LEAP Forum is an initiative of Modern Art, Modern Media Group’s art platform. It is a virtually distributed conference in which speakers and guests meet not at a certain point in space and time but rather in the liminal spaces between media and across borders. LEAP Forum’s inaugural Venice 2015 edition looks at the theme of “New Pavilions for a Global Asia,” bringing together artists, curators, and other participants in projects across Venice—from the international exhibition to the national pavilions and collateral shows—to discuss and explore the rapidly changing state of Asian visual culture in the world today.
LEAP: First, what led you to the Turkish Pavilion, how did you become involved, and how did you decide to do this project and execute it in this way?
Defne Ayas: The Pavilion of Turkey is actually commissioned by the Istanbul Culture World Foundation for the Arts, and their advisory board invited Sarkis to be the artist of the year. This year, the hierarchy was a bit different: not the curator first and then the artist. And Sarkis invited me to join him in his team. So we set out on the journey about ten months ago.
LEAP: What is your background with him? Have you worked together in the past?
DA: We ever worked together but we always had beautiful conversations together, from across the world, across cultures religions. Except there was of course a generational gap; he’s about three or four decades ahead of me. He’s been an artist for fifty years, and I’m more of the Internet generation. So it was these wonderful conversations that led to this production.
LEAP: And what’s the top thing that we should know about the pavilion that we will not see physically in the space?
DA: [Laughs] Wow, you got a good one. Basically, the exhibition has a lot of pain in it, even though I laughed. And that’s the beauty; you laugh and cry at the same time. And we turned that pain into this treasure, but the treasure still has some life painted in it as well. And there’s a work that was made in 2015 that’s sitting in the exhibition that could be a secret to unravel with time.
LEAP: When will that unravel?
DA: It can unravel now if you want to dig for it, or it can be more talked about in a few weeks. It’s one of little secret treasures.
LEAP: How do you see your role coming from working in Shanghai a few years back, now in Rotterdam… Now you’re working on the Turkey Pavilion. In terms of bridging these different cultures and different regions, what’ your global map?
DA: My background is in political science. I‘ve always looked at the art of politics, but also the politics of art. And I’m really interested in the transformative power of art. So my background is in political science, and I’ve been really interested in comparative religion, what cultures pick up from each other, and so the cross section of art of politics and politics of art has been of interest to me, and I’ve worked with all kinds of problematic knots and traumatic histories and see how we can work with the transformative power of art to bring about a new language to these histories. So it’s really about the creation of a language through art that I am mostly interested in. And Sarkis has been doing it all his life, because he’s been really looking the history of war, and how you can you actually take the war lootings, the spoils of war, and turn it into something you treasure, something that is of golden quality.
LEAP: And with this background in your role with this pavilion, I’m curious how you’ve seen the composition of Asian presence change over the years – whether it’s a shift in the emphasis on the reigns artists are coming from, or generationally?
DA: It’s something that I haven’t observed quite in detail, I must confess. I mean, obviously this year pan-African, transnational African network is very present due to Okwui’s postcolonial interest. Of course, there are artists like Xu Bing, and Lu Yang also in the show. But how it fares compared to the other additions… it’s something I didn’t get a chance to look at yet.
LEAP: What do you think is still missing in Venice with the group exhibitions in the pavilions, in terms of global presence of an Asian presence?
DA: Group exhibitions are really hard to pull off in the context of Venice, because it’s not only the attention span of people but also to see solid positions and statements. It’s probably a bit more convenient to communicate your message through single artist statements as pavilions. And that’s something that the Chinese pavilion, for example, has been suffering from. The Italian pavilion itself with all of it’s….it’s a stupid answer. You know the answer; why are you asking me? Ask me something you want to know! [Both laugh]
LEAP: Now we ask more general questions, the first being: when you first moved to Rotterdam, you kind of talked about the idea of bringing a more global idea of art into the European system. What have you been doing on that front, and what are you planning on doing?
DA: It was really interesting, because when this whole explosion was happening with interest in Asian and China globally, Witte has been really invested into this neutral aesthetic discourse of north Europe. The beauty of the space is that every six years there is a new director who brings their own vision and interests. So Catherine de Witte, for instance, really set the canon for Middle Eastern when she was a director. In my case, I looked at the history of Witte, which is now 25 years old. And Chen Zhen – who is a student of Sarkis actually– is the only artist whose is shown at Witte de With in the past 23 years, at the time when I arrived. So I wanted to bring about a third way also of looking at what’s happening in China or Hong Kong. So taking on, for instance, the filter of Hans van Dyke, we commissioned a beautiful exhibition in two parts. And that actually made things much more accessible for the audiences in the Netherlands to see his research at the time. We started a long term project called Moderation(s) with Heman Chong, which allowed a creation of a programmatic space in Spring Workshop Hong Kong, which was already a collaborator of mine, but through that activation, we were able to reconcile two different spaces – one with a heavyweight North European institution, and then a baby born new space with all its mercurial interests and energies. And it was a wonderful collaboration in that sense. And also to create about a community a little bit of acceleration between generations of artists who actually doesn’t give a dime about Asian or European cultural paradigms. It’s all about transmission of ideas, slippages, synchronicities, what you ping, what’s up. In that sense it was a bit of a fresher take on the concerns of artists who are born after the eighties. And even when we had a conference everyone was – 26 years was the average age – but everyone sounded like an eighty year old art history professor, which astounded me. But that’s what I’ve been experimenting with a little bit.
LEAP: And finally, what do you see as the most interesting space to experiment in art now, whether that’s regional or conceptual or thematic?
DA: Well, I think the timing of Chris Dercon is wonderful, to leave the art world to move to the stage and see it’s capacity. The way that we’ve also been looking at Sarkis’ work has really been a theatrical staging with all the actors and more than curating I’ve been doing more of context shaping and dramaturgy. But back to your question, I am very much interested as I told you about the political space. Constitutional rights and visions about the future for the world that is every more in crisis. So what do artists have to say and can their voices be taken equally seriously as people coming from other fields like economics and politics and humanities. There is quite an erosion of culture taking place globally because of various shapes of forms of populism. But then artists are the only ones who persevere through their vision, and that’s something I admire a lot. So [the question is] how much can we share and make artists as equal contributors to society and not just for pure aesthetic pleasure and consumption, which is another danger.
Charles Lim 林育荣 & Shabbir Hussain Mustafa
LEAP: For Charles: we’ve seen the exhibition; we’ve read the press release. What’s the one thing we should know about the project that we won’t see in the space?
Charles: One thing is… probably that is something that we struggled with is proclamation, actually, something that we wanted to tackle for SEA STATE, the last morning. Basically what happens is that when land is being reclaimed – this land is about land reclamation, a lot of it – this moment it is still the sea, actually. And legally it is still the sea until the president signs a document. And when he signs it legally the sea becomes land. So we were very interested in this process, and we actually asked tried to go through many different channels to try and cover this and we just got road blocked on this. So in the end, it is still a question mark.
Mustafa: It also is connected to how, when you think of proclamation, we came across this particular department, which also oversees a lot of land reclamation efforts in Singapore. And if I recall correctly, the department is called Land Reclamation Aesthetics and Design. And one of the things they actually do is overseeing the proclamation process, and this is when the president signs this official document, and formally, magically, maybe even shamanistically turns sea into land. And I think that is something we were not able to gain access to. We were curious; is this a ceremony or is this completely mundane, you know, like just signing a piece of paper?
LEAP: Shifting gears, I’m curious about the logistics of the pavilion. Is the artist selected and then the curator, or is it a team, or a curator and then the artists?
Charles: I think a list of artists and curator were invited to make a proposal. So as a curator you could propose an artist that was not on the list actually. And as an artist you could propose a curator that was not on the list. But it so happened that both of us were on the list, and at that point of time we were actually working on a project called In Search of Raffles’ Light, and we decided to make a proposal together on this.
LEAP: Singapore took the last Venice Biennale off. What kind of pressure was on you coming back and doing this first reappearance?
Mustafa: I think with the withdrawal in the last Biennale, there was I must admit quite a bit of anxiety, perhaps even a form of national anxiety in terms of ensuring that things got done, the reviews were generally positive, the budget was maintained and in focus, and we did not lose track of the project itself and its scope. And which is why we were quite pleased that the commissioning panel decided to select us, because it was quite opportune. On one hand, Charles’ body of work SEA STATE was at that moment when it needed that kind of international platform and that moment of consolidation, and it had been ten years. It was a mature project. The reviews were great, and it picked up a couple of awards on the way, so we thought why not? Venice, historical sea state; Singapore, a complex sea state and kind of neat. And so I think the quite interested in how the national met the art in the biennale itself. And both have their own sets of anxieties and that led to interesting permutations as we were setting up the show.
