A contemporary approach to tradition
“A Contemporary Approach to Tradition” is the title of the second in a series of interviews with foreign curators working inside and outside of institutions in China and Hong Kong. Each curator interviewed has a distinct relationship to China’s contemporary art scene—as well as to ideas of local community building and international cultural exchange. The first interview in the series, “What does it mean to be International Today?” was with Kate Fowle, International Curator at the Ullens Center for Contemporary At in Beijing, China.
This interview is with Zoe Butt, Director of International Programs at Long March Project in Beijing, China, a dynamic and multi-layered arts organization founded in 1999/2002 by the artist, curator and writer Lu Jie. Zoe, a Chinese-Australian curator, previously worked at the Queensland Art Gallery in Brisbane, Australia. Since 2007, she lives in Beijing, and travels regularly within Asia.
I interviewed Zoe on May 26, 2008, to talk about her research and travels in Asia, her current work at Long March Project, and particularly how the contemporary art exhibitions and projects she works on relate to tradition and historical legacy.
SOFIA: Before you took the position of Director of International Programs and Curator at Long March Project in Beijing, you had been working on different projects in and around Asia, within and outside of museum structures. Let’s begin this exchange by your work in Ho Chi Minh City.
ZOE: My work there is two-fold. I have personal projects there, and also collaborative work through Long March Project. You might ask me instead what drew me to Saigon. (Although it is officially called Ho Chi Minh City, the locals still fondly refer it as “Saigon,” and I commonly use both names interchangeably.)
Prior to moving to Beijing last summer, I had been assisting in the development of the Contemporary Asian Art collection for the Queensland Art Gallery in Brisbane, Australia. I had also been working on the Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art, which is organized by that gallery. I worked there for nearly 7 years. During this time, I had the unique opportunity to research a very broad area of contemporary Asian art practice. My research also extended to India, Pakistan, Indonesia, The Philippines, the Pacific Islands, etcetera. Aside from Thailand and China, Vietnam was of particular interest to me. It was also then that I realized how little writing about the contemporary art scene in Vietnam was available, and how little knowledge of this scene was able to be tapped into.
As a parenthesis, I’d like to add that at the time I was also disappointed with the lack of in-depth curatorial research allowed even by major regional exhibitions and triennial undertakings, like the one by the Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art. It became clear to me that if I wanted to continue researching in the field and learning about subjects that truly interest me, I had to pave the way myself.
Now, to continue to the point: the first time I traveled to Vietnam was November 2007. I got an Arts Management Asialink Residency to spend 3 months working with Sàn Art, an independent artist-run gallery space and reading room in Ho Chi Minh City. (I left the Queensland Art Gallery last summer to work for Long March Project; although I was based in Australia when the residency was awarded, I was already living in China when I undertook the residency.) At Sàn Art, I curated a small group exhibition called Diary of a Traveling City (January 25-February 14, 2008). In Vietnam, there is a strong division between those people who have never left that country, those who are living away from their native-town and Vietnamese refugees who have returned to live and work there. The art community is quite fractured in this sense, and it was this very topic that the exhibition engaged with. This was also the discussion topic in an afternoon of debate, titled Living the Local, that I organized in conjunction with the exhibition. I think the overall project was successful because it brought together four disparate communities; it brought them together for that project and consequently they’ve since continued to interact.
SOFIA: It seems that building an art collection entails a very different set of responsibilities and working dynamic in comparison to the kind of curatorial work that you are practicing today.
ZOE: Yes, indeed, it’s a very different type of work. And leaving the Queensland Art Gallery was a big decision. The contemporary Asian art collection there is the most significant collection in the world, and my job there was the only one of its kind in Australia. It was a tremendous experience to have worked at that gallery, and particularly to have worked in the formation of that collection. But, ultimately, I was ready to move on. In the curatorial projects I had undertaken since 2005, I began realizing how much of a buzz I got out of working directly with artists. I also realized I wanted to work for smaller grass-root organizations who cared deeply about what they do, who understood that contemporary art practice had something to say for a broader community–that it wasn’t just mere entertainment as many major public art institutions are forced to do for justifying the expenditure of public funds. Long March Project invited me to work on developing programs for an international context, an interest I clearly had. Independently from this, I think my museum background is hugely beneficial to the work I am currently doing now.
SOFIA: Can you talk more about the international-specificity in your work—what does it mean for Long March Project and in China?
ZOE: This is a very good question to focus on. I started working as Director of International Programs and Curator of Long March Space. This was a deliberate title given by the founding director, Lu Jie, as he wanted me to train the staff on collection management concerns, international curatorial standards, etcetera, but he also wanted me to initiate, coordinate and implement all of Long March Project’s programs occurring outside of China.
