CANTONBON: A Case Study of Locality, Autonomy and Hybridity since 1993

Librairie Borges Institut d’Art Contemporain, Yile Road, Guangzhou, China. Image courtesy of Chen Tong.

Apr 2, 2015
Asia Art Archive in America
Transcribed by Hilary Chassé and edited by Jane DeBevoise

Xiaofei Mo (XM): It’s a great pleasure to have Chen Tong here. It is the first time he’s visited New York. Chen Tong was one of the first people in China to start an independent art space, Libreria Borges in 1993, and it is still very active. Also here tonight is Wang Jing. Wang Jing is finishing her Master’s degree at the Bard Center for Curatorial Studies where she has recently curated a show focusing on Chen Tong’s practice and radiating out to other artists’ practice in Guangzhou as well as in New York. Thank you both for coming tonight.

Wang Jing (WJ): Thank you Jane and Xiaofei, and all of you for coming here tonight. By way of a little background, I would like to say that before coming to Bard College, I worked at OCT Contemporary Art Terminal in Shenzhen which is an art center founded by a local real estate company. I also from time to time worked with some smaller arts spaces in China, including CANTONBON, Chen Tong’s institution. Coming to Bard, I have had the opportunity to learn about different kinds of institutional practice, in London, New York and in the Netherlands. My thesis exhibition is based on this experience and interest, and that’s why I wanted to introduce CANTONBON, Chen Tong’s unique space, to New York audiences. CANTONBON is the over-arching name of several spaces and includes a bookstore, a contemporary art institution, a gallery, and a library. To research CANTONBON, I talked at length to Chen Tong, emailed him many questions and spent almost two months at his space, as an intern, studying his archival materials and working with his staff. I also conducted a video interview with him. The challenge for me was how to contextualize CANTONBON for New York audiences and in the CCS gallery space. So included in the exhibition are interviews, posters, proposals, and documents. But the exhibition is not merely an archival exhibition; I also included two of Chen Tong’s video art works and four of his ink paintings. For me, the archival material I brought from the CANTONBON’s space and Chen Tong’s artworks are inter-linked; they are all connect to his institutional practice. I’m interested in the relationship between his practice as an individual artist and as the director of an art institution. Because I am interested in comparing different kinds of institutional practice, I also included in my exhibition interviews with people from two other non-profit organizations. One was with Claire Montgomery, the director of Location One, an alternative art space in New York from 1999-2013. The other was with Marieluise Hessel, whose donation of art to Bard College in the early 1990s was a foundational gift for the Center. Ink on paper works from Bard’s collection were also included in my exhibition, notably works by Paul Chan, Kiki Smith, Dan Miller, David Shrigley, and William Copley. Included also was artwork by artists who have collaborated with CANTONBON — Xu Tan, Lin Yilin, and Zhou Tao. These last three artists are from Guangzhou, same as Chen Tong. So in this space I tried to suggest a network of institutional relationships through artwork, archival materials, and interviews. Finally, during the exhibition opening I invited Chen Tong to do some paintings in the exhibition venue. But it wasn’t just a performance; he actually finished a small scroll that was a commission from one of his collectors. For me, Chen Tong’s traditional Chinese painting and his video artwork are closely related to his institutional practice, and it’s not just because by selling his paintings, he sustains the CANTONBON. Rather, I see his concept and his work as a kind of contemporary art action — one that makes many connections and crosses many borders. Now I would like to turn it over to Chen Tong who will show you a video art work that he made for my exhibition. This video reveals the relationship between his traditional painting and institutional practice.

Chen Tong (CT): This video is actually the second in a trilogy of work that I’ve made for CANTONBON. In the first video I played a policeman, in the second I played a thief, and in the third one I’m going to be a liar. Now I’ll briefly introduce the history of the institution. CANTONBON was founded in 1993, as the bookstore Libreria Borges, but in 2007 we moved into the house you just saw [in the video] and became an independent institution. At this point the number of staff expanded very quickly. There are three stages in the development of CANTONBON. 1994-2001 was the beginning. We were in a trial period during which we organized irregular mostly small-scale programs. From 2002-2006 we collaborated a lot with Guangzhou-based artists and worked with Hou Hanru on a project he curated called ‘Canton Express.’ The ‘Canton Express’ activity concluded around 2005-2006, after which we obtained the space we have now and started planning the programs more consciously.

Image courtesy of Chen Tong. Book publishing is one of the major activities of CANTONBON, but in addition we also organize reading groups and other events around books. The titles we publish are not just about contemporary art, but also cover literature, philosophy, and other subjects. Another area of our work is archiving, including a project for an artist and a good friend, Liang Juhui who passed away in 2006. We have created a very detailed archive of his life, including his education, art, family, and work. We have tried to attend to every single detail, as accurately as possible. He was a member of a group called Big Tail Elephant. We also archive material related to the nouveau roman and to our own institution. In fact we have kept every single receipt and all traces of our existence.

Video Bureau, Beijing. Image courtesy of Chen Tong.

