Last week I spoke at the conference Making the New World: the Art of China’s Revolution. At the time of writing this, full programmes can still be found online, here. These are some notes and thoughts on the event – please excuse the fact that my attention wasn’t evenly applied throughout; it has no relation to how engaging the speakers were, more to do with the timing of my own presentation! Also the images are less than ideal, but give a sense of the breadth of the visual material that was presented. Some more shots were posted to twitter, find them using the hashtag #CCVA2016.

This was the 9th annual conference of the Centre for Chinese Visual Arts (CCVA) at Birmingham City University and took place at Whitechapel Gallery. Organised by CCVA members Professor Joshua Jiang, Research Assistant & Leverhulme Project Facilitator Hiu Man Chan and Post-Doctoral Researcher Heather Connelly in collaboration with the team at Whitechapel Gallery.

This blog was supposed to focus on women and gender themes during the two days, but in fact it is an overview of all the papers with women and gender probably emerging with slight prominence according to what I noted down at the time. Incidentally, the Guerrilla Girls have a display at the Whitechapel Gallery on right now, where they have analysed the data on European art galleries and museums regarding women and trans representation in collections, exhibition programmes etc – worth a look.

Day one

Professor Richard King from the University of Victoria, Canada delivered the keynote: Cultural Policy for A Heroic Age: the Summary. The model operas, he explained were really a template for all the arts during the Cultural Revolution (for convenience 1966-1976 – more on this in a moment).

“The basic task of socialist literature is to work hard to create heroic characters of workers, peasants and soldiers… [quoting Jiang Qing in 1968:] Of all characters, give prominence to positive characters, of all positive characters give prominence to heroic characters, of heroic characters give prominence to the most important one, i.e. the central character”

Regarding gender, notably he also added “women enter the hero mode permanently” during the Cultural Revolution. Critics of Jiang Qing however, see her as putting women in central roles to promote her own position. Professor King noted that central to Jiang Qing’s mission using the arts was to “over turn all of the previous”. The enduring popularity of the model operas isn’t so much political, he contends, as much as they offer “a warm bath of nostalgia.” (Professor King burst into revolutionary song at one point which was a real treat, prompting Professor Jiang to suggest a choir might come to fruition at some stage.)


In the Q&A Professor Craig Clunas asked the question of what it means to periodize the Cultural Revolution, a question he suggested we would return to throughout the two days. Professor King admitted it is “handy”. Katie Hill asked about the relationship between the “choreographed representation of politics” of the model operas and the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony. Professor King, whilst stating the Cultural Revolution and the Olympic ceremony were extremely different cases, the former noticeably absent from the latter, added that in the Chinese context “whatever the ideology it will be beautifully produced.” Because of the lack of dissection of the Cultural Revolution he said that with this conference “we are filling the hole absent from public discourse.”

Panel one

What united the papers of this panel was a close reading of artworks from the Cultural Revolution to offer new interpretations. Providing as Craig Clunas said in his summing up “the new historiography” for this period. The meanings of authorship and materiality were also themes that ran throughout.

From Minerva Inwald’s paper The Socialist Art Palace: early Cultural Revolution art exhibitions, I noted the difficulty she mentioned in researching Cultural Revolution cultural or artistic products due to the fact they were often copied, ephemeral, the result of collective or collaborative production. Minerva challenged the idea that there were no exhibitions during the Cultural Revolution, finding that not only did they take place, but that they were a key part of the dissemination of Communist rhetoric.

Wang Gerui’s paper Ambivalence in Li Keran’s Jinggang Mountain: negotiating artistic agency and state obligation during the Cultural Revolution, on the other hand was about an individual artist’s desire to work in the style of landscape painting when it became unpopular; and how Li Keran reconciled his duty to produce political art, with his own, perhaps, ambiguous political position.

Vivian Li in Becoming A Model Artwork: the Rent Collection Courtyard considered the ways in which this ambitious collectively-produced sculpture did or did not correspond to the criteria for art as set out by Mao and Jiang Qing in 1942 and 1968. She also considered the meanings of the locally sourced clay and how this made it a “grass roots” artwork. Originally intended as something ephemeral, Li has documented the present day attempts to preserve it. – Of particular significance in relation to my research and my paper later on, is how Jiang Qing – a woman, albeit of contested agency – was the author of the framework for model artworks, which underpinned all the cultural production of this period.

In the last paper for this session Between Arts and Mass Criticism: perceiving the beautiful through Cultural Revolution audiences Christine Ho traced the ways in which the masses were encouraged to critique artworks; as well as how peasants were taught to make art by professionals. Ho proposes how this criticism politicised the works themselves in ways that model operas did not require, due to the former being “mute”.


Panel two

Corey Schultz presented some of his work on the films of Jia Zhangke, in his paper titled The Maoist Peasant Figure and Its Affective Importance in Contemporary Chinese Visual Culture. Unfortunately, I didn’t make many notes on this paper, but you can find out more about Corey and his work here. It was concerned with queer desire, agency of the desired and relations of power.

Agender Performance: aesthetic discipline of heroines in the Cultural Revolution was the title of Zhang Li’s paper. She framed the “agendering” of women’s bodies during the Cultural Revolution, evidenced through posters especially as a performance, using the Shakespeare quote:

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing. 


The last paper in this session was mine. I thought that it followed on really well from the first two as it was concerned with the ‘ungendering’ I called it, of women’s bodies, and also contends that cultural products have the power to create realities and impact on how we see ourselves and others – which resonated with Corey’s research. I referred to Dai Jinhua and Liao Wen in proposing a reading of contemporary art that takes into account a legacy of ‘male authored’ representations of women; especially those like the ‘New Woman’ that emerged at exactly the same time as women “surfaced onto the horizon of history” according to Dai, and the representations of women that were produced as part of Communist discourse from 1949-1976. Some pictures of my slides were posted to Twitter.

Professor Harriet Evans was the chair of this session.

Day two

This day began with a keynote from artist Shen Jiawei. He showed a lot of fantastic images from his own archive, informal shots of him as a young man during the Cultural Revolution as well as preparatory photographs for paintings. Some of the pictures showed him and others with weapons, at one point to help out a friend who needed to paint one he said: “I leant them my machine gun”. Whilst Shen Jiawei claimed never to have been involved in violence, he still seems quite energised by that formative period of his life.


In the Q&A with Proffesor Jiang Jiehong, Shen Jiawei was asked: “do you see your work as artwork or propaganda art?” The artist claimed his early work was the latter and it became the former after the end of the Cultural Revolution and, I presume, as he matured as an artist. However, the question demonstrated the insufficiency of these concrete terms. Shen Jiawei also pointed out that as styles move across borders – such as Soviet Realism being taken up by the PRC – they can lose some of the original meaning attached to them, and gain new meanings. There was also an interesting discussion on the relationship between Western High Renaissance paintings of Jesus, and Mao Zedong as the sun (god).

Panel three

Martin Mulloy began this session with his paper Photography and the Cultural Revolution. He proposed that to analyse photographs of this period requires an idea of the “rhetorical demands” as well as access to technology and methods of dissemination. He showed some fascinating darkroom-doctored photographic images and said:

“Cultural Revolution photographs cemented how we see [the period] into another kind of truth.”


