Okwui Enwezor, June Yap, Gayatri Sindha, Hans-Ulrich Olbrist, Tam Wai Ping 譚偉平, Cao Fei 曹斐, Chen Chie-jen 陳界仁
Backroom conversations are a series of lectures organized by the Asia Art Archive on the occasion of the ART HK art fair. Same as the art fair, they took place at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre. I found them equally or even more interesting than the crowded and oversized exhibition halls where one was walking past long rows of gallery booths, each trying to look different yet most looking the same in the end anyway, especially during the one minute glace one could afford to award them. So popping into a presentation, lecture or panel talk was quite refreshing. Below I recorded some memories and thoughts on the lectures I attended.
Okwui Enwezor (May 17, 2012)
Enwezor is probably best known as the curator of Documenta 11 in 2002. I was very impressed when I visited that show and held him in high esteem since that time. The lecture did not have a topic announced in advance, as it was just titled as the ‘Burger Collection Keynote Lecture”.
Enwezor’s talk revolved mainly around the topic of modernity and its fate today. He defined the concepts of grand and petit modernity, where ‘grand’ is the European version in its whole completeness, while ‘petit’ modernity is the ‘export’ version distributed on imperialist pathways throughout the globe. He continued by talking about the concept of heterotemporality/heteochronicality (multiplicity of histories), which in its effect lead to the current multiplicity of modernities. Then he discussed the effects on discursive circuits today, highlighting the decentralization of power, and multiplicity of centers. Modernism today can be seen as a meta-language that provides a common ground to the multi-centered discourses taking place.
Overall, my impression was that he used a highly complex language to express the situation we are in today. Those who follow Enwezor have probably noticed that they have heard these types of observations from him already. (E.g. in the essay published in ‘Altermodern’ edited by Nicholas Bourriaud in 2009.) Therefore the best description of the lecture is that it was a condensed version of Enwezor’s take at making sense on the contemporary art world. As such, it fitted in well, serving as a recap to those who have heard it already, while serving as a starting point for those who have heard him for the first time.
June Yap, Gayatri Sindha, Hans-Ulrich Olbrist: The Decade Revisited (May 19, 2012)
In this lecture each of the tree participants presented their own thoughts, with a joint discussion in the end. I felt that the topic of ‘Decade revisited’ was a bit out of place, which was confirmed by the lecture participants, who each basically chose a different way of escaping addressing the topic in its entirety.
June Yap from Singapore decided to talk about her three (recently) favorite Singaporean artists. She justified this by stating that each of us lives his own time and personal history. The common denominator was the topic of unease in arts and the motive of denying pleasure. Unfortunately Yap was reading her ‘talk’ from a piece of paper at an ever increasing speed as she realized she was running out of time, which made it a bit hard to follow.
Gayatri Sindha from India went in the opposite direction, and presented a broad summary of tendencies and topics in Indian art, which I believe was a good approach given the expected audience of art fair visitors. She talked about the India vs. the West relations, post colonialism and the motives of violence in arts (Gujarat riots as one of the often addressed topics). She told the story of India’s painful emancipation and how this topic stays central to a lot of Indian art until today. Historical ‘facts’ are being freed from a fixed view and reinvestigated in relation to current affairs. She illustrated this on the examples of a few known names as Kapoor or Dodia.
The third speaker was the Swiss curator Hans-Ulrich Obrist who took yet another approach to the pre-announced topic, this time from a ‘global’ point of view. He talked about the shift from a discourse on globalization (becoming one) to a discourse on modialisation (a polyphony of voices). This motive of multicentredness, which Obrist compared to an archipelago, resonated with Enwezor’s talk that took place two days earlier. Obrist stressed the aspect of immateriality as one of the outstanding features of the decade, Timo Seghal being one artist he explicitly mentioned. This seemed to be quite contradictory given the thousands of square meters of exhibition booths stuffed with objects next door. It pointed to a recurring topic, already once attempted by conceptual artists forty years ago. It seems to be a continuing dream to free ideas from being trapped in objects and images. I’d call it a wishful thinking.
Overall the three presentations were interesting in the different scope they addressed. Yap started off with a very local scope, limited both in time and space, talking about Singaporean artists dealing with audience/artist relations. Sindha continued with a trans-regional scope, talking about the broader relations between imposed and own history and how those shape the underlying art discourse. Obrist concluded with a very broad scope, in accordance with his profession of a jet-set curator. If we take Yap, Sindha and Obrist as representatives of certain cultural environments, then the presentation can be interpreted as pointing towards the topics at the centre of attention in each of the environments.
In Singapore it is the topic of a self-definition of the arts. What is art, and what is its role in society? When I visit Singapore, I usually stop by at some art exhibits. I can see a strong drive towards engaging the visitors by different educational programs, which focus on mediating the artistic messages. I can understand that in this environment, looking for different ways of communication – not just mediated, but direct – comes as a priority. Art should not be something to be talked about, but should be able to engage the audience directly as well. In addition, it should be able to produce the whole range of emotions, from enjoyment to disgust, and not only a harmonized, filtered version of the full range.
