Painting Everything White: Interview with Hou Hanru
Uovo, no: 15 (2007)
PU: In a Domus article, the writer, describes you as never stopping, so either one has to follow you or see you just in passing. This reminds me of Francesco Bonami calling himself a non-existent curator for the Triennial T: Pantagruel Syndrome. How do you react to this remark when you are the director of Exhibitions and Public Programs and chair of Exhibition and Museum Studies at the San Francisco Art Institute, as well as organizing exhibitions all over the world – most recently the 10th Istanbul Biennial? Do you lament the fact that most exhibitions, especially Biennials, are organized in short and compressed time-frames. Do you think a curator is in a position to resist? How do you see yourself in this respect?
HH: I think my case is rather strange in as much as I am in a transition period of running a small institution so there is bureaucracy to deal with. Over the years, I have developed the habit of working very independently so it becomes normal for me to travel. Now I am learning how to balance these two obligations. On the other hand, we are all learning by making the institution into a part of this spatial-temporal extension process. So the institution provides us with a long term laboratory. At the same time, it is a place where you can continue to develop outside projects in a temporal manner. The Istanbul Biennial has a section for the World Factory at the IMC. Actually, I started this project in my gallery in San Francisco earlier this year as a test to gauge how it looked. Of course, it is very different in structure. I learned a lot in the process and extended it here. I think our job is not only about curating exhibitions. It is more about questioning how contemporary art can facilitate this change.
PU: After you moved to Paris in the 1990s, were people expecting you to curate shows that are geographically specific to your background, or did you set yourself the task of bringing Chinese artists onto the international art circuit?
HH: Yes and no. Yes in the sense that it is very natural when you come from China that people ask you things about China. Of course, it is a question of resisting all these exotic expectations. I also think it is a question of personal freedom. I don’t think I can represent any one culture be it Chinese culture, French culture or whatever. I am a single person; someone independent of such identity tags. I think independence is crucial especially in the arts, because art is about creating a distance from common clichés about society. It is all about resisting being integrated as a kind of token. It is important that you keep this freedom and do the things that you like or find significant. It does not matter if it is Chinese, French or Turkish.
Naturally, I also think that it is not completely irrelevant to use every opportunity to express this tension, this individual freedom and necessary connection with your background. The notion of background is a very complex thing. When you ask who I am, I can only explain in a very complicated way. I think it is important to preserve this complexity - especially today when everything labeled as consumer products. So what is important is how not to fall into this categorization of the production system.
PU: You organized your early exhibitions with your wife in your apartment. Was the crucial idea here to take art outside the institution and bring people into art when they usually had no involvement with it? Do you think that creating alternative art institutions to exhibit is a crucial question for art? Do you consider finding different ways of interfacing with the audience a crucial concern for the curator?
HH: Yes. Before that, I had never been in a museum. It was a very early time in Paris; I had just arrived from Italy after the training program in Pecci Museum, Prato. It was not specifically taking an anti-museum stance; I think it was more thinking that contemporary art should position itself in everyday life. It really comes from our everyday life experience. At that time, we were living in a very small apartment and we painted everything white. Instinctively, it was normal for us because we have experienced all the environments around art, which is basically our everyday life, in white cubes whether galleries, museums or studios. So when we started painting the walls white, we suddenly started questioning why it should be so automatic. Is it possible to do things differently? And especially when we talk about the arts, it was interesting at the time to consider whether we could actually include it in our everyday lives. So art is not only an object to be hung in the house but something functioning in your everyday environment. So we decided to do this project, which is a corridor. It was a triangular corridor. We started questioning what a corridor means. Corridors are maybe the most interesting undefined space in a building, a place where art can function very well. So we decided to invite an artist to do a site-specific project every month. The Corridor project started with Thomas Hirschhorn. In total, we have done 11 exhibitions over 13 months. In between, our daughter was born so we stopped for a month. It took a lot of stamina. You have to be sitting there while friends are coming to look at it. Most of the works were very provocative, both physically and in terms of content. It was very difficult to live with. Thomas came with 2000 pieces of wood filling up the corridor; another artist opened the windows in winter for a month. That was an incredible experience for us to see the limits of living with so-called creative ideas and ways of dealing with life and how you adapt your life to those conditions.