Li Zhensheng and Zhang Dali, Martin contends, “disrupt the narrative the Communists were trying to ‘calcify into truth’” as well as the “wilful amnesia” of the Communist era. The other major factor, of course, was photography’s relationship with modernity – and he showed us some very modern photographic artworks that had been produced and disseminated during the Republican era.

Propaganda on Shellac, Vinyl and Plastic: the politics of record production during the Cultural Revolution in China was the title of the next paper, by Andrea Steen. He provided a lot of political economic detail about the production of propaganda audio recordings during the Cultural Revolution, as well as fascinating insight into the speed at which production of the records responded to active consumption and the legacy of this period. As he noted at the end: “China is the only country I know of with an official music category called ‘Revolution’”.


Wang Rujie’s contribution was deeply personal, drawing on his own perspectives of the Cultural Revolution as a boy but combining them with the theories of Roland Barthes in his paper Image-Music-Text: the rhetoric of the arts from the Cultural Revolution. “What I had lived through is a myth or a dream.” He returned to this idea of Mao as godlike figure, as well as proposing that we are always in a myth, either “the myth of the left or the myth of the right.”


Wang also suggested:

“perhaps for the first time the Chinese were able imagine their daily lives as intimately connected to [the poor people of the rest of the world] transnationalism through culture of Mao in the visual arts.” Wang also expounded on the total immersion of politics in daily life: “if you got married you stood in front of Mao’s picture… a set of interconnected practices… there is no private moment you can leave out of the Revolution.”

What characterised this session, without actually saying the word ‘gesamkunstwerk’ was an insight into the interrelatedness of the different media. Martin Molloy added that “contentious periods go in and out of forgetfulness” (which seemed appropriate given all the global problems right now and questions of how the media can report objectively when it is caught between political ideology and cultures of consumption.)

Panel four

Mark Nash in his paper Screen Theory and the Cultural Revolution Cinema took us back to the 1970s when he had co-produced Cultural Revolution era film screenings in London. He said at one point “One of the characters would pretend to be the Communist party… when the Communist party is revealed, it is often in the body of a woman.”

Yawen Ludden’s paper From Model Opera to Model Society: Jiang Qing, Yu Huiyong, and Yangbanxi gave an uncommonly generous account of the model operas and Jiang Qing’s legacy of moving and popular works of art. Ludden attributes this to the reputation that Jiang Qing already had in the Peking Opera world from her early career as a movie star. Ludden, whose background is in music and lecturing about music, described the collaboration between Jiang Qing and composer Yu Huiyong. Yu, she says, used a Western orchestra combined with Chinese instruments to evoke place and establish tone, which wasn’t the case in Peking Opera, although the model operas “retain a Peking opera / Chinese essence.”

Eldon Pei’s paper, which was the final presentation of the conference, was titled The Atom Bomb Is A Celluloid Tiger and provided a psychoanalytical reading of the documentary film ‘Great Triumph of Mao Zedong Thought’ from 1966. The extraordinary film, which wasn’t intended for public consumption but rather internal propaganda, describes nuclear testing during the period. It is linked to wider conditions of modernity – the “technological imaginary” of colour pictorial magazines as well as to real human trauma. Pei focuses on the abundant bodily fluids, supposedly sweat that issue from the boots of the men on the screen.


The panel discussion for this session was chaired by Professor Chris Berry.

“I am LIVID over this news.”

I’m not really livid. But someone, somewhere is, or was. Livid about something most of us would consider unimportant. They announced their anger to the world and it has been hijacked. Online video platform Youtube was where they first announced their anger: in response to a temporary localised media storm such as pop-star Beyoncé lip-syncing or cyclist Lance Armstrong taking performance enhancing drugs. Their fury was stolen, has been digitally re-presented by artist Cally Spooner and now intervenes in the historic permanent display of Leeds City Art Gallery. Quoting another Youtube commentator (presumably talking about Beyoncé): “if you can’t trust her, who can you trust?”


Cally Spooner, Damning Evidence Illicit Behaviour Seemingly Insurmountable Great Sadness Terminated in Any Manner2014.

Trust. Now that is a question. Illusion, tromp l’oeil, performance, fiction: these are just some ways that art can deceive us, seem to be one thing but be another. Before we even encounter any artworks, who can we trust to guide us through the art world, find works and tell us about them with authority?

British. Art. Show. 8. (BAS8). This is the eighth edition of a touring exhibition that attempts to be our guide through the British art world, offering a five-year summary of contemporary practice in Britain. The parameters appear to be clear: a selection of recent work and new commissions by British artists. But maybe they are not so simple. International artists live here, British artists live outside of Britain and artists with no geographic or national link converse with artists here, enrich and input into the British art world.

And who is making these decisions? Considering these nuances of place and deciphering these works of fiction? Two curators: Lydia Yee of Whitechapel Gallery, London and independent curator Anna Colin; American and French in origin. In reference to her curatorial partnership with Yee, Colin says,

“BAS8 is a false marriage… but it’s gone pretty well.”

She goes on to say of their research process: “we didn’t go everywhere but we travelled a lot. We didn’t have an agenda, we didn’t have a theme…” She estimates they visited 130 artist studios in eight months. And she is pleased to say that the impact of this is a selection of 42 artists that is not so London-centric. She adds, “if we compare to previous editions there are more artists from outside of London and Glasgow [the main centre for art in Scotland, UK]… a better ratio.”

If the first task is to expand the field of ‘British art’ to at least the whole of the UK, perhaps the next is to test the boundaries of British art identity in the context of globalization.

Referring to this, Colin explains the reasons for including Turkish artist Ahmet Öğüt. His practice involves a worldwide investigation (and, naturally, international conversations) of social and political issues – including art education. The Silent University, his project which launched in 2012, called on participants to:

“stop waiting in limbo, and to take the initiative right now using their imaginations.”


Goshka Macuga, In Debt View, 2015. Courtesy the artist © the artist.

His BAS8 contribution is part of the project Day after Debt (UK), 2015, a collaboration with Liam Gillick, Susan Hiller and Goshka Macuga. He asked his fellow artists to design public donation boxes for a student loan debt relief campaign. Linking to his earlier work reimagining art education, this work refers to a hot political topic right now – how changes to the way university education is funded will affect social mobility and engagement in the arts by those from less well off backgrounds. The money donated in the bespoke boxes will be used for its stated purpose.

They didn’t start out with an agenda, but through the process themes and patterns emerged. The most prominent theme, explains Colin, is an engagement with the material world – or the agency of objects. Sub themes not necessarily introduced by the curators, but apparent to me as I reflect on the exhibition include: surveillance, systems, pedagogy, challenging the hierarchies of art and social justice. It is not possible to profile all 42 artists, but already mentioned, and continuing below are some examples of works that represent these trends.