LEAP: That’s a really good segue for Charles. Do you see yourself as representing Singapore in this case or as a more personal project?
Charles: I think it’s representative of an idea, and when I am doing the SEA STATE project, it first started off as a way of just going out to the sea and seeing what there was. But now I think we have actually come to a point where I think there’s a certain urgency to the project we have discovered. And the question of urgency is how the sea is represented. And it seems that we have come to the point where the sea… when I look at art that is representative of the sea, we see the same tropes: the sublime sea, the unconquerable sea, the heroic person that goes out to sea. And I find it disturbing that the military and corporation are using the same aesthetics to represent their cause. And in a sense in the art world we have become complicit with these tropes.
Mustafa: And so in many ways the project is trying to somehow refocus and maybe even reestablish and rethink our relationship with water and the sea itself, and not to kind of get into a kind of automatic discussion about sustainability or ecology but actually think about culture in a very prolific or perhaps even in a more complex manner.
LEAP: I’m curious, I’m sure you’ve seen quite a few Venice Biennales over the years. How have you seen the compositions coming from Asia change over the past ten years or so?
Mustafa: Actually, this is my first Biennale. I’m quite the tropical creature in that sense, if there’s one way to look at things. But Charles and I were discussing this sometime ago in terms of how Southeast Asian art is often received presented and consumed in Europe and North America, and we do have a lot of exhibitions of Southeast Asian art, but here are offered in group show formats. And this group show format is great because it is easy to allow curatorial ideas to unfold, certain art historical gestures to unravel. But at the same time the Venice Biennale and the national pavilion often if it is a solo exhibition, it allows for this audience, which is quite diverse, but also rather complex, to gain access or insights into a very rigorous series of works. And I think that’s where the Venice Biennale sits.
LEAP: Carrying on from that, your experience before your last move was at the university in the teaching gallery. How does that prepare you for commission as a solo project?
Mustafa: I think the National University of Singapore Museum’s model is quite a serious one. I mean, a lot of it is through the energies of a single person, like Ahmad Bin Mashadi, the director. And one thing that he would constantly talk about was the notion of failure, and not failure as not something to be either resisted or embraced, but as something in itself that really allows exhibition to unravel in a more complex manner. And one of the approaches that he constantly tried to develop, not just him but myself and other curators, was to initiate conversations with artists. And these conversations would take place over a number of years. I mean, Charles and I for instance – we have been talking for about four years now. That’s a pretty long time.
Charles: Actually that’s a lot of freedom in working. Ahmad actually allowed our project to be delayed.
Mustafa: Yeah, so when we were installing In Search of Raffles’ Light, there was this amazing moment when we had all these objects, and they were kind of put into this space called the prep room, things that may or may not happen, and they were just left there for a number of months until either the objects clarified themselves or we figured it out. And it was only then that we began to install the shape. So the idea of deadlines, of timelines, is actually something very intimate to the artistic and quite sympathetic to the curatorial.
Charles: It’s almost like having a serial practice in a museum actually. Usually when you borrow objects, it comes in and it goes straight on the wall. But in this case, Ahmad allowed us to create an intimacy with the objects and let the object speak. It takes time for that to come out. And what was really interesting with Raffles is that we came in thinking that Eric Alfred was this figure, and it took us a while to figure out that he was actually something else.
Mustafa: So Eric Alfred was thought of as the main protagonist of the exhibition, if one may call him that, and he was a protagonist in the sense that you have this figure who was the founding curator of the Maritime Museum, which closed down. And we found all these objects in this storehouse, which were the objects that we later discovered, and we were actually quite upset at first. “Wow, what happened to this museum, it’s been closed down, etc.” But as we began to wait, we actually realized that these objects were objects that belonged to people who used to live in Singapore’s islands. So in many ways, the museum was a sort of harbinger of a depopulation of the sea, with the museum as a very scary place, rather than as one that is very free in the traditional sense of the term.
LEAP: I want to ask you more about your relationships with other places around Venice. So maybe with Charles, how do you see yourself in relation to the Singaporean artists that have preceded you in the pavilion?
Charles: Actually, when they did the Venice Biennale, I only came down for the Tzu Nyen…I never thought about it actually. I think the earlier Venice Biennales, what happened was that the artist was selected based more on the prize. It was more like, we like your work, let’s show the same work in Venice. It was not so developmental. They didn’t get to use Venice to push projects further. I think for our case, for this Biennale, we took the opportunity to do that. It was actually quite risky. It could have failed, because there are so many moving parts for our projects. And the last two artists, they were operating on this manner.
LEAP: Mustafa, what do you think is missing in Venice?
Mustafa: I’m not sure what’s missing, but I do know what is required. I often find in Venice at least, the Southeast Asian artists that are presented to be very small percentage of the overall exhibition. And I kind of find that quite interesting in a sense where with the National Gallery opening now, and it committing itself to art historical discussions or whatever, means in the Southeast Asian context, I think it will provide a lot more materials to curators working, let’s say, on the Venice Biennale to make a much more informed decision or selection of these artists. I think that’s possibly the next frontier in that sense. I mean, this year, I believe (I have not seen the main pavilions yet) that Africa is very well represented. And I think Southeast Asia will have its moment, but it’s a question of when.
LEAP: Charles, how do you feel in this context? Are you a young artist here, or are you a mid career artist?
Charles: I’ve actually been working for quite a while, but my projects tend to be quite slow actually, so I’m not that productive in that I don’t…. it’s very interesting because in the beginning of my career I did Documenta11, so I was pushed into a quite high international scene. But then I think I simply am quite slow. So I’m glad that there are people like Mustafa who have pushed me to move a bit faster, because I’m growing older. I don’t see myself as a young artist anymore.
Mustafa: And I grow younger by the day [laughs].
LEAP: Last question: if you were to do it all again, if you were to come back to Venice six years from now, would you bring a totally different kind of project?
Charles: I hope so [laughs]. I think…I guess with my projects, I tend to do projects that will inform my next project. So my next project tends to have this linear continuity but the form always changes. So I’m not one of these artists that is just stuck in one form.
Mustafa: And that is something quite apparent in the exhibition upstairs. It’s quite multi-modal. You have different dimensions, different idiosyncrasies even, even an entirely different sent of legalities in terms of the archival components that have been incorporated into the exhibition.
LEAP: Mustafa, what do you think has been the most interesting conceptual or regional space for a curator?
Mustafa: I’ve been hearing a lot of interesting things about Berlin. But in Southeast Asia, I would still say Singapore. And I’m not trying to promote Singapore. I’m not receiving any payments from the Singapore Tourism Board, but I do think that if one is to have a Southeast Asian discussion, Singapore would be in that position to facilitate it. Because in many ways, not just the history of art that makes up Singapore, Singapore has always had a strong Southeast Asian overlap, but it also has been quite accommodating to allow other Southeast Asian idiosyncrasies to unfold too. This ranges from the manner institutions have built up the collection. I mean, it was one of the first – the Singapore Art Museum – that looked at Southeast Asia as a region. Whether it is a problematic construction: that is something we can have a different discussion about. But it nonetheless has allowed that to happen. I often think of Singapore as a remarkable site, and not remarkable as in exceptional, but remarkable in that it allows these conversations to be had. And I think that is important, at the least. But beyond that who knows? Tomorrow things may be different.
Adrian Cheng 郑志刚
LEAP: So why choose this year to support the HK pavilion for the first time this year?
AC: The K11 Art Foundation has always been trying to incubate and promote Chinese artists, and we have always wanted to incubate young Chinese artist and curators and also do public art education. So this year, supporting Tsang Kin Wah, on top of supporting the Hong Kong cultural arts scene, we’re basically identifying a very good talent, and hopefully we can actually promote him towards the world.
LEAP: And do you identify with Tsang Kin Wah’s generation as representative of your generation from Hong Kong?
AC: Yes, of course. I think growing with the Hong Kong cultural arts scene as well as the Chinese new generation of artists is part of K11 Art Foundation’s mission, and I think that’s very important. So we do see that we should grow with his generation, and we belong with this generation.
LEAP: Now your network of K11 includes top institutions across Europe and the globe. How does adding an additional pavilion in Venice add to this?
