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2012.12.20 Thu, by
Flipping the Switch with Sun Dongdong

As a preview to the exhibition “ON | OFF: China’s Young Artists in Concept and Practice,” randian is publishing a series of conversations in the lead-up to the opening, offering insights into the concept and planning of the show, and the perspectives of participating artists.

 “ON | OFF: China’s Young Artists in Concept and Practice,” an exhibition of the work of 50 young mainland Chinese artists, will open at UCCA (Ullens Center for Contemporary Art) in Beijing on January 13, 2013. Curated by Sun Dongdong and Bao Dong, the exhibition aims to survey the work of these artists in the tense context of recent Chinese history and their experience of life and artistic practice. Randian’s editors met Sun Dongdong to discuss the exhibition in the final weeks of its preparation.

Liang Shuhan: I notice that the time bracket of the exhibition begins in 1976 — is there a particular reason for this? Some of the artists were born in 1986 — ten years later — or even in ’89 or ’90. Those born at these different moments are likely to have different sentiments, different outlooks.

Sun Dongdong: We see 1976 as the commencing of a new era, when China began to open itself. It was Phil (Tinari – Director of UCCA) who proposed this exhibition of young artists’ work and invited us to curate it — he was born in 1977. Mine and my co-curator Bao Dong’s focus on young artists is constant and ongoing. Why ’76? That was our choice — but the end date, 1989, is the birth date of the youngest artist in the exhibition. It is not about sudden economic reform, but about the cumulative effect of reform, about people becoming more and more stressed and under pressure. That is the question this exhibition intends to explore. Actually, the inspiration for the name of this project came from internet VPNs [virtual private networks] — there is a button on the software — “on” and “off”. ON | OFF is a very suitable title to imply the life of our generation because of what it says about openness and limitation. And it is selective, because we are also selective, making choices — you can select to go out and to go back.

Iona Whittaker: So it’s about restriction and choice?

SDD: Yes. And it’s about the two powers existing relatively. One is control and the other is truth.

IW: It makes me think of the dialectics through which Chinese art has often been presented — inside and outside, in and out, on and off… Before, it was an inside/outside dialectic, and now this exhibition offers ON | OFF as a way to conceptualise it. What kind of transition does this suggest as having happened during the lifetimes of these artists? Perhaps you can comment on that.

SDD: Maybe in/out is about a description of the status quo. Every exhibition has its own question or idea. Maybe those in/out exhibitions were about two groups of artists — one inside, the other outside or abroad, for example. Our title, ON | OFF, is all about emerging artists in Mainland China. It’s about the questions and encounters that have occurred as they have grown up.

IW: What do you think about this in terms of wider development, the conditions for art and artists and how art is presented and received (particularly as this is conveyed as a seminal show)?

SDD: In the curatorial statement we mention that this generation of young artists faces questions in terms of art. They appear luckier than the previous generation, but that is just on the face of it. They encounter problems to do with the gallery system and new issues within the “ecology” of art.

IW: What kinds of issues?

SDD: Maybe some of them, just after they graduate or even before that, have collaborated with a gallery. And this gallery system has already exerted influence on the production of these young artists. They also encounter questions pertaining to globalisation. Their personal experience of this is not about the influence of capital on them; it is more about the spread of the internet that helps to build a sense of collectiveness. Some of the artists already knew each other when they were students; interaction online is different from that with their peers. Because of the internet, contemporary Chinese art post-2000 has become more cohesive, but before the internet, there were geographical and communication limitations — artists were not that united. Bao Dong is from Anhui and I am from Nanjing; before we came to Beijing, most of the knowledge we had about art was gleaned from the internet.

IW: What was the selection process?

SDD: Zhao Li, the curator at CAFA, had an exhibition called “Young Hundred,” where he collected together 100 young artists; this show of ours has been dubbed “half-hundred”! We at first had a list of artists we could think of, saw through exhibitions or that we simply knew. But that list was not comprehensive, so through discussion and research in other cities, it extended to 50 artists. If we call those artists who have collaborated with galleries and/or institutions “young emerging artists,” what about those who haven’t yet collaborated with anyone? So we also met and talked to young artists who had no experience with galleries.

IW: Anyone you decided not to include, and why?

SDD: “Representative of” — anybody can use this idea in the contemporary context. The exhibition doesn’t stand for anything; it’s not about the intrusion of a curatorial theme. We just want to present their artistic practice, and don’t intend to intervene in it. The artists have not made work specifically for this exhibition. Bao Dong and I just wanted them to continue their routine and practice, and we selected works for the show. There were no proposals — our selections were based on experience of their ongoing practice.