An artwork relating to the theme of ‘social justice’ is the work Hello, 2015 by Simon Fujiwara. This artist is possibly best known for his installation Rebekkah in the 2012 Shanghai Biennale. That work was the product of an engagement with one young woman following her involvement in the 2011 London riots. In this new film, he weaves together the stories of a Mexican litter picker and a computer professional who was born with no hands. Hands are the linking motif. Spookily, Maria talks about finding body parts in the lawless borderlands of Mexico.


Linder Stirling, Diagrams of Love: Marriage of Eyes, 2015

Bringing some different interdisciplinary texture to the exhibition is former punk, Linder Stirling. Her sumptuous rug titled Diagrams of Love: Marriage of Eyes, 2015 was produced with the support of Dovecot Studios in Edinburgh, UK. It is spiral in form; part sculpture, part costume, backed with gold lame. Referring to both Surrealist artist Ithell Colquhoun and 20th-century British artist Barbara Hepworth, who favoured a curvy modernism abundant with negative-space, the rug has also been used in performance. A departure from Linder’s 1960s punk record sleeve designs, she now collaborates often with Ballet dancers. Interestingly though, her former aesthetic has been appropriated by Anthea Hamilton for a series of pop-cultural Perspex ant farms in BAS8.

Apart from the room where Cally Spooner’s Youtube commentators vent their rage amongst historic artworks, all of the permanent collections have been removed from Leeds Art Gallery for BAS8. This shows a real commitment to the project and allows the artworks to interplay with the architectural details of the Victorian art gallery. Pablo Bronstein’s architectural drawings look at home here – and make an interesting counterpoint to Jessica Warboys Sea Painting, 2015, which hangs opposite and above the marble staircase. Warboys will produce a new sea painting (made by scattering pigment on the water and capturing it on a large canvas) at a location near to each of the four venues that BAS8 will travel on to over the coming months: Edinburgh, Norwich and Southampton.

The nature of a long tour means sustaining performative projects throughout the run is hard. The emphasis is on ‘tourable’ (durable art objects including the traces of performative work). Alongside examples of traditional media, there are many audio-visual offerings in BAS8, that despite the limitations of the gallery are stretching and testing boundaries. Many are the outcomes of in depth research projects. Some of these use sound and film to capture and present hidden stories, others question the role of the technology itself in our lives.

Always comical and insightful, Welsh artist Bedwyr Williams fits into the former category. Here he exhibits Century Egg, 2015, produced in partnership with several museums to highlight the enormous range of museum narratives from the extraordinary to ‘the completely banal.’ Elsewhere, Rachel Maclean’s video Feed Me, 2015 is darker in subject but still uses film for its potential to uncover and reveal. She contrasts the sexualisation of childhood with the “growing infantilisation of adult behaviour.”

The outcome of Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s work with MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) in the US seems innocent enough but has sinister potential. This unnerving new research offers the possibility of capturing sound using ordinary everyday objects, such as a box of tissues. Anything and everything could be listening to you. On display nearby, and resonant in topic, is Melanie Gilligan’s video work The Common Sense, 2014. She uses the format of television drama to explore a device called ‘the patch’ – which “enables bodily sensations and emotions to be communicated directly from person to person” man-made empathy which creates the potential for an “exploitative economy of emotions.” A deeply unsettling notion.

And of course a contemporary survey exhibition would not be complete without an avatar/cyborg/artificial intelligence of some kind. In this case Abake, a graphic design collective, have produced an artificial intelligence project, titled Fatima, who will learn from the people and objects it encounters throughout BAS8.


Aaron Angell, Bottle Kiln – Receiver; Peach – Portcullis; Molybdenum Bell Courtyards and Dalmatian Spoon & Three Torcs, all 2015 © Aaron Angell 2015. Installation view: British Art Show 8, Leeds Art Gallery, 2015-17. Photo © Jonte Wilde Photography 2015

A world away from these actually noisy or at least confrontational pieces, there are quiet works, no less keen to cross categories and disciplines. Aaron Angell presents clay objects both as sculptures and also as spiritual objects – they sit on a table that evokes a shrine – very far from the more common treatment of ceramics as ‘decorative arts’ or ‘craft.’ Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s series of portraits in oil on canvas are an invitation to ‘look’ ‘see’ and ‘read’ across the group. The artist produced the paintings from memory – not real people – and in a short time frame. Yiadom-Boakye’s works demonstrate both the enduring power of her chosen medium and refer to the on-going desire to use the visual arts to explore individual and collective identity.

As I draw this all too brief tour to a close I ask, were good choices made? Colin refuses the verb “select” and to be called a “selector.” Presumably because she feels that the best quality work will rise like bubbles to the surface and all Colin and Yee did was provide a method to capture these bubbles. But I dispute this, because curation requires selection – and is as much defined by what is left out as what is present. As an introduction to the British Art World though, my feeling is that this is a good one, including many of the artists who have been making a big impact over the last five years.

As I am writing, the Turner Prize, the UK’s flagship contemporary art prize was won by a collective of socially engaged architects. This seems to contrast with the emphasis in BAS8 on the art object. Debating ‘the object’ could be seen as old-fashioned compared to works that test the boundary between art and science, art and performance, or art and social justice activism – although, of course, none of these debates are new.

BAS8 demonstrates that there are many new territories for this conversation about the art object and the role of material culture in our lives to move into, even as many of the interactions of our lives are moving online. Precisely because, if a box of tissues can listen to your conversation, I again ask the question: who can you trust?

First published in Art World magazine, Shanghai 





Anthony Pym said in his keynote, “we all live in multicultural, multilingual societies… with lots of lines running over… you can have the values of a culture but not the language – that is quite common. [But a person] with one language and one culture doesn’t make a great translator… they’re not translators.” Everyone laughed. It seemed so obvious. But I sank down in my chair a little.

The chair in question was in a screening room being used for a symposium called Cultural Translation in theory and practice, which was convened by my peers in the school of Cultures, Languages and Area Studies at University of Nottingham. Most of the students in attendance were studying translation. My PhD is in Cultural Studies, the discipline I use to study Chinese contemporary art. I don’t speak Chinese, or any other language than English. I don’t, by Pym’s definition, translate between languages. I am the bad translator with one language and one culture.

Translation affects me acutely. For the last three years or so I have regularly written for a magazine based in Shanghai, who translate my English text and publish in Chinese. I used not to write for translation, but over time I have become aware that, by including extra explanation and information that I wouldn’t have to write for a British art specialist audience, I am providing more cultural insights and local knowledge for my Chinese readership. You can see one of my articles here, courtesy of Art World.

In my studies, I read a lot of material that is either translated from Chinese or written by a Chinese person in English – a kind of self-translation from mother tongue. The latter was one of the forms of translation talked about at this symposium which I had never considered – Wangtaolue Guo, an MA student at China University of Hong Kong, used the example of diaspora author He Jin who actually expresses his otherness through his use of the English language. The implications of this, as well as the implications for meaning when writers knew they were writing to be published bilingually, I will need to take into account as my studies progress.

There are some other questions that arise from what I have written so far. What is Cultural Translation? (That is probably the most important one!) Do I do it? Does translation have to have a ‘product’ or can it be spoken, or a thought? Where does adaptation fit into this (translation from one media to another)? When is a translation an interpretation (in an artistic sense)? What is the relationship between curatorial practice and translation?