Another of our projects is Video Bureau. Video Bureau does not belong to CANTONBON, but I have funded it. It’s a video archive in collaboration with Fang Lu and Zhu Jia, two video artists from China. In terms of contemporary art, we collect and display a small number of artworks and we’re preparing to open a small gallery in Guangzhou. But the major thing we do, actually, is hospitality. We send people who visit Guangzhou to the airport, pick them up, and give them any local support they need. If an artist says to us ‘oh I can just take a taxi myself,’ I’ll say ‘No, we have a driver already and he has to work!’ So we’ll send him to the airport. The last thing we do is organize workshops. One important project is the French literature translation workshop, and we are also preparing an art writing workshop. From the PowerPoint here you can see five themes. Because a major part of our work focuses on hospitality, we sometimes call ourselves an ‘art service organization.’ But we also publish hundreds of titles of books and have organized over 40 programs – including readings, theater performances, and public education. However, the area where I think we have contributed the most is probably Video Bureau. In three years we’ve collected more than 700 video works. Regarding numbers, we have 17 people working in the bookstore in CANTONBON and seven working in Video Bureau, and on average our annual budget is around US $500,000. All the funding comes from selling my painting and one of the good things about China is you don’t need to pay taxes when you sell your paintings. I actually don’t need to file taxes because my personal [reportable] income is actually less than $12,000. The lack of taxes is one of the great benefits of living in China, and that’s one of the reasons we started this non-profit. If we don’t have to pay taxes, we’ll happily use the money for something else, such as supporting CANTONBON.

Liberia Borges bookshop in Yile Road (exterior), 2004. Image courtesy of Chen Tong.

Here are some images taken in the daytime. This is the exterior of the building, but I might lose this space next year.

Liu Gangshun, 1994’s Libreria Borges, oil on canvas, 2004. Image courtesy of Chen Tong.

This is a painting of the first bookstore that we opened in 1993. It’s an oil painting by a friend who later wanted to sell it to us for 60,000 RMB. In 2006 we moved to a new location on Yile Street, in downtown Guangzhou. There we organize a lot of readings.

Theater production at Libreria Borges, 2014. Image courtesy of Chen Tong.

This image was taken from one of the theater performances we organized last year. The female actress [you see in this image] is the wife of Alain Robbe-Grillet [Catherine Rstakian]. She’s 84 years old now.

Image courtesy of Chen Tong.

In this image we were reading a script from a Communist writer and we dressed up like the characters in the play.

Image courtesy of Chen Tong.

This is Video Bureau’s space in Guangzhou. We organized an exhibition with Fang Lu in the Guangzhou space.

Chen Tong, CANTONBON’s Learn from Bethune-Send Books to the Countryside, 2009, installation. Image courtesy of Chen Tong.

This is a super bicycle that I made. I used the material from the two bicycles to make this one, and didn’t add any extra material.

Chen Tong, The Investigating Institute, video, 2011 (shot by Li Jianwen). Image courtesy of Chen Tong.

This is an image from first of the video trilogies that I made. In this one I play a policeman and here I am questioning my staff; it’s over an hour long, so unfortunately we cannot watch it today.

WJ: The title is The Investigating Institute.

CT: We are going to publish a book; it’s over a thousand pages — a complete transcript of the whole video, so you can browse through it very quickly without watching the video.

WJ: How do you make these videos?

CT: It only took me one second to conceptualize this piece. In an instant I knew was going to play a policeman and what kinds of questions was going to ask. So I called a police friend and asked to borrow his uniform. Then I called a photographer. There was no rehearsal; we just started shooting right away. For the video we just saw, it took me a month to think of the whole process, but once we finalized the details, it only took me a few minutes. I didn’t think I would be able to introduce the CANTONBON in a clear way so I came up with this narrative device to introduce my institutional practice. In the process I might even include some self-criticism. For instance, the empty box you saw [in the video] is a self-criticism of my archiving process. Sometimes one takes shortcuts by throwing things into boxes, even though the material doesn’t belong there. I haven’t yet thought about the third piece in the trilogy, the only thing I know is that it will be a video.

WJ: Your video work combines the traditional Chinese painting theory with how you run an institution. For me it asks questions about institutional practice. What do you think?

CT: Selling Chinese painting is one way to fund an institution, but it also relates to how I think about my institution. Since coming to New York and seeing a lot of art spaces, it has become clear to me that everyone runs their space in their own way; there’s not a consistent or shared model. Xu Tan once said that selling artwork to self-fund an institution is a very contemporary practice. I still think there are contradictions with it. So the way I deal with the contradictions is to be transparent and straightforward, and to present it as it is. One of my personality traits is that I’m very good at noticing [taking advantage of] opportunities. For example, I brought this scroll to New York for no obvious reason — it was very small and I thought it would be easy to carry. The ink painting that I made represents my working method very clearly. Here you see a rural village where people are gathering to watch a movie. In rural villages you have to bring the movie to the people. It’s very different from a venue like MoMA to which everyone from around the world comes to looks at work. The bicycle that I showed you is used to bring the books to the roadside. We need to bring the books or movies to different places. I was talking about opportunities. I didn’t come here and decide to make a painting about watching a movie. I was actually required to paint a scene about watching a movie. But I took advantage of this opportunity. After I go back to China I will tell the collector that there’s extra value in this painting because it was shown in an American museum and I will tell him about the project.

