Hou Hanru: A Conversation
By Anthony Torres
I recently had an opportunity to engage in conversation with Hou Hanru, Director of Exhibitions and Public Programs, and chair of the Exhibitions and Museum Studies Program at the San Francisco Art Institute.
Internationally known as a progressive cultural critic and innovative curator, Hou recently served as the artistic director of the 2nd Guangzhou Triennial, where he co-curated Beyond: An Extraordinary Space of Experimentation for Modernization with Hans Ulrich Obrist and Guo Xiaoyan (Guangzhou, 2005). Most recently, Hou was appointed artistic director of the 10th International Istanbul Biennial and curator of the Chinese Pavilion at the 2007 Venice Biennale.
Hou Hanru’s exhibition program at SFAI has so far presented Sarkis: Alive and After, and World Factory, a three-part series of exhibitions that respond to conflicts and issues — exploitation of labor and natural resources, uneven economic underdevelopment, urbanization, population displacements and migration, and environmental degradation — arising from capitalist globalization. Generally speaking, the exhibitions’ theses are centered in the notion that a world capitalist system has created global social structures and a world division of labor that result in huge economic disparities, centered in the exploitation of land and labor for profit, and they also present opportunities for people to resist through aesthetic strategies that envision and articulate alternative ways of living.
What follows is a summary of a recent conversation we had regarding his current curatorial practice at SFAI.
AT — What was the agreement, orientation, or if there is a mission statement, what would it be?
Hou Hanru — It is very simple. You come here, you do exhibitions, and you do whatever you want. You look after the gallery program. Basically, to supervise the program.
AT — What goals have you set for yourself, in terms of what you plan on doing here?
Hou Hanru — My goal is very simple. I’m happy to have this job, because that allows me the opportunity to test out different things. I have never worked in an institution in the past. I have been collaborating with, working with different institutions. It is the first time I have had a regular job, in one place. And that actually gives me an opportunity to do different things, to construct an ongoing program in one place, over time. It gives me an opportunity to fill a real intellectual need. To develop a long-term project. It is something very different than what I’ve done. What I did before was a kind of punctual kind of response to an urgent situation. And now, I have to think about more like a prediction of what’s going on, what’s to come.
AT — Like setting a course?
Hou Hanru — Like projecting certain perspectives.
AT — How do you see your curatorial practice?
Hou Hanru — Well my exhibition practice comes naturally, as I have been working very closely with certain artists and certain people. As for me, an exhibition is not an end, it’s not a goal. An exhibition is a kind of articulate moment of an ongoing creation, of the artist, of the different people. And it’s also a place that can allow different individual creators to come together, to come up with a moment of sharing, dialogue, looking, and creating something together.
AT — The site-specificity of what you are doing is very interesting to me. [The exhibitions] are like site-specific interventions. So, in a lot of cases artists have specific works, or projects, that you bring to a specific exhibition. But, in some cases, you have said they basically construct a project for an exhibition.
Hou Hanru — Totally! Or you borrow the exhibition, actually the works from the exhibition, if you get it from somewhere else, and you re-contextualize it.
AT — Within a particular discourse you are trying to make.
Hou Hanru — Yeah. Yeah. And that makes sense. That allows the work to obtain new senses, new meanings, and new significance. And that is actually the function of an exhibition I’m trying to develop. This is why I said it’s articulated and [an] intense moment of creation. It’s not only a display of existing objects, and discourses, ideas, and images.
AT — Which is interesting, because when I think of when Alfredo Jaar spoke here, I read his work, and those projects that he did, as kind of what you are doing, as apolitics of articulation , in a Stuart Hall sense of the term, a cultural intervention.
Hou Hanru — I think so. Yeah. This is why we need exhibitions in society. Right? Because, that is a moment you create, a platform for a dialogue. It’s not only just to show the achievement of the artist.
AT — Right. But an ongoing discourse that takes place.
Hou Hanru — Yes. And to re-articulate through the exhibition.