AC: K11 art foundation has always been trying to establish a global platform and also an ecosystem for Chinese artists to grow and a platform to incubate. Aside from Palais de Tokyo, I think Venice Biennale is also a very important platform to showcase their talent. So as a result, we’re very happy and honored to support this event.
LEAP: You’ve been coming to Venice for a number of years, How have you seen the competition of young Asian art change the world?
AC: We’re seeing a lot big changes, especially from Asian artists. You’re seeing more participation from the Asian artists, especially the young ones. So I think that’s a very good sign that there is a cross fertilization and a cross dialogue between western and eastern worlds, with everything coming together, converging, into one.
LEAP: Is there anything you still think is missing from Venice that maybe K11 can bring over to better represent China in a better way?
AC: I mean, there are always a lot of options for improvement to be done. I think more Chinese artists and more Hong Kong artists to participate in Venice will be a good sign and especially for Asian artists as well.
LEAP: Anything in particular you’re looking forward to seeing this week?
AC: I just arrived, so…[laughs]. I need to look around first. But I’m looking forward, and I think this year is going to be great, and I’ve heard a lot of positive feedback.
LEAP: Great, thank you so much.
Tsang Kin Wah 曾建华
LEAP: So first of all, how did you come to choose this project for Venice?
Tsang Kin Wah: Well, actually I was reading some books about Nietzsche before they approached me. So at the time, I was trying to understand more about Nietzsche’s ideas and other kinds of ideas as well. So once they approached me, and then they compared my representation, and then we did a site research. So just shortly after that site research, I almost finalized that it was something related to the things that I was reading at the time. So then I just spend like several months to finalize all the concepts and what kind of book I am going to show. It’s pretty fast to finalize all the things.
LEAP: Sure, and how does all this relate to the seven seals?
TKW: It’s not directly related, but some of the concepts are a little bit related to that, which are the things that I’ve been talking about for quite a while. So there would be something about religions, the nature of humans, about human evolution and that kind of thing. And of course, Nietzsche’s ideas have always played quite an important role in my work and in Christianity as well. So in that way they are linked together but not in a very direct way.
LEAP: Now for our audience, let’s say they’ve seen the exhibition, seen the press release, maybe they are familiar with your past work: what’s the top thing that they should know about this exhibition without even looking at it?
TKW: I think that they should just get into the space and walk through the space. I think the thing I am trying to focus on in this exhibition is the journey; that you can walk from one space to another, and then it’s back to the beginning. So that is like a journey but is somehow a complete cycle, but in different spaces you experience different things: video, sound. So you can treat it like a journey.
LEAP: So regarding your interest in religion and religious history, coming to Venice – which is a great heart of Catholic aesthetics and art over the years –did you think about that legacy when you were planning?
TKW: Not really. I think actually I’m more like the canals and water of Venice. So when I visited the site, I saw the canal very close to the site. And I thought somehow I could do something with water and canals, and it seems like looking at the sea, water… so I think that could be… in the end it became a very important part of my work when you enter the space.
LEAP: Absolutely. For you, it’s obviously a very personal project. It fits well with you past work. But when you do this Hong Kong pavilion, is there this idea of representing Hong Kong as well?
TKW: Actually, I didn’t think about that that seriously. I’m not sure what it means to be Hong Kong or Hong Kong identities. They are really tricky to make a claim by or a definition. So I just did whatever I want and show the things that I’ve been into for a while.
LEAP: And how do you see yourself in relation to the other Hong Kongers who have represented the pavilion recently?
TKW: I didn’t think much about that. I didn’t think much about that or didn’t try to compare others. I just try to do whatever I want to do.
LEAP: Speaking of generations, when you look around the international exhibitions, do you feel like you belong to a certain generation here? Do you feel like a young artist or belong to any label in that sense?
TKW: When you talk about generations then that’s somehow related to age, which is when I look at the artists in the Biennale, you can find some other artists out there who are the same age as me. So more or less, if we define it based on age, then I can belong to that generation and those artists.
LEAP: Which artist do you see yourself sharing a generational sensibility with?
TKW: If we talk about age, then more or less like Cao Fei. I haven’t seen a bunch of other artists, but… maybe Danh Vo? Of course, these are kind of like superstars, but if you talk about specific things, they are kind of shared generations.
LEAP: Finally last question: when you go back to Hong Kong, what will it mean to have done the Hong Kong pavilion? Will it be a big boost in the local scene or is it not so relevant?
TKW: No, I think it’s more or less the same for me, which is why I got my participation in Venice, and for me that’s roughly the same. But I’m not sure what they think of me.
LEAP: Thank you.
Doryun Chong 郑道炼
LEAP: And so first, can you walk us through the process of selecting Kin Wah for this year, whether you came on the project first and then found the artist, or…?
Doryun Chong: As you know this is the second time that M+ was invited to the Hong Kong Arts Development Council to collaborate and co-present the Hong Kong collaboration in Venice. The first time was in 2013 with the solo presentation with Lee Kit. And I suppose they were very happy with the result. And I think the Hong Kong Arts Development Council was very happy with the result, so they came back to us and invited us to work with them again. But the selection of the artist was a quite thought out and careful process. This is a very serious thing. It’s a relatively small scene, like Hong Kong to present itself in Venice, the most important contemporary event, and it is a big deal. So of course we want to bring care to it as much as possible. The process of how that happened is that they asked us as the curator – Arts Development Council gave us the full curatorial authority – and give them a short list of artists for consideration, because there’s something called the Working Group within the Arts Development Council, “within” in the sense that they invite experts within the arts community. So we met with them and talked about the short listed artist and decided that Tsang Kin Wah was the best artist and was an appropriate artist for the times. So it was really a collaborative process between the two co-presenters.
LEAP: What’s the top thing we should know about the pavilion that we don’t’ see?
DC: Well, I think that you see some of that in the didactic and published materials, but this is perhaps the most ambitious single project that an artist has created to date. It is very site-specific work. It is very much responding to the peculiarities of the physical conditions here and has been sited here for a number of years. But it’s originally a residential structure with a courtyard and two rooms on the ground floor. The courtyard is great, and everybody always takes advantage of that, and it also opens on to the canal bed I’m sitting next to. But I think we can agree this is the most radical transformation of the courtyard space of the Hong Kong participants to date. We have turned the majority of the outdoor space to indoor, because the artist wanted the viewers to have a sense of disorientation, or more precisely this sense that you are entering a totally different realm. Day suddenly turns into night, and then you walk into the first space, the courtyard that has been turned into a gallery, and suddenly you’re standing in the image of flowing river instead of solid ground. So this sudden transformation in experience hopefully leads to a complete perceptual change maybe even change in consciousness, which is something he really wanted to present. I think it was done in a very effective way. That’s not just what the artist and curators think. A lot of the visitors in the opening week have commented on that.
LEAP: Now you’re curating a pavilion with a nationality other than your own, which is still relatively rare, particularly among the Asian countries. Do you think things shifting in that respect?
DC: That’s a really interesting question. Honestly, I haven’t thought about it, because I’m not originally from Hong Kong or China, but live in Hong Kong and work there. Any curator or cultural worker who is working not in their place of origin naturally has to commit to it. And Hong Kong is a place that is used to having expatriate and people settling there for short term or long term. So I didn’t really have a feeling that the fact that my nationality is not from Hong Kong or China affected it in any negative way. But I think it is a good question of whether there is a change happening. I do think that… I mean there is this talk of the Venice Biennale almost as an arts Olympics, with all the nations participating is a very 20th century model. People have been talking about this for decades. But I still think it’s a very effective model for showing a wide range of art from different parts of the world. And perhaps we’re now kind of owning up to the reality that globalization doesn’t make everything homogenous.
Perhaps after a couple of decades of being critical of this model of national representations, there isn’t a very satisfactory alternative to that, and at the same time, all of us collectively are owning up to the fact that globalization has not created a homogenous situation; that differences are persisting and differences are something that we need to celebrate and take more seriously. But having said that, I think certain forms of nationalism that artists have to come from different nations and curators and organizers also have to come from the same place, I think is changing. And in fact, a number of pavilions actually have been challenging that. For instance, Belgium this year is presenting a group show with artists from different parts of the world. Taiwan in fact did that last time with a group show. Whether that’s the right solution or alternative, we’re not sure yet. But general erosion of nation specific way of doing things is perhaps going to increase.
LEAP: I imagine you’ve been coming to Venice for six, eight editions?
DC: Something like that.
LEAP: How have you seen the Asian composition change over that time?
