Conversation with Qiu Zhijie on April 19 2012, in anticipation of the upcoming 2012 Shanghai Biennale and on the occasion of his visit to New York to attend a symposium called ‘China in Asia/Asia in China’, co-organized by Asia Art Archive in America and Columbia University.
Jane DeBevoise (JD): First of all, my name is Jane DeBevoise and I am delighted to have the opportunity to introduce Qiu Zhijie—professor, artist, and curator, based in Hangzhou and Beijing. Zhijie has traveled here from China for three short days, in order to attend a symposium called ‘China in Asia/Asia in China’, co-organized by Asia Art Archive and Columbia University. But tonight he will talk about the upcoming Shanghai Biennale, which he is curating with Johnson Chang, Boris Groys, and Jens Hoffman. It is an honor to have Boris here tonight, as well as Johnson who is attending via Skype. Qiu Zhijie has been a friend and advisor to AAA since the beginning, so we think of him as part of our extended family. Thank you very much Zhijie, for agreeing to speak to us tonight.
Qiu Zhijie (QZ): Thank you, Jane. Sometimes we need some artists in the family. [Laughter] I am also happy to be here with my co-curators, who are actually, in this case, my professors. They are the real professors. I am just a student. To start this presentation, I am going to show you some images of the space in which the biennale will be presented. It is a new space. Previously, the Shanghai Biennale took place at the Shanghai Art Museum on West Nanjing Road. This year it will move to this huge building, an old power station near the bank of the Huangpu River.
All power stations take more or less the same form, so the style of this new museum, both inside and outside, resembles the Tate Modern, although it may be a bit bigger. The total size is about 15,000 square meters, so it is about four times the size of the previous location at the Shanghai Art Museum, which was about 4000 square meters. And the ceiling height of the new space is five times higher. The old space had ceilings up to eight meters, while the new space has 26-meter ceilings. This is what it looks like now. A construction site. Artists have begun coming to see the space, but they can’t go inside yet. It is scheduled to be finished by July, but that may be ambitious. But things move very fast in China. [Laughter]. So we will see. The Biennale opens on October 1.
So that is the hardware. Now for the software. The title of the Biennale is ‘Reactivation’, and derives from the site in which the Biennale will take place – a power station. Reactivation begins with energy, which comes from natural resources— solar, water, wind…nature. Here are images showing how a group of MIT graduates invented simple ways to capture solar energy, and, using empty plastic bottles, created lighting fixtures.
In addition to the use of nature and energy from the outer world, we can find energy from the inner world. This reminds me of my childhood in Fujian. We didn’t have good heaters, so in the winter, we kids would huddle together, using each other’s bodies to get warm. That led us to think of how energy comes from relationships, from community. The differences between people, between you and me, can become a resource. It’s actually a simple idea. People can become generators. Artists can be generators. Just as energy is boiled out of the collectives, artists can energize society, and in so doing, transform a society. That is the basic idea.
In the Biennale we have four thematic sections. We have ‘Resource’, ‘Revisit’, ‘Reform’, and ‘Republic’. These words and concepts actually form a sentence—‘RE-Form/Public/Source/…’ [We are now in the process of researching our participants. As someone involved in education, as a teacher and a motivator], I feel I am a generator, so we are looking for the Taiwanese Qiu Zhijie, the Singaporean Qiu Zhijie and the American Qiu Zhijie. Here are some of the artists-generators whom we have been talking to: Linda Lai (Hong Kong), Rabi Mroue, Olga Chernysheva, Tris Vonna-Michell, Dani Gal, Simon Fujiwara….
One concept is re-activation, another reconstruction, and yet another is revisit. We want to revisit everyday life, revisit the archive, revisit history. Therefore, we are looking for people like Johnson Chang who are revisiting history in the countryside [through his efforts to preserve and regenerate traditional craft, architecture, and rituals] or even in Shanghai. So we are looking for the Johnson of the Philippines or the American Johnson.
We have talked about ‘Resource’ and ‘Revisit.’ Next is ‘Reform’ and ‘Republic.’ For ‘Reform’, we are thinking of a series of solo exhibitions. Maybe we can have 15 solo artists. This could include older artists, whose whole lives have been a solo project. In the next section is ‘Republic.’ I hope we will include many young artist groups and self-organizations. Artists we are researching include Jiang Zhi, Wael Shawky, Tino Sehgal, and Giuseppe Penone.
Here is the Shanghai Biennale map.
We will use different spaces in Shanghai, not just the power plant. We will also organize some special projects, like academic conferences, workshops, etc. We will also have city pavilions. Right now we are engaged with 35 cities that will possibly join this project.