The conversations Lu Jie and I had that largely defined this position revolved around the very question of “What is international?” I was frank about my feelings towards the constant narcissistic gaze of Chinese contemporary artists, and my anxieties about that. I was also very much aware of the continued, dare I say colonial gaze northward for artistic validation in China by artists and curators alike. These are things that I still think about, that I ask myself. Long March Project is also constantly questioning the relations between artistic production, art market and cultural value—many if not all the projects that we do challenge this.
I believe in the potential that China has a unique role to play in the development of contemporary Asian art, and the re-writing of its artistic histories. And, so, I proposed to assist in developing an international program entailing Long March Project to work broadly across Asia. As it turned out, Lu Jie had similar thinking and anxieties.
SOFIA: I also think China can play that role seriously, and it’s clear that this is already happening. Various signs point to this, such as the number of Asian galleries setting-up franchises in Beijing—galleries originally from Taiwan, South Korea, Indonesia, etcetera—and more recently the way in which regional art fairs use the term “international” to describe a focus in the broader Asia. Of course, many Western galleries are setting new spaces there as well, and this is certainly another sign.
ZOE: In what concerns the re-writing of histories, I think there is a real need to remind younger generations of artists of their cultural past, and the ways in which their heritage has shaped particular Western artistic movements.
SOFIA: Are these voices some that you can identify? Who are some of these writers or curators?
ZOE: In 2003, I became involved with a group called “Comparative Contemporaries” initiated by Lee Weng Choy at the Substation in Singapore. The group was made up of a loose network of individuals, largely from South East Asia, such as TK Sabapathy, Patrick Flores, Eileen Legaspi- Ramirez, Sharmini Pereira, Gridthiya Gaweewong, and many, many more. We got together first in 2003, and the main purpose was to discuss how the history of the region was currently understood, and to think now local histories and particular contexts could better be shared and discussed locally and abroad, as well as accounted for in Western art historical narratives. Today, Asia Art Archive coordinates the project; they have dedicated resources to the collating of materials.
SOFIA: There seems to be a common thread that transverses your work from Queensland Art Gallery to Comparative Contemporaries to Long March Project, and this is something like an awareness about what is being produced, experienced and interpreted locally and globally–and these voices as two currents. Are there any exemplary voices or work being done there or elsewhere that have closed this gap? By “exemplary” I mean if you can point those that have been influential to your practice.
ZOE: There are particular artists and curators whose work is of immense interest and influence to me, such as curator/writer Gridthiya Gaweewong (Thailand) who started Project 304 in Bangkok; curator/writer Sharmini Periera (Sri Lanka/UK), whose worked closely with prominent international artists and has just started an independent curatorial publishing project called Raking Leaves; Artist Dinh Q Le (Vietnam), who lived in the US and at his return to his native Vietnam co-founded Sàn Art with three other Vietnamese artists, Tuan Andrew Nguyen, Ha Thuc Ohu Nam and Tiffany Chang; and curator/artist/writer Lu Jie (China), founder of Long March Project. Spaces like Sàn Art and Long March Project emerged to address a need to engage artists on local and international levels.
SOFIA: I’d like to talk a bit about the multiple roles that Long March Project has as an institution and broker. It’s set-up is very particular: it has the program of a grass-roots artist-run space, the staff number of a small museum, and its funding partially drawn from sales, like a commercial gallery, and partially from fundraising, like a nonprofit. How does this work institutionally?
ZOE: In China, and across most of Asia, there is no such thing as “not for profit” status. The current working structure of Long March Project is very unique and a constantly changing. It’s a mobile entity institutionally. We have an exhibitions department, curatorial department, marketing department and administration, and still we all work together as a team on all aspects of programming. For each project underway, certain staff are designated keepers of particular roles. Staff working on conceptually-driven, not for profit projects, will also find themselves involved in shows that are pivotal to Long March Project’s philosophy but also to its financial well-being and thus are market-focused. So, the everyday at Long March Project is quite unusual. You are constantly shifting from conceptual discussions about artistic intent to others about market concerns. All these discussion and dilemmas makes for very interesting work.
Also, take in mind that a lot of the work we do has an educational focus, and we are very careful about how we apply for funding in this vein. For example, in applying for funding from various external foundations and grant bodies, we always make it very clear what these funds will be used for and how. For example, up until this point, the Ford Foundation and the Prince Claus Fund have been instrumental in our development of our ongoing work in Yanchuan County, China, and also the Yan’an project in 2006.
SOFIA: What did the investigations in Yanchuan lead to?