Some of these questions I will have to leave hanging. A year or so ago I wrote an essay for Modern China Studies journal called Parallel Realities, where I explored some of the cross-over between the cultural turn in translation studies and curating contemporary Chinese art outside of the UK. In the process of writing this I articulated to myself, and I still think, that contemporary art is a language – understandable to some but not others. On reflection, I was probably one of the writers who used the term ‘cultural translation’ without really explaining what I meant by it – which was the starting point for Dr Sarah Maitland’s talk at the symposium.

Using some excellent hand-drawn Power Point slides, Maitland offered a definition of Cultural Translation that departed from the ‘key’ literature that is oft quoted and which, she pointed out, was almost opaquely confusing. (I’ll have to go back to the particular Butler material she mentioned though… because there is a lot about uneven modernity and difference that is interesting for the scholar working with the female subject in the context of a country still classified as ‘developing’ according to the UN in their 2014 report).


The theories that she drew on most in her definition were those of Paul Ricœur, who proposed that what happens between a reader and a text is the same as between a human being and other cultural objects. To paraphrase: Maitland said that leading on from Ricœur, we can say that there are multiple ‘guesses’ or ‘interpretations’ – as many as there are readers or human beings encountering cultural objects and texts (so far so Barthes). Crucially she said that in communicating these ‘translations’ we have to display humility – they are simply one guess, or one interpretation, and by broadcasting them we subject them to scrutiny. – And further translation.

She used the quite brilliant example of the Hillary Clinton Women’s Card. Donald Trump, who was translating Clinton’s campaign, said something to the effect of “she is using the women’s card” – meaning that her campaign hinged on and exploited her gender. The Clinton team ‘translated’ Trump’s comments into a physical card that her supporters could buy, to show their allegiance. It raised her team millions of USD and was used as a hashtag on social media.

Woman card

The question of whether translation requires a product, i.e. public broadcast, physical object, other cultural or performative offering was not really dealt with. Closely related though is the question: is cultural studies a methodology? This was touched on in the presentation by Klaus Mundt, a tutor on the Translation studies programme, who argued that translators could be taught to practice cultural translation. In effect, he seemed to be proposing detailed literary analysis strategies, in particular focussing on the emotions evoked and the ‘cultural items’ in the source text. These items would then require a process of research before the translators attempted to find something that evoked a similar meaning in their ‘target culture.’ His method was a definite move away from linguistic equivalence. But from a cultural studies perspective it seems a bit problematic to change, for example, ‘greasy spoon’ in the English to Taiwanese 24 hour breakfast café. It really would depend on the purpose of the text.

I suppose this is where Cultural Studies and Cultural Translation meet: in collaboration we can talk about the meanings that slip and shift between cultures as we produce or analyse cultural products, both source ones and translations. But more than that, I think I do participate in Cultural Translation – and translators participate in Cultural Studies. Interestingly on my way home I saw an article about the Man Booker International, which for the first time split its prize money between the winner, Korean author Han Kang for her book The Vegetarian, and Deborah Smith – who translated it. It was a great signal of recognition for translation as an art.

“In the 1980s a lot happened in China… But I was in America…

Everyone was travelling, including myself. As a curator I want to embrace that.”

This was Wu Hung speaking at his Slade lecture this week, in the new Andrew Wiles building of Oxford University. I travelled down to catch this one lecture, which was his “personal narrative” of Chinese contemporary art; although his entire lecture series concerned with the feminine space in Chinese Art History would have been fantastic background for my doctorate project. I am establishing a genealogy of women’s studies, gender and body discourses in the Chinese context and then using them as the basis for analysing the work of around twenty contemporary artists.


Wu Hung speaking at his Slade lecture, 29 February 2016. Picture courtesy of the author

I’m about half way through the first year of my doctorate, which seems a good time to reflect on the experience so far. The first semester was a bit of a blur of conferences, training, narrowing down the scope of my ridiculously large original research proposal – and reading. It seemed like every week I was learning something new about the way that I worked, as well as learning about the Chinese context in general and honing down what I wanted to ask about Chinese contemporary art. Every day the space of the unknown grew bigger, even as I was filling my head with new knowledge. I was immersed in a world of languages that I don’t speak – Mandarin, Chinese writing, a myriad of Chinese topolects, and ‘academic’ language in all its interdisciplinary forms.

Several times I have been reminded of an article I wrote a couple of years ago about the relationship between translation studies and curating Chinese contemporary art – and its content now seems portentous. I am not curating I am researching, but never the less, the concepts and practices of translation are constantly taking place. I am reading texts in translation and I am considering the content and meanings pieces of art that were made on the other side of the world, and from this situation far away I am considering their local implications.

This is where serendipity and subjectivity come in: however planned we are in our research methodologies, reading one source leads to another; a casual conversation changes everything; it is a pathway, a journey, and a personal one, peppered with coincidence and chance as much as it is crafted with care and intent.

Subjectivity alone cannot create meaningful research. I am challenging myself to think around the Westernized perspective that I hold – not denying the existence of this perspective, but realising what effect it has on my study of culture. In my career to date I have been involved with providing ‘access to stuff’ and in a sense my research now continues in this simple mission. I am contributing to intercultural understanding with a view to supporting the interpretation of Chinese contemporary art from outside of China.

Back to Wu Hung. His telling of Chinese contemporary art history is through his own experiences – subjective – he is keen to assert this. But at 71 this year, he has been present and active alongside the significant historical events of the second half of the twentieth century in China – even if he was sometimes in America – and contributed to Chinese contemporary art’s emergence into the mainstream within China in the 1970s, as well its globalization in the 1990s and beyond.

In terms of his identity, Wu studies art history, he says, writes about contemporary art and curates contemporary art. These practices have “different distances” to their subject matter. Writing and researching has more of a separation whereas curating you are: “working with the moment.” Making history I suppose.


Born with the Cultural Revolution, by Xing Danwen, 1995. Exhibited in the Transience exhibition curated by Wu Hung at University of Chicago in 1999

He touches on his own definition of the label “Chinese contemporary art” – he uses this expression for freely. For him it means art from the mainland; not the diaspora or ‘greater China’ i.e. Hong Kong and Taiwan. To include these areas he says is “problematic.” And working to define contemporary art – at least its conception in the American understanding, underpinned one of his early curatorial projects, ‘Transcience’ at the University of Chicago in 1999. Sub-themes within this show included ‘history and memory,’ ‘women’s art’ and ‘monuments and ruins.’ There was also a strand dealing with the ephemeral in art, or what he called the “mortality of images” as well as ideas around individuality, existential questions and the new Chinese middle class.

Another exhibition he curated at University of Chicago ‘Cancelled: Exhibition Experimental Art in China’ took on the subject of local government intervention in exhibitionary practice, i.e. shutting exhibitions down. His preferred methodology for curating is to focus in depth on one area – he compares this to an academic process. These tightly focussed thematic exhibitions as well as one-person shows are what he enjoys – more so than Biennales and triennials. He seems most interested in the concept of space and distance between audience and object.