In addition to the city pavilions and the power station, we will have a series of special [off-site] exhibitions. One project that I am quite excited about is a kind of homage to the city of Shanghai. During World War II, there were 30,000 Jews living in Shanghai. The Israeli photographer, Sam Sanzetti, or ‘沈石蒂’ as he was called, founded four photography studios during his thirty-odd years living in the city. We have found one of his photography studios—the Shanghai Ark Photography Studio, or 上海美术照相馆—and tracked down some of the people who were photographed there. We will arrange an exhibition about the Shanghai Ark at its old location— a really good location at East Nanjing Road, next to the Peace Hotel. It has been empty for six years and is now in the process of being renovated.
Another project is ‘Zhongshan Park Project.’ In Mainland China, there are about 300 Zhongshan parks. Almost every city and town in China has one. In Taiwan, there are about 50 or 60.
Traditional Chinese architecture called tulou and work by Shen Yuan. Photo courtesy of the artist and Qiu Zhijie
For this project, we will start with traditional buildings in China. This work is based on traditional round residential structures and is being constructed by Shen Yuan, an artist based in Paris. We will start from here, because the traditional Chinese public space was the family temple, or maybe the well, and then over time it became the Zhongshan Park. We hope to start a debate about what is [the definition and position] of our public space nowadays. We will start from this point, then we will go to Zhengzhou, Quanzhou, and Xiamen’s Zhongshan Parks. Quanzhou is an interesting example. Quanzhou was one of the most important seaports during the Song and Yuan Dynasties, a hub of international trade. There was a mixing of cultures at this port. We were thinking of inviting scholars and artists to come to Quanzhou to do some research, and maybe create something new. Then we hope to organize an artist from Taiwan to come to Fujian, and arrange for a Fukienese artist to work in Hualien, Taiwan. Also, we will try to show aboriginal artists from Taiwan.
Audience member: Actually, Sun Yat-sen left a lot of traces all over Asia. Like in Singapore, they are building a Sun Yat-sen pavilion for him, because when he started to lead the revolution, he was doing fundraising all over Asia, including in Japan, Singapore, and Hong Kong.
QZ: Yes, he’s like AAA—fundraising for the revolution!
Audience member: This reminds me—there is a Zhongshan Park in Beijing, where a German soldier was killed during the turn of the 20th century. The Germans demanded that the Chinese erect a monument for this soldier, but later it was converted into the Zhongshan Park. No one remembers.
QZ: Finally we hope to bring the results of this research and exchange back to Shanghai’s Zhongshan Park where we will be doing all kinds of projects.
Next I want to talk about the city pavilions, which I will introduce briefly. This is the first year that Shanghai will be organizing city pavilions. If we are successful, it may become a permanent part of the program. I have been told that if I can do ten, it’s enough. But I might try to do about 30 or 35. Sometimes we will work with city governments; sometimes we will work with local museums. For example, in Vancouver, we are working with the Vancouver Art Museum. In Greece, we are working with the city government.
Audience member: Where will these pavilions be located and how can we find them?
QZ: There will be some exhibitions in separate buildings scattered throughout the city. And some will be in the main space. In the power station, we will have ten. The first floor and second floor will be the theme floors. Then the third floor and the fourth floor will have the city pavilions. Then, we have more than twenty big city pavilions outside in different parts of the city. We have curators for each pavilion, so they decide whom to put in their space. We hope there will be many young artists.
Audience member: With up to 30 city pavilions, this looks like a huge project. Did you put out a call for the curators? Did you do something like what the Venice Biennale does and leave it up to the country to choose the artists?
QZ: We have a small budget for each city, to make sure that this can happen. $20,000 to $30,000 can cover a smallish exhibition. But if they want to do something big, something fantastic, then they will have to bring some money. For example, Bombay has asked for the biggest space we can find for them; they have never asked for money.
Sometimes we invite the institution, sometimes we invite the curator. So for now we have ten cities in the power plant, and the support of the Minsheng Art Museum, the Himalayan Art Museum, the Rockbund, and lots of other art spaces in Shanghai. We have a few parks in the mix, and even four buildings on East Nanjing Road.
Audience member: East Nanjing Road? That’s like having space on the equivalent of [New York’s] Fifth Avenue.
Audience member: How did you get these spaces?
QZ: They are free. [Laughter]. I want to try to make the Shanghai Biennale more playful, where people can present whatever they want. I don’t want to control too much. Still, I need to talk to the curators for different cities. They like to discuss their different projects. They want feedback from the team. I just ask them not to make too much trouble for us. Actually, [in terms of restrictions] Beijing is maybe freer than Shanghai. An art piece that can be shown in 798 could have a hard time in Shanghai.
Now I want to talk about this drawing. I actually researched all kinds of power plants. Then I made this drawing.
QZ: This is the map of ‘Re-activation’, which you can actually download from my website. I will give you the link.
Audience member: It’s so beautiful. Can we download it for free?