AT — That is what I thought was great about the Sarkis show [Sarkis: Alive and After]. A lot of those images in that show, like the paint pigment hitting the water in one of the videos, seem to function — its reverberation in the water — seemed to serve as a metaphor for your curatorial practice, setting up situations that reverberate, where how the objects reverberate or are read, is always contingent on the individual encounter.
Hou Hanru — Exactly. And what is really important is, you always have to embrace kind of unexpected surprises — good or bad. And I think it’s really important to recognize that making an exhibition is a risk-taking invention. So as an outcome of the Sarkis show we have this permanent piece here [a neon piece attached to the gallery roof], it was completely unexpected, unplanned. He came here to visit, we had a dialogue, after a few days, he came up with an idea, and that remains.
AT — Which is interesting. Well because, one of the things that happens, with this particular exhibition for example [World Factory: Resistance and Dreams], is that it has pieces in this show that were in the first show [World Factory: Active Witness]. And that raises issues of historical continuity, like a thread that continues to run through, which I think is an interesting thing.
Hou Hanru — Of course. Yeah. It’s all about a life-long program, a life-long project, which is now separated by
AT — It’s not an isolated event.
Hou Hanru — Exactly! Separated by an attached (exact) moment. It’s kind of ongoing life. So for example, it’s not only the artwork in it, it’s the space itself. How I use the architecture itself. For example, I make a radical decision that in my exhibitions there would be no white walls.
AT — Aahhh. OK. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
Hou Hanru — So, we start with Sarkis. We agreed on this grey paint, which is like a dialogue with the original building — and a new intervention — and that goes on. And we add on different colors. So the next show, we will continue to do so with the next wall, and will continue to add another layer by necessity.
AT — Well, that particular strategy, to me, speaks to a conscious effort to basically undermine a particular ideology — the whole notion of the white cube, for example.
Hou Hanru — Of course! This has always been my position. That fact that I have been working on the question of site-specificity, it’s really about articulating the uniqueness of each locality, as a part of participating in the global movement.
AT — Well, one of the things I thought of while coming down here today, is the idea of Trinh T. Mihn-ha’s that there is a First World in every Third World, and a Third World in every First World — which is problematic too.... The whole blending of discourses is relevant to how the exhibitions function — as microcosms of historical epochs. That the discourses present in every piece are already completely interrelated.
Hou Hanru — Yeah, they’re all intertwined. They are not separated. They are not like illustrations. That this [art object] tells one story — only. I think they are together. Every world in itself has little worlds, each with its own complexity, its own history. And they can also get into a dialogue; they can merge with other worlds, generating a totally different geo-political situation. And since we are all living in this geo-political world at large, naturally they [these worlds] can be in contact.
AT — Well, I read these projects you are doing very politically. I know a lot of people don’t see art as political, but I see it as all political — ideologically infused, the ideologies are infused in the work.
Hou Hanru — It’s about your positioning. It’s about how the critical view of the event in the world is still necessary.
AT — I think so too. But it seems like your work is consciously so. It seems like the politics are in the mix. It seems to me, up front, self-consciously so, self-reflexive in that way.
Hou Hanru — Yeah. Even when you are working with very, very, individual, very eccentric artists who are completely isolated from the world, — some of them right? — You have to look at their rejection. As a position taken.
AT — Exactly. Well, in this particular case [the exhibition program], how do you see exhibitions as a transformative practice? How would you read the projects you’ve done, in that way?
Hou Hanru — Well, I hope the exhibitions I have done can provide people the opportunity to question what “art” practice is, and to challenge themselves, and challenge the notion of art.
AT — Interrogate it?
Hou Hanru — Yeah. Interrogate it. Challenge. Transform. So I hope an exhibition can allow us to deny certain things usually considered established. Including the notion of art itself, the concept of art itself.
AT — Well, not just disrupt, but expand too? Right?
Hou Hanru — And it could be disrupt too. I think the greatest artist, one of the greatest in the world, in history, is Duchamp. I mean still. I think it is very important that we constantly try to put things upside down, and see how it happens.
AT — Well, I like what is happening here, the notion of curating exhibitions as a transformative practice. I mean, it’s not didactic in the usual sense of the word. It’s not like you’re preaching.