Several of the solo exhibitions that Wu Hung developed are still touring, years on from their original presentation. He has mixed feelings about this; it is a mark of their enduring interest and value, but sometimes they can become too distanced from their beginnings. Song Dong’s ‘Waste not’ for example was originally laid out piece by piece by the artist’s family – at the request of the artist’s mother. This doesn’t happen anymore.

I can see Wu’s desire to offer people the closest, most ‘authentic’ (he didn’t use this word) possible experience in his book Primary Documents, which he co-edited with Peggy Wang. It is a generous book that wants to provide access to textual materials relating to Chinese contemporary art in their most unabridged form (translated, mind you). But I find this book’s analysis to be in its very selection of the texts. Curation, I am trying to say, always creates some distance.


Book cover Primary Documents, ed Wu Hung and Peggy Wang.  First published September 2010

Disappointed as I am that I couldn’t make every lecture in Wu Hung’s Slade series, I feel assured that he will provide access to this information some how in the future. What is interesting for me is that he is contributing to a wider, international project to reassess (art) history to find women’s stories.

But it has been useful to me to consider his motivations as an academic and curator in the field that I am working at the edge of – Chinese contemporary art. His interest in distance, and his emphasis on the personal both resonate with me right now. I am engaged in a process of finding traces of ideas – working with everything at a distance of geography, as well as time, and through the barriers of cultural and linguistic understanding. I am developing my own interpretive methodology that considers the meaning when ideas have travelled across centuries, been subject to all manner of interventions and translation processes.

One can’t read everything, see everything, attend every lecture; there is always a selection, a sifting, curation: serendipity will always play a role in the life of the researcher. I was fortunate to attend this lecture, which has given me a chance to reflect on the last five months, as I move forward into the next phase of my research.

Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, 1995

Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, 1995

Ai Weiwei at Royal Academy of Arts is not an alternative universe, nor an immersive world. It is not a solution to the craving for the spiritual that I have noticed in London during my visit this time. (Along with a trend for a sort of irritable cautiousness – but more on that another time.)

The work on display here is work made for museums, that is the scale that we are talking about, made from materials that could have been found in a museum – except they weren’t.


I am not even sure that they are old, but then I am not an expert.

Objects that he says were found or repurposed I suspect were mostly fabricated by the one of the several practitioners that he mobilizes to make his pieces. Joiners and furniture makers, marble, glass and jade workers, metal fabricators and ceramicists

So are they possessed with history? Yes. All the work here vibrates with the history and geography of China as much as it is concerned with the present and his current struggles. Struggles with the authorities, I mean. Not, as someone pointed out to me recently, with materials.

These struggles are important. Without these struggles with the authorities, what would remain? Their interventions are integral to his work. They are the lens that he offers us with which to view his output.

The eight hundred partygoers in his doomed architectural commission that turned the work into a ‘happening’ whilst Ai was held in prison overnight. The sculptural storyboard of his incarceration – detailed dioramas of humiliation and interrogation.

His critique of the authorities seems sincere but it is tinged with an impishness.

Where he seems to recede a little, lost behind and within works that are too minimal, too formal, he has written himself back into the story with new video documentaries. His strength, as we know, is in the force of his character, his personality, his sense of humour, his face even. He is most alive on Instagram.

Given that, maybe this venue is not such an ideal location for this artist and these works. The Royal Academy exhibition rooms underscore the seriousness of their contents and there isn’t much room for humour or dialogue. Maybe these things need windows to let the light in. (The exception that proves the rule, of course, is the annual and perennially easy breezy Summer Exhibition.)

Ai Weiwei invites scepticism. Remember the people who questioned at the time whether Ai really was detained by the Chinese authorities? Was it because the whole thing seemed so unreal in this day and age? Or did they wonder whether he was writing the next chapter of his own mythology?

I am not sure that this is really Ai’s work. By which I do not mean that it engages with issues of plagiarism and authorship, I simply think that his primary medium is the media. Or maybe his real work is the merchandise in the shop.

But here, back in the gallery, one of the other visitors earnestly listening to their audio guide mutters: “Just because he is famous. Just because he is famous.” I am not sure exactly what they mean but I feel that Ai has deliberately left some gaps for us to be sceptical about. He wants us to talk about his work, to argue over whether Chinese art is political enough, to question what is real and unreal. And in the silence, after the pot hits the floor, you can hear him laughing.

Remains, 2015

Remains, 2015

Coloured Vases, 2015

Coloured Vases, 2015

Free Speech Puzzle, 2014

Free Speech Puzzle, 2014


Large metropolises have some common tones, textures and feelings whether they are New York, London, Shanghai, or Paris. However, each is a product of its own geography, socio-political history and of the culture from which it emerged brick by brick, by tarmacked road, by work of art, by happening, by government, individual and collective of people.

Culture, incidentally, is a complex word, linked to place but also practices. I enjoy Clifford Geertz’ description of the relationship between humans and culture: “man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun, I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretive one in search of meaning.”

Cities could be understood as supporting structures for webs of significance or be seen as webs themselves; holding and facilitating material objects, transient moments and histories. They inevitably share commonalities with other large concreted, concentrated areas of human dwellings, but each has properties and feelings exclusively its own.

I have just returned from the German capital, Berlin. A city I have been to several times but it still intrigues me. What defines and distinguishes it? What does it mean to live here? How much does the language barrier here prevent me from knowing? Without fully understanding its significance and its relation to these questions until I got inside, this week I visited the Buchstabenmuseum (Museum of Letters) for the first time at its current location in an old supermarket between Mitte and Friedrichshain.


What the Buchstabenmuseum demonstrates is that ‘language’ isn’t only in the nature and selection of words and use of grammar, but in the way that words and even individual letters are presented. For in Berlin, typography, signage and graphic design are not only used distinctively they are hugely important. The Museum of Letters collects, documents and preserves letters and whole words from signs and architecture. Some efforts are made to re-contextualise the letters, elsewhere they sit within their own dioramas, or are de-constructed to reveal their manufacture.

The prominence of lettering within the architecture of the city is in no small part due to the Bauhaus school, established in 1919 by Walter Gropius in the German city of Weimar. Bauhaus translates as ‘construction house’ or ‘school of building’ – the full impact of the school is explored in another Berlin venue, the Bauhaus Archiv. Typeforms, product design and architecture were all overhauled by the school’s teachings and the legacy of what we now interpret as the modernist style can be seen across the post-war German urban landscape.

In the Buchstabenmuseum modernism’s sans serif style is everywhere. But also present is lettering influenced or directly using the ‘Fraktur’ font. Originating in Rome in the 15th century, it became popular in the German speaking and influenced regions, who persisted in using it even when the conventional font for books and newspapers changed elsewhere in Europe. Its popularity persisted until the early 20th century – and it was championed by the Nazi regime (the cover of Mein Kampf uses a hand drawn version). Partly it was a rejection of the associations of the past, including Fraktur-stype scripts, that was enthusiastically taken up by the teachers and students of the Bauhaus. We see its legacy today though in situations such as Oktoberfest event marketing.


