ON OCTOBER 28 at 3 a.m., I prepare to go to Kiev, Ukraine— a city that, thus far in my life, I had not thought about visiting. You should know that when I was a child, I was in love with geography. At the tender age of nine I could recite from memory the capitals of nearly 100 countries. I fully bought into the propagandist line, “look to the world with the interests of our motherland at heart.” Even so, prior to arriving in Kiev, all I felt inside was the apprehension of visiting a foreign land. All sorts of tough-looking men pass in front of my eyes on the Ukraine International Airline flight. After about ten hours in the air, I arrive at Boryspil Airport, which turns out to be much more foreign and exotic than I had imagined. It is a “homeland” in a very much symbolic sense. The feeling of political and cultural detachment, combined with the rainy weather, seems almost familiar. After a brief respite in the hotel, I head to the PinchukArtCentre for a visit, but am kept at the gate by security for 20 minutes. Thereafter, the handsome curator Bjorn Geldhof introduces me to the other artists, who are already preparing their artworks, but the only thing on my mind is getting to work installing my own. Everywhere I look is another masterpiece. You can’t possibly imagine the tears of jealousy that secretly spill inside me as I walk with Bjorn. The piece I chose for the exhibition was created entirely remotely, having exchanged over 80 emails with Irina, who manages the Future Generation Prize operations. I have been dreaming of finally seeing the installation every day, and when I finally lay eyes on it, I am truly surprised— I must say that this is one of the best teams I’ve ever worked with. Capped with a mixture of jet lag and various indescribable forms of excitement, the day ends.
October 29. I arrive at the center in the morning to begin installation, my mind vacillating between anticipation and
expectation. My experience installing exhibitions in China does not serve me well in Europe, placing me in a prolonged sense of frustration. If you were to have seen the miraculous speed of installation in China, you would lose patience with the systemic waiting in Europe. In this state of agitation I decide to step out for fresh air. I aimlessly follow the steady stream of people through majestic Kreschatik Street all the way to Independence Square. As the beautiful northern scenery passes before my eyes, the unfinished work back at the art center is still firmly on my mind. My “good student” instincts grow unmanageable and I resolutely turn around and head back— to the promised land of art. When I arrive, I carry on random conversations with the other artists. “Is this your first time in Kiev?” “The caviar in the Besarabsky market across the way is excellent!” “Shall we grab a drink somewhere in a bit?” These are normal daily conversations between artists. You see, I’ve long decided that artists do not need to converse in an “artistic” way. Just as I decide to relax and not think about the exhibition, the other artists all decide to go for traditional Ukrainian cuisine. At dinner, the conversation turns to the state of contemporary Chinese art in the eyes of the international art community. I’ve talked about the subject so many times, the discussion is a mindless routine for me. We head to a bar after dinner, and I’m out past 2 a.m. doing shots of pepper vodka.
On October 30 I walk to the art center to oversee installation. Simply put, my piece is like this: In the middle of the gallery a corridor is set aside, the walls of which constitute the core of the work. Viewers can walk on either side. This work is my reinterpretation of Modernism: a space filled with sand, a minimalist bench, a modernist chaise lounge, the title of a work by Richard Hamilton, a giant projection of human genitals, a snake, a middle-class hero portrayed by a male actor, and a copy of Ernest Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon. Outside the corridor, another artist describes these objects. As is my habit from the past, the focus of the piece is manifested in the description of the “micro-differences.” Its general disposition must not be too incisive, nor too cynical. This is a self-indulgent attempt that may decide the direction of my future work. My main tasks of the day are to wait for the arrival of the giant mounted photograph; admire the snake, the result of a long search; and steal glances at the two handsome actors. The snake arrives in the early afternoon. It’s beautiful. The actors arrive. Even more beautiful. After they put on their suits, I’m dumbstruck by their beauty. But the process of installation is no more than a process of continually resolving minor crises. The photograph arrives and I realize that due to a miscalculation, I ordered two glass panes, which leads to excessive reflection. We decide to remove of one of them. I walk back to the hotel, my face covered in disappointment. But I must get it together. I have to make final preparations for an upcoming solo exhibition in the UK.
On October 31, I head to the art center for a video interview. Unfortunately I am 20 minutes late. I had thought up answers the previous evening, but once I get in front of the camera, its all-too-familiar lens, I cannot help but turn into my old self, adlibbing my responses on the spot. I keep fumbling with my English and stuttering… An hour later, I head over to the installation and see that the team has already removed the glass pane from yesterday. All that’s left to the artist are the endless details. For instance, I realize in the end that there isn’t enough lighting, and adding lights in the finished space requires additional cable trays, and perhaps even exposed wiring. After much deliberation, I decide to add four lights in places invisible to the public, in order to achieve the original lighting requirements. After negotiating with the technicians, we decide on some soft floodlights that Anish Kapoor had used here previously. As the lights turn on, I lose myself again. Beautiful. Late night, I meet up with the other artists to hit the bars late, at ease with myself and eager to rock the town now that the installation is complete. I head back to the hotel with limited consciousness. Another unforgettable night.
November 1. My primary responsibility is to attend the media preview and to tie off any loose ends on the installation. After finishing work for the day, the Swiss director of the gallery that represents me flies to Kiev and takes me out to one of the top restaurants in the city. An assortment of meats stuffs me to the gills; I wish I had a second stomach to hold all the food.
November 2. The official opening of the exhibition. As with many other exhibitions in the past, this one fills my heart with vanity, stuffs another heart with greed, and perhaps yet a number of others with other intentions. They all serve to mold my existence. As I watch the visitors I suddenly feel a pang of sadness. I walk out for some fresh air, then come back in to watch Advice for the Young and the Seekers of Sanity by the Egyptian artist Basim Magdy, where I notice the line “With Every Purchase or Exchange.” Even so, I am once again ruined by alcohol, as I have been numerous times at other exhibition openings.
November 3. I leave Kiev in the following fashion: during the nine-hour layover at Heathrow, I spend one hour clearing customs, one hour organizing files on my laptop, one hour eating, one hour sending emails, two hours drinking, and two hours writing this for LEAP. Now I plan to relax for the last hour, before boarding my next flight. (Translated by Frank Qian)