Thursday, 6 March 2014

interAction(s) portraits


A new project is about to start!

interAction(s) portraits is a collaborative, durational project

is also an exhibition that uses portraits as its subject matter.

But, the portraits are not what people usually understand as portraits — they are more conceptual.

This is a collective project that was conceived and realised through a series of workshops involving second year Fine Arts students and led by a Masters student. The focus was on both the creation of artworks and on their presentation in a well-defined gallery setting. That is to say, the presentation was integral to the work. 
 Matthew Cabinet, Level 5, Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design,
13 Perth Road, Dundee DD1 4HT
Sophie Suominen 'opens' the platform for interAction(s) in a performative manner.

The 'team' - artists & curator

Angela Lloyd Matricide - Self Portrait

was the first artwork installed in the cabinet

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Distant Readings of Shanghai

Reflections on the Research & Development Trip to Himalayas Art Museum in Shanghai

Himalayas Art Museum, Shanghai. 

how it begins

In 2012 Shanghai based Curator and Critic Wang Nanming was invited to participate in Edgar Schmitz' Cooper Gallery exhibition Surplus Cameo Decor as a 'cameo appearance' and to present a keynote talk at the exhibition's satellite strand Hubs and Fictions: A Touring Forum on Current Art and Imported Remoteness, which toured to three venues across the UK including Cooper Gallery, BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead and Goldsmiths in London. Wang Nanming's enthusiasm for the exhibition and support of the curatorial vision of Cooper Gallery led him to invite Cooper Gallery to curate A Year of Contemporary Art from Scotland for Himalayas Art Museum in Shanghai where he holds the post of Head of Research. 

Himalayas Art Museum (formerly the Shanghai Zendai Museum of Modern Art) opened in 2005 and is now a highly respected art museum in China. In June 2013 it opened to the public four newly refurbished galleries which have a total of 1949 square meters of exhibition space. The Museum is devoted to supporting and promoting contemporary art in China and encouraging international dialogue and collaboration. This approach is evidence in their hosting of the successful and critically acclaimed archival exhibition 50 Years Documenta: Archive in Motion 1955-2005 in 2005 and the retrospective exhibition of British sculptor Tony Cragg in 2012. As a privately funded and non-profit cultural institution, the museum has established a distinctive focus developed through a critical discourse on global contemporary art and culture.

In early 2013, Sophia Hao, Curator of Exhibitions and Visual Research Centre DJCAD began intensive discussions with Wang Nanming and others from the exhibitions and curatorial team at Himalayas Art Museum about this ambitious project. Later in the summer, conversations also evolved in Scotland with the artists and institutional partners whose work would support and shape CURRENT | A Year Programme of Contemporary Art from Scotland (working title). It became clear at this point that a Research & Development Trip to the Himalayas Art Museum in Shanghai would be essential to support the dialogues and to allow the individuals and organisations involved to investigate the exhibition spaces as well as the historical, cultural and social contexts within which they could potentially develop and present new works.

After months of planning and preparation the Research & Development Trip took place in January 2014 when Sophia Hao visited Himalayas Art Museum in Shanghai with artists Ross Sinclair, Corin Sworn, Edgar Schmitz, Lucy Skaer and Anna Ridley (representative of REWIND: British Artists' Video in the 70's and 80's).

R&D Trip Participants look onto Himalayas Art Museum, Shanghai. 
Image: Cooper Gallery, 2014

Now, after our return to the UK, all of us are reflecting on the different beginnings of this exciting journey. Below are reflections by Lucy Skaer, Edgar Schmitz, Ross Sinclair, Corin Sworn and Anna Ridley.

notes from a distance

Lucy Skaer

Our early January trip to Shanghai was fascinating. We ate fantastic food, visited museums and the old water town and were extremely well hosted by the staff at Himalayas. Initially, I felt like we were never fully encountering 'real' Shanghai, but rather seeing contemporary presentations of what a shopping mall, museum, downtown should be. 

Image: Lucy Skaer, 2014
Image: Lucy Skaer, 2014
The ersatz nature of my experience is, I think, due in a large part to my preconceptions of what 'real' China is now. The city is very much more western than I had thought, with Tesco, M&S as well as the ubiquitous Starbucks and Burger King. But culturally, of course, China is hugely different from the West, which sets up interesting juxtapositions, and these were perhaps well illustrated in the Himalayas Museum itself.