Hou Hanru — I think that art, as didactic, is horrible! I mean art is about pleasure. Art is about touching you — through experience.
AT— Which is interesting, because I think of politics, and I think of a politics of resistance, I mean the name of this show is called Resistance and Dreams. I think, what does that mean? I dream of resistance.
Hou Hanru — Well, they are together. Right? Typically, like the work of Cao Fei’s () piece, brought this world of fantasy into this very boring world of production. To excite people and to invite them into a world, to share their dreams, and in the mean time, it shows a kind of resistance to the logic of oppression. It’s like emancipation. Even as a momentary emancipation.
AT — That’s an interesting thing, when for example, people think of abstraction as apolitical, (pause) but in the pleasure, that is, in an inhuman world, to articulate your “humanity” — however nebulously defined — that pleasure, that joy, seems like a political act.
Hou Hanru — Yeah. In fact when you look at the art, how every major abstract movement happened, in the context, they are totally related to the political and social history. And it’s highly ideological. Like the Greenberg discourses, they are totally a product of the Cold War.
AT — Yeah.
Hou Hanru — It’s very clear. It’s almost like propaganda for the Americans.
AT — Oh totally! I think Serge Guilbaut had a good read on that.
Hou Hanru — Yes. Of course.
AT — What’s interesting to me is that historically there was a lot of hostility to abstraction, from both the right and the left, and it was basically Meyer Shapiro who came out in support of abstraction, based on an argument for pleasure.
Hou Hanru — Yeah. But I don’t think you get an argument of pleasure with Greenberg, it’s actually the opposite. It’s like a Protestant rigor, self- censorship.
AT — Well, unlike these projects [Hanru’s exhibitions], it became proscriptive in a way that becomes oppressive.
Hou Hanru — Yeah.
AT — That’s the beauty of these kinds of dialogues [issues raised in the exhibits]. I wonder how they will reverberate in terms of what other exhibition spaces start to do. I don’t know that people really realize the significance of what is going on here — yet.
Hou Hanru — Well, I think it takes time. And it is also something very new for me. This context is really different from what I used to know. You know.
AT — But, these ideas are really moving and growing. They’re starting to be like a projection for the future based on past specific projects, would you say?
Hou Hanru — Yeah. Totally. Basically, I had some understanding of what I am doing, research and whatever. It’s also a question of testing out, to see if my preconceptions are right.
AT — So, it’s a situation of putting the theory to practice?
Hou Hanru — It’s not Theory. It’s practice into practice.
AT — Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!
Hou Hanru — I don’t particularly start with theory. I’m reading a lot of theory. That makes me think. But in the mean time, I don’t think that one should be relying on theory.
AT — Well, in here [Entropy; Chinese artists, Western Art institutions: A New Internationalism] — well this is written like twelve years ago now — you said, you didn’t want to have a pre-given conceptual orientation.
Hou Hanru — Yeah. Especially, I don’t want to defend a particular identity. It’s always a contradiction, that you defend your identity, and then close the door.
AT — That allegiance already closes off a lot.
Hou Hanru — Yeah. And you become defensive.
AT — I like being proven wrong, sometimes, and being able to let go.
Hou Hanru — And also, I think it’s very important, especially in artistic fields, I call it [pause] I don’t know what. I think in culture in general, it’s important to [pause] — the question is how to encourage complexity, ambiguity, contradiction.
AT — Contingency?
Hou Hanru — Contingency — and failure.
AT — Failure, you said?
Hou Hanru — Yes, because we have been living in this fanaticism of success for such a long time, and it’s really important to think about. Failure. Not to do things.
AT — Yeah. Otherwise, I look at my life say, what the hell did I do wrong? [Loud mutual laughter] Anyway thanks. Cool.
Anthony Torres is an independent scholar, art writer, and art appraiser. He has curated and traveled numerous exhibitions, and published extensively in Artweek, New Art Examiner, Art Papers and others. Additionally he researched and wrote the “Illustrated Chronology” and essay “Negotiating Space: The Sketch Books,” for the book, Frank Lobdell: The Art of Making and Meaning (2003).
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