2000 Chinese Contemporary Art Awards Jury Meeting
On April 2nd 2000, following an examination of documentations of artwork from 109 artists across Mainland China, the international jury reached its final decision. The jury comprised Haraald Szeemann, curator of the Venice Biennale 1999; Hou Hanru, Chinese curator resident in Paris; Li Xianting, China’s leading critic/curator; conceptual artist Ai Weiwei; and CCAA Association founder Uli Sigg. The selection of the ten artists for this year’s award was based on works produced in the two years 1998-99.
Before the jury members Haraald Szeemann and Hou Hanru left China, they met with a selection of artists based in Beijing to discuss the CCAA process and their impressions of the works they had seen,and to respond to questions of the significance and position of such an award in China. Artists present were Lin Tianmiao, Wang Gongxin, Wang Wei, Lu Hao and Hai Bo.
Lin Tianmiao: I would like to know how the Contemporary Chinese Art Award (CCAA) is organized, or functions exactly. Does the jury remain the same each year,or does it change periodically?
Szeemann: There are many similar prizes to promote young creative talent in Europe. A month ago, I was in Mannheim, Germany, where they awarded a prize to artists under 25. It was interesting, looking thorough the 620 entries, because we discovered previously unknown younger artists. We have a similar prize in Switzerland – although it’s a federal institution.
In the 1960s, the centres for contemporary art were assumed to be New York, London, and Paris. I believe creativity should be happening everywhere. Attempts to promote such initiatives began to crop up and soon afterwards, appeared almost everywhere. Creativity should not be bound to centres.
For me, it is important to stay in contact with what’s going on with younger artists’ work. I think the CCAA aims to do the same thing in China. There are evern more reasons to do it here, becaiuse the infrastructure for exhibitions has not developed. At present,you have just one rather conservative museum for contemporary art in Shanghai,which stops at a certain historical point-but at least it’s a beginning.
The initiative for the CCAA is important because it is virtually impossile to travel all over China to see art. You need to see as much as possible to gain a better understanding of what is out there. Of course, we know that from paintings and catalogues-the best paintings often reproduce badly, and the worst ones reproduce better, But you can still feel the intensity of what the artist is doing, even if only for the last two or three years of production. In this kind of event, on any one day,we can sift through a hundred or so artists, wanting to take part in this kind of contest.
Today, there are so many young artists coming out of art academies that such competitions are valuable as it’s ofter their first contact outside of the institution. Similar prizes to the CCAA have their own history, here it is just the beginning of this type of award. You may well see such award emerge all over the country even if their importance isn’t immediately grasped.
With regard to the CCAA’s jury members, three are from the original board, including myself. I think it’s good that individuals with different perspectives contribute to the selection and decision process. I showed a larger number of Chinese artists at the Biennale in Venice this year because I’d been exposed to more works and ideas from my previous visit, as well as through the CCAA prize. It helps a lot to know the scene and have an outsider’s eye for what is happening in China.
Wang Gongixin: When you look at art, what are the standards that you set? Is it possible to judge what is good- or bad-art?
Szeemann: Everybody can create his/her own ideas about what is art. If you are dealing with a vast number of artists and their works you begin to create an individual my thology, how you personally respond to a work of art. I have been doing selections for big shows like the Venice Biennale now for forty-three years. You get to know a lot of generations of artists. At a certain point, you have to hold firm to what you believe in. there is also what i re3fer to as the ‘intensity’ criteria: when i have an immediate respinse and feel more enthusiastic about certain works more than others.
when you curate such shows, you have a vision of how you see their potential. Again, this is conditioned by the history of the show, like the Venice Biennale. Last year, I wanted it to be different, from what visitors have experienced before. All the artists i selected are familiar to me, many include friends from the 1960s.
There are also other, more practical conditions to take into consideration no matter how many artists’ work you would like to show. You always have to work with a certain amount of space. There are spaces that you invite an artist to work with, because you feel they will be able to respond to the particular site. Then, there are other spaces, which you have to construct through a dialogue with the artist. In that way, the show becomes almost organic in nature. These spatial requirements mean you have to know what the artist does very well. there is also an aesthetic element involved in selecting works, as i often envisage how they will look, or fit into the context of an exhibition.