Back in the museum, an E is presented as though on a stage, spotlit with theatrical curtains behind. The effect is David Lynch meets Sesame Street. We are given torches to read the captions as the neon signs are best displayed in the half dark. It is an immersive experience as well as an educational one with a pleasing balance between quirky displays, interpretative explanations and just letting the letters speak for themselves on open display in rows and stacks which reveal their weight, variety, proliferation, signs of use and even deterioration.

The letters require space, (re)interpretation and careful management – as with any collection – and the museum’s impending closure and campaign to find a new home for the letters is sad but understandable. The website suggests that the museum wants to acquire more items, however; so, though nomadic, the museum is not likely to completely disappear any time soon. Although not as well known or publicised as other venues such as the Bauhaus Archiv or the Deutsches Historisches Museum, this collection – a web of significance drawn from the fabric of the city itself – is arguably as important in telling Berlin’s story, and a good starting point in the process of understanding the city.

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I wrote these words last year when I met Penny at the Galley.

From the outside the space has no form. The door could be a gate to a yard or a garage. Inside it has qualities of both burrow and bunker. A long straight room where you can’t see everything at once. A slither of white walled space, in which we spend a one-hour segment of time.

Penny and I talk about language, the difficulties of verbalizing artwork. Her drawings suggest narratives but deserve freedom from words. They don’t start out fully conceived, instead growing slowly from her unconscious mind. They aren’t necessarily finished when she initially stops working on them, she revisits them over time, resisting overthinking, applying more marks, more pressure.

They are totemic; populated by figures that are more or less people, though they may be trees or birds, characters from novels that might have been. Aliens, birds, moon faces; all conversing, enquiring, embracing, or often just being. Mostly peaceful, but some of the titles hint at power-plays. All rendered in pen on paper in the artist’s distinctive mode; full of secrets and symbols that the artist keeps.

She doesn’t outright reject the interpretation that her drawings have a darkness, but it is the ambiguity of her work that she aims to make the only constant. It is not words, but rules that Penny really resists. Rules, definitions and categorization.

She trained as a fine artist so sits outside of the ‘outsider’ group (although shares the automatism they often practice, and which was bought into the canon by the Surrealists and Dadaists). Sometimes she identifies as an illustrator, although this epithet doesn’t quite fit. It suggests that text comes first, when in reality, if stories relate to Penny’s drawings at all, they come afterwards.

Penny has been drawing for herself since art school. She carries the three drawings she is working on at any one time tucked inside a book. The works suggest ritual and obsession so it is pleasing to discover these qualities are inherent in her working process. She draws at home, on her lunch break, or sometimes in the reading room of the library. Outside influences when they have occurred have served to provide a burst of confidence and permission to do whatever she wants without justification.

What does the future hold? Sat amongst around fifteen monochrome works on paper of identical size, one work – Animal – holds a clue. Penny has considered saying goodbye to black and white and embracing the world of colour. Another possible avenue is to translate the drawings into prints; from etching-a-likes into etchings themselves. She has also been inspired and excited by the possibility of dip pens and by researching the human brain.

Underscoring the potential for change and experimentation lies a practice that does not need to change: one that the artist is happy with. A means for Penny to process visually. To absorb thoughts and feelings – and faces, of family, friends or brief acquaintances – by osmosis onto the page. Progression, she concludes, is breaking rules. We should all be able to move more freely.


A tray of fake eyes that look like gruesome marbles. Two headed creatures suspended in time forever. Prints by Hiroshige and Hokusai. Salt and Pepper shakers. Soviet space dogs. Scarves and scarves and scarves and scarves.

The full spectrum of material culture is here: disposable, covetable, high, low, and kitsch. The personal collections of fourteen artists have been transposed to the Barbican’s elegant mid-century modernist exhibition spaces and presented alongside one example of each artists’ work. The curatorial objective is clearly to make links between the collections and their owner’s output. However, other questions bubble to the surface. Why as a species do we need to own so many things, often multiple versions of the same things? Does the act of collecting items imbue them all with the same status, whether they started life as valuable or insignificant? Is collecting a response to times of poverty? Is it a practise that is going out of fashion in the digital age? Will it endure amongst artists?

Damien Hirst has made a career out of presenting collections or multiples of objects, or otherwise inverting our assumptions about animal and mineral items. One wonders how many butterflies have passed through his studios? Flown to their sticky, painterly graves. Here some of his own items of taxidermy and medical artefacts (his interest in the medical theme is shared by art dealer and photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto, the owner of the glass eyes) are presented alongside the piece Last Kingdom, 2012, vertical rows of entomological specimens: a collection in itself.

Elsewhere, Peter Blake and Martin Parr also demonstrate a very strong connection between their work and the act of collecting. Blake surrounds himself in his studio with dolls, figurines, ventriliquists dummys and signage. His collages are collections of illustrations, clippings, packaging and photographs, somehow absorbed into his own distinctive aesthetic. Whereas Parr’s anthropological investigations are like unscientific studies, using his photographs and collections of postcards and ephemera as evidence for unspoken theories (the Soviet space dogs are his). Both artists whether consciously or unconsciously have explored ‘Britishness,’ which they characterise as stoic, eccentric and led by grass roots activities and folkloric practises.

The Japanese prints belong to Sol LeWitt. The thread between these works and his brand of minimalism and instructional art is not so direct. But yet we expect to see successful artists collecting art, indulging their desire for culture; the prints he has chosen are stunning and timeless. His wife Carol, speaking on the app that accompanies the exhibition says, “collecting is an addition. One [LeWitt] had… he always used to quote Gertrude Stein who said that artworks are priceless and worthless.” Perhaps this reveals an inner battle between collecting and not collecting, or a shade of insecurity about his profession.

The ages of the artists are interesting. The oldest are Arman, Le Witt and Andy Warhol, all born in 1928, and the youngest is Dr Lakra, the Mexican muralist and tattoo artist at only 42. Most were born in the 50s and 60s – their parents, whether British or American, would have survived the Second World War. Might these memories of rationing and going without, as well as the following surge in popular culture, have triggered the collecting impulse? And growing up in a world pre-internet, is it natural that artists would gather a physical and visual memory bank of references? Only the future, when the emerging artists of today reach half a century old, can tell us the answer.

Hanne Darboven’s collections are presented as a ‘total artwork’ – a gesamtkunstwerk. She appears to have no barriers to her field of collecting, no search terms; it only qualifying as a collection as she is at the centre acquiring it or inheriting it. Tiffany lamps, a cheeky monkey, objects from her ‘tower room’ and writing desk.

Curatorially, some strange decisions have been made. There are rugs to symbolise the home, and pallets and crates to represent the exhibition coming together. Yet the desire to reveal the artists’ influences links back to their studios – which aren’t referenced at all. The exhibition fetishizes the glass showcase – a hallmark of ‘the museum’.