QZ: Yes, I actually sent this image to the co-curators and the artists to use as a tool. For the Shanghai Biennale, I drew about ten maps, some drawings and some paintings. This is a resource—a community resource, a spiritual resource, and a material resource. Now, let’s go to the Map of Reactivation.
Material, spiritual, and community resources first enter the electrical power station as sources of fuel. Architects and materialists alike go inside and eventually end up in the boiler of ‘Reform’, where the burning of their resources leaves a byproduct of boiler ash — artworks. Some of this material gets exhibited at museums, some is published, and some become academic resources.
Visitors flow through the pipes in the ‘Reform’ boiler, becoming the vapor that drives the turbine, which in turn drives the generator to produce electricity. This vapor represents the process of experiencing art. After this process, the visitors will cool down and enter the ‘Revive’ area, a lake district, where they will reflect on their community and think about using daily objects in a different way. Then they are back to the rebirth of everyday life in the city.
In the ‘Republic’ process, some of the generated energy is input into the city as a pavilion, a museum, a school, and a state. The city also outputs things, including information, production, capital, experiences, and dreams.
Audience member: What’s the size of these maps in real life?
QZ: They’re not so big. Right now, they’re just drawings. Maybe I’ll paint some ink paintings, maybe bigger.
Audience member: Qiu Zhijie, as you know, is a finalist for the Hugo Boss Prize. There’s been an artist from China nominated four previous times.
QZ: The first one was Cai Guo-Qiang, the second one was Huang Yong Ping, the third was Yang Fudong, then Cao Fei.…
Audience member: Where are all the funds for the Biennale coming from?
QZ: The Shanghai government is investing about 3.5 million USD, and we have many sponsors. A Swiss Bank is giving us almost 800,000 USD.
Audience member: What’s the total budget?
QZ: I still don’t know.
Audience member: So each city will pay for its own pavilion?
QZ: No, we pay the basics. But if they want to make something really beautiful, then they will have to bring their own money.
Audience member: Do you think this is a project that the people of Shanghai will care about? Is this event for Shanghai people or is it more international?
QZ: I want to make it more international, but if it doesn’t turn out well, then Shanghainese will complain.
Audience member: Since Boris is here too, can you share some thoughts and what your addition to this chemistry is?
Boris Groys: This is a collective discussion and I would like to bring what I know and am interested in into the discussion. When I was in Shanghai and in some other places in China, I had a feeling that the Chinese art scene was more interested in what happened to the West. At the same time, coming from an Eastern European standpoint, I could recognize a lot of parallels between curatorial strategies, structures of the performances and exhibitions, makeup of the institutions, changes in the development of educational programs and so forth. I thought it would be a good idea to expand this kind of space and to think about some kinds of parallels between other post-communist experiences. There is a growing interest in socialist realism, which had been erased from discussion. And its relationship to not only ideology but also a certain kind of tradition. How has this tradition changed? What is the relationship between capitalism and contemporary art? What is the relationship between the public and the art market? Among other things, of course. Because you know, it’s not only about money; it’s also about economy and certain kinds of artistic practices. There’s a different meaning to this context. For example, even if they are regarded to be compositional and critical here, they begin to function as signifiers of the West and of Western expansion and capitalism there. There’s a change in size and a shift in meanings.
QZ: The Chinese art circle knows the United States and Europe quite well, but even though we come from the same so-called communist or socialist tradition, we don’t really know Eastern Europe. So that’s why I invited Professor Groys, because he knows well what happened in Eastern Europe, and also the Middle East. As for Jens, because his background is Latin America, and he has organized the Istanbul Biennale, he knows quite a lot about Latin America and the Middle East. So we will have a lot of artists from the Middle East and Eastern Europe. Johnson focuses on India—for example, his West Heavens project. I’m more focused on Southeast Asia, so we all have quite different views.
Audience member: How many artists are you aiming to have in the Biennale?
QZ: Traditionally, the Shanghai Biennale has forty to fifty artists. But for this year, no one knows. This year is totally different. For the city pavilions, sometimes they will organize a solo show; sometimes they will organize a group show. So it’s difficult to count.
Audience member: In your theme show, how many artists will there be?
QZ: In my theme show, I’m thinking about fifty, or even seventy or eighty. I want to show more foreigners than Chinese. At the very beginning, it was kind of half and half, but there is always the issue of artists like Huang Yong Ping who is sometimes considered French and artists from Hong Kong who are often categorized as foreign artists.
Audience member: I think your idea is interesting, but I still think that the cities end up being the same old ones that keep getting represented over and over again. Where’s Islamabad? Where’s Kabul? Where’s Nairobi? I see there’s Yemen, so there are a couple of new introductions, but I feel there’s so much more that could still be added. Are you still open to that?
QZ: Yes, of course. I’m totally open. But the Biennale will take place in a new museum and they only have ten people [working there now]. And it’s the first year. The work is enormous.