DC: I think my first time was 2001 when I worked on the Korean pavilion exhibition, and that was a two person exhibition, with Do Ho Suh, a Korean American artist. I think that was a really signal for something. For the Korean Pavilion, that was really the first time showing artists who are not working in Korea. So the edition after that in 2003 was the one in which the artist director was Francesco Bonami, and it famously, or infamously, consisted of almost a dozen exhibitions, one of which was a ZOU – Zone of Urgency. And it was the year when it was incredibly hot, so everyone was melting, which made the viewing experience very difficult. But it’s the edition I think back often, not just about Hou Hanru’s show but many exhibitions that composed the Biennale were landmark events. Specifically, “ZOU- Zone of Urgency” brought so many Asian artists from so many different parts of the world, and I think it was really a statement, and almost a door opener at the time. But still then there was no China pavilion. I think Japan and Korea are of course; they have their permanent structures. Hong Kong and Taiwan started participating in 2001, if I’m not mistaken, perhaps the same for Singapore. But they were not quite established. They were renting places; they were mobile. And it took a while for these pavilions to find more or less permanent places.
From the early 2000s, Taiwan for instance has been in the same location, and Hong Kong has been here for the last few editions, and Singapore was a bit more mobile but now they have a long-term lease. So it seems like these pavilions are… not seems like, are getting better established. There are other countries like Indonesia and Thailand that are participating a little later but seem committed to coming back to Venice more regularly into the future. So we are certainly seeing an increase in number but also in diversity in representation from different parts in Asia.
LEAP: And now finally, generationally, where do you see yourself?
DC: I mean I guess we see ourselves sort of each…to assume I guess more responsibilities in a sense. I mean, it’s kind of relating to the earlier question of when I first worked on that exhibition in 2001 in the Korean Pavilion, I was just starting out as a curator. I was pretty much awestruck and wide-eyed by very well known curators walking nearby and seeing what they do. And now almost 15 years later, I’m definitely more experienced, definitely older, I’m not sure I’m wiser. But I do have the sense that all the curators of my generation who are coming up and who are young and bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, we need to play bigger roles. I think it’s the same for artists. Tsang Kin Wah is entering you could say the more mature period of his practice. And not only in Venice, but in all different artistic contexts that he participates in, he will be pulling more and more weight, if you will.
LEAP: So to start off, let’s say your viewer has seen your information and has done a pretty thorough review of the show, what’s the top thing they know that they won’t see once they get here?
Simon Denny: The top thing they should know about not seeing on site here is the other half of the venue, which is the Marco Polo airport. This pavilion has two parts: one in the Marciana library and one in Marco Polo Airport, and I think the two really come together as one exhibition for me.
LEAP: What was it like working between these two kinds of institutions?
SD: It was amazing, because I wanted the two to have a conversation about knowledge and how knowledge is treated and imaged in today’s society. So working with an academic or historical library with a huge history of presenting knowledge and keeping knowledge, acquiring knowledge, and presenting the values of knowledge was fantastic to put in connection with a more commercially oriented space with obviously a huge transit area like an airport and a place where knowledge is used and intelligence is utilized in a very different way.
LEAP: How did you arrive at the idea of using the floor and wall treatment in the airport?
SD: So in the build up to how I wanted to execute this exhibition, I had a long conversation with the marketing department at the airport and was thinking about the most appropriate language for that space as they enter an airport, and I decided with the marketing department at the airport and Clear Channel, an advertising agency, what was more effective. I wanted a space between borders and an image that went from one side of the border and was still visible through the kind of architecture which his in airports and uses transparency and opacity in equal measure. And this seemed like the best way to do it with these adhesive images on the floor and plastic plaques that highlight moments from this venue’s rich collection of cartography.
LEAP: Now, you have the PS1 exhibition at the same time, which we also have reviewed in the same issue. How can we connect these two projects?
SD: So I have an exhibition at PS1 MOMA, which looks at work I’ve made in relationship to businesses, to companies, to young companies and older ones, where I look at images and languages that they use to convey their message to the world. And here, I’ve focused on a more state angle, where I’ve looked at intelligence agencies and how they produce state imagery. But I guess they sit side by side as two important parts of how society operates today: the commercial, the private, and the public. And I think you can look at the way those conversations are one and the same, where commercial tech is informing the capabilities the intelligence agencies, and how it’s engaging in city branding in the directions companies and countries. So I think that’s interesting to see how that two different spaces in two different spaces and also see how the approaches are similar in images and language.
LEAP: And you’re finally starting to get some rigorous critical feedback to your exhibitions. How do you usually respond to those criticisms? Do you engage?
SD: I like to make my main participation in a conversation about my work my exhibitions and interviews I have with journalists, and I really welcome any kind of interpretation of my material. I try to make the best exhibitions I can. So both positive and negative feedback is very important helpful.
LEAP: Specifically in this critique, there’s a lot of repetition of general forms in your work without critique. How do you respond?
SD: I think it would be very hard to posit that with relation to this exhibition at the Venice Biennale. I’ve tried to look critically ways that people use symmetry and how organizations present imagery to the world, and I think that involves getting involved with these types of logics within the commercial and state institutions. And I think that to take the commercial as a serious cultural production space in today’s society is logical and indeed important and as important as looking into state imagery and production as well. I use devices like satire like humor because I want to make it enjoyable experiences, which are accessible to viewers who don’t have as much knowledge necessarily of how these languages work. I hope that reaches viewers in a productive way; if it doesn’t to some, that’s unfortunately unavoidable. I try to hone my craft as best I can and to look at real contemporary cultural production in the spaces where it happens, and the commercial is a very important part of that society and so is the national and states and governments.
LEAP: And how have you handled the burden of representing New Zealand?
SD: I’ve really enjoyed actually the honor of representing a country and using that as a frame to work with and bounce off material. I was able here to present a nation’s official kind of view in a way and work with that as a framework. I think that a national viewing format is today’s society feels a little out of date but is actually very current. I try to work with what it would mean to come from an officially allocated voice of a nation in the way that I presented materials. So I looked at visual production in that nation and other nations with which it is closely political associated. So for me it was a very important crux to coming from the national starting point.
LEAP: Would you have altered the project if you were, say, in the thematic exhibition?
SD: I have been in the thematic exhibition on different moments. For me that was a very different engagement. I was offered to show a project that he felt fit into a schema that he was creating so I gave a particular project to him to position. So it was very different type of an engagement, because I had a less of a decision-making role in what was presented.
LEAP: When you think back to other artists who have represented New Zealand at the Biennale before, what’s your relationship to that history?
SD: Some of my heroes have presented here that I came cross early in my educational career. So Michael Parekowhai, who was a professor very early on in my art education and Michael Stevenson who also I helped him make a bunch of work when I was in New Zealand as a student and have kept up a very long standing conversation, as he is now in Berlin where I live now. These people do amazing work. And there were also people teaching me from that context so I feel richly in touch with people in that context. Also Peter Robinson… it’s actually all of them. It’s hard to name them all. Jacqueline Fraser. I’ve admired and learned from all those figures, and I’m very honored to continue that conversation in that lineage.
LEAP: And in generationally how do you see yourself fitting in to Venice this year?
SD: I see myself as an artist with certain contemporaries, some of which are presenting in other pavilions. I find it hard to think generationally in a way. I think there are a lot of people in different age groups commenting on similar situations, and I relate as much to people of other age groups and relationships with art production as I do to people my own age and my own immediate environment. Also of course, there are people who have presented with me in group shows, but I’m also really happy to see other people I have come across and have less close conversations with. I always thinking hearing back from a range of age groups and a range of stages on artistic material is always the more interesting route.
LEAP: And do you see a regional network?
SD: I see some regional networks but for myself as an artist, my networks come mainly from where I have lived, which is kind of the same thing, but I have lived in two different regions. I lived in New Zealand for a long time and then moved to Germany, and have been showing around Europe and the States for a while. So my main conversation is with people from New Zealand and people in a transatlantic conversation. So I guess that’s more of a regional thing, but I hope to have a more involvement with other parts of the world, and I hope a truly global event like the Biennale will provide me with a segue to conversations for example with Asia or Africa, into areas that I haven’t had the privilege to work with up until this point.
Alan Lo 罗扬杰
LEAP: Why did you choose to throw in your lot with this exhibition?