PU: How was this project made public?
HH: Sometimes we had 200 people turning up. Every month we held one event. We had 10 days of showing the work. Every three or four weeks we had an opening and in between we had to prepare. Then we stopped. We didn’t want it to turn into a regular institution. It was only an experiment. After more than a year, it would become a regular gallery. Then we created an association with two other friends. For three years we organized small interventions in the city in restaurants or shops including Jimmie Durham, Maria Thereza Alves and some local artists.
PU: What was it like curating the French Pavilion for the Venice Biennial in 1999? Do you think it was something unexpected?
HH: The French pavilion works like this: there is a committee to choose the artist and then the artist chooses the curator. The committee is under the AFA. In order for Huang Yong Ping to be chosen for the pavilion we did a lot of lobbying, but it was also an accumulation of many other things. Huang Yong Ping is a very important artist, but he is not recognized by the French art scene even today. It was a bizarre situation. He was chosen for the French pavilion with another French artist. So it was half and half.
Huang Yong Ping asked me to work with him. I have worked with him for many years. My role was to develop the project together and organize the curatorial side. It was an interesting symbol of some changes in the local art scene at the time. Another factor in the decision was that Harald Szeemann was director of the Biennial. Huang Yong Ping was still considered French and the other at the same time. I have been doing lots of projects on the question of so-called foreign artists in France, immigrant artists in post-colonial conditions. I have done shows such as Parisien(ne)s and Gare de L’est. That was strange for the French scene; perhaps it was too political or too critical. Fundamentally, the French art world is very much into itself. So the way we do things is different on the one hand; and on the other hand, they feel a kind of pressure.
PU: How was the reception of Parisien(ne)s for example?
HH: This is a funny story. Basically, I was involved with inIVA (Institute of International Visual Arts) from the very beginning and they asked me to propose a project. It was the institute’s first exhibition. It was also a crucial political moment at the time. A right-wing government was in power in France and they started to change the laws of immigration. They tried to impose new laws on immigrants, new nationality laws and so on. As someone from an immigrant background, I felt pretty concerned. I followed the whole story. I felt there was an interesting difference in terms of looking at things. I talked to colleagues in London, the States and elsewhere about social critique and cultural studies in relation to the postcolonial condition and how identities are made, how people read ‘the other’. And at the time, I was being asked to talk about Chinese art. It makes you think there are some crucial questions unanswered. However, these questions can hardly be brought up in France in this context. At the same time, I know very interesting artists of different generations from non-Western backgrounds. They have been living in France for many years. They are doing great work and saying things that are more engaging for me. But, this has been never recognized. Of course you have individual artists showing here and there, but as a collective voice they have never been recognized. So I decided to develop this project Parisien(ne)s at inIVA. When we tried to bring the exhibition to France, the institutions we talked to, including Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris, said it was too political. This was 1997 when the show was taking place in Camden Arts Center, London.
When I was installing the show in London, Enrico Lunghi visited and asked me to collaborate with him in the Casino Luxembourg. So we organized the show Gare de L’est, which was an extension of Parisien(ne)s. This time, we invited some French artists with a suburban, political background like Sylvie Blocher, Claude Lévêque.
The French situation is interesting. It has been a long tradition that everyone who comes to France is welcome, but in the meantime you have to become French. The French do not accept the idea of different communities; it is more about integrating into one thing. This has hardly changed for years. It is by nature bourgeois, formalist, aesthetic-centric. That was the moment when we started introducing political discussions to the scene. That also created the background of how an artist like Huang Yong Ping was chosen by accident to be in the French Pavilion. There was a change of the climate. However, at the same time, people asked me, “Don’t you think it is great?” I said, “Yes, but in the meantime we will see if in two years they close the doors again. That will show whether the change is genuine or not.” This openness is not genuine because you go back to the old tradition of hierarchy. I think it is not something specifically French; it is a contradiction true of many places. Officially, you claim to be open but your first reaction is to shut the doors, then open them a little, then shut them again. I think our job is about continuously negotiating.
