2014.05.13 Tue, by Translated by: Daniel Szehin Ho
Art Basel Film Sector: Interview with Li Zhenhua

Art Basel is launching a sector dedicated to films by and about artists at its show in Hong Kong. From May 15 to May 17, 49 works by 41 artists, represented by 30 galleries, will be screened at the agnès b. CINEMA at the Hong Kong Arts Centre. Curated by Beijing and Zurich based curator, multi-media artist and producer Li Zhenhua, highlights of the program include works by international artists such as Takashi Ishida, Dinh Q. Lê, and Hong Kong artists, Kwan Sheung Chi and Christopher Doyle.

Li Zhenhua has been active in the artistic field since 1996, his practice mainly concerning curation, art creation and project management. Since 2010 he has been nominator for the Summer Academy at the Zentrum Paul Klee Bern (Switzerland), as well as for The Prix Pictet (Switzerland). He is a member of the international advisory board for the exhibition “Digital Revolution” to be held at the Barbican Centre in the UK in 2014. Li Zhenhua has edited several artists’ publications, including Yan Lei: What I Like to Do (Documenta, 2012), Hu Jieming: One Hundred Years in One Minute (2010), Feng Mengbo: Journey to the West (2010), and Yang Fudong: Dawn Mist, Separation Faith (2009). A collection of his art reviews has been published under the title Text in 2013.

Li Zhenhua (photo: Marianne Burki)

Gu Ling: Could you just briefly describe what the expectations were when Art Basel Hong Kong first invited you to curate the Film section? Were there specific requirements?

Li Zhenhua: Actually, when Magnus [Renfrew; the director of Art Basel Hong Kong] contacted me, the question of which artists were to be nominated by whom had already been addressed. I could only work and find a degree of freedom and the possibility of connecting with the audience within the set framework of an organization as large as Art Basel.

Of course, the organizers encouraged me to take the initiative, but many things could only be decided after discussion. For instance, I asked Magnus if documentary films can be shown; if they are shown, then the time available to show other works will shrink—not to mention that the screening time is only three days with only an hour and a half on each. Later, I decided not to show documentaries. But then I asked if we could cooperate with a local organization with the express purpose of showing documentaries; in the end, the reply was that the time has not come. I understood then that this idea hasn’t fully developed, and will need to do so in the future. Since the contract is for two years, for 2014 and 2015, I started to conceive of some future projects and make suggestions—for example more outside screenings, or collaborating with audio-visual artists at the opening, and so on. For this edition, the work is still mainly within the scope of the art fair.

Gu Ling: Sounds like there were more limits than freedom?

Li Zhenhua: This project is very different from my previous co-operations with museums or non-profit spaces; it actually opens up a new way of working. The more limits there were, the more I, in contrast, thought it was interesting. I had to choose which works to show from the 140+ galleries who applied; you could say there are limits, but there is also a degree of freedom. Another interesting thing is that the works offered have clearly already been approved by the market, so I was also curious as to which those works are. From this, I can discover some facts and learn from it.

Gu Ling: So what are the differences between the project in Hong Kong and the Film section at the Art Basel art fair in Basel, Switzerland? You just mentioned that the organizational method is choosing works from amongst those selected by the galleries.

Li Zhenhua: First is the screening venue. I see that the Film section was at first done in a cinema in Basel; then in Miami, it got moved out to a big outdoor space, and then this time in Hong Kong it returns into a cinema. So it’s right to call this section “Film”.

Then, the region of focus for each Art Basel is different. The Hong Kong fair certainly needs to highlight Asia, so over half of the nominating galleries are from Asia. Still, within a global backdrop, Asian galleries will also represent artists from other regions.

Finally, there is the overall trend and direction of culture, as well as the direction of where video art is heading. In Hong Kong, these are two topics people pay attention to; and with the close links with the social grass roots, not a few artists really place themselves in the movement for democratization. This makes the “action and activism” element stand out within the overall curatorial theme.

Dinh Q. Lê, “South China Sea Pishkun”, 2009, Courtesy the artist and 10 Chancery Lane Gallery

Gu Ling: Now that we’re talking about cinemas and Hong Kong: why is the cinema format still selected for Hong Kong? What’s the special significance of screening video works in a cinema versus an ordinary art space or exhibition hall? How does that affect the viewing experience?

Li Zhenhua:  Right, there’s something special about cinemas. First of all, there’s a certain nostalgia. When you go into a cinema, you think of many things. Now one reality faced by video art is that many works are presented in an exhibition environment and the audience doesn’t really have the chance to watch a work through, quietly. Of course, this is determined by the special characteristics of this medium itself—it can be shown in an exhibition space as well as in a cinema. Aside from that, we hope to echo Hong Kong’s film industry by screening works in the cinema, which also looks after some local experiential habits.