Alan Lo: Well I think it’s a super interesting opportunity obviously, Zheng Guogu himself being southern Chinese, being Cantonese, And I think the idea of a this last minute intervention with our chef team, our team of eight people coming over literally three weeks ago, “let’s go to Venice.” It was sort of so surreal but so interesting at the same time. It’s just… the reaction, it’s to me… it’s challenging, but at the same time it’s very fulfilling.
LEAP: And do you feel that you identify with Zheng Guogu in a generational way?
AL: Not exactly, I think, in terms of person to person interaction, but when you look at the work and the language and what it’s trying to speak and kind of and sort of what we do on a day to day basis on real life. In the very subtle way, it sort of reveals itself, the connection.
LEAP: Do you think there’s any generational presence coming from Hong Kong or from China?
AL: For sure. This is my third time in Venice for the opening week, and I think it’s just…the people you bump into walking down the street. It’s amazing how this little city in Asia is becoming so visible in the world – in a good way!
LEAP: How have you seen the Asian presence change in the course of the last few years?
AL: Obviously, it’s a bit of a…different countries are in different stages in development. You have the more established – Japan, Korea – and obviously with Hong Kong and Singapore… obviously it’s super interesting to see how much, how far…I mean, it’s come a really long way if you compare what we were doing five, six years and the presence and sheer quality…it’s amazing.
LEAP: What do you think is still missing in Venice to represent the greater China or Asian presence?
AL: I think obviously with Venice it’s always about what’s very much of the moment. At least with Chinese artists or Chinese art. I think it will be interesting at some point to bring about something that speaks to the art historical side of things, where it’s not just about what’s hot today, but sort of all the different things that, kind of, sort of, lead to, you know, what’s happening this very moment.
LEAP: How has the dim sum been received?
AL: It’s been a bit mad and crazy, but it’s been good. Obviously, quality wise it’s great. It’s not quite Hong Kong. Anyone watching this video should really come to Hong Kong to see the real deal. But it’s our first international pop up, and I definitely think we’ll do a few more.
Martina Koeppel-Yang 杨天娜
LEAP: So first if you could walk us through the genesis of the project: how did you come to work with Zheng Guogu and Yangjiang Group?
MKY: For a long time, because I think they belong to the most creative Chinese contemporary artists, and I was asked to do, to create this exhibition about six weeks ago. So I thought, who can do this show in such a short time? And the only people who came to mind were Zheng Guogu and Yangjiang Group. So I worked with Zheng Guogu and Yangjiang group on many projects before I was asked to do this exhibition six weeks ago, maybe seven. And I thought, who could do such a huge space within such a short time? And the only Chinese artists who came to mind who could do important and interesting exhibition in that time were Zheng Guogu and Yangjiang Group. To me they belong to the more creative Chinese artists of their generation, and it worked out very well. I showed them images of the space, and immediately they had some very good ideas.
LEAP: And you’ve worked with them previously, the last exhibition I would have seen was the exhibit ion in Shanghai last year. How do you negotiate their work with different audiences?
MKY: Well of course, we are working here with the frame of the Venice Biennale, and the subject of the exhibition has already something to do with the subject of the Venice Biennale. We picked out the idea of capital and the flow of capital. So in the exhibition, you will see one work called Das Kapital Football, which consists of inflatable balls on which the artists wrote quotes from Marx’s Capital. And of course the balls can be moved around so you have the idea of the flow in the installation itself. The idea is also to juxtapose this idea of the flux of capital with the flux of energy, because of the flux of energy and energy itself is one aspect Zheng Guogu and Yangjiang group have been working on for several years. Yesterday for the opening, Zheng Guogu said something very nice. He said, he hopes the visitors learn to experience the artworks in a different way, with closed eyes to feel the energy of the artwork itself, and then become the artwork. So what he wants to propose is a kind of 21st century art.
LEAP: That’s very nice. You’re one of the most senior and respected figures in bringing Chinese contemporary art into Europe and creating this dialogue. You’ve seen many Venice Biennales. How have you seen the composition of the Asian presence here shift in the previous decade?
MKY: Well I think the presence of the Asian artists change a lot of the constitution of the institution of Chinese official pavilion. Since then the official pavilion gained maybe more importance than the presence of individual Chinese artists, which I find a shame. Of course, there is presence of individual artists. For example we have Lin Yilin in the Cuban pavilion, which I find a funny and nice exhibition, and of course we have the exhibition here of Zheng Guogu and Yangjiang Group. But I think there is a shift towards more safe positions among the artists with the presence of the official position.
LEAP: And have you seen a generational shift? Do you think there are younger maybe more internationally educated artists showing now?
MKY: Yes, there is certainly a shift in generations. You won’t see Wang Guangyi or Zhang Peili or even Zeng Fanzhi anymore. But there are figures that are coming back again. For example, Zheng Guogu; for him, it’s not he first time to be present in Venice. He was here with Canton Express in 2003 and again in 2007, or Cao Fei, who has been a part of the Biennale several times. So it’s quite rich.
LEAP: Sure. What do you think might still be missing in terms of actually representing the arts scene in China?
MKY: I think the official Chinese pavilion has to change, really completely. They should know they should give the responsibility to the people who know how to do it, because at the moment they rely on their old institution of the exhibition. What is it called? The Exhibition Office, who curates all the exhibitions that are done in an official international context. I think they would do if they thought about showing solely a solo show of a Chinese artist at the Venice Biennale. Every time I see the official pavilion, I feel very embarrassed.
LEAP: Finally, what do you think is the most interesting space in terms of thinking about Asian art as a curator, whether that be a conceptual, regional, or institutional space?
MKY: I think when there is a concept of a special space, the most important thing is not to think about the different between Chinese or Asian art or western art. I think we are beyond this. If you look at the participating artists here they are on the same level as they are European or Eurasian or African colleagues. And I feel that Chinese artists can really bring vital and new ideas to the contemporary art scene. The idea to look at an exhibition by closing your eyes and feeling the energy is so very much inspired by traditional Chinese concepts, and in the meantime it’s also something I think can lead us away from these overcharged conceptual positions we see today everywhere.
Thomas Berghuis & Vincent Huang 黄瑞芳
LEAP: Can you first start by walking us through how you came to work on a project together?
Thomas Berghuis: I can maybe say the first words on how we met, which was in New York last year. Vincent sent me a message, and we met in Manhattan, actually, in hindsight not far from the United Nations headquarters. And he described his work in relation to climate change, which was very interesting and very exciting story, and also with regards to Tuvalu, an island in the South Pacific which I’d heard of through the issue of climate change and seal level rise, but I must say through Vincent’s work I really got this experience of how deep the issue is and how he has been using his art practice bot in terms of the biennales, through the Tuvalu pavilion. The first time Vincent participated was in 2013 in Forte Marghera, which is between here and the mainland of Venice, and it became a really interesting conversation, because we also shared our passion for the Book of Zhuangzi, which is a classical Daoist text, which describes a harmony between man and nature.
Vincent Huang: Yes, we met with this conceptual installation for the Tuvalu pavilion, the second time we participated for the Venice Biennale. We transferred from Zhuangzi philosophy, which Thomas just mentioned is about human with nature as one, living harmony, to against that nowadays especially for climate change, it goes by human impact. And I would like to emphasize, because I am involved with Tuavalu government, the tiny island nation which is located in the South Pacific since 2010. I went there for the first time because I read Ian Fry. He made a very touching speech on the UN Climate Change Summit in Copenhagen, and it led me to research on the tiny island nation. And then I went to Tuvalu doing some art project using local material.
[Kanye West walks by]
VH: So I went to Tuvalu for my project in 2010 and I saw, before I went there, I already researched a lot of the information, but I remember first day I arrive in Funafuti, capital of Tuvalu, is very a big impact for me. I saw sea level rising, the old land, the local coconut tree almost fall down. That is very impactful for me. A lot of young children ask whether that is there future, because they are worried about the sea level rising is faster than their growing speed. So I started to think about being a contemporary artist, what can I do for this tiny island? But Tuvalu, I call an island for the climate crisis. We are living in the image of climate change, especially in the destiny intertwined. So I would like to emphasize that Tuvalu is a very pure and nature without enjoying too much about human modern civilization. So it’s almost a zero carbon emission, but they are facing zero survival crisis nowadays. So I would like to throw my art practice and combine with social sculptors like Joseph Beuys, and extend this to a global and level and try through my art practice not only through the Venice Biennale, but also the UN Climate Change Conference, to get Tuvalu get more international social attention.