Himalayas Art Museum, Image: Lucy Skaer, 2014

The museum on first sight is very impressive, if a little fantastical: part Gaudi cathedral, part elephant on tip-toes. Getting closer to the building, it turns out that what had appeared to be high-tech metal cladding was in fact poured concrete, shuttered in sections. I liked this clearly person-made finish to what initially had looked to be a digitally designed building. Inside, the building is part hotel, part theatre, part mall and part museum. The idea of showing my work in this scenario in most countries would make my blood run cold. However, I came to understand that the situation we are being offered in the Himalayas Museum is in fact very interesting, precisely because it falls between chairs.

Object in Museum of Folk Art. Image: Lucy Skaer, 2014

The official government-run museum that we visited (the Museum of World Folk Art) made it very apparent that there is a certain agenda being presented in these spaces. Although what that agenda is I am not sure, after reading a wall text:

'Integrating the primitive hand-made sculptures and modern lighting, the india totem poles make the visitors fell the spiritual home of the North American Indians as well as the primitive and mysterious Indian cultures in the wonderful neon.'

Commercial galleries, we were told, essentially showed kitsch sentimental work. It began to be more appealing to show in a space that is a private foundation that has fallen on hard times; it offers a situation that may not already be pre-determined. 

Wang Nanming, a freelance curator and critic working with the Himalayas, is a key figure in the project. He is a big figure in contemporary art in China and, judging by papers such as 'The Shanghai Art Museum Should Not Become a Market Stall in China for Western Hegemonism—A Paper Delivered at the 2000 Shanghai Biennale’, he is sensitive to the potential pitfalls into which a year-long season of contemporary art from Scotland could perhaps stumble.

Shanghai cityscape. Image: Lucy Skaer, 2014

During the visit my ideas of how to approach the potential show changed radically. Some aspects of my work involve the deletion of information – from newspapers or art historical images – or a stubborn blankness that an object such as an ingot can have. I now see that it would be impossible to show these works in a situation where actual censorship takes place – it would be a ‘carrying of coals to Newcastle’. But it would be very exciting for me to make new work from the culturally-alienated and complex position in relation to both East and West that I found myself in.

Edgar Schmitz

Of course the trip opened up more questions than it was set up to answer. But that had always been my understanding, and in addition to the obvious questions around the homogeneity of any line-up (who/ what are we representing?), for me, the most urgent set of questions had to do with the difficulty in understanding what we become out there, and how we can find ways of dealing with that as an important part of the project. 

We were granted privileged access, I guess, to what are probably key players and possibly key institutions in the shaping of a critical paradigm for contemporary art in China. And we were introduced, in the same move, to a whole series of criteria and demarcations along which the field seems to be structured: contemporary art in conjunction with performance and video art practices; a very aggressive sense of differentiation between 'research-based' and 'commercial' art fields/ worlds; etc

This matrix seemed different from the ones I normally inhabit, and so did the institutional infrastructures: a private museum with an independent artistic director is intriguing, as is the repeated presence of high profile Western shows there and the presence of Western discourse in places like the 'power station of art'.

On one hand, these distributions appear intriguing because they may indicate something like the future of art infrastructures as they explode across Asia for the moment.  This is what the field may indeed end up looking like.

On the other hand, these distributions are so suggestive because they up a series of tensions between what we have naturalised as the conditions of contemporary art in the UK/ London (which is my primary frame of reference, I know far too little about Scotland in that respect) and what is emerging in China, and because those tensions are fantastically suggestive for re-thinking our engagement in the domestic milieus we know so well (be they Scottish, UK or London).

The exchange is necessarily two-way in that sense and driven by curiosity as well as fascination and hesitation, in some form of mixture.

Some of this will necessarily play out in the way in which we as artists behave there: how can work be (re-)produced under those conditions whilst acknowledging the parallax distortion of our own perspectives/ practices as they bounce off the realities we only ever glimpsed in Shanghai? And: how important is this angle for the different practices? (In a way, the displacement experienced mirrors quite faithfully the London/ Dundee displacement that animated my Surplus Cameo Decor exhibition which is now ostensibly traveling to Himalayas…)

And some of this will need unpacking through discussions, debate and a much broader number of voices. I guess the suggestion to host a series of forums corresponds to that desire, and will be hugely productive.

The ambition, of course, is to provoke all these discussions and engagements both ways (East-West and West-East) and mobilize them around as well as through the work. Which also means that production, in the full sense, will be more than the fabrication of works. Being given the opportunity and the licence to start that process, was wonderful.