IW: Did any of the artists want to do new works? In seeing a chance to promote themselves through this exhibition, for example?

SDD: Almost none, but it’s a grey area — you can’t really tell if they have been or are preparing something specifically… But we did say to some artists which series of theirs would be suitable for the exhibition.

IW: And what about your personal ambitions as a curator and aims for the exhibition — how would you define those?

SDD: Our aim is to represent some ambiguous things that are complex or difficult to define. On one hand, we are trying to offer a broad view of young artists’ practice, and on the other we want the viewers to decode what they see and develop an idea of the subjective perspective of each artist’s work. Art is not just about careers and an industry or “the system” exclusively. Art has two sides. Practitioners of art realize themselves through artistic practice, but the audiences experiencing the artworks may be led to reflect on the status quo. So, if you put art in a more expanded context, it is not necessarily that theoretical and abstract. Art must be about practice. So the subtitle of this exhibition, “China’s Young Artists in Concept and Practice,” is about the connection between consciousness and practice. It is tailored to young artists, and promotes some sense of action. This is why we decided also to include non-gallery artists.

LS: What makes this exhibition stand out amongst so many exhibitions of young artists’ work?

SDD: Let’s take a look at the big picture. Following the economic crisis, people started paying more attention to emerging artists. Examples are ample, such as the “Young 100” show which came about under the auspices of the market. Apparently, the older generation’s creativity had begun to diminish, and couldn’t manifest a sufficiently exciting state. To choose young artists means creating more possibilities, but it’s not easy or necessary to tell the commercial and academic sides apart, as they often intertwine. Our curatorial style is different in its attitude towards young artists. The “Sub-Phenomena” exhibition at CAFA Museum, for example, was about the older generation looking at the younger one, to support them as “successors” (“Jiebanren” — a communist term referring to taking the baton, as in a relay race); most of the nominators were of the older generation, or were even those don’t know too much about Chinese contemporary art. This is why it was called a “report” — indicating their unfamiliarity. They tried to achieve a kind of balance and comprehensiveness through the art system, but showed that they know little about the practice of young artists. They simply realized that youth is an issue that deserves consideration, and saw only this rather than doing any serious research in this area. The result was an interpretation of these artists’ practice through knowledge. That’s why they set up a series of themes, like “self-media.” When culture is affected by globalization, cultural similarities are inevitable. But knowledge is often abstract when applied to art. How to understand this deviation? The CAFAM show merely provided some “categories” — you can’t really tell which artists fit with which. These unitary concepts were put up on the walls, but didn’t help divide the show into different sections. The curatorial team were cautious, hesitating to apply these categories to the practice of the artists.

IW: Are there any comments or questions you would like to add, aside from what we have talked about?

SDD: I want through this exhibition to show the public the complexity of artistic practice in China now — not just gallery-oriented taste. I expect that viewers will see an artist’s work and say “Oh, he is creating his work in this way, and another guy is making is his work in that way,” so through these different systems and inter-contextual encounters — and struggles — viewers can realize questions about what is happening now, artistically. My intention also is that the exhibition should be a reflection on the experience of modernity in the international context. But that reflection on the experience of modernity is contained within a particular time period. Maybe some people will see the influence of experience on the artists and their work; if one can perceive these experiences, then that could be a starting-point for reflection.

Iona Whittaker and Liang Shuhan met Sun Dongdong in 798 on December 10, 2012

Exhibition details:

ON | OFF: China’s Young Artists in Concept and Practice

Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art (UCCA – 798 Art District, No. 4 Jiuxianqiao Lu, Chaoyang District, Beijing, China 100015) Jan 13 – Apr 14, 2013

Participating Artists:

Birdhead, Chen Wei, Chen Yujun + Chen Yufan, Chen Zhe, Chen Zhou, Cheng Ran, Fang Lu, Ge Lei, Gong Jian + Li Jinghu, Guo Hongwei, He Xiangyu, Hu Xiangqian, Hu Xiaoyuan, Huang Ran, Jiang Pengyi, Jin Shan, Lee Fuchun, Li Liao, Li Ming, Li Ran, Li Shurui, Liang Yuanwei, Liu Chuang, Liu Xinyi, Lu Yang, Ma Qiusha, Qiu Xiaofei, Shang Yixin, Shi Wanwan, Song Ta, Song Yuanyuan, Sun Xun, Tang Dixin, Wang Guangle, Wang Sishun, Wang Yuyang, Wen Ling, Wu Junyong, Xie Molin, Xin Yunpeng, Xu Qu, Xu Zhe, Yan Xing, Yang Jian, Yang Xinguang, Zhang Ding, Zhang Liaoyuan, Zhao Yao, Zhao Zhao, Zhou Tao