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“Beyond official culture”: Interview with Philip Tinari on Chinese contemporary art

Philip Tinari, who will curate “Armory Focus: China” in New York in March 2014, highlights the dynamism of Chinese contemporary art. This article was originally published on Art Radar (16 January 2014).

Image: Philip Tinari. Courtesy UCCA.

Director of the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing, Philip Tinari is the curator for The Armory Show’s Focus section in 2014, which will spotlight Chinese contemporary art. Art Radar spoke to Tinari, who is also the founding editor of LEAP magazine, about Chinese culture, curating and censorship in China.

The fifth edition of Armory Focus, the curated section of New York’s Armory Show, will showcase the diversity and dynamism of contemporary art in China. Philip Tinari was appointed the curator of Focus in September 2013, and was quoted in The Art Newspaper as saying that he aims to feature galleries which "are not necessarily on the international fair circuit yet […] Much of the interesting work being done in China today is still very much unknown and unfairly dismissed by a Western audience."

As Director of Beijing’s Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA), Tinari oversees an exhibition programme highlighting emerging as well as established Chinese and international artists. UCCA is annually frequented by over half a million visitors.

In 2009, Tinari founded LEAP, the international bilingual art magazine of contemporary China, which he ran until 2011. He has also been a contributing editor to Artforum and has worked as the China representative for Art Basel and as a lecturer in art criticism at the China Academy of Fine Arts.

Art Radar interviewed Philip Tinari about his expectations from Armory Focus, and contemporary culture and censorship in China.

The fifth edition of Armory Focus in New York in 2014 will showcase China’s contemporary artists. Why is now the right time to focus on Chinese art?

Chinese art is by no means new for a New York audience, but somehow, given a series of recent exhibitions and events – including the show of young Chinese artists at the Rubell Family Collection and the historical show “Ink Art” at the Metropolitan – it seems like a very fitting moment to look in some depth at the situation on the ground in China, with the aim of seeing what might lie beyond our existing understanding of the field.

What did you keep in mind while selecting and commissioning galleries and artists for Armory Focus: China?

I wanted to present a range of styles and positions while also pointing to figures and trends that seem unlikely or unexpected in an American context. Part of that meant showcasing younger artists and galleries who have not yet shown outside of Asia; another part involves revisiting certain historical moments that never received due notice beyond China. In the end, I was looking to put together a mix of artists, works and galleries that will surprise, delight, and educate.

You have said that the role of China in global dynamics is well understood in the realm of geopolitics, but not culture. How do you hope to engage with this aspect at the Armory Show?

I have always believed that contemporary art is one area of contemporary culture in which China truly excels. Particularly these days as China’s political and economic power are on the rise, I think a lot of people outside China are surprised that we have yet to see truly innovative contemporary culture accompanying that. While contemporary art can sometimes be a self-contained sphere, artists in China are exploring big ideas about their country and its place in the world in an open way that goes far beyond official culture.

What is your opinion on America’s understanding of Chinese contemporary art? Will the Armory Focus show on China challenge Western perceptions?

Chinese artists have always found a receptive audience in the US, accompanied, of course, by a degree of scepticism. The sort of Chinese art that gets shown in the US is not always reflective of what is going on in real time, on the ground, in cities like Beijing and Shanghai. Hopefully this presentation will challenge [that], but mainly by offering a timely, accurate overview.

Welcoming sign to the Armory Show in New York. Image courtesy The Armory Show.

The Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art (UCCA) is now six years old. How has the journey been so far in terms of challenges and achievements? What lies ahead for UCCA?

When Guy and Myriam Ullens launched UCCA in 2007, they were plunging into uncharted waters. Their ambition to establish a world-class art institution in the middle of the Chinese capital was incredibly bold. There have, of course, been some bumps along the road, but we are in a great place today, with a clearly defined mission to show great Chinese and international contemporary art, and to offer a wide range of educational programming in contemporary culture. We have also managed to find support not just from our continuously generous founders, but increasingly from Chinese enterprises and individuals. Our immediate goal is to continue along the path to sustainability while continuing to offer the same compelling mix of exhibitions and events that our annual audience of nearly 600,000 knows us for.

How has the upsurge in museums and galleries in recent years affected China’s artists?

We are just starting to see the effect as these institutions are so new. On the whole, having a wide array of spaces in which to exhibit is good for everyone – particularly artists, but also curators, critics, collectors, and interested viewers. Because the state museum system runs according to its own particular logic, it seems that the commercial galleries and private museums are doing most of the work in widening the context for displaying contemporary art.

You’ve spoken of a grey area surrounding censorship in China, with no clear rules as to what will or will not be allowed. Do you think the situation with regard to these restrictions is changing?

In the end, I think the government understands that contemporary artists are not revolutionaries and that the reach of their work is largely contained inside the art world and perhaps other areas of commercial culture. Because of this basic understanding, contemporary art is less strictly regulated than fields like literature and film. While that may not speak well for art and its power to affect society, I would argue that having a discursive realm in which things can be said relatively freely is a kind of opening. It certainly makes the art world one of the most interesting milieux in Chinese society.

How do you think artists and curators can challenge and work around curbs on expression? In a recent exhibition at UCCA, you and artist Taryn Simon found a way to get around censorship. Do you think altering the original artwork in such a manner detracts from it or makes room for more conversation?

This was a great example of how restrictions can actually add new elements to the artwork. The idea to present the blacked-out blocks came from Taryn – that is not the sort of move I would make unilaterally as a curator – and in the end it beautifully mirrored the moments inside the work where people who could not be photographed are represented by empty backgrounds. My curatorial decision was to present all the information missing from the walls in a booklet so that the viewer could still access the full range of the work as originally intended. It’s a rare and wonderful thing when a set of practical considerations go so far as to actually change the makeup of a work; this of course requires the active participation of the artist, and makes for a different viewing experience, but then again, why should works of art be entirely static entities?

What trends have you noticed in Chinese art over the last few years? How has it changed or evolved?

The biggest change comes from the pervasive internet, which has allowed artists to be immediately and constantly knowledgeable about artistic happenings and developments all over the world. This has basically eliminated the time lag that once characterised Chinese art, as well as art in other locales once considered “peripheral.” In a world where everything unfolds simultaneously, there is greater potential for cultural influence to flow in multiple directions. This has made for a more confident generation of younger artists, who are not coincidentally less concerned than their predecessors with addressing questions of cultural and national identity. And so you see a rise in things like processual abstract painting, time-based installations, and work that turns on archival research.

As the founding editor of LEAP, a bilingual Chinese and English art magazine, what would you look for in art writing? Do you have any advice for aspiring art writers?

Good art writing should be, first and foremost, good writing. A whole vocational vocabulary has developed, based on the well-meaning theory, that when practised by anyone less than a master, comes off as boring and derivative. The best art writing is able to convey on screen or paper a sense of what it feels like to encounter an artist or work in the flesh; this is partially about description, but that is only a beginning. In the end, the goal is to do what [Susan] Sontag tells us she is going to do at the beginning of “Notes on Camp”: “to name a sensibility, to draw its contours and to recount its history.”

Kriti Bajaj