Cultural diplomacy–for some, a curatorial task

“Cultural diplomacy–for some, a curatorial task” is the title of the third in a series of interviews with foreign curators working inside and outside of institutions in China and Hong Kong. Each interview 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, “What does it mean to be International Today?” was with Kate Fowle, international curator at the Ullens Center for Contemporary At in Beijing; the second, “A Contemporary Approach to Tradition,” was with Zoe Butt, director of international programs at Beijing’s Long March Project.

This third interview is with curator Defne Ayas, who is based in Shanghai since 2005, where she works as curatorial consultant to ArtHub, a foundation serving China and the rest of Asia, and as an art instructor at New York University in Shanghai. Defne is also curator of PERFORMA, the biennale of visual art performance with base in New York City, where she spends part of the year. These multi-institutional roles, in addition to other cultural projects she organizes along the way, have been shaping her curatorial practice. Born in Germany but raised in Istanbul, educated in America, and now living in Shanghai, Defne has a natural sense for cultural diplomacy—much needed to make projects happen in Asia and the Middle East, two regions she is actively exploring and interested in working with.

I interviewed Defne on June 23, 2008 to talk about her work and interests for setting-up international exchanges within Asia and abroad. The interview took place a couple of days after an extensive trip Defne made in Xinjiang—a historically contested land characteristic for its ethnic diversity.

SOFIA: Since this interview will largely touch upon notions of internationalism, let’s begin this dialogue with your motivations for moving to Shanghai.

DEFNE: It was a combination of personal and professional reasons what brought me to China. On the one hand, I wanted to learn more about the geographical and historical cultural connections between China and my home country, Turkey. By this I mean The Silk Road connection with its extraordinary variety of historic and cultural riches by spanning two continents and bearing the marks of cultures, religions and races of 2000 years standing.

I actually just came back from Xinjiang, which is an autonomous region of China located northwest of the country. It is here where Chinese, Turks, Tibetans, as well as Indians and Mongols, even Greeks and Romans have mingled culturally and fought over land for many hundreds of years. When this ancient route was active, this region played an important part in the exchange of goods (commercial, cultural and intellectual) between the two great civilizations of the time, China (starting in Xi’an) and Rome.

SOFIA: Where you able to communicate in Turkish while you were traveling in Xinjiang?

DEFNE: Yes, I was able to speak not only to Uygurs, but also to Kyrgyz and Kazak nomads. It was completely fascinating. It was also romantic in a way to trace the monks who first brought cocoons to Byzantium from China; to Greece and then to Italy, Spain and France from the 7th Century onward. Imagine a road leading to the Caspian Sea by passing through the Afghan landscape, or Karakorum Mountains close to the Pakistan border, and arriving in Anatolia via Iran. From Anatolia, the caravans proceeded to Europe by the Silk Road through the Thrace Region (current Turkey and Greece). Same road that Marco Polo took to reach China during the heyday of the Mongolians…

After living in China for some years now, I am even more convinced that that the notion of “Chineseness” needs to be cracked open. I am less interested in ideas of Chineseness propagated by Western frameworks, by which I mean the US and Europe. I believe that it has to be worked through China’s relationship with the rest of Asia, where “the tails of the Dragon” have touched economics, politics and culture.

This cultural aspect of Chinese history made it interesting for me to jump on board and leave New York. I had been in New York for some time already, programming new media-related public programs and projects at the New Museum, and had been working and curating performances with RoseLee Goldberg since the inception of PERFORMA. Both new media and performance art are quite emerging fields in China, and I also thought I could contribute professionally in these areas.

SOFIA: Yes, the Chinese view of internationalism that largely deals with exchanges within Asia is very interesting.

DEFNE: The idea of Chineseness encompasses the changes of a culture, which is has appropriated the schemes and images inherited both from an age-old civilization. China has had such significant economic, political, social, philosophical and cultural links with its borders countries in Southeast and Central Asia that I think Chineseness cannot be the only product of an independent condition, but a matter of a cultural economy and socio-politics. In its idealism, mean.
On the other hand, recently, I asked a colleague of mine, a Chinese architect, what he thinks is Chinese these days. His response was, “Anything new is Chinese!” This answer is for instance a terribly liberating radical thought for a new understanding of Chineseness.

