In dialogue with ZHU Jianlin
Date: 8th March 2021 | 1700 – 2000
Location: Guangzhou, China
Interlocutors: ZHU Jianlin (hereinafter as ‘ZHU’), SHEN Jun (hereinafter as ‘SJ’) and LEE Kai Chung (hereinafter as ‘C’)
Editing: SHEN Jun, LEE Kai Chung
Collation: MAN Nga Lok Esther
Artistic Infrastructure and Empathy
“StepBackForward” originated with our desire for “publicness”, so as we wanted to start the discussion, we spontaneously thought of Zhu (Zhu Jianlin). He co-founded Fong Fo Monthly magazine, which has been in print since 2013, and sells out every month at RMB1; in 2018 he co-founded the Boloho living space, and the art project ‘Flash Fax’, which explores public space; he has also long been part of the core team of HB Station, an independent art institute in Guangzhou. But these clichéd reference points in his artistic career don’t really capture Zhu. More or less all visitors to the Guangzhou art circle are taken under Zhu’s wing, sometimes for a few days, sometimes becoming long-term collaborators.
Since 2018, we have all had to face many changes, both in society and our personal lives, and go from newcomer to carving out a space in this ecosystem. This interview was conducted in our new home in Guangzhou. Two months ago, Zhu helped us find a suitable place to live, as he has done for many friends. After the interview, he said his happiest moment was hearing his newly-arrived friends from the art circle sharing their understanding of Guangzhou. This is something he has been quietly pushing for a long time, the ‘artistic infrastructure’. We’re used to using the word infrastructure to denote something done by someone with power or capital, from the top down.
In China’s domestic art world, individuals and groups voluntarily take on the responsibility for creating infrastructure, building a mutualistic environment and giving it the power to endure. While this isn’t inevitable, it is necessary, and relies totally on the instigators’ awareness of ‘publicness’. In the process of translating this conversation into English, our translator, Bill Leverett, helped us unpack this word ‘publicness’ which we often use:
- Togetherness – This is close to another concept referenced in the conversation, ‘accompaniment’, the establishment of long-term friendships and collaboration between individuals, a situation of mutual assistance based on good will rather than goal-oriented negotiation. In the conversation, ‘accompaniment’ has a strong flavour of ‘witnessing’; an accompanist will not necessarily collaborate on a project, but they will observe the artist’s progress and methods.
- Collective – precisely because of the togetherness established between different entities, they gradually and organically become a group.
- Public-facing – the public being the majority of society, including but not limited to stakeholders in the art world. Public-facing also often refers to matters of the public interest, and the possibility of being discussed in the public domain.
The above three progressive layers of ‘publicness’ can be seen as a process of development from the individual outward. You could say that Zhu and his friends, through connections between people, have found a positive way of creating a local atmosphere, that is, the ‘togetherness’ and ‘collective’ parts of the ‘publicness’ described above. What struck us most profoundly was that these methods were inextricably bound up with the personalities and experiences of the people, and the local context. We frequently refer to ‘locality’, and we see that in the artistic landscape of Guangzhou, the ‘artist’ identity is more multifaceted and shiftable than most people realise, The unfinished parts of the artistic infrastructure have made it necessary to support each other by all means, and this has built a very strong sense of subjective consciousness and localism. Only when ‘shared local identity’ is achieved in the context of ‘accompaniment’, can we have openness and empathy.
The original intention of our conversation with Zhu was not only to explore the possibility of the universality and transplantability of artistic practice, but also to understand that ‘aesthetics’ can transcend the visual and sensory levels and serve certain social functions. For Zhu, this is another kind of artistic moment.
C: A few days ago, Zhu mentioned that a proposal he’d submitted to an exhibition wasn’t something he would research and produce by himself, but rather a concept he would develop in liaison with other people and organisations. The artwork would only be partially displayed, and the exhibition may not be its ultimate unveiling. This to me, is what ‘publicness’ is about. Very different from my own practice. I have a kind of (practice) that is drawing out political ideologies through researching historical incidents. Another direction is collaborative projects, like StepBackForward, to interrogate the whole ecosystem. Zhu and I have very different educations and upbringings, and we see things differently, but our works both have a kind of ‘for the general public’ quality.