In 2000, the museum that refused to take Parisien(ne)s came to us and asked about a project on immigration artists in France. This is why we did Paris pour Escale. The museum was re-structuring its program and Hans-Ulrich Obrist was the main person behind the program of the museum. Of course, there was an evolution in the situation. In terms of the content there has always been constant discussion with the museum team. The sad part of the story is that Chen Zhen showed his work for the first time in a major museum in Paris despite having lived in the city for many years. He was already quite well-known internationally. But he was dying at the time. In fact, he died soon after the opening. He could not even come to install his piece.
PU: I would like to talk about the 2nd Guangzhou Triennial that you co-curated with Hans-Ulrich Obrist. Was the D-Lab the main project of the Triennial?
HH: Yes, it was. Basically, the Triennial ran from 2004-2006. It was structured as five different D-Labs and under each D-Lab there were different sections each lasting for a few weeks during more than eighteen months. It meant a lot of traveling for me; sometimes once a month sometimes every two weeks from Paris.
When I was invited to curate the Triennial I asked Hans-Ulrich Obrist to work with me. We were on the bus from Hangzhou to Shanghai talking about the duration of the Triennial, and Hans-Ulrich had the idea of doing a lab. We decided to propose this project and asked the museum to give us a space for independent use to house these laboratories. The laboratories included hosting artists on residency programs, producing projects, holding public discussions, having different people to join the public discussions. We actually started with the space in the center of the museum that you can use it forever. This was incredible. You cannot imagine this in any other place. It was a very courageous decision by Wang Huangsheng, the museum’s director, to accept it.
PU: Is it still being used by the local artists?
HH: I do not know what the policy is for the coming Triennial, but during the last one we used the laboratory continuously for almost three years. Then at the end, the project generated a museum project, which is being finished now. So the building stands as a relic of the Triennial.
PU: Your earlier interest in alternative art institutions and self-organizations had an impact on the Second Guangzhou Triennial. The ongoing laboratory was specifically concerned with the self-organizations of the region. Do you think that when self-organizations are integrated into the Biennial structure, they continue to function as self-organizations and if so how? I am asking this because my experience during the process of nightcomers, the night program of the 10th Istanbul Biennial, was that even if the event set all its premises outside of the Biennial, all the participants were expressing their gratitude to be part of the Biennial.
HH: I think this is interesting because many people have the idea of a hierarchy of events: official and unofficial. Most of my endeavor is about how to break down this kind of preoccupation. The story began when I was invited to work with Charles Esche for the Fourth Gwangju Biennial, Korea.
I have been researching the Asian underground scene for many years. There was a moment in Asia Pacific when all the regional economies started competing to build museums, have their own Biennials and so on. But structurally, they were all modelled to a large extent on MoMA kind of musuem, in terms of the physical building, the curatorial approach and perceptions of art. This is an interesting constraint. Actually, when you have an institution, you have a space, you have an event. This is also the moment when you frame the structure and you format the form of art. Most artists say that they are independent, but 99 percent of the time, you face constraints over how to show your work in the space, the scale of the work and so on. How many people would think about the contrary? Because you build a space and there is no extending it. This is an interesting contradiction. So when you go to a museum, you basically have spaces ranging from 10x20 meters, to 20x20 m. etc. and this dictates the format of how art is produced.
It was the time when Asian Pacific and Gulf countries were trying to do big museum culture complex projects. They were all trying to hire superstar architects. However, you have neither the money to run the institution nor people with the vision to run the institution. This is the situation. A little bit like in Istanbul now. So I did some research for many years. I really felt that the most exciting and creative thing was art in the street. Artists organize things themselves in their small spaces with hardly any support; in other words, they self-organize themselves. This actually is what produced the most interesting side of contemporary art in this region.