Today, this has to be acknowledged and analyzed regionally. The validation for its contemporary arts and culture should not be sought after by Western institutions alone, but also by those here in proximity. This is why I started correspondence with some of the key players here in China as soon as I got here, and eventually working on ArtHub. I wanted to create bridges between China through The Silk Road connection that were not only market or product-driven. Instead, I wanted to emphasize the process, for example, the importance of discussion and negotiation in an exchange. The diplomacy, if you wish.

SOFIA: What are the ways in which this kind of cultural diplomacy is developed through the ArtHub?

DEFNE: ArtHub focuses on process, and thus enables research and idea exchange. There have been already some informal networks in China, but the goal with this foundation is to create an exchange platform and community in Asia at wide, where different ideas and individuals come together, interact and motivate each other. We are also experimenting on new models; we don’t have a fixed space, for example, we are creating productions, and so on.

SOFIA: Can you mention the existing informal networks that were in place before ArtHub was founded?

DEFNE: Here is a link to all the existing regional partners involved in ArtHub.

There was an existing “Compass” network–an informal grouping of pro-active art professionals in Asia who kept gathering together to discuss the possibilities of connecting Asian art initiatives geographically and intellectually. ArtHub’s protégé, BizArt, was a part and an initiator of this effort. Under this framework, international and regional gatherings and symposia took place focusing on the emergence and intricacies of independent art spaces and cultural centers in Asia, all against their respective political backgrounds. There are many examples to this: Indonesia has its colonialist ashes; Singapore has its intellectual clamps; the Central Asia-China border has its political sensitivities, and so on.

ArtHub has also become a network partner of the prestigious Dutch Prince Claus Fund, and this allows us to map initiatives and projects in the region for the next three years. I am working with ArtHub Director Davide Quadrio on this. He focuses on Southeast Asia (he currently divides his time between Bangkok and Shanghai), and I am concentrating on Central Asia and the Middle East.

SOFIA: Was ArtHub the reason of your visit to Xinjiang?

DEFNE: No, it wasn’t. This was a personal trip I have been meaning to do since I moved to China. My good friend from New York, who had completed her PHD on China-Arab relations prior to the 1972 Nixon visit to China and had therefore never been to China, wanted to join in and trace the Silk Road with me, so I thought this was a wonderful occasion. For ArtHub, though, I’ve been traveling extensively, and my travel to this part of China gave me a perspective, which will surely feed into other projects. (There is barely any contemporary art production there, except maybe for music.)

There is much to visit, see, learn about and share. Next week for instance, I am headed with my Arthub hat,to Bishkek in Kirgyzstan to participate in a public workshop with Chinese artist Li Zhenhua. The workshop is organized in collaboration with the Bishkek Art Center and CEC Artslink, an active exchange organization from the former Cold War times.

SOFIA: Tell me more about this event in Bishkek.

DEFNE: This is a good-size international event. It’s called International Public Art: Bishkek. Artists and curators from Russia, USA, Kazakhstan, Armenia, Tajikistan, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Turkey, Afghanistan, China, and Kyrgyzstan will come together and create public art works for the center of Bishkek. The New York-based foundation CEC ArtsLink has been supporting the Bishkek Art Center to design the program, and is bringing a U.S. public art specialist to conduct the workshop. I also recommended the participation of Hakan Topal from, an artist initiative from Turkey, and he will be there, too. So, this will be a great opportunity to exchange information and ideas with colleagues across borders.

SOFIA: ArtHub appears to be preoccupied in creating a stronger Asia, so to say.

DEFNE: Sure, and we do this by actively facilitating an informal network of contemporary artists and art professionals both within the region and abroad. Also, BizArt, under Davide’s helmet, has also been involved in various research projects on culture, written analysis of national cultural policy, including international cultural co-operation for foundations from the Dutch government, the Swiss’ Pro Helvetia and other funding agencies.