Wang Wei: I appreciate your comments, but is it possible that when you first came to China to look at the work for the CCAA you were able to employ the same criteria for looking at art that you may be unfamiliar with? For example, when you looked at 110 artists’ works here, could you still use those same guidelines, or parameters for art in China? What would happen if the work doesn’t reach that standard? Is there still a job to choose something, even if you intuitively couldn’t respond to the work?
Szeemann: As people, we are also hunters. And when you are a hunter, you are always looking for a rare animal. I was a little bit disappointed that the young video artists I saw in Shanghai were not sending in their work to the CCAA. I was astonished that these 21-22 year-olds were not participating. It should be like the German youth prize where hundreds of young people send in material for consideration. Then, the jury will last two or three days. Maybe this is something that needs to be addressed. there’s always a lot of things going on in our head, heart, stomach, when we encounter art. We are always looking for a new dimension to the way we curate.
Hou Hanru: The question of criteria as applied to works of art, actually, doesn’t exist, not as an international criteria. Everything is between global and local in the dialogues about standards and values. Artists don’t expect the CCAA, or any other art award to be ‘the award for the best artist’. One should not expect that this sort of prize is to do with concrete conditions; who is buying?, who is on the jury?, ect. It’s a theoretical result. At the same time, it’s a symbolic gesture that shows what’s happening during any given period.
The selection of jury members is very relevant. Harald Szeemann has long international experience. Li Xianting and Ai Weiwei both live in China, and know perfectly what’s happening. Then you have guys like me, who are kind of in between. So it’s a combination of different points of view. But overall, I think the results are quite fair.
Szeemann: The main impetus for the CCAA, however, is because, for once, there was an intelligent Swiss ambassador to China, who is fascinated and enthusiastic about the art produced here. Old, or established perceptions shift about what we see as art in the region, as more information about artists and their work becomes available. The fascinating thing about art is that it’s initially an encounter between two people. As the information spreads it rapidly builds momentum. The CCAA aims to do the same.
Wang Gongxin: I want to return to the question of standards, as for me, it is a complex and interesting issue. There are not really any initiatives for national awards or prizes ofr contemporary art here, so something like the CCAA draws a lot interest. But where i feel people hesitate is that everybody’s perspective is shaped by their cultural background and experience is that there is a difference between the way Western people and people from China look at or define art. So, there’s is hesitation to enter this kind of competition. It is not a Chinese structure-it is not organized within the parameters that an artist like myself is familiar with. there are certain ways that people interact. Maybe it’s just a personal feeling.
Szeemann: Your personal feelings about art are equally valid. As I’ve stated before, it is a human right to express or stand up for your convictions about art. For the CCAA, the structure of the jury has changed since the previous award to address the issues you raise. Last time, there were two Chinese and two European jurors. This time there are three Chinese judges, two from inside country and one working internationally, as well as two European members.
Wang Gongxin: I still think, that in order to look at some of the art in China today, there is a need for a better understanding of its cultural background. Chinese art over the past ten years has constantly been searching for it’s own stander standing of its cultural background. Chinese art over the past ten years has constantly been searching for it’s own standards and qualities, not merely those based upon Western criteria. And in the midest of all these people searching, the CCAA ends up setting some kind of standard of its own.
Szeemannz: What you are describing is nothing new, it has been happening for a long time. Every artist goes through a tough period where they work alone, with no recognition, because the fashion is somewhere else. All the art journals and press have their own critics to promote what is, or isn’t interesting work. But curators are not critics; we are lovers in a way. We don’t say all the rest is nothing, we just present what we love.
Hou: China has always been a vey closed society, so when people ask questions about art from China, sometimes it is framed within this idea that somehow China is different. The presentations heard every day, on the radio or television, is that China is somehow special .the responses of artists as human beings are vey similar. In fact, a lot of the situations for people here, and for those who spend their time making art, is slightly easier than for artists say, in Paris. In China, a lot of international curators and the media are coming to pick up artists. Probably some Chinese artists have more opportunities than any Western artists. In fact, someone who only has three year’s work, can suddenly appear in all these international biennials, from out of nowhere. Whereas a Swiss or French artist who’s been working for years and years and has never got a chance.