You still have this freedom and encouraging it is much more important than saying we have this or that museum. This is why I took the opportunity in the Gwangju Biennial. The 4th Gwangju Biennial was very established and popular; it has already spawned a lot of international stars, star curators. It was the time to completely change this direction especially because we were working on the project of Pause, having a break. What kind of break? There were around 28 independent organizations from Asia Pacific and other continents. In order to create the Biennial, which was a mixture of independent self- organizations structured like a city, I integrated this ‘Pause’ physically as a Chinese style pavilion. You walk on the street and you always have a pavilion to sit down in. The pavilions had individual works and in the houses we tried to reproduce the architecture of each organization in the city and bring them there. I worked with Yung Ho Chang who is my eternal inspiration in architecture.
PU: Shall we talk about the self-organization aspect of the Biennial?
HH: Self-organization has many aspects. The direct thing is the independent organizations, and in-between there are a lot of little activities organized by the artists. We always used an excuse or found money that we can gather from the big event to invest in these kind of initiatives. It has always been a conscious decision and strategy for me to use this event to give a signal to society, institutions or the media to encourage this. On the other hand, it is also about a long term change of cultural politics. This is very important. For me, being a curator is not only about making exhibitions; it is about promoting a kind of social project that you try to develop in the process of organizing each event. For example, I am increasingly interested in the question of public space so I have the chance to do several public art projects. Every time it is about questioning the notion of public art itself at a time when everything is being privatized and controlled. The essential concerns of so-called public art today are what urban space means, how new artistic imagination can bring something else to this urban space when it is being steadily gentrified by capital; and how art can help build up social solidarity and communication among communities, as well as making invisible voices visible.
When you do a biennial, you have to carry these kinds of responsibility. It is not only about producing a great exhibition; it is also about the impact of events in the public space. On every occasion, you look into how you can evoke and then develop a relevant strategy to deal with each context.
PU: Lately, the power of the curator has been increasing more and more. However, you have mostly collaborated or cu-curated your exhibitions starting from the very early ones. Can we say that collaboration is vital to you? What do you think about collaborations between curators? Do you think that it is a way to resist that kind of power relationship?
HH: I really never consider the question of power. I think the most boring thing in life is to talk about power, especially when artists or curators start asking which of them is to make the decisions. It is not a question of personal decision. It is a question of continuous exchange, a sharing collaborative process. It is totally outside the question of power. It is about mutual influence and dialogue. If there is any power, it is intellectual power.
Every day people ask whether a curator is more important than the artist and who chooses who. Everyone has the freedom to choose what he does. If you don’t like this curator, you can always choose to say no to the exhibition. It is very easy. This has nothing to do with how a collective social, intellectual project is built up to improve social conditions. I think our focus is much more on that than simply talking about who is who, or who makes more money.
PU: Like an auteur, you return to similar themes, with each exhibition necessarily being different from, but an extension of their primary narrative. You extend the problematics of the show that you curate to other exhibitions. For example, in the Street Theater exhibition, which you co-curated with Evelyne Jouanno in 1999 at apex in New York, you talk about the urban developers’ application of the classical modernist tabula-rasa strategy to clean up the no-longer-functioning areas and replace them with completely new urban constructions as once-and-for-all solutions to achieve a new social order. I can see a similar concern in the sites you have chosen for the Istanbul Biennial. Both the Ataturk Cultural Center and IMC, for example are the subject of demolition plans. Can you elaborate on this?
HH: In the Street Theater, we worked with Yung Ho Chang, with whom I have worked a lot; he was the designer of Cities on the Move. He has worked very closely with the art scene and for him architecture is not only about building buildings. It is about creating an urban situation; and how an architect works on the art context is about bringing a structure in order to change and influence the city. He was building a research project on Beijing like a theater stage so that the audience could participate in the theater. In the meantime, the space at apex, which faces the street, brings the street inside and takes the inside onto the street. He created double decks you can go inside and up and down – in other words, a multiple space. That was a very interesting exercise and furthermore you can see how collaboration works. In Z.O.U. – Zone of Urgency, in Venice Biennial 2003, we developed further this collaboration. The idea is that we created an urban situation so you can refer to some Asian cities; and putting the artworks in this setting, changes your way of looking at the work and how it is presented. The whole thing was a very long ramp over different levels, which completely changes your relationship with the artwork. As a whole, this is a continuous experiment concerned with challenging the established way of looking at art and creating an environment for artists to go beyond their usual way of doing things. Each exhibition is actually an opportunity to work with artists; it is about reinventing instead of bringing something from the studio.