SOFIA: How does cultural diplomacy work in that context—or what does this mean for a country like China, which is known there and abroad for being a closed society?

DEFNE: ArtHub is Hong-Kong based [in terms of its nonprofit registration] and rather keeps making a vague impression on local people, which we do not mind much. This is a better situation for us. The goal remains about trying to understand China in the context of a platinum-plated future as well as in its past and imagination, in many of its reflections. In the meantime, we are also managing to work with the Shanghai government.

SOFIA: In what way are you working with the government?

DEFNE: We are consulting them on integration of new media and performance into their cultural programs for this year during Shanghai E-arts Festival. Hopefully, we will do this also next year and so on.

SOFIA: So, this is a more direct way of working on cultural policy—changing it or shaping it.

DEFNE: Yes, and we see these as alternatives to money-seeking missile economy; they are alternatives even with the city. We aim at replacing commercial content with cultural content.

SOFIA: Is there any moment in which your nationality becomes an obstacle in these proceedings or, in general in the cultural field in China?

DEFNE: Well, I have to say, it helps not to be American or European.


DEFNE: It helps to be somewhere sandwiched between Asia and Europe, to be able to empathize with issues that arise with rapid development, or xenophobia, and massive erosion in culture. Being from a country such as Turkey helps you see through quick-minded schemes for instance. There is an immediate sympathy formed the minute one says you are from a country that underwent or is going through similar experiences. When the Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk was here two weeks ago, whatever he said about in relation to democracy, nationalism and the intellectual landscape gelled very well (maybe too well) with the intellectuals and writers here, for instance, as if he was voicing their sentiments about here and not about Turkey.

SOFIA: So, how does your work with ArtHub or to what you are doing in Shanghai in general have to do with your curatorial work for PERFORMA?

DEFNE: My consultancy to ArtHub actually overlaps in some instances with my current curatorial research work with PERFORMA.

SOFIA: What is your role and how do you work on this project from there?

DEFNE: Actually, RoseLee Goldberg, the founder of PERFORMA, is very interested in the cultural developments in Asia, too, and I act as PERFORMA’s eyes and ears—from India to Lebanon to Bangladesh to Central Asia. We are looking into taking some of the Asian projects to New York, but more so in bringing some other projects here. For example, we are looking unto the possibility of creating PERFORMA editions for cities such as Shanghai or Dubai. That is the ultimate goal.

SOFIA: And how are making this platforms possible?

DEFNE: Research, research, and creating soft networks. Also, when one studies the only-recently-written history of Chinese contemporary art, one can quickly see that the influence of performance art has to be more profoundly studied. After all, many artists who have come to be known as major figures in the art world today, all created works in the form of performances—from the spiritual quests of the Xiamen Dada group to the interventions of Hanzhou-based Pond Society to Xiao Lu’s gunshots and Zhang Nian’s eggs at the China Avant-garde show or the early “M Conceptual Art Performance Show” in Shanghai—the past if full of happenings.

SOFIA: Are Chinese art historians and curators involved in this project?

DEFNE: Yes, I am talking to several people who would share the vision, several artists and curators, and also arts patrons and dealers. For instance, past collaborators like Long March Space in Beijing, who participated in PERFORMA 07 in New York with a series of performances. Lu Jie, its founder, has expressed his support for a possible PERFORMA edition here, shall we fully decide to go with it. Qiu Zhijie and Lorenz Helbling of ShanghART, and many others are all aware of PERFORMA’s interest and intentions. However, because performance is still immediately associated with politics, it is important for us to educate the government and not only the established art scene’s key players. After all, permits are still required, censorship is abundant—and performance receives a good share of that. Past experimental exhibitions such as “Art For Sale,” “Fan,” “Fuck-off,” “Nemesis,” “Post-Sense Sensibility: Alien Bodies and Delusion” “Post-Sense Sensibility: Spree,” and also the scene in the East Village in Beijing all involved body, blood, boiled fetus, and animals. That general perception of performance art has to change first.

