Serendipity, subjectivity and distance: entwined reflections on Wu Hung’s lecture and the first six months of my PhD

“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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