I think there are very similar things happening in urban conditions today, especially when you look at how Asian cities are being developed. There is a similar process here in Istanbul, so there is a natural connection. And of course every place has its own particular characteristics as well, so it is a question of combining these two together and articulating certain aspects. For example, for the Istanbul Biennial, I am focusing more on the geopolitical conditions. I am also doing something new for me, which is to introduce two things. One is the collapse of a certain social democratic model, a certain social utopia and the gentrification underway in “neo-liberal” capitalist and neo-conservative power; and the other is the new industrial production and economic exchange in the context of globalization. This is a challenging topic that merits discussion. These two topics come together to reinforce the question of urban space and how artists should react to it.
There is a continuation and re-articulation of certain things; and this new articulation comes of course from research; in other words, research on the social background and history of the place, the history of different communities, meeting the artists. You build up a project in the process, which can hopefully bring something more interesting to the next project. There is always, therefore, a kind of continuity.
PU: When you talk about the curatorial methodology of the 3rd Shanghai Biennial, 2000, you mention that you did not aim at experimentation because what the Biennial needed at the time was a totally different strategy. In your view, what are the specific conditions of Istanbul and the Istanbul Biennial? And since for you the crucial thing is to work with each specific condition of each location what have the limitations and possibilities been with the Istanbul Biennial?
HH: The Shanghai Biennial was more a longer term strategic consideration than an exhibition. It was the founding moment of an event, even if there had been two national biennials beforehand. That was the first time I was asked to do an international biennial in China. It was really about the strategy of two things: one was how to bring contemporary art into the public realm; how to make public opinion and public sector power accept contemporary art and support it. This involves building up a longer term cultural strategy and policy. So you cannot start with something too radical; you have to start with something balanced. On the other hand, contemporary art in China, like in Turkey, has been in a kind of surviving, abnormal situation. There is no audience inside the country so they produce for the overseas market, for international shows etc. This was the case up to 2000. Now, the situation is changing quite a lot. Therefore, artists have not been able to work in conditions that enable them to build up a real consistency in their thoughts. Today the challenges for them are different, they come from more the commercial side. In 2000, contemporary art was semi-underground activity. It was great to be underground. However, in the meantime, it meant that very often you didn’t have the space or time to be consistent. It is always about making a provocative gesture rather than building up an intellectual agenda, a real way of thinking, envisioning and producing things. So, what is important is how to help the artists legalize on the one hand, and on the other to obtain the kind of conditions that give them the space to build up an intellectual consistency.
So, in the Shanghai Biennial I really tried to bring greater professionalism to the museum; to change the team, to build up connections so artists can learn with the team how to build up a normal installation. I think this was more important than making an exhibition. So, it is really about if you would do something, you have to think about its significance, its long-term impact. Now the museum is open, the biennial goes on well in spite of technical difficulties like elsewhere. It is not only in one museum but in many museums they are trying to have a normal situation. So, somehow, by doing one important event you can actually see how to use this opportunity to influence the next step. It is a little bit like when cities compete to host the Olympics because that is the best excuse for many economical and social projects to happen. In this kind of situation, you have to look far ahead and not miss the opportunity. Of course, this is not simply a personal thing.