Audience member: In the last biennale, it was very clear that there were some incongruous inclusions that were probably mandated by, let’s say, friends of government officials. It was a very strange mix in a way.
QZ: Last time, there were three curators. One of them was the director of the museum in Shanghai and another top cultural official. Gao Shiming was the working curator, but he was the youngest one. Each curator could select twenty artists. Gao Shiming wanted to bring more good artists. He tried, but he was in a very difficult position. I’m in a much better position than he was.
Audience member: Why has there been a change? What’s the difference from two years ago?
QZ: The museum director is different, we are moving to a new space, and that new space [the refurbished power station] is going to be a contemporary art museum. The old Shanghai Art Museum is going to move to the China Expo Pavilion, and the building that housed the old Shanghai Art Museum is going to become an historical archive museum. Li Xiangyang is going to be the director of the new contemporary art museum. So there has been a personnel shift and a policy shift, and now a new museum. If I set a precedent, it will become a model and they will follow this model. For example, now they have established an independent organization—it’s the Shanghai Biennale Foundation.
Audience member: And this is new?
QZ: This is totally new. The key decision-makers have all agreed. We will set up the Shanghai Biennale Foundation before October 1st. It’s a totally new system.
Audience member: Building a new infrastructure in Shanghai to support a new network is very inspiring. I am based in Southeast Asia and what I keep hearing is: ‘What is the Venice Biennale to Asia, to Africa, to the Middle East?’ There’s been a lot of discussion about the question of nationality, and how the pavilions are all based upon nationhood. Now I can see that you are proposing a model – an Arsenale-type space and then a series of city pavilions. But this in a way very much mirrors the nationalistic form of thinking. So while I think the city pavilions are interesting, I’m wondering about the longer term. In the process of putting this exhibition together, how much of this nationalistic identity was discussed? My experience of China is that everything is defined according to nationhood, so how is that being twisted inside this exhibition? Can the ideas of nationhood be split? The argument within Southeast Asia right now is that we cannot operate solely along national lines anymore. The Mekong region is an excellent example of how nationhood does not and cannot operate like that. So how is China conceiving of this? I’m interested in how this can be a new model for thinking about the placement of international culture in China.
QZ: The model of the city pavilion is based on the model of the Venice pavilions. But why are we thinking about the city? It’s because I never believed in the idea of nationalism and I want to replace the concept of ‘inter-nationalism.’ Johnson has tried to replace these concepts with ‘inter-Asia’, but I think ‘inter-city’ is more appropriate. Saying goodbye to the nationalist concept, we can now look to the city, which is quite open. For example, we can have Bombay or Hyderabad in the center. And we can also have Berlin and Düsseldorf, but actually I want even smaller cities, like Bandung in Indonesia.
Audience member: And Brooklyn.
QZ: We have to go step by step. But first let’s talk about the energy of the city, not representations of the nation’s culture. We are trying to give up the idea that art is a representation of a nation and the culture of a nation.
Audience member: The city pavilion curators will make their own decisions. One of the problems with what happens in Venice is that there are these national pavilions that show up with artists that have nothing to do with the art scene itself. [They are} chosen by the government as puppet presentations. So what is the distinction here? What will happen when the cities make their own choices of artists?
QZ: If they know it is a national pavilion, they will think more about the representation of national culture. Now they know it’s a city pavilion. It’s already a different situation. It’s easier. Less political. In fact, often the city is richer than the nation. That’s where the money is.
JD: On that note, I think we will bring this part of the conversation to a close. Thank you very much Zhijie. We look forward to visiting the Biennale in the fall.
QZ: Thank you.
Disclaimer: All the watermarked images are the exclusive property of their respective owners. Asia Art Archive in America does not hold copyrights to them.
QIU ZHIJIE Born 1969 in Zhangzhou, China, Qiu Zhijie lives and works in Beijing. He graduated from China Academy of Art, Hangzhou in 1992. He works in a variety of media, including calligraphy, painting, photography, video, installation, and theater. He has had solo exhibitions at numerous institutions, including Zendai Museum of Modern Art, Shanghai (2008); Haus of World Culture, Berlin (2009); and Ullens Contemporary Art Center, Beijing (2009). He has participated in exhibitions such as the 53rd Venice Biennale and the 25th Sao Paulo Biennale. He curated ‘Phenomena and Image’ (1996), ‘Post-sense Sensibility: Alien Bodies and Delusion’ (1999), ‘Long March, A Walking Visual Display’ (2002), and ‘Archeology of the Future: The Second Triennial of Chinese Art’ (2005). He is currently Chief Curator of the 9th Shanghai Biennale (2012), as well as professor and Director of Total Art Studio at China Academy of Art.
Transcribed by Stephanie Hsu.