Sophie Calle, Voir La Mer, 2012, installation view, the Power Station of Art, Shanghai

This discussion between co-curator of the Shanghai Biennale Jens Hoffmann, independent curator Biljana Ciric, and artist Hu Yun reflects on Hoffmann’s curatorial involvement in the 2012 Shanghai Biennale, and on the role of exhibition makers in Chinese institutional structures. Specifically, it aimed to initiate dialogue on the institutional models that can work in a China-specific context, and furthermore, on how international curators who come to China perceive their actual role.

Hu Yun and Biljana Ciric We would like to start with a very simple question that came to us after seeing this year’s Shanghai Biennale and last year’s Istanbul Biennial, which you co-curated with Adriano Pedrosa. Although both were collaborative in nature, they possessed very different outcomes. What were your initial expectations in taking on the role of co-curator of the Shanghai Biennale?

Jens Hoffmann Biennials are always portrayed as exhibitions that all have the same characteristics. They supposedly have to be large-scale, global overviews of the latest that contemporary art has to offer. When you compare the 12th Istanbul Biennial with the 9th Shanghai Biennale, you will see that biennials can actually be very diverse and very different from one another. Istanbul was a very detailed, highly thorough, and precisely installed and selected exhibition. I was, for 18 months, working with one curator whom I had known for over ten years, whom I had worked with before, who has been a conversation partner for a very long time. We worked in a situation that was highly professional, that allowed Adriano and myself to make all decisions, from the title, the venues, the layout, the design, and the artists, to the publications and the events around it. We had full control. In Shanghai I worked with three other curators, none of whom have much experience in making exhibitions on this scale. One was an artist, one a philosopher, and the other an art dealer and cultural entrepreneur. All three are very knowledgeable and we had a great time putting the show together but it was a totally different experience and outcome. In Shanghai we had about eight months to make the show happen in a museum that did not exist yet, with a lot of bureaucracy around us, with a big lack of transparency in terms of who was making the final call on things. In the end I felt more like a curatorial advisor then a real curator. I enjoyed the experience a lot, it was so chaotic and in many ways the total opposite to how I usually work. I knew that China would be different and in many ways it was what I expected. The show is not very clear, the ideas not very developed, the installation not the way I would do it, but the show has a lot of energy and a lot of great artworks. I am happy with what it is, since I know what we went through to get there. It is hard for me to imagine what someone from the outside will see in this show.

HYBC Many people from many different fields, upon coming to China, will, as you do, describe the situation here as chaotic. The energy that you mention is something that this chaos brings: a certain dynamic that many other places do not have. Some people are tempted to enjoy the open-ended possibilities of this dynamic, but this may lead to serious issues when working professionally in the field, when dealing with exhibition-making seriously. One issue for us is the relevance of the works in the local context. What does it mean if an exhibition has many great works that do not really work together, when you don’t see any relation between them?

This leads to questions on the positioning of roles in which the China-specific situation places us. Due to the institutional structure and hierarchy of China’s museums, the position of the curator is marginalized basically to the point of invisibility. From your working experience on the Shanghai Biennale, how would you locate the position of the curator within this specific structure?

JH I don’t think it is possible for a non-Chinese to be the curator of a biennial like this without major help from locals. The idea that a Chinese curator leads a team of non-Chinese curators makes sense to me. There was a lot of respect towards the work we did and our ideas and most of it was implemented. I did not feel marginalized at all. This is not a question of China or not China— it is a question of different curatorial visions. The chief curator was an artist, an artist who is interested in dealing with exhibitions but with perhaps less interested in fully thinking about curating and exhibition making. I have a very particular vision that cannot be realized if I have to work with three other people I barely know. In a case like that I step back and support the overall idea by suggesting artists that I think work well within the overall premise of the exhibition. I help with the selection of works and the installation. For me this whole undertaking was an anthropological experience. I was interested in understanding, or at least witnessing, the organization of human social and cultural relations in a totally different place than the one I usually operate in, Europe and the Americas.

HYBC The issue of marginalization of the curatorial role in the previous question did not refer to your specific position in the Shanghai Biennale, but the position of the curator and her role within the institutional structure of China’s state museums and most private museums. As you yourself mentioned in first answer, the issue of transparency— of who is making the final decisions— is something not only you had to deal with, but the whole curatorial team as well. And that, according to my experience working in China, has to do with a structure in which there is very little space for curatorial work. It would be great if you could offer your opinion on this, which I think is one of the crucial issues not only specific to this biennial, but to China’s institutions in general. Another issue is, again, artist selection. In working under conditions that clearly do not fulfill your own criteria of exhibition making, not knowing the other three curators’ work, and being in the very unfamiliar context of China, how can you actually recommend artists, artworks, and your thinking behind these choices?

JH I am honestly not that concerned with what happens to curating in China, who is in charge, who is marginalized, or what the institutional structures are there. This is for the Chinese to figure out eventually. I had a very eye-opening experience there but it was an experience that was very personal. I did not gain anything else from being involved in this project other than knowledge of another context and another country, and I did not enter the process having any other expectations or objectives. It does not add anything to my career or my CV, it is not prestigious like Venice or Kassel. It was an experiment I did because it was also possible to do things in Shanghai we could not do in Venice or Kassel, and it was a great way to understand a different culture. I knew that I would not be able to do a show there the way I usually do, but that it would be rewarding in other ways. I left Shanghai with a really good experience, one that I am still processing.

The chief curator proposed the theme of “reactivation” and I asked a group of artists that I worked with in the past if they would be interested in thinking about this theme in relation to their work. Many of them responded and came up with ideas that made sense in this context. Most of them did so because of the relationship I have with them and because they wanted to experience working and exhibiting in China. It was all really driven by curiosity and a sense of adventure, and I honestly prefer it to a biennial like Venice, because it is more pioneering and the rules are different.

HYBC In Institution for the Future, your text “Future Perfect” discussed an upcoming project in MOCAD that you are working on, describing it as in-depth examination of other innovative art institutions internationally. I believe that these included institutional models from Asia. During your research for the Shanghai Biennale, did you come across institutional models in China that you found interesting ?

JH There are institutions in Asia that we are looking at for the research at MOCAD. To mention just a few: San Art in Ho Chi Minh City, Asia Art Archive in Hong Kong, and a bit further west, the Beirut Art Center. And there will be others. I did not come across innovative institutional work in China— maybe I missed it but it seemed that curating and institutional work in China are still in very early stages, and that there is too much government involvement in museums and art centers for them to develop more radical and experimental programming. (Translation by Connie Kang)