EX: 1/30/2012
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2012.11.14 Wed, by Translated by: Inge Wesseling
Reconstructing Public Resources
Interview with Qiu Zhijie, Chief Curator of the 2012 Shanghai Biennale

Everywhere around the new Shanghai Power Station of Art (PSA) are orange PSA logos, which easily evoke an association with the Tate Modern in London, also a former power plant. The Power Station of Art has become the site for the contemporary section of the Shanghai Art Museum after two phased relocations. Formerly the Nanshi Power Plant, the building overlooks the China Art Museum across the river, which a year ago was the Shanghai Expo’s China Pavilion. According to Li Lei, the director of the China Art Museum, the museum mainly exhibits modern Chinese art. The museum includes seven themed galleries dedicated to modern art masters and a large amount of exquisite collected pieces. The PSA, which does not have a collection, opens its first exhibition with the exhibition of the 9th Shanghai Biennale. The follow-up plan for the middle of next year is an exhibition on loan from the Pompidou Center.

What surprised and amazed the entire staff was that the organizing committee turned the PSA into a real biennale venue within eight months. More specifically, a messy construction site was transformed in less than two weeks into a space where nine-tenths of the exhibited works were installed — which must surely be called a miracle.

Qiu Zhijie, the Chief Curator of this year’s biennale, together with co-curators Johnson Chang, Boris Groys and Jens Hoffmann, decided on “Reactivation” as the main theme of the Biennale. They divided the exhibition into the four sections, “Resources,” “Revisit,” “Reform,” and “Republic,” and organized extended off-site projects such as the “Inter-City Pavilions Project” and the “Zhongshan Park Project.”

Living and working in Beijing and Hangzhou, Qiu Zhijie (born in Zhangzhou in 1969) is an artist who uses diverse media including ink, performance, video, installation and live art. His work often conceptualizes traditional skills and examines the innumerable twists and turns between China’s political history and current social reality. Appointed as Professor of the School of Multimedia Art of the China Academy of Art, he is also the director of the Total Art Studio. He has also been short-listed for the 2012 Hugo Boss Art Prize.


As sunlight falls on the wooden floors of the seventh floor patio of the PSA, Qiu Zhijie takes his bag and seats himself in the shade: he doesn’t like to bask in the sun. He lights a cigarette and then another one, pinches the cigarette butt and then the other one and stuffs them into a disposable plastic cup.

The sunlight shines through the cup and casts a shadow on his side contour. He is talking.

Gu Ling: Were the numerous problems that occurred during the preparation of the exhibition all caused by excessive ambition at the outset?

Qiu Zhijie: An exhibition is always a perpetual work of art. If you want everything to be perfect from the beginning, I think the opening day would be nowhere in sight. For this year’s biennale, I worked hardest on and had the highest expectations for the “Inter-City Pavilions Project” and the “Zhongshan Park Project,” When you’re working on establishing institutions, you first have to set up the institutions themselves, and only then can there be any further development. The “Zhongshan Park Project” is about people and nations, while the “Inter-City Pavilions Project” aims to transcend nationalism.

Of course, there is also the “Academy of Mutual Enlightenment,” which created a precedent for national education through the Biennale. It’s possible not to do all of this, but we needed to do this from the beginning on, to set up the framework. The agreement that Thomas Shao of the Modern Media Group signed with the Shanghai Biennale is not limited to this year, so the next Biennale’s curator, who will not be me, can build upon the foundation we have laid.

We have accumulated valuable experience, so I solve problems like finding sponsors and funding in due time. So I think having a lot of ambition isn’t wrong, but we can certainly improve going forward.

GL: What were the roles and functions of the three co-curators?

QZJ: The idea behind inviting them was that I felt my own vision would not be sufficient. Therefore I hoped adding them to the team could make our vision more comprehensive. But in reality, they only nominated artists. Each of them nominated fifty or sixty artists, and I researched them one by one. It was very arduous but ultimately worthwhile process. The filtering afterwards especially difficult; it didn’t matter whose name you deleted, you would always offend someone. Even then the layout of the exhibition halls still looked quite crowded. If I think about it now, I could have handled this biennale in a completely different way by just selecting, say, ten artists, and letting each of them do their own thing and really showing their work. That could have been really amazing. So there are several ways to handle this, and I do feel a tinge of regret.