TB: So just in brief, also to describe the installation that we’ve created, I just mentioned the Book of Zhaungzi, and it describes in the first chapter a great bird that rises to the sky. And all above him is blue and all beneath him is blue too. So what we’ve created is a land consisting of only sky and world, a land which is perhaps a mythical land, a land that is in this case an environment which a lot of people feel inspired by this environment, startled by it. But behind it obviously is the reality of Tuvalu, which put in 20, 30 of 40 years (climate change is a very difficult science) could indeed consist only of sky and water with the sea level rise and with this issue rising as well. The Tuvalu delegate said yesterday, says its not only about the sea rise in meters; it really goes in inches. It’s already really severely affected. Interestingly, Vincent, in his practice, is combining both the pavilion but also his participation in climate change conferences, the next on in Paris.
LEAP: I think we’re particularly interested in the international composition of the team behind this pavilion. I was wondering whether you both could speak to your relationship between maybe you come from, where you work – Tuvalu, Italy – and how everything came together?
TB: The obvious thing about this installation is that it’s a sinking pavilion, representing a sinking nation in a sinking city. So it makes clear references to Venice, and a lot of people come into space also say that this affects Venice. At a deeper level as well, Vincent just describes, Tuvalu is a pristine island, and it managed to preserve its own culture and its own heritage as well. And I’ve met people from Venice who say Venice used to be like that too. So indeed we see changes in the world, and it makes a link. In terms of myself, when I spoke to Vincent, I was born and raised in Holland, so it made a connection where I was born. In Holland, we know quite a few things with problems of water, so I thought that made an interesting connection and therefore interesting for me to get involved. Having lived and worked in Australia for 12 years, I’ve often felt and written about it as well and did my work curatorially to give Australia a connection to the Pacific, rather than position itself as a boisterous nation or continent, is really connecting Australia to the Pacific and to Asia as well, to see it as an island among an archipelago of other islands. And I thought this project is doing that as well. It’s connecting on that basis. And through my work through Chinese work, I’m of course very interested in artists from Taiwan, and in this case an artist who is I guess who is with his work on climate change he has been quite well known in the mainstream media.
So there have been reports on his work in relationship to climate change. But perhaps what we’re doing here with this rather conceptual installation compared to previous work; before there was more direct references or more black humor type or quick kind of reference that people act upon. We instead approached conceptually, and I hope it shows Vincent’s real qualities as an artist and multidisciplinary as an artist.
LEAP: Vincent, can you tell us what it is like in a way to represent this country as a citizen of another country?
VH: I left Taiwan about ten or twelve years ago and to Scotland to study my masters degree, and I involved in my art practice in vitamin and the climate change. It’s been almost fifteen years already. And in 2009, I heard Dr. Ian Fry. It led me to think about going to do my art practice in Tuvalu and since. So the fist time I visited was in 2010. Then my art practice getting more international media to report, so the prime minister and minister thinking before that they never actually interested in how art can help Tuvalu in the international society to get more attention. But after our cooperation, they realize how contemporary art and how eco art can do more for them. Especially my second time visiting was in 2012, which was the British Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and appointed Princess Kate and visited Tuvalu, because it is a member of the Commonwealth. Princess Kate is a student of art history, so she is very totally understand how contemporary art can combine with climate crisis in Tuvalu issue. So after that our minister and prime minister appoint me as a delegate in the UN Climate Change in Doha in 2012, and Warsaw, Poland in 2013. My art practice not only went to the grand issue of sea level rising, but I also participated in very interesting program hosted by a a New York foundation. We are 18 global artists. We rested in the vessel on boat on the 97th degree, and we sit on the Arctic Ocean for thee weeks. So I try to combine the ice melting and sea rising as well as this time we combine, represent sinking nation in the sinking city, which is Venice. And I think this is another concept connection that I come from Taiwan, which is maybe you know it’s isolated by international politics, but I try to use my art practice to get more connection to assist the tiny island nation of Tuvalu.
TB: It’s also very clear that Tuvalu sees its plea for us to really not only consider but to take action on climate change as not an issue for Tuvalu, but for an issue for the world. So, I think this time the pavilion for us at least connects really well to the overarching theme of the world’s future, which I take very literally with climate change. This is going to affect all the world’s futures. It connects as well the plight of Tuvalu with that of the world, and that is why this pavilion is not only an installation and a few campaigns that we are attaching to it that we see here such as the Paper Smart campaign, but we hope that this becomes a catalyst for future action as well on climate change. Our general manager Andrea Bonifaci is working on a heritage center on Forte Marghera and is now planning over the last few days with the organizers of that district to develop a center for sustainable culture and heritage and the environment. He has been really inspired to do so as part of the work for this pavilion and for Tuvalu. We also want to really lead this pavilion towards the climate change conference in Paris, which opens in the last week of the Biennale, so to sort of form that link.
LEAP: And do you see this kind of international work on the pavilion or transnational thinking as a broader shift in how various Asian nations are presenting themselves at the Biennale, or even a generational shift?
TB: I hope so. I mean, we’ve seen generational shifts in the past. Personally, it was seeing Huang Yongping representing the French Pavilion, as he was not yet a citizen of France. I recall that there was a lot of discussion the French press of a Chinese national artist, even though he lived in Paris, and whether he could represent the French pavilion. I think we’re now far away from that kind of direct discussion. For me personally, a very interesting reference, I believe it was in 2009, the Danish pavilion did an international group show on freedom of speech. It was just after the protest emerging over the political cartoons that were in Denmark. And they decided to invite artists from all over the world, including Asia, to participate in their pavilion.
I think in our case, we’re continuing the latter story more. There’s a global issue which can present itself in a global context. I must say as well and I think for the context in which this is filmed, it’s quite interesting to know that Taiwan, the Republic of China, still has diplomatic relationship with Tuvalu and well as with a few other Pacific Island Nations. So Taiwan, through its diplomatic engagement, has been very involved in climate change action and finding solutions for islands like Tuvalu, which in a broader context is very interesting to compare to the People’s Republic of China and its engagement in the Pacific, which often go into industry and building up heavy industry up on islands and doing their diplomacy that way.
Lee Wengchoy 李永财
LEAP: Could you walk us through how you came to organize this symposium and what you hope to accomplish?
Lee Wengchoy: The CCA is what we’re calling it is a structured conversation. Unfortunately, I don’t know all the reasons. Let me backtrack. I think you have to ask Ute, because she can talk more about it. The CCA, we’re calling it a structured conversation, I think what we’re trying to do here is bring some people together and talk through some of the issues that have come up with Charles Lim’s work but really resonate, you really need a larger lens to think through that. So I think you know some people are saying we’re already getting sick of the framing device of Southeast Asia, but institutions have taken it on quite seriously. In Singapore, you have the Singapore Art Museum in their most biennale focused on Southeast Asia. The national gallery, which is opening soon, also has that purvey of dealing with Southeast Asia. So I think that’s something you have to deal with and confront it and engagement with and think through it. I think what we’re trying to do is not just have representation from Southeast Asia but expand a little bit. So that’s why you have, in addition to Singapore, Indonesia and the Philippines, Hong Kong, Tuvalu, and the collateral pavilion that brings together India and Pakistan which was a surprise to me. Ute was the one who convened the group of people, and my role has been to think about how we actually organize the event. So what we’re doing is asking people one question each, specific questions to each person and a particular kind of sequence. Hopefully that sequence will tell us some kind of story to think through some of the themes that are evident in Charles’ work, but you see them resonate in in so many of the other works as well. So that’s how we got to thinking through the theme the geopolitical and the biophysical. In Charles’ sense, the biophysical really comes when you think about borders on water, and how the water really…. borders always have a relationship with the body, and often it’s invisible. But once you get all wet and need to deal with that big shift, then you become much more aware. So Tuvalu is also of course doing this, so it’s nice to see these kinds of theme resonate in all the different pavilions.
LEAP: Looking at the geographic construct we’ve come up with, it does go beyond Southeast Asia, where you have South Asia and Pakistan included as well. I find it really interesting if Singapore is more a pivot, or is there a broader geographical network?
LW: One of the ways I’ve been thinking about geography for a while is about contingent and lateral situations. When we think about geography, we always think of place as a mediator and images the kind of psycho-geographical, metaphorical geographical images that each country or each place provides… like in Singapore it’s often the island city state, the small thing. And it’s interesting to think about Singapore as an archipelago, because Charles actually does that. The way it’s been reclaiming land, the way it sense of archipelago is disappearing. I mean, it’s gained 20% of its land mass since independence, which is unprecedented. But it’s so small so it happens that way. The Philippines and Indonesia are also archipelagos Thinking about Indonesia because it has a kind of scale and expansiveness, so the way one can use Indonesia to think through Southeast Asia or Asia or globally how can they become lenses to think that. So I think of each place as a lens that can mediate that can distort our ways of seeing place, and how a region is something that has to be continually negotiated rather than your typical geopolitical frame that create categories like ASEAN and so forth. We take it quite seriously, but we also don’t take it seriously.