Images: Edgar Schmitz, 2014

Ross Sinclair

It’s hard to simply rationalize the trip to Shanghai as it was engaging and complex and confusing and fascinating on many, many levels. 

Shanghai from above. Image: Ross Sinclair, 2014
On the one hand it was a site visit with a group of artists, to see the space, measure up, try to get the feel of the place, and this in itself was rewarding but in fact was a bit of a mirage, the visit was really much more than this. The underlying engagement/dialogue was actually concerned with the relationship between a conventional paradigm of  ‘Art exhibited in China’ (as described/articulated by our hosts as largely commercial, polished, uncritical, or otherwise sentimental and romantic) and the possibilities of bringing a critical, questioning, ‘post historical’ western eye to the situation in Shanghai. Of course all these terms and definitions/ direction of flow etc etc are extremely problematic and contentious and are all really up for continual discussion/argument/disagreement but in a sense that reflects the potential scale and ambition of this project between Scotland and China. This could be a dynamic and vital dialogue between artists reflecting a cultural sensibility which has been flourishing in Scotland over the last 20 years and a Chinese monolithic cultural paradigm which  it appears Wang Nanming, the curatorial force of our hosts appears to have been systematically questioning and critiquing for many years.

Himalayas Art Museum, Image: Ross Sinclair, 2014

Himalayas Art Museum, Image: Ross Sinclair, 2014

Shanghai, Images: Ross Sinclair, 2014
From my own perspective I found the trip extremely stimulating. My works often discuss notions of identity, cultural, social, political, geographic etc and in a sense this is what the project is all about. On a more formal level I am always very interested in establishing some kind of ‘dialogue’ with an audience, trying to engage on different levels and there seems much scope for developing this with Himalayas Museum. They seem genuinely committed to the project and the possibilities of what we might come up with. Of course there are difficult notions of being expected to ‘represent’ any tradition or discourse but I feel if you keep these bigger questions hovering at the periphery of your thoughts they could inform and guide without paralyzing a creative/critical process. 

Welcome Dinner with Himalayas Art Museum Curatorial Team. Image: Ross Sinclair, 2014

Images: Ross Sinclair, 2014

Our hosts did a fantastic job of organizing a solid week of visits/trips/discussions/meetings/openings/travel etc etc and I feel that also reflected their commitment. There are many questions remaining about the nature of the Museum space (gigantic!) funding etc, the relationship with audience, and beginning to try to identify/understand what kind of social contract exists with the Chinese people and this cultural institution, or any institution for that matter. Again though, I think this could help develop a dynamic and discursive relationship.

As I begin a process of developing my thoughts into some sort of articulable process I’m thinking how I might try to involve some other people, perhaps students at Glasgow School of Art where I work and I will talk to the Art School to see whether there could be other connections/relationships to be fostered. I may try to develop some spirit/aspects of the Real Life Parledonia project I explored at Edinburgh Art Festival last year perhaps trying to pull together a small dynamic group of artists under a formal umbrella of some kind, maybe with video and sound. However I think for the project to be fruitful and successful over the year long period the key dynamic must be with each artist and the project, specific works, dynamics, relationships etc. I think the bigger questions, ambitions, aspirations must come from a discussion through the work rather than a top down approach about meta relationships and politics. With this in mind this could be the beginning of a potentially very fruitful relationship.

I think another interesting aspect of this relationship is that, while ostensibly on the surface we are being invited by an enlightened and engaged Chinese curator to create a new kind of local dialogue with an audience in Shanghai ( direction – west to east) – I think an understanding of the difficult situation that exists in China and how a critical language has been developed there could potentially help to refocus what the key critical relationships are within an art dialogue in Scotland and the west (direction - east to west).


Corin Sworn

Much of the work I make carefully assembles objects and narratives to make visible misassumptions and errors we make as we attempt to imagine the past. Yet, this is to some extent a metaphor as I am trying to draw attention to how we read or narrate a place that has similarities to our own while is in fact very different and to a large extent inaccessible. To what extent can we conceive difference? Is it that each time we explain something ‘other’ we produce an altered version of what is normative to ourselves?

Shanghai. Images: Corin Sworn, 2014

Many of these ideas were thrown into sharp relief over the course of our research trip to Shanghai. To some extent, my assumptions or imaginings of contemporary China were eroded or troubled while I was there. Yet, most frequently with each shock that things were not as I expected, I could not describe any related assumption I’d originally held. In its absence was only with sense that I had never conceived of this moment or this way of doing things before. Our trip to Shanghai did not so much unveil the city to me but was full of startling encounters redolent with alternate possibility.