But it’s not just a question of whose responsibility it is, and how to define the criteria. It’s more about the indirect situation. The last CCAA award was given to Xie Nanxing, Yang Mian, and Zhou Tiehai. the first two are painters, and have much more influence in the Chinese art world than Zhou Tiehai. Personally, I think that Zhou Tiehai’s work is more interesting, more transcendent. Why such differing interests, and influences? It often has to do with the art world — how it’s structured, what it expects, what kind of art is promoted at a given time, what kind of education artists have received, and what kind of conditions they live in. All this means that we cannot give a very clear answer as to what sort of criteria a work needs to full.
Lin tianmiao: Before this year I don’t heard of the CCAA. I see how this kind of art award is important and has a lot of influence but people here look for quick results when it comes to gaining recognition, but because of the enormous influence on Chinese artists, the constitution of the jury becomes a very important factor.
Wang Gongxin: What we are also trying to do is to get across the differences n the mind-set of people here in China who are looking for some sort of instant success or recognition. It’s not like New York where people are very focused as artists. One of the major problems is that, initially, an award like this ends up setting the agenda.
Szeemann: But you see, I think an artist is a lone individual. An institution takes a long time to grow. It has to start somewhere. If you think of the Venice Biennale, the main problem today is that it became this kind of polarity. On one side you have the old structure, the national pavilions, which reflect the power structure before the First World War, on the other side, the international exhibition (Aperto) had to be a counterbalance to this national selection wig.
The CCAA is more a contest, but what happened this time is that there was not one winner, but ten people, whose diverse styles reflect much more the Chinese situation than the time before. You have to start somewhere. It is maybe mainly to help those who remain in the country.
Lu Hao: Uli Sigg played a very important role in spreading information around China. He travelled all over China to look and acquired a broad understanding of what’s going on. Although he’s a collector, he has taken on a role almost like a critic/curator. this fills a space that Chinese curators here have yet to fill. Critics here don’t take enough interest, don’t put enough effort into understanding the art that’s happening all over their own country.
Hou: There are only 24 hours in a day…He’s right in saying that Chinese critics and curators haven’t really been able to do what Uli Sigg has been doing, in terms of knowing what’s happening everywhere. It’s interesting-in the 1980s,with the first avant-garde movement, for the critics in Beijing there was no way to communicate. It was difficult to make a long-distance call. But, at the same time, we knew basically everything from everywhere in the country. YOu have another kind of passion and another kind of enthusiasm. at ht eime, what was happening ‘yesterday’ in Whuan, we knew the next day in Beijing because people sent letters or message. That was another structure. Today, I think the tasks for critics are rather different, in the sense that you have to cover a wider range of thing, but are expected to also do in-depth research. there is not enough time to cover everything in-depth. The question is that too few people are doing the job. The demand is to do everything at the same time. This is a common situation for critics/curators. We travel all the time, trying to cover as much as possible and we have very little time to digest. We need another level of work, another role played by someone else to do in-depth research.
Wang Gongxin: What concerns me is the misconception that arises as a result of the CCAA., Whatever artist gets selected acts as a signpost to the future. It sends Chinese art off at weird tangents. How do you avoid this happening?
Hou: This happens everywhere. We all know young students copy Bill Viola, or Matthew Basrney. The question comes back to the artist. It’s up to them to decide if they want to be part of a big event or small exhibition. Sometimes a small exhibition might be more interesting than a Venice Biennale. Artists have to be very clear in their mind. I think it’s time to go beyond this model of thinking, to stop identifying with one single mode. It’s a double bind in some ways but you have to try to avoid it.
Szeemann: The difference lies in perception. I think that this relatively young job of curator, which is not aimed at making a collection, nor building up property, is to stay free so that we can go on making shows. We are not the final stage. We are intermediaries. We know that we show an artist their prices go higher, but that is not our aim. We want to have an adventure.