LEAP: Do you see anything happen in a generational way?
LW: One of the things I’ve been thinking about is generations somewhat, less so in terms of artists than in terms of writers. There’s always so much verbiage that’s getting produced. Whenever there is art there is verbiage about that. I have an interest in attention to that as well. So it’s interesting to see how there have been some shifts in discursive frames that are generational. I’m looking for that. I’m not particularly convinced yet. A friend a colleague Charles Merriweather is exploring that in a book he’s working on, and I’m very curious to see the arguments he makes. I’m thinking specifically about Singapore, but then let’s go further and start thinking throughout the region. And for me, I’m very skeptical. On the one hand, I want to hear what younger voices have to say, if they’re self-identifying with a generational shift. But I don’t want to think to say that there is. So what’s interesting in your question is that rather an empirical one it is epistemological. Rather than saying, yes I think I can tell you the facts in the shifts in generation, I’m waiting to hear how we’re talking about it and how younger artist sand writers might want to identify and see and test their claims.
LEAP: In the same way, how have you seen generally outside of this particular context, how have you seen the Asian and Southeast Asian presence in Venice shifting say over the past ten, twelve years?
LW: Unfortunately for me, it’s my first time here. So I have no direct experience with this, but I do feel that Europe as a whole has had a very clear and intensifying interest not only in East Asia or Southeast Asia and all of Asia, but Southeast Asia seems to be figuring much more. That’s why I mentioned earlier that there was a sense that sometime curators from the region are getting sick of Southeast Asia as a term because it’s actually beginning to get currency. And what’s funnier is that we have an impatience now, that one time, a term, a site, an area gets some interest and then quickly builds up and people start to get sick of it very quickly. And that seems to be something that when we talk about globalization, how we have this intensifying of interest and colonizing different parts of the world, but we also have this, “I’m too cool now I don’t want to talk about that.” I do feel that those kinds of dynamics apply to Southeast Asia. I notice how in Australia, there’s greater interest. The one place I haven’t picked up on it too much is the United States. I know there are more galleries that are trying to represent artist from the region and sell them, I don’t know how successfully, to US buyers. I think strangely while there’s a huge immigrant population in the west coast of the United States, they don’t seem to be looking to Southeast Asia there. Europe is much more consistent and sustained, and Okwui himself has been to Singapore a number of times and has been included in Documenta in 2002, he included artists from Singapore and Southeast Asia. So he’s always had a very expansive, and this Venice, I think people are thinking about this Biennale as a sequel to his Documenta. It’s that discourse. To the extent that this Biennale is also a comment on other Venice Biennales, and Okwui has claimed this, I can’t be a in position to remark on that.
LEAP: And what do you see around this year that may be missing in creating an accurate presentation or representation of Asia?
LW: In terms of how Southeast Asia is being represented are there any kind of patterns or frames that I’ve noticed? I think it’s interesting, because the national pavilion, the representation there is quite strong and has been for a while. It’s been good to see the return of the Philippines after 51 years. There’s so much behind the scenes with that. I see some representation, but I think that regionality doesn’t figure that much. A globalism does, to the extent that I don’t know if any of the particular pavilions really dealt with his concerns when it comes to thinking through capital. I’m trying to recall right now. Very often movement, people think about movement a lot. But not always labor. That was done in Hong Kong I believe. So that was interesting to see again and to think, “here’s an artist taking up that theme.” But the other artists, they seem to be much more interested in geography, migration and less labor. That’s not to say that it doesn’t come up in works, but just this time around, I haven’t noticed it as much.
LEAP: Finally, what would you say is the most interesting space that you’re looking into in your work in right now?
LW: One of the things that I’m thinking about in terms of my work is readers. There’s been a lot of discussion with the way that publishing has evolved especially in the digital age. And people are thinking about…as a middle-aged person, you’re always lamenting the disappearance or the decline of things. Thinking about print publications and what their future are, I guess that sort of resonates with all the future of the Venice Biennale to think about what is the future of publishing. For me I’m also very interested in what is the future of just reading the activity, because very often, if we think about the activity, we think about the art world and how the art world reads. I’m actually interested in the reader, who is this person is. So we think about agency, and in this way we also think about the general read and the general audience, not just reading as a professional activity. As an art critic, I’m very interested in discursive conditions. In my earlier responses, rather than saying how I noticed how there was a shift in generations, I’m interested in how we’re taking about that. So I’m interested in who readers and how they’re reading. And I’d like to do some work where rather than just thinking about producing content to try to do some ethnographic work and find out how people want to talk bout themselves as readers.
LEAP: Could you walk us through how you came to be involved in this project and your role organizing it, and maybe what your preexisting relationships with the artist were like?
Natasha Ginwala: I was invited to work on My East is your West initiated by the Gujral Foundation in New Delhi just after finishing working on the Eighth Berlin Biennale. It’s a very interesting time right now in South Asia with a lot of large-scale events in our region, including biennales. So this step towards representing India and Pakistan through two seminal artists was something that came to mind with Feroze Gujral, who is the director and founder of the Gujral Foundation, along with Motin Gujral, an artist from Lahore, and together they cultivated this idea of having a joint presence at Venice. In that process, when seeking a curator, they decided to involve me in the process. I feel very much that this is much…that this is part of a larger process of activating south Asian presence in the international sphere that isn’t necessarily compartmentalizing it within blockbuster show language. So this is also why it’s very exciting to work on the project. I have known both Rashid and Shilpa’s work for quite long. It’s sort of impossible not to when one is involved in the contemporary arts in South Asia. They’re both very well recognized. Yet their practices have grown incredibly in the last three or four years with a lot of new directions in the forms and the questions that they’re concerned with. It’s an exciting time to work with them. The two artists have known each other for over a decade, and this also has been interesting in terms of working with them curatorially and being in conversation with them.
LEAP: With the project like this one, how do you balance the diplomatic and political needs of the project with artistic and aesthetic considerations?
NG: I should say that in terms of this particular formation of Indian and Pakistani joint presence in Venice, since it is an unprecedented move from the subcontinent, we are treating it much like a blueprint, which is very much an autonomous space from which we would like to work, continue to work from. We’ve had a lot of advice from institutional directors, from various spheres within the art context, including having informal dialogue with certain state led bodies. However, there was this important decision since it is not a national presence to continue to maintain the autonomy and a very, very close intricate dialogue on the artistic method of working on this. And the fact that we have this autonomous palazzo within which we can really develop an exhibition methodology in the ay an artist would feel best serves their current bodies of work we decided also to keep the logistics quite separate from what would have been otherwise a state led project and the scale and everything might have been adjusted if this were the case.
LEAP: Having said that, do you have the blessing or acknowledgement of both governments?
NG: We don’t have acknowledgement from both governments. There are individuals within the governments that know of this project. Sometimes through the artists, and sometimes through the directors of Gujral, Also in the case of Drash Adrana (sic), he’s been supported by the Lahore Biennale foundation. So the news of this project has traveled within the various cities, so there is knowledge of the project but now acknowledgement.
LEAP: Shifting gears, more generally, in the years you’ve been coming to Venice, how have you seen the Asian presence, specifically the South Asia presence, change?
NG: In terms of the statistics, one could say that in at least within the last Venice Biennale there was only one Indian artist, one South Asian artist. And here this time, we see a much broader range importantly, and also in the kinds of practices that are represented from the region. Starting with Raksmi Colector (sic) with a seminal work by them in the Giardini to Naim Mohaman (sic) from Bangladesh based in New York, with his research based methodology, and then you have these urbanists from Bombay as well as Mariam Suhail, who is a fantastic India from Pakistan now based in India. So there is…it’s very encouraging to see this transition within a space of two years already. We had an Indian pavilion in 2007. It disappeared and disintegrated before the next edition came alive, which was quite disappointing for the community within the South Asian context at large. But we hope that the trend is changing for the better, with much stronger involvement and to showcase distinctive approaches within the region.
LEAP: Do you see a generational shift, or do you see yourself as part of a generational shift?
