Having missed the Hou Hanru-curated photography exhibition “The Power Of Doubt” this spring at La Fabrica gallery in Spain, we were fortunate to find it this past December at the Times Museum in Guangzhou. On the occasion of the show, we took the opportunity to interview this curator.
LEAP Why did you decide to bring this exhibition from Spain to Guangzhou?
Hou Hanru A very important factor that led to this exhibition was the question of how the artist can personally respond to social crises. Mainland Chinese artists such as Sun Xun, Jiang Zhi, among others, have started to reconsider the “authenticity” of history, and then, using their own narrative voices, are attempting to retell history. Sun Xun, for example, employs animation and installation to imagine what the face of contemporary China would be like had the “new” China born in the 1940s been different. About the same time I was pondering these activities, PHotoEspaña (a Spanish photography festival) invited me to curate an exhibition program. My original idea was for the program to be centered around authenticity in history, and the affirmation that this issue is not one that concerns only contemporary China, but the whole world. In this era where capitalism, globalization and neo-liberalism are commonly regarded as unavoidable constituents of our socio-political reality, I wanted to try to imagine what might happen if this were to suddenly change. Of course, within Chinese cultural reality, there exists this possibility, as well as for its response and the ensuing dialogue. This is why I wanted to bring the exhibition to Guangzhou.
LEAP So is it merely a coincidence that this exhibition ended up in Guangzhou?
HHR Guangzhou’s cultural atmosphere particularly emphasizes freedom and individual expression. This individualism and freedom is not at all the type manifested by political sloganeering, but is found in the issues and activities of everyday life, no matter how minor. The same system of values has spread to the local government, in the way it consults its people, and provides the conditions under which art and creativity can thrive. The same attitude of openness is visible in residential life, which is why the Guangzhou Times Museum— floating high above the Guangzhou populace— was able to be built. This interesting and engaged atmosphere has led to a lot of experimentalism among artists who have worked and exhibited there, a genuine experimentalism that is not easily labelled or defined.
LEAP For “The Power of Doubt” exhibition in Spain, the space itself was a labyrinth, intricately arranged, the walls richly and elaborately painted. But in Guangzhou, one long, open corridor was transformed into a maze-like space, and the walls were painted with reflective paint, turning the whole space into a giant mirror. Did this visual shift affect the works shown within the space?
HHR Of course it did. The Guangzhou space was completely white, but I very rarely leave exhibition walls white. I’m skeptical of the mandatory “white cube” gallery space, skeptical of the value and authenticity of this art-world paradigm. In this exhibition, I first exaggerated the length of the space, then compressed it, creating a mimicry of the experience of walking through a busy city. I emphasized both the body in space and the relationship between architecture and all things. The Rem Koolhaas-designed Times Museum building is strange in form, integrating the surrounding city landscape into an organic part of it, achieving a kind of communality. The mirror-like walls emphasize this communality. Also, while the “white cube” is a concept that belongs to the modern art museum, it is in actuality very restrictive. When artworks are placed onto or within white walls, they are “neutralized,” cut off from all connection with daily life. In this exhibition, I tried to break out of that format; by exaggerating the feeling of whiteness, I tried to deconstruct it, make its function transparent.
LEAP In 1993 you held an exhibition in the hallway of a house, an event which occurred around the same time that Gao Minglu (a prominent Chinese curator) proposed the idea of “apartment exhibitions.” Lots of people were also doing similar things in Paris during that period. Could this be seen as an example of globalization in action?
HHR During the 1990s, the contemporary art scene was still very underground, very peripheral. Even though in Europe there were national museums, as well as the support of a few private collectors, artworks were yet to become entertainment products for popular consumption, and the art market at that point was also still very small. The slightest sign of trouble would trigger a complete crisis, making it difficult for artists to continue. In order for many artists to stay afloat, they had to put on exhibitions in independent spaces, in the kitchen or living room of their apartments. Around the turn of the century, Western society completed the transition from a producer to a consumer society; the “Biennale” became a tourist attraction, a place to be seen at. In accordance with the flourishing of the market, contemporary artworks became consumer items, the very nature of art changed— the new generation of capitalists buy art as they buy high-end fashion, completely different from their parents’ generation, for whom collecting art was a way of expressing feelings and emotions. At that time we were working completely independently, operating on the fringes of society. Nowadays, there is less and less a need to work in that way. And within this great transformation, the necessity to survive has now turned into a necessity to maintain independence and preserve the voice of society’s peripheral forces.
LEAP You say that the “museum system must assume responsibility for the collective memory of society.” Is there not something fundamentally contradictory in the desire to protect both independence and public interest?
HHR Genuine historical memory exists in libraries, art museums, and history museums. This is because when it comes to in-depth historical research, we need as much evidence and material as possible in order to discover the truth of historical processes. For example, of all the thousands of items in the archives of the Louvre, only a small portion is open to the public; only researchers may access the rest. Public memory does not mean public consumption or entertainment, but is made up of all the things that a generation has done. The system exists so that when the following generation need to find out about these things, or when they need to extract these memories, they can be.
LEAP Nowadays, biennials and triennials have become a way for cities to promote themselves, to develop power. Sometimes the aim is little more than to strengthen the economy. But in the way that they all aim to promote “local symbols,” they in fact share similar aims.
HHR Such aims and objectives and objectives are unavoidable. We ought to take advantage of this kind of expansionist mentality to show things that cannot be seen, or don’t want to be. These are public resources that will be wasted if they are not put to use. I don’t believe in “local symbols.” “Locality” is a constantly changing entity. For example, you bring something over, then come to the conclusion that that thing doesn’t suit “this place.” So then a discussion forms around it: why isn’t it suitable here? Then, perhaps because this thing is initially deemed unsuitable, and has shocked the local context it has been brought into, tomorrow it is turned into something else that will fit in. I have written an article about this: the “Biennale” is changing this feeling of “locality.” Its deconstruction is absolutely unavoidable.
LEAP Is that to say that the preserved “unique characteristics” of a city actually reside in a kind of collective imagination of its residents?
HHR The prerequisite of this notion is a kind self-Orientalization, a strategy of self-abasement which helps a place identify itself— this idea is even more terrifying than Edward Said’s critique of “Western Orientalism.” To adopt an illusory identity in place of an assessment of genuine, existent power structures amounts to nothing more than self-colonialization. (Translated by Dominik Salter Dvorak)