ZOE: The Great Survey of Paper-Cutting in Yanchuan County began in 2004 as a survey and art project looking at the long-held tradition of paper cutting art in Shaanxi Province. Over 15,000 paper-cutting pieces were collected and now form an archive held in the Long March Project Collection. In undertaking this, Long March Project realized and acknowledged local voices alarmed at how few young people were continuing this art making tradition. Thus, the Yanchuan Paper Cutting “Curriculum” began. The curriculum is currently implemented in primary schools, and we are now working with local government workers in developing a course for secondary school.
This particular project is interesting for how it challenges what defines “the contemporary,” something that is of interest to me and many other curators and writers working here. How can tradition be re-interpreted, re-considered as an important cultural asset? Attempting to provoke, rock the boat, stir the pot the wrong way, in order to get a re-negotiation of what is in front of us is one of the many challenges pivotal to Long March Project.
SOFIA: I really like this topic on tradition. It brings back your earlier comment about historical legacy.
ZOE: Cultural and social engagement plays a central role in various projects, for example, in 800 Meters Under / Blind Spot. Since 2004, Long March Project has been working with artist Yang Shaobin on this major long-term project. Yang Shaobin comes from a mining family, and has always been greatly concerned about the conditions in those working environments, and on what effects it has on the body, psychologically and physically, and on society. The artist and various members of our staff team have spent an extensive amount of time in two particular mining areas, going underground, experiencing the conditions, documenting the ensuing illnesses, etcetera. As a result, Yang Shaobin has been creating a major body of work in installation, video, photography, painting, sculpture and film. We are interested in having this presented in similar contexts where mining plays a key role in both a local community and national economy.
A poignant but different relation to cultural exchange is also strongly addressed in the ongoing project Korea 2018, where ideas, stereotypes and imaginings of a united Korea—the last bastion of a communist state uniting with a democratic south—are considered. The project was launched as part of the Tomorrow exhibition in Seoul last October, and was composed of a series of talks and debates between historians, academics, artists and other cultural producers that are descendent from North Korea or are experts in the field. Part of the project was staged as a performance—a “summit meeting’ was announced between North and South Korea—only the audience was not allowed to hear what was going on.
SOFIA: Whose performance was this?
ZOE: Long March Project performed. See, we also operate sometimes as author; no artists’ names attached, so curatorial practice enters the realm of producer.
SOFIA: Is that clear publicly? I mean, do your audiences in China understand this, for example? Or even, does Long March Project care that the public understands this?
ZOE: Hmm, the artists here definitely understand. Internationally, it takes a bit more explaining. Ultimately, Long March Project of course does care how its artistic production is understood in the community. Feedback from artists is key. However, we are always careful as to how local and international perception/opinion of what we do determines or necessitates a compromise of intent. We may just need to work more on how we communicate this.
SOFIA: What is another international project that you are working on now, and what questions like these arise in its planning process?
ZOE: There is the Ho Chi Minh Trail project, to be launched next month as a 2 year project will engage artists, curators, writers, teachers, and many more, between China, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. Seeking creative and intellectual breakthroughs that challenge preconceived ideas of the past, re-interpreting ideas of cultural stereotype, racial prejudice and the subconscious effects of geographical imposed divide, to provoke the complex memories of this region, by referring to this route as a metaphorical framework and departure point for discussion. Some questions that arise and shape this project are: How has the historical legacy of the Ho Chi Minh Trail—as a political moment, a symbol of success, as a traumatic moment many would rather forget—overlap in China, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos? How can education play a role in opening up current states of self-censorship, license crackdowns, and cultural misunderstandings based on historical prejudices? These are interesting ongoing debates, in fact, not only specific to this project.
SOFIA: As a curator, how are you involved in the design or implementation of the projects and programs that address these issues?
ZOE: Well, actually, I asked that my title of “curator” be dropped entirely from my job title at Long March Project. Everyone at Long March is a kind of curator. I did not want to be singled out. In terms of processes, Lu Jie is really the “head honcho” in terms of initiating projects, but their overall design and scheme is a collaborative effort; the implementation comes down to the ways in which we divide our staff (we are currently 20 people working here). I’ve never done curatorial projects alone. I personally prefer not to do so like this. Even for the exhibition at San Art, I chose to work with a young Vietnamese aspiring curator.
I learn so much more by working with others in the development of ideas. In this respect Long March Project is a highly productive and conceptually challenging environment to be in, as all discussions eventually come down to a serious questioning of curatorial practice.
SOFIA: From what you’ve described here and from what you’ve been saying in general, it seems that for every project you are engaged not only with one artist but instead with a larger community most times outside of the art field. Are you interested in sustaining these community relations or in simply initiating them and let them unfold in time or, of course, dwindle and reshape at their own pace?
ZOE: In most cases, it is about sustainability, but, of course, Long March Project is inherently as much about failure as it is about success.