SJ: The first time I came to Guangzhou, I could tell the ecosystem functioned very differently (from Beijing and Shanghai); it lacks a mature market system, but instead there is a strong sense of mutual aid. As I learned more, I discovered that this form of mutual cooperation is a form of ‘mutualism’, as if you are using interdependence to find something that could replace the existing art system, and in this situation, you’re also trying to go viral in the manner of SoengJoengToi and Flash Fax.
I think that Fong Fo comes from a vague idea of doing interesting things together, and since 2018-19, Zhu has worked together with many different curators and organisations to prepare the ground for the ‘artistic infrastructure’. The change in public awareness has been even more profound. How has it changed, and what are the underlying reasons?
And tied to that is the question of how you see the so-called ‘local identity’. Before, as an outsider, I actually saw Guangzhou as having a strong local identity, but I also feel that the mutual aid and forming new collectives among the new generation is very different from the local identity of the older art generation. I wonder what you think of this interpretation?
Zhu: I feel that every individual choice we make as artists reminds us of the original context and has a kind of correlation to a place. When we were studying, from 2008 to 2012, it was a pretty prosperous time in art circles, it seemed like it was pretty easy for artists to get signed up by a gallery.
C: Are Beijing and Shanghai similar to the situation in Guangzhou? Or are they very different?
Zhu: No, I’m actually talking about Beijing. At that time, Beijing was a big national cultural hotspot. (It seems that now) we Guangdong artists emphasise our ‘Guangdong’ identity, but as I met contemporary artists in my studies, everyone wanted to be a part of the Beijing scene. At that time, any artist with a bit of opportunity or fame would head up north. But during my studies there was a stronger local discourse hidden away in Guangzhou. It was when I started to organise activities myself, with about six or seven other artists of the same age, that we started to get noticed by the older local artists, the Big Tail Elephants, or the Canton Express. But this was all to do with our teacher, Huang Xiaopeng. He would talk about some of our activities with his friends, and only then did we realise there was this direct connection to local artists. It was a long process of contact and mutual understanding, because the art world we saw in school was cut off from the rest of China, and the art scene in Guangzhou was also separated from what we saw in the media. In the mainstream Chinese contemporary art world, it wasn’t easy to find Guangzhou art in the media. As a student, other than the Guangzhou Triennial, I didn’t have any access to it.
Looking through the media, you wouldn’t find any clues, you’d have to find the secret door yourself, and only then realise that since the 80s, there’s been a Southern Artists Salon, or the even earlier networks that supported local art. So it wasn’t a direct line of communication, from top down; (when art students graduated) maybe they only knew that there were some contemporary exhibitions in the 798 art district, but they didn’t know about the Vitamin Space hidden in Kecun (客村), or that there was an Observation Society tucked away in Changgang (昌崗). To find the local scene, you really had to search for it. It wasn’t obvious, because it wasn’t very big, at least until 2010, 2011 when Times Museum started really going, then it was a bit different.
I think around 2010, private museums began to emerge, but in 2008 there were already some forces starting to come into play, like the sudden explosion of the gallery system and the emerging museum system, also 2008 brought a very important movement, the first independent spaces; because of limited resources, they tended to attract younger artists. So there were advantages in that environment, we could see plenty of choices compared to today, I think what the young people did was more visible.
Zhu: As an example, when Fong Fo was recommended to Beijing, it was through Wang Wei, Arrow Factory, and Wu Jin. Although we hadn’t done any exhibitions in Arrow Factory, we’d done some independent publications. Wang Wei brought Fong Fo over to Beijing, and everyone was interested in what the young people were up to, so we got some support and attention. But what I saw when I first encountered the art world in Beijing, the situation I’ve just described, it’s all contemporary art, and doesn’t include the