For me, this Istanbul Biennial is the most important thing that I could do. After 20 years, it has gained a reputation and the Biennial started changing direction since the last one. Intuitively, I think that this biennial has been very modest, very efficient. I think to make it more efficient and effective today, you should use the opportunity to make it not necessarily more spectacular but more expansive in the sense of integrating with local life, not in terms of artists perform on the street, but penetrating different parts of society to leave some long-term traces. At the moment in particular, Turkey is facing a very interesting political change. This also has to do with how Europe is changing today, how the world is changing. It is a very a common situation. Given the whole there is an articulation that I should make. This was why I was talking about economic and social aspects, which show the contradiction the world is facing not only in the developing but also in the developed world. Why do we all complain about globalization and how can we take advantage of that? It is not only economical and sociological discussion; it also involves culture and the arts. After 20 years, Turkey has built up an established contemporary art community. On the one hand, it is not easy to find five qualified curators to curate a project in every city but you can find them here. It is not very easy to find so many artists to show in international shows, but on the other hand, the way of operating is getting closer to what is happening in New York. I am referring to a model of operation that influences how the artist thinks and how the artist produces. I think it is an interesting moment to question this. This is why I did a lot of research, met a lot of artists, and went to different cities. I think in many places there is a similar contradiction. On the one hand, everybody is making an effort to be visible in the international scene; on the other, they easily embrace the existing model in order to be visible. Now, it is the question of how to make a different model that is even more visible. This is how we can continuously negotiate with so-called globalization. Actually, globalization does not exist; when it exists, it is in the tension between local and international conditions. All this sounds very abstract so I had to do research architectural and physical conditions. This is why I researched the history of the city and how politics influence the change of the city. Then I chose the sites. These sites are not only about hosting the exhibition inside; they are also used as a pretext to bring people back to these places to re-understand their living environment.
PU: Because there is a discussion around the buildings that you have chosen of demolished.
HH: The question of demolition and change is always contradictory. How much is about nostalgia and memory, and how much is really about preserving a public interest? Sometimes it is not easy to distinguish. The general situation today is that neo-conservative power is trying to erase the recent cultural memory and bring in fake nostalgia to defend the status quo. This is very clear. This is exactly the same thing in any kind of dictatorship or totalitarian revolution. So the interesting thing is how much people are repeating the same story. The same thing can be said about contemporary art. When you talk about avant-garde art, it sounds so bad today. Why is it so bad? Why does nobody raise the question that certain things can still be defended? This has to do with every system having its own interests behind it. The art system is becoming another form of mainstream entertainment. So, to keep the entertainment going on, you have to be conservative. That is basically the situation now.
When people ask who I see as an ‘Istanbullu’, I say anyone except Orhan Pamuk. This is may be a little provocative but you should read the city in such a way.
PU: From the 1990s on you were very much involved in the issues of identity, cultural hybridization and glocal. Have your ideas about the dialectic between the universal and particular changed over time? How did they change after you moved to the States?
HH: Actually, there is not much time to think about the question for the moment because you need time to understand this change. For the moment, there are some very important changes for me. Working concretely within the San Francisco Art Institute with Okwui Enwezor, Renee Green and all this team is really wonderful. I am not saying this just to please them. I should point out that the institution was in pretty bad shape but is now emerging from that phase. It is being re-constructed and the exhibition program is getting interesting. I have a little space of about 300 m2. In this space I can experiment a lot with limited resources, but I can also connect other projects that I do outside; and that brings the opportunity to learn something that I have never done before. Using this facility can elicit discussion of what form an institution should take today, for example. If there is a change, it would be true to say there has been a huge change in my lifestyle and way of doing things. On the other hand, I have moved from an anarchist background to a more institutional life. I have to learn to deal with bureaucratic process, which is very established in the States. For me, I have to say this is a huge challenge. However, this is also a part of life you should learn. And of course culturally Paris and San Francisco are very different. I still think I am more European than Chinese or American. Being in San Francisco is a very interesting transition because San Francisco is the most European city in the States and that makes me more comfortable. Also the geopolitical position and cultural connection of the San Francisco Institute allows me to look at Asia and the Pacific region from another side. I probably have to build up a program that is more open than what you get in New York. The funny thing is that San Francisco does not have a real market for contemporary art. That might not be the worst thing. It might be a place that you can still do things that are not supposed to be sold. Anyway, I am still waiting to see what happens.
PU: Thank you very much for your time, Hanru.