Gu Ling: So in the process of galleries nominating works, is there any conscious interference? Are there galleries that pay to nominate a work? Or pay certain fees for specified artists?

Li Zhenhua: From what I know, galleries only need to apply publicly and do not need to pay. As for the nomination, the vast majority of galleries only nominated one or two artists, so it was hard to avoid “clashes”. It has happened when the same person was nominated by two or three galleries. So I asked my Art Basel colleagues; then, maybe the two or three galleries negotiated to see who would give way etc. Anyway, the premise is that everyone is communicating and negotiating, which is also an interesting process.

Gu Ling: From the current lists of works, Roman Signer has a large number of works being screened.

Li Zhenhua: About the weight of Signer’s work, I want to return to the theme “Action and Activism”—since no other artists have gone down this road for as long as Signer has. We want to bring in that context and self-mockery in the 1970s and 1980s. Even though not that many people knew about him in Switzerland back then, even though he was laughed at a bit and not understood, these days, he is represented by Hauser and Wirth—so obviously the power behind him has changed. His weight in the program is therefore linked to the theme, including many questions it points at—such as do artists really intervene in society? That’s also another self-mockery.

Nina Yuen, “Hermione”, 2013, Courtesy of the artist and Lombard Freid Gallery, New York

Gu Ling: Earlier, you mentioned the limitations of space and time (three days, with only 1.5 hours each). So when you screen these independent works together, what kind of effect does that have for the experience of the work?

Li Zhenhua: Actually we are pretty careful in this respect. We have to control the overall rhythm of viewing and make it interesting. Of course this depends as well on the actual audience interaction, so it’s hard to judge at this point.

Gu Ling: So this is why no multi-channel video installations are there?

Li Zhenhua: Actually I hadn’t even thought much about it. All the limitations this time might become freer next time. Of course, in terms of video installations themselves, they can simply be shown in an exhibition space, so there’s no real need for us to do this.

Gu Ling: You also mentioned that from the works nominated by the galleries, we can see what kind of video works the market favors. Do you think the collection of video art in China is still far behind that in the West?

Li Zhenhua: I feel this is a familiar problem. Actually, there are collectors domestically, like Guan Yi, Uli Sigg, Qiao Zhibing, and so on—they started collecting a few years back.  Institutionally, China perhaps hasn’t really started. In the West, there are important institutions collecting video and digital art, like ZKM, V2 and so on. I remember visiting Jeffrey Shaw. They have a space, and the moment you open the doors, you see a video by Bill Viola. We asked him back then about the lack of interaction. He replied that if paintings, photography, sculpture and installation can be shown in a space even without someone around, then video is the same. This moved me quite a bit back then, because something formless took form and started to fill the space. Some people treat video like hang-able art. This depends on everyone’s own impressions.

Gu Ling: Compared with the intellectual or experimental development of video and digital art, is there a gap? Or has it caught up?

Li Zhenhua: I think the development of video and digital art matches the market attention. Actually video and digital art has had a history of 50 years. So from the current market—from gallerists, collectors, artists and the media—there’s already attention on works on the screen, because these reflect the spirit of the age. I think the time has come. Actually we’ve come to a new frontier—the integration of media and life has already reached a mature stage. This is no longer merely in the possession of a certain elite; the media quality of media art itself can be entered into by everyone with a cell-phone screen.

Gu Ling: In terms of the current works of video and digital art in China, do you think there’s too much or too little?

Li Zhenhua: Actually there’s quite a few. I think it will take some time—like ink art now, all of a sudden everyone will be doing video art. With the changes in the age, it’s hard to actually find a link with tradition. You can argue that everyone is typing these days, so how do you find a link with paper and the brush? The environment doesn’t exist anymore. Now that everyone is using cell phones, smart phones—who is just satisfied with the calling function? There will still be people safeguarding this “tradition”, but new things will always appear.

Kwan Sheung Chi, “Doing it with Mrs Kwan… making Pepper Spray”, 2012, Courtesy of Gallery EXIT and the Artist

Chen Zhou, “Spanking The Maid II”, 2012, Courtesy of Arthub Asia and Aike-Dellarco

Wang Haiyang, “Freud, Fish and Butterfly”, 2012, Courtesy the artist and Galerie Paris-Beijing

Chim↑Pom, “BLACK OF DEATH 2013”, 2013, Courtesy of Mujin-To Production, Tokyo

Takashi Ishida, “Burning Chair”, 2013, Courtesy of Taka Ishii Galery, Tokyo, Photo: Kenji Takahashi