However, not everything is cased and protected. Brushing my face like laundry on a line is a selection of Pae White’s collection of Vera Neumann scarves. They have been used as though they are a material in one of White’s installations, possessing the same playful and tactile qualities as other examples of her work. Neumann’s textiles all share her bold use of colour, a motif like fruits or flowers, her distinctive draftmanship and her signature as part of the design. Far from being unsettled when confronted by her 1000 Neumann scarves, Pae White confessed that being involved in the exhibition made her consider acquiring more…

Like White, Dahn Vo’s presentation is intimately bound with another artist. Martin Wong’s collection of thousands of disparate objects, posthumously acquired and now preserved by Vo, has in the transition of ownership been transposed into a ‘readymade’ artwork as well as an archive. The room in the exhibition that contains some of the 4000 objects divides opinion amongst visitors: there are those who are fascinated and intrigued, and those who are horrified by this scene of clutter. It is a magnet for dust, the collection has no focus, it is hard to find the artist among it.

Magnificent Obsessions believes that we will be fascinated and delighted to be shown a part of the artistic process often left behind when the artists’ work transitions from studio to gallery. But it does not begin to approach to bigger questions of human beings and their relationship to the material. Artist Jim Shaw, whose collection of paintings he found in ‘thift stores’ and ‘yard sales’ compares these places, and the act of combing through them to find weird things, to palaeontology or archaeology. Maybe this reflects a certain kind of art-making… post-Pop there have been many artists exploring not only the popular culture of their time, but finding trends and revelations in the recent past. Maybe this kind of art making will be left behind in the 20th century.


This subject – mental health – is usually something that we see explored through outreach and events rather than the core exhibitions programme at contemporary art venues. Could you say a little bit about the significance for you of seeing mental health centre stage in a venue like FACT?

Yes, I think it’s really important. The arts makes a big effort to be inclusive and approach specialist groups, people with disabilities or mental health issues and make the arts relevant to them. But sometimes this can perpetuate the idea that they are an ‘outsider’ group. So it has been really nice for me as a curator to approach this by asking, how does mental health affect everyone? There is that very popular quote you hear often, ‘one in four people will experience a mental health issue’ – actually I think it is everyone.  All of us experience mental health issues at some time in our lives, whether it is ourselves or a family member or a friend. So it is significant that FACT and myself have taken on this subject and presented it as something for everyone and not just for an ‘outreach’ community.

The relationship between mental health, art and technology is your on-going research topic.  Now you see the exhibition open to the public, do you feel that the process of curating it has helped to move your thinking on at all?

Yes, absolutely.  One of the most important things for me is the idea that art can help create empathy, or help you see something from a slightly different perspective.  We were doing an evaluation session this morning with some groups that regularly use FACT, and they were recounting their experiences of the exhibition. There was one individual in particular who was talking about [the piece called] Labyrinth Psychotica, which enables you to see the point of view of someone experiencing psychosis. He said that work helped him to think about what the experience of mental illness might be like for other people. I suspected and hoped that this exhibition would achieve that –and I am starting to gather evidence that that these works can help shift people’s perspectives and change minds.


Is the exhibition going to be used as a springboard or possibly tour?

For my future work I want to think about shared cognition. As technology advances there is this idea that we are all sharing our cognition more and cognitive processes are taking place in groups. I am really interested in what mental health looks like under these conditions.  And also artificial intelligence, I am really interested in the relationship between mental health and artificial brains.

Could you talk a little bit about the decision to present most of the artists together in gallery 1 at FACT?

There are other works in gallery 2 – Jennifer Kanary Nikolov’s Labyrinth Psychotica and an archive of FACT’s previous work in the area of mental health. On a practical level, that work needed space around it and [provision for] recovery time.  But I think when you are talking about mental health and technology you are very often talking about immersion and over-stimulation, being bombarded by lots of different information. It is a complex subject, which isn’t best dealt with by presenting a small number of carefully crafted artistic statements in a large empty space.  Putting a lot of work in one gallery allows people to join the dots, build narrative and experience some of that idea of over-stimulation

Because these are artists investigating the subject, rather than scientists or therapists, did you see the exhibition as an opportunity to touch on ‘fake’ or placebo treatments or therapies? I noticed that you included a historic electric shock machine.

The idea of fake therapy is interesting, because ultimately therapy is whatever works for you; everyone needs something different in terms of supporting their mental health.  The ECT machine I thought was a good inclusion because it demonstrates how we have historically used machines to try and modify our brains.  There is definitely a narrative thread in the exhibition about control and mental health. For example Quintan Ana Wikswo’s photographs of old asylums, a lot of the research that she did alongside them was about how asylums have been used for societal control. They were used for people whose behaviour wasn’t socially acceptable, people who were in a mixed race relationship or young girls that had got pregnant before they were married, etc, [were incarcerated] under the banner of mental illness. The ECT machine speaks to the same idea.  If people demonstrated behaviour that couldn’t be controlled, the machine was used to keep them quiet and knock the life out of them – so to speak.


There is also, in the exhibition, a strong thread about individual voices, alongside mental health as a theme.  Technology has become important in disseminating individual stories.

Yes absolutely, it is important. The title of the show – Group Therapy – came originally from considering the way that the internet has become the new talking therapy.  Blogging about mental health has come incredibly popular.  There is actually a short essay in the catalogue produced by a prominent mental health blogger.  The idea of technology allowing people to reach out to others that share their experience is really important.

I was interested to read on your blog about how you had been producing work exploring suicide in a high rise building and then had to confront your motivations when someone really did take their own life at that location. Mental health is an emotive topic, how have you navigated your way through it?

It is a difficult topic. As I say, I think everyone has some relationship to the subject of mental health. Everyone is their own expert on the issue. The artists who were involved in making exhibition would also probably say they all have some kind of lived experience of mental health issues; it would have been awful if we had curated the exhibition with artists none of whom had those experiences. The ethics of doing the kind of work that we are doing, like putting a psychosis simulator in the gallery, we have to think very carefully about how we manage it. But everyone who has [visited the exhibition so far] has been grateful for the opportunity to talk about mental health, perhaps in a freer way than they have before.

Are there any artists or pieces that you were particularly excited to secure for the exhibition?

There are so many! The kind of work that interests me most, personally, is work that crosses over between art and research practise or something that is employed somehow in a clinical setting. There are two pieces of artists’ work that this particularly applies to: George Khut’s The Heart Library, that is the piece that uses bio feedback to help users monitor their heart rate, he is a researcher and an academic, and the technology behind that piece has also been used in clinical settings – a version of it has been used to help support children about to undergo painful medical procedures, to help moderate their anxiety. The Labyrinth Psychotica by Jennifer Kanary Nikolov(a) is another example of an artist research project impacting clinical practice; it is taken around to psychiatry conferences to help psychiatrists who have never experienced psychosis. Those are really exciting to me – those projects informed by research.

There is also a new commission by Katriona Beales on the subject of internet addition. She is an artist who has worked in the past in Liverpool so it was exciting for me to be able to commission her to make a new work.

I think I am right in saying that the majority of artists featured in this exhibition are female. Do you think there is something about the subject matter that attracts female artists; is it your influence as a female curator, or just a coincidence?