Audience member: How much do you get for this painting?

CT: This one is actually very cheap; it costs less than 3,000 RMB. I actually dated it 2014, which was last year, because that was the price level last year. I was doing a favor for a friend of mine.

XM: Previously you had mentioned to me that you feel there’s probably a contradiction between social engaged practice and being an artist.

CT: In China it’s very rare for an artist to spend his own money to support an institution. There are a lot of artists who are much richer than I am but none of them actually spends their own money to support [non-profit] organizations. [I understand that it probably] doesn’t make sense to be an artist and an institutional director at the same time, just like being an artist and a social worker doesn’t make sense. They are fundamentally different roles, so if you want to be both you will have to be a saint. Confucius needed 3000 students, which relates to my feelings about my activity. I like a big audience whenever I organize anything, because similar to Confucius, I hope that several people from this audience of thousands will become famous artists or significant scholars. Unlike in a museum where you don’t know who your audience is, I have to know mine. I have to know that at least a couple people are or will be significant, people I can talk to and have a dialogue with. For that reason we have some requirements about the size of the audience and we will focus on ‘things themselves’ and the theory. I want to explain about what I mean by ‘things themselves.’ For example, if I’m cleaning this table, then ‘the thing’ is ‘I’m cleaning this table’; it doesn’t matter if Jane praises me or gives me some kind of reward. It doesn’t even matter what is the function of a clean table; that’s what I mean by the ‘thing itself.’

Audience Member: The way that non-profits increasingly work is in the U.S. is that they taking on some of the outsourced duties of the government, for example, arts education, as arts funding gets slashed. In other words, arts education gets outsourced to these non-profit contractors. My question is do you see such a trend or possibility happening in China? Do you have an opinion on non-profits doing the work traditionally done by the government?

CT: I think this phenomenon definitely exists and non-profits take up some of the responsibilities of the government. In my case I collaborate with governmental organizations, such as diplomatic agencies, like with the French Embassy or other embassies. However, I won’t take jobs just because they are assigned to me. If I’m already doing something and they’re interested in working on that, then that’s fine. Going back to the table analogy, I’ll only clean my table and not others.

WJ: I have one more question for Chen Tong because I think this is related to what we talked about today in terms of locality. Chen Tong, you mentioned that after the Canton Express project concluded, many Guangzhou artists and institutions separated, and went off, on their own, to do their own thing. In my interview with you, you said you don’t think that Cantonese contemporary art still exists. Can you talk about that?

CT: In response to the question about locality, we work in Guangzhou (otherwise known as Canton), and during the Canton Express project we used Guangzhou as a social context, but later I realized that this was pretty much an illusion, because when artists got successful, or for other reasons, they moved to Beijing or to New York, and this so-called social context of ‘Canton-ness’ disappeared. I also realized that identifying a social context often signifies a certain kind of weakness. For example, you would never call New York ‘local’ or Beijing ‘local.’ Yet I’m not saying that we’re international. I guess the bottom line is that I’m very Cantonese; I’m probably more Cantonese than Cantonese art.

XM: Well, I am afraid we have run out of time, so I just want to thank you Wang Jing and Chen Tong, and thank you all again for coming this evening.


Chen Tong (b. 1962, Hunan, China) works as artist, curator, critic, writer and editor in Guangzhou. Since 1986, Chen has been teaching at the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts. Besides CANTONBON’s projects, Chen launched the Encyclopedia of Experimental Art (EALS) in 1992 and co-established a publishing studio Collection Minuit in 1997. He Received Chevalier des Arts et Lettres from French Ministère de la Culture in 2009. Chen’s work has been presented in exhibitions such as the 2nd & 3rd Guangzhou Triennial (2006, 2008) , the 50th Venice Biennale (2003) and ‘Pause,’ the 4th Gwangju Biennale (2002). He is author of the books Crazy Drawing (2006), Manet’s Railroad (2004), For the Sketch (2003), Everybody’s World – Life and Art in France (2003) and On Sketch (2001).

Wang Jing (b. 1982, Guangdong, China) currently lives and works in Guangzhou and New York. She received her B.A. and M.A. in Art History from Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts, and currently an M.A. candidate 2015 at Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College. From 2008 to 2013, Wang worked as project manager, editor and curator at OCT Contemporary Art Terminal in Shenzhen. Her curatorial practices include ‘Footnotes and Out of Writing: Evocation, Action, Territorialization’ (New York, 2014), ‘Go,’ the First Exhibition of OCAT Youth Project (Shenzhen, 2010), and ‘Departure: Contemporary Art Exhibition of Guangzhou,’ Shenzhen, Hong Kong and Macao (Shenzhen, 2008). Her writings have been published in BOMB, Artforum (Chinese online version), Gallery, ARCHITECTURAL WORLDS, and The Bund among others.


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