GL: Perhaps the co-curators’ contributions to the city pavilions are more apparent?

QZJ: You’re right; their main contribution was networking for the city pavilions. All of them have very strong networks. Only through their artistic networks was the nomination and selection of the artists for the city pavilions possible. Even though it was the inaugural Inter-City Pavilions Project, the pavilions overall had a really pieced-together feeling. It’s the same as with life — a mix of good and bad, very uneven. I especially enjoyed the pavilions of Dakar, Berlin, and Dusseldorf. The staff from those cities all had their own distinctive characters and ways of working, which made the whole process more interesting. The collision and friction therein served as a sort of creative spark.

GL: Speaking of your identity as an artist, did it change at all when you were appointed as Chief Curator for this year’s biennale?

QZJ: Everyone involved with the preparations is suffering from “post-biennale syndrome,” and they can’t stand many of the famous artists. The more famous an artist is, the more likely he will make things difficult for others. Not to mention some young, up-and-coming artists that also fancy themselves hotshots; it’s really ridiculous. As a matter of fact, before, I only knew some artists who were kind of difficult, but this time my whole team was affected by it. When a master’s aura is gone, only an ordinary person remains. He will follow you around for money, he will complain about the hotel room, he will be throwing tantrums because there was no car to drive him around. When I think back about when I was creating artworks in my early years without any money, even though the artworks were very rough, they were all made very diligently. Nowadays spending lots of money and using expensive equipment to create artworks is a sort of precondition. Of course, when the artwork turns out well, you are naturally happy. So this is also a contradiction held by the artist.

GL: When you mention the construction of systems, to me everything still seems to embrace the existing Western systems. Since you are already aware of the existing problems in the current system, did you already find another path leading to the construction of a new biennale or even an exhibition mode?

QZJ: That’s a good question. To change you always need a reason first. Nowadays, I have reasons to change but as for how to change, I really don’t know. I think that this principle is like Chinese playing table tennis. Table tennis isn’t a Chinese sport but we learned and mastered it better than anyone else. As a result, it became our national sport. Since we operate under a system but don’t completely understand it, we first copy and imitate, study the thing thoroughly from the inside to the outside, and only then will we be able to find a way out to a new system. For example, the city pavilions already exceeded the museum’s limitations. I think that they have a very large potential to expand or they could even be the prototype for a new system. Naturally, the city pavilions could have been made in a completely different way. For instance, right now in the museum there are only a few city pavilions set up on the fifth floor. If the city pavilions on Nanjing East Road all moved into the museum, that would be another way to handle this. Thus there would also be a different kind of logic.

GL: Speaking of logic, what are the narrative tracks and conclusions about this edition’s theme pavilion?

QZJ: The overarching theme is divided into four sections; pieced together the core conclusion is this: reconstructing public resources. But their prominent manifestation is still in the narrative of the “Inter-City Pavilions Project” and the “Zhongshan Park Project.” The most outstanding example is the Diankou Pavilion, which is a project I recommend wholeheartedly.

This is completely different from Huaxi village where I organized a large-scale student research project and rehearsed a play. Huaxi village is the absolute opposite of Diankou; it’s simply a little police state. But Diankou, even if it has some showy ingredients, still adheres to China’s traditional society of acquaintances concerned with keeping face. There the equal respect for oneself and others is still preserved. I believe that this is the most important.

I nicknamed it the industrial and commercial alliance of a continued traditional culture of acquaintances. Over there they have many companies and large enterprises, but those bosses all practice corporate social responsibility and adhere to mutual respect and treat their staff well.

If we look at Shanghai, the smooth launch of the city pavilions would not have been possible without the understanding of the Huangpu district government and the priority they attached to the project.

They publicly announced that this year they would play their first cultural card and that next year they will open even more cultural areas. That “card” can work to my advantage. Thus the other administrative districts don’t want to lag behind. This kind of supportive behavior can be called the “procurement of cultural services” for governments and companies.

However, if they go back on their word, I won’t care either. It’s not a must for me to do it here; the city pavilions could also move to Hangzhou, to the art academy, or any other place to be further developed and realized.