NG: It’s difficult not to see oneself involvement through the basis of a generational shift. There‘s definitely a lot more independent curators, writers, young artists, who are having a deeper involvement with the international scene. And again on equal terms, I think that’s essential to a challenge for all of us, because we are all working very hard against the tide to be compartmentalized as informants to inform of the local scene, to star curators who make very short trips to learn quickly, but instead to be invited to projects and co-curate alongside those who greater experience and institutional authority. So that is something I felt is definitely part of a generation I’m from.
LEAP: And what do you still see as missing in Venice?
NG: I would say that there’s…I still feel that a lot of the attention when it comes to discursive events and engagement is very closely tied in with the main show, which is very interesting in this case, with the arena in the center of the Giardini and with the involvement with e-flux and creative time within this exhibition, but I think what one is trying to do here is also within a collateral event such as ours, to not just make it about the exhibition, but also have programming confidence, and I think that adds a lot of value to what we’re doing. So that’s something that I would mention. I also think it’s interesting to have artists curated exhibitions alongside what are these major national representations of the Danh Voh show that is quite a unique addition to what is happening here.
LEAP: Can you speak a little bit more about what you’re doing as part of public programs for this project? Not specific things, but what you’re trying to achieve.
NG: As part of the public programming of “My East is Your West,” we’ve actually initiated an interdisciplinary form of events which is entitled “Ancestors.” It looks at the space of South Asia, looking into colonial cosmological terrestrial histories in the region, and it does so with a range of practitioners. We’ve already started the public program. This was something very conscious – to use the time of preparation to introduce the concept of show as well as the program within Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and further on in Lahore and in India.
LEAP: Finally, what would you find the most exciting space in your area and expertise? What’s the most exciting place for you to explore? Whether physical, conceptual, regional?
NG: That’s a tough one. When you say conceptual space, what do you mean?
LEAP: Whether there’s a particular idea to work with.
NG: Yeah, I think as a curator, the one definite feature that I’m interested to explore is how one could possibly engage the region at large through a methodology or a program. So for instance, what we did with this Ancestors platform is something that I would like to use in the future as well as a way to travel and have conversations with local arts institutions all across the region. I think we have a very big gap between say the private museum, the art gallery, and these amazing grassroots cultural institutions. So, after working in Europe for a number of years, I actually am trying to think about how to gather with artists and curators from our generation to work much more intricately within the region but not splinter it further. Use it as a whole to make a platform for conversation.
LEAP: Starting at the most general, how have you seen the composition of Asian presence in Venice change over the years that you’ve been here?
Ute Metabauer: I have to say that it was the first time there was a bigger presence beyond the traditional national pavilion of, for example, China, which has always been a presence in the Giardini. There was Harald Szeemann’s Biennale, when there was for the first time a more independent presence of art from China and that was like a lot of interest. And of course, there was always smaller participations here and there, but of course Asia has been seen an enormous change in terms of art and art infrastructure, but also the possibility of international travel.
LEAP: This year in particular, do you see any kind of generational shift happening from Southeast Asia and Asia?
UM: You see both. You have in a certain way and also in the main biennale a recognition of another generation who may have not been recognized before, but is important for contemporary art. Or for really younger generation of artists who grew up in a very different conditions and constellation than artist of the previous generations.
LEAP: What do you think may still be missing in terms of giving an accurate picture of what’s happening in Asia?
UM: I think it’s very difficult sometimes to grasp, but if you see a particular position and you see other things and it pops up like this, it’s not so easy for an audience that maybe has this encounter for the first time. But one obviously hopes that it’s just curiosity. Biennales like this are like that. You see fragments; you see something interesting here and there, and you have the national representations and the main exhibitions and so many collateral events. So you immerse yourself and you suddenly realize this artist is from Indonesia; that’s quite interesting. Suddenly you see that Singapore has been gone; Singapore is now back. Many people do not recognize because they don’t come all the time. But I think definitely the Biennale as such is much more global than, say, 20 years ago.
LEAP: Shifting gears to talk more about your projects. You’ve curated both the American pavilion and symposium. Can you speak to this multinational composition of the pavilion and what is changing?
UM: It has definitely changed. I’m the co curator for the American pavilion, along with Paul Ha at the Center at MIT Visual Arts Center, which has ben the working place for all of us. So it’s more related to MIT List than it is to the United States. There is this natural link. And of course, my new working space is Singapore, and Charles, for example, was in residency for nine months there. He was also one of the group members of Tsunami dot net, which was the youngest artists and art commentator in 2002 to come to Kassel. So I see Charles when I come to Singapore over the year, and then he has done more of a solo career… so it started more token as a German to being in the American pavilion in Singapore but it has to do with the art world. We work more globally. That has changed also.
LEAP: To move towards the symposium here, can you run us through the genesis of the project? Why you organized this, how you came to organize this, and what you hope to get out of it?
UM: That’s very interested, because the national arts council who is supporting the Singapore Pavilion and the Singapore Tourism Board they also wanted to have a different kind of presence and also don’t see Singapore in isolation, but saying Singapore is located in a region that is very vibrancy at the moment. But the rationale was also what is the presence of this vibrancy in the Venice Biennale for example, who has a pavilion, and what is happening here? So this symposium is part of the pavilion and is an extension of the SEA STATE and linking that Singapore is surrounded by the ocean and other countries. And then we discussed it together with Charles and Mustafa. We had a very close relationship. What makes sense as a discourse that expands the SEA STATE project that they are showing in the pavilion. And we don’t want to just do the national representations, the official representations, but also deal with urgencies in the region bringing from the India Pakistan pavilion, the Tuvalu pavilion, and also Hong Kong as a city state – it’s not a country; the country is China. So why do they think a presence here is important for them? We hopefully can discuss this in the symposium, which is much more like open conversation. What we really think we have to do is increase the conversation within the region. What do these presences really mean, where do they stand in terms of local art history but also a contemporary practice, because the exchange is so naturally happen.
LEAP: Finally, what do you see as the most interesting space for your work now? Whether it’s regional, place, or a conceptual idea or an actual institution?
UM: I see us definitely we are located in Singapore, which is great for art because it’s an English speaking country, but is a multicultural society so I can operate there. But Singapore is a small country it’s a young nations so it’s embedded in a longer and larger history of the region and there are many exchanges. And to really highlight this what is the real impact of the history there and the geopolitical there, as we call the symposium. It addresses the geopolitical changes but also the biophysical condition of the region and of this particular countries. And to really understand the location in which we operate as an institution. It’s a university arts center, what can we contribute? What can be our focus? This we have to do together as a region. You cannot do this in isolation. And to expand our experience that we have globally, bring this to Singapore, but also bring what we discover to here and have this dialogue is very critical.
Moon Kyungwon & Jeon Joonho 文敬媛&全浚皓
LEAP: How does it feel to represent Korea at Venice this year?
Moon Kyungwon & Jeon Joonho: The exhibition at the Korean pavilion does not represent the artistic tendency of the country. We felt some responsibility as Korean artists when we started here. But we never thought about where we stood among so many works and artists, or how we should distinguish ourselves as Korean artists. Diversity is key to art, isn’t it?
文敬媛&全浚皓：这次威尼斯双年展对我们非常特别，首先这是韩国馆的20周年，还有考虑到glass pavilion的特性， 所以我们考虑了很久， 如何把韩国馆的特色融入到影像中。但是韩国馆的展览并不代表这个国家的艺术倾向。真正开始做的时候，我们感觉到了更多作为韩国艺术家的责任感。 但我们从没考虑过在这么多作品和参展艺术家中我们应该占据什么位置，或者应该展示的个性。多样性不正是艺术的关键吗？
LEAP: 我想问这个La Town是在纽约也看过，北京我们也看过，那这会不会是最后一站？还是还会继续调整？
曹斐：因为我2007年参加过国家馆，当时是做China Tracy Pavilion，当时基本的想法是希望是不是有一种代表个人的，而在国族之上能代表个人的，所以当时是做了一个secondly project，就是global community，所以在做国家馆的时候可能会想怎么去挣脱国家、国族这个概念，所以当时做的项目是相对针对这个国的概念去超越这个概念。所以我觉得之前参加国家馆，然后再参加主题馆，国家跟主题馆之间的被选择的中国艺术家我觉得也是一种上下文的或者一种互补，像韩国馆它做的作品很超未来或者是一种未来主义的，但是主题馆的韩国艺术家又那么现实，韩国企业工人的抗争，所以你能看到国家馆的选择和主题馆的选择其实是形成两种关系。