging.”

Filling a void

Meanwhile, Gu says, “Private museums have their own problems, for example, as real estate developers, to attract people to a commercial site. Or as a personal pursuit, to be known as a museum founder… What museums should do is not follow the market, but to lead: to be challenging and critical,” she says.

The explosion of private museums at least offers an opportunity for Chinese students with curatorial degrees gained abroad to pursue a career in China. “These new venues need expertise,” says Cai. “The architecture is usually completed long before the design of the actual contents. In the coming few years, there might be a need for curators to find visions for those empty bodies.”

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