The discourse of self-definition and overwriting of history – replacing the history written by imperialist by one’s own version, is, on the other hand, typical for India. The history of India is a ‘living history’ and I find it very appealing that there is a discourse like this taking place. I will allow myself a generalization, but topics of self reflection on the meaning of history and its political implications seem to be one investigated and addressed in India much more thoroughly compared to contemporary China, where any king of attempt at an interpretation of history and historical discourse falls back into old clichés. Of course this can be traced back to the general state China is in at the moment and the whole cultural background (which would be a topic for another essay).
Last, the global art world discourse that Obrist talked about is always somewhere mid-way between reality and wishful thinking, self-generating it’s own interpretations. It was interesting to see the correlation between Enwezor’s and Obrist’s talk, which implies that the topics raised are indeed the latest state of affairs. I believe this discourse can be summarized in keywords: Polyphony, multicentredness, equalization of power relationships and modernism/post-modernism as a common language. The tone was rather positive, and Obrist concluded by a quote of someone that went “Freedom feels always strange at first.” I wondered how much this is out of touch with our reality. On one hand, it is of course good if someone can provide a positive vision and reassurance, however on the other hand, the question always has to be asked: Who communicates what to whom for what purpose? What is the agenda?
Tam Wai Ping, Cao Fei, Chen Chie-jen:Artists Through the Lens (May 19, 2012)
This talk was split into three different parts, where in each part one theoretician talked with one artist. Each presentation was quite independent, with a brief panel discussion in the end. The connecting topic was the medium of photography/film/screen/frame which all three artists work with.
Tam Wai Ping 譚偉平 interviewed by Janet Chan 陳靜昕
Tam started by a rather lengthy introduction to the invention of photography. (But once again, I can understand this as he was addressing a rather unspecific, general audience.) He stressed the origins of photography in enlightenment where it can be related to the scientific needs of collecting information. He then continued to talk about his own artworks. He was taking snapshots from daily life, and at some point, he took the archive and re-thought what the meaning of it was. He selected photographs and exhibited them accompanied by texts that explain or add on to what is happening in the photos. He talked about the photos as records of ‘real life’ and his approach to the photos as a way to navigating the chaos surrounding us. He contrasted this approach with the conceptual photography approach, which he claimed works the other way around: First, you find/define keywords, and then you use these keywords to navigate/conceptualize reality. In the end, there was one rather cynical comment from the audience whether there really is any difference in these two approaches, as the outcome seems to be the same, and I had a similar feeling. But still, I do understand the difference in terms of the thought process. Tam’s approach is an art-of-the-everyday approach, like when the Czech artist Vladimir Boudnik was looking for beauty in the shapes of mold on a derelict wall. It is reminiscent of writing a diary, and then highlighting interesting moments, in order to create a timeline, in order to make sense of life and what happened. It is a personal approach, and in that sense it can be a valid approach as long as the stories Tam is telling are interesting to his audience, and as long as the audience is interested in him.
Cao Fei 曹斐 interviewed by Hu Fang 胡昉
In this talk, it was almost exclusively Cao who was talking. Knowing some of her previous works, like the cosplayer series or RMB city, I was quite surprised. When Cao talked, there was a connection, but it seemed that as her life has changed, her topics were changing as well. The works I knew where addressing virtual space as a place where dreams can be projected onto and become real. The works were about the connection between the virtual and the real. The virtual was a place of escape, a place to go to and dream before returning to reality again. Now, in the talk, it seemed that Cao has internalized the lens, or screen, through which she was looking at the virtual world. She talked about the camera in our minds. We have become directors of our own world. It seemed that for her, the virtual world has become real and now her life turned into a remembering and connecting of previous dream experiences (in movies, in virtual environments), which now started to infiltrate her everyday life. The virtual, which seemed more immediate than the real before, has been replaced by the real which has now gained in urgency and feel. As if she – we – would be living in the utopia we once imagined. I first was a bit shocked when she started showing her weibo posts and photos of her baby while talking about daily life as a meditation, gossip magazines and the ordinary housewife’s life she is leading now. I realized that in some sense, this was very honest and the right way to proceed. It is life which takes precedence over art. Art allowed enhancing it to a new level. Art is life, and in Cao’s talk, I could see both perfectly intermingling.
Chen Chie-jen 陳界仁 interviewed by Amy Chang 鄭慧華
In contrary to the previous talk, here it was Chang who was giving a presentation about Chen most of the time, with Chen just adding bits and pieces towards the end. Chen is a filmmaker and he uses the medium of film to tell stories of events that he thinks are important. These are usually politically charged topics, as the closure of garment making factories in Taiwan (after production moved to cheaper China) or the US visa application process. He stated that one of the reasons why he is choosing these topics is to complement or enhance the media discourse, which is often very short-lived and discriminatory in its focus on the most hot, recent and violent topics only. The hard to answer question here is whether these films can really be an agent of change, or whether it is just a record, to be packaged and sold for its exciting story and aesthetic qualities. It seemed that Chen is convinced about the political impact of his work. The function as a record (better say an ‘interpretation’) of an historical does not need to be disputed. Another function, in between the function of a change agent and a record, is the function of reinterpretation of history. In some aspect, I believe this is the core function of Chen’s work. He created a space in which history can be re-imagined and rethought, whatever its outcomes. It serves as a monument to topics and events that would otherwise be quickly forgotten.
All three presentations were useful for a better understanding of the artist’s thought processes.
If you found any of the topics mentioned above as interesting, the lectures have been recorded and can be viewed at the Asia Art Archive website: http://www.aaa.org.hk/Programme/Details/314