SOFIA: During your conversations with Shanghai government officials, have you mentioned your ideas about an edition of PERFORMA there, too?

DEFNE: The government’s arts and culture foundation is very open to the idea of innovation, however, there are of course certain limits on what is ok, and not. These are still very soft rules. The director may like something, but then a small official may not at the last minute. The government is willing to take Shanghai to new heights, and despite certain clamping-downs in the past, I am and have to remain optimistic by nature.

It is also a fact that this country’s visual art world has seen many performances. Most of the artists were then creating experiences and opportunities for their philosophic concerns and quests. Now it is the market world. But I am still very hopeful. And luckily, there are quite a number of visual artists who are eager to explore the cross-disciplinary boundaries. There are those who dare create a big theater production such as Cao Fei or Zhao Bandi, who presented a art-meets-fashion show with Panda Fashion. So I think an edition here would be viable.

Also, PERFORMA was able to activate New York in ways that no other program was able to do in recent years. We want to produce utopian commissions, a city in the making. So, testing PERFORMA’s curated focus on a different city could be an absolute challenge for all parties involved, artists, architects, curators and what not.

SOFIA: Are you already in conversations with some artists?

DEFNE: I have been following the work of quite many artists and what has been going on here only for the past three to four years. I am a total newcomer here! But still, it took me no time to figure out that it is about time to embark on a project to show how performance art has historically kept the momentum for visual artists in China since the late 1980s until the present. This is also a good moment to ask artists to take risks outside the heated market economy. As PERFORMA, we have commissioned a Shanghainese artist to create a performance, yes. This can be seen as a start.

There is obviously a much broader range of what performance can become in China and new directions will need to be undertaken programmatically. I should also tell you that an art historical analysis in this country still revolves around Beijing and Guangzhou, less so Shanghai, and definitely not much in the rest of the country.

SOFIA: It seems peculiar that you are working outside the commercial art scene in China, considering that most of the newcomers drawn to China work in the private sector like commercial galleries.

DEFNE: I would have done well probably in a commercial gallery, also had an offer from a major gallery here, but I chose to stay “virgin” again! Even BizArt, the only actual non-profit in China, is opening a commercial gallery called “Shopping” in two weeks! See, ArtHub’s mission was initially penned to support through structural funding the not-for-profit BizArt Art Centre, allowing it to continue promoting contemporary art in China and to reach out across Asia. But now, the “out-reach” into Asia has become ArtHub’s main focus, so BizArt will need more resources to pay for its operations and exhibition program.

SOFIA: “Shopping” sounds like another organization all together.

DEFNE: BizArt’s artistic director Xu Zhen and his colleagues came up with the idea of opening “Shopping.” Artists give work, and the money from the sales goes to the experimentation in the space, that is, at BizArt. It’s almost like an art project for him.

SOFIA: Like his art?

DEFNE: Yes, exactly, somewhat like the “Supermarket” project he did for Art Basel Miami in 2007.

SOFIA: Yes, except that in that “store” everything was emptied—every product sold was pretty much the container alone, bottles, bags, canisters, all drained or cleared of their substance so to say.

DEFNE: I have to say that sometimes I feel like, what the hell, everything in China is about money anyway. Look at BüroFreidrich by Waling Boers. He chose to go commercial in China, after all those years in Berlin. He might be right after all. It is the oxygen we breathe in, so why deny it?

Thankfully, the Prince Claus Fund agreed to a network partnership for ArtHub’s initiatives, which includes wonderful institutions like Drik and Arab Image Foundation that focus on content. With the network’s grant funds, Davide and I are able to take ArtHub through the next three years in a “more holy” way.

SOFIA: Have you guys considered separating the two entirely, BizArt and ArtHub?

DEFNE: It’s complicated, and in my consultant capacity, I am really not involved with its politics. For now, they are still closely intertwined. To begin with, ArtHub is not a fixed space, whereas BizArt has chosen to stay that way.

SOFIA: Yes, ArtHub seems to have a more open and flexible structure, a better way to work on an international scale these days.