Image from Museum of Urban Planning. Image: Corin Sworn, 2014

Perhaps I can describe this fluctuation between familiarity and difference through an example.  The most solid aspect to Shanghai that I had access to was its architecture. Yet even this felt almost liquid. In the museum of urban planning were two comparative images of the city from the same view-point. In 1984 there were barely any buildings above 5 stories and today, just thirty years later, that old skyline is unrecognizable. It has been replaced by many of the tallest buildings I have ever seen. That a city can change so drastically so quickly made the little social shifts and changes that I look for in my studio work seem almost pitiful. Yet uncannily while the city’s changes are so strange to me they might not be so strange to Glasgow. This wild sprouting of architecture is part of an effort to manage the largest migration in human history presently underway as China’s rural population moves to its cities.[1] Glasgow was once the one of the fastest growing cities in Europe and today we walk streets all too strongly affected by urban planners’ reactions to these past migrations. Perhaps in this tenuous relationship there is for a Glasgow - Shanghai collaboration?

Images of Himalayas Art Museum from inside and outside. Images: Corin Sworn, 2014

Furthermore exhibiting at the museum of the Himalayas seems an intriguingly apt place involvement with the city. Housed within a dazzling new and ambitions architectural shell it shares, with other large institutions we saw, a stark emptiness across its galleries. It seems that within the impressive spaces built to house contemporary art the annunciation of this practice is still anxious and undefined.  As I understand it there is a booming art scene but how it participates officially is in flux. Where foreign brands have quickly filled the newly opened shopping malls foreign art perhaps does not have the same directives or resources. As artists in Europe we too are struggling with our own cultural shifts and changes. Here again I hope some incongruous familiarity across our positions might enliven this Shanghai – Glasgow collaboration.

Since returning home many people have inquired about our visit to Shanghai.  I am looking forward to posting our collected images and thoughts online for a broader discussion of our trip. It seems the possibility to build stronger links between artists working here and there is of interest to both communities. I feel that sharing our different vantages and positions as artists could be enriching to all of us. 


Anna Ridley

As someone who is not an artist but has worked with artists creating opportunities for them to make new work for presentation via a medium of mass communication, namely broadcast television, my observations are broader based than those of the four artists on this research trip, who will be exhibiting in Shanghai.

Shanghai. Image: Anna Ridley, 2014 
Shanghai is the vibrant, commercial hub of China, Its personality is embodied in the variety of design of the high-rise buildings which radiate out from the original Old Town each vying with the other to capture our attention. Some are enlivened with thousands of LED chaser lights which animate these buildings at night. TV screens abound in all sizes, sometimes in unexpected places, displaying all manner of advertising.

The city centre houses all the high end fashion brands of the West not to mention Starbucks and Costa Coffee. Shopping malls are buzzing with customers. Audi and BMW cars appear to be the ‘must have’ status symbols.

China’s ambition to surpass the USA as the world’s richest economy is very evident and, according to some commentators, will achieve that ambition in the next few years despite a slow down in growth. This is familiar territory to us from the West, but what lies beneath the surface? Can we surmise by the treatment of Ai Wei Wei that Chinese artists do not enjoy the same freedom of expression as those in the West? There appears to be some loosening up of attitudes and a desire to embrace the international community, but how far does it go?

Wang Nanming, the head of Research and Curator for the Himalayas Museum, appears to be somewhat of a maverick. I get the impression that he considers the time is right to bring contemporary artists from Scotland to fuel a very particular debate with Chinese artists and students. First hand acquaintance with a society that has only been opened up since the 1990s must be an enlightening experience for any artist from the West. Although street signs, road signs and other information are displayed in English alongside Mandarin, I would suggest that an artist’s visual language may need some adjustment for the public at large.

Images of shops and markets. Images: Anna Ridley, 2014

In our six day visit there was not the opportunity to explore who might make up the audience for a exhibition of contemporary art. The Shanghai Museum was well attended by a similar cross section of the public we might expect at the Victoria and ~~Albert Museum in London. This Museum Contains permanent exhibitions on calligraphy, costumes from Chinese ethnic minorities, porcelain, jade and furniture. There was also a special exhibition of artefacts from Anatolia.

Overall the visit was a tremendous experience and the hospitality and care shown by the Museum staff was exemplary.

This Research & Development Trip was supported by Creative Scotland with partnership funding from Himalayas Art Museum, Shanghai and Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design, University of Dundee.