Gender is something that is pertinent to the subject of mental health, in more ways than I am able to list right now. Looking at the list of artists there are four male artists and nine female. Issues around the body, self image, technology and mental health are [resonant with] women in particular: the way that women have been subjugated using mental health as a sort of alibi, the archetype of the hysterical women is very familiar to us all. At some stage we decided that we wouldn’t intentionally foreground the theme of gender as there is so much going on in the exhibition already. I didn’t set about deliberately to bring in a lot of female artists but these themes are [interesting and explored by] a lot of women and female artists.


You are now based in Sydney – are you going to be coming and going throughout the exhibition run?

I am going back to Sydney quite soon – next week! There is the possibility of something in this vein happening in Sydney and I will be continuing email conversations with FACT about the legacy for this project. It is important to FACT that this exhibition emphasizes their ongoing work in the area of mental health and their partnerships with people like Mersey Care NHS Trust . There is a genuine desire to continue to do meaningful work  around mental health.

Vanessa’s blog:

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Linda Pittwood: Hi Cornelia. My first question is: what has been your impression of the new Whitworth?

Cornelia Parker: I think it looks great. I knew it before and it used to be quite dark and the back of the museum was blocked off. You would go into dark rooms with suspended ceilings; now all those rooms have been opened up and they have lovely full height rooms and then they have been pierced in the back so that you can look through to the gardens. It is much more light and airy and the bits they have added round the side are just gorgeous. I am very happy to be doing this first exhibition.

That worked out well! How long have you been in a dialogue with Maria Balshaw about the exhibition?

Quite a long time really, two to three years, two and a half years perhaps. I first met her about three years ago and she was sounding me out about doing something in the gardens or a firework display – which I have done quite a few of as artworks – then about two years ago she asked me if I would like to do the inaugural show, which seemed a very exciting thing. The show was supposed to happen earlier, but the opening of the building was delayed. But it was worth waiting for. I think she has done an amazing job on not a huge amount of money.

Yes, it’s a really exciting thing for the city. Maria has talked about how your piece Cold Dark Matter made a huge impression on her at age 22. Did this add to the pressure as lead artist at the opening of the gallery?

A little bit! But pressure can be good, sometimes I work better under pressure. And I was given three beautiful spaces. I knew one of them was going to house the shed [Cold Dark Matter, above], the middle one was going to house a combination of different works from different periods, and that left the last room, which I wanted to make a new work for. It is very difficult to make a large-scale work without back up – that is why I think doing museum shows is brilliant. You get to realize something that you have had in your mind for a long time but not had the space or the back up to do it.

Can you tell us about that brand new work — War Room?

I wanted to make a work in response to the exploded shed, 24 years later. When I made the original piece it was partly in response to the IRA bombs going off in London, where I was living at the time and still live. That constant threat of the explosion. I had never touched anything that had been blown up, but you see it on the news and it pervades our lives, in fact it is getting worse and worse, there are more and more explosions in the world and we have the terrorist threat in Britain again. I felt I wanted to make something acknowledging war.

Whitworth Art Gallery -- image by David Levene

I had been talking to the [Imperial War Museum] about doing a war commission, which is still in the offing, and I went to the poppy factory in Richmond with a view to making a piece as part of the WW1 commemorations. I was struck by this material that I saw there, this punched out poppy paper, and I thought perhaps I should make the work for the Whitworth, because that was more present in my mind and it didn’t really fit into the war museum’s timetable.

So the idea was that the shed was blown up by the British Army and then at the other side of the war there is the British Legion making poppies, the money making industry for the dead. The shed is very dynamic and exciting and 24 years later you have a kind of chapel, a place with 3200 absences, poppy-shaped holes. A more sombre reflection on the other side of the explosion.

I think in general the WW1 commemorative pieces that have been the most successful are those that acknowledge the historical but bring in contemporary themes so that they resonate today.

Yes, the War Room isn’t really about the First World War. It is about the ongoing production of poppies, and the ongoing commemoration of the dead, a blood-red room following the explosion. Lit by four light bulbs so it is quiet and dark.

I also made a new work for the Whitworth called War Machine, which is a nine-minute film of the automated poppy factory at Ayleford, which is not where I got the poppy paper from. The machines work from 7am until 10pm all through the year apart from two weeks off.  They just pound out these poppies and send them all over the world, to 80 different countries. It will never stop, I can’t imagine it ever stopping.

Have you found it a reflective process – putting together new work with work from up to 24 years ago?

Yes, it is the first time I have shown the shed in an exhibition like this. It has been in group-shows or on permanent display at the Tate. It has been quite exciting to make a response to it. I am still working with those themes, it is not as though I have left it way behind. All the work from different periods in the show seem to sit quite well together. Thematically they make quite a cohesive whole – I am not as schizophrenic as I thought I was!

Cornelia Parker, Whitworth Art Gallery -- image by David Levene

Maria seems to love the fact that you and Cai Guo-Qiang, another exhibiting artist, both utilise ‘blown up’ materials. Do you think there is an interesting connection between yourself and the other artists on display for the opening?

[Cai] works with gunpowder, but his work is quite dissimilar to mine, similar materials but his work is much more painterly. His work is less quiet, my work is quite quiet really, even the shed which appears visually cacophonous. Our work comes from two different cultures, British and Chinese, but the work complements each other nicely. There is lots of other work on show, including Sarah Lucas, who has a whole room, I really love her work.

It is good to have a strong female force among the artists on display.

Yes! Just like Maria herself who is an unstoppable force and has done great things for Manchester. She is of course also the director of the City Art Gallery and she has raised money for the new venue for the Manchester International Festival. Culturally now, Manchester is really punching above its weight.

Manchester seems to be having a bit of a moment.

People are talking about the new ‘Northern Powerhouse’ – but it has always been a powerhouse! I did a show at the Cornerhouse in 1989, a really important show for me, and now I am coming back to Manchester. I grew up in Cheshire and Manchester is where I came to for culture, to see plays, and I have always been very fond of Manchester. And the Liverpool Everyman!

In your recent Guardian interview with Tim Adams I noticed he quoted your Whitworth collaborator, Nobel prize winner Konstantin Novoselov, who said that you were both working at the “extreme end of creativity”. Could you tell us a little more about working with him?

That has been remarkable – really good – we enjoyed ourselves a lot. We did things together that would have been impossible to do apart, which is always what a collaboration should be about. My invitation to him to try and make graphene from Old Master drawings was something we both got really excited about. He has a strong interest in art and the history of graphite as a drawing material, so it worked with his research but he wouldn’t have thought to do that.

I am doing a three-year honorary professorship at the Whitworth so I am going to carry on my relationship with him and with the gallery. There is a lot of unfinished business! Mary [Griffiths, curator at the Whitworth] and Maria have been like the midwives assisting me with the birth of all this new work. Women! All powerful women.

You often work in collaboration with other non-artists. Is this because it is vital to your practice or is it simply enjoyable?

It is a vital part although I don’t collaborate to produce every piece. I am not a studio-based artist, I just sometimes use it to put things in or undertake a messy process. I find myself being much more creative in conversation with other people. I prefer being on site making instant decisions. It is interesting speaking to scientists because they are not always sure what they are looking for; we just have a hunch that this is an interesting place to be. We play with materials until we find the right way into them and then make this quantum leap. It’s very rewarding – I don’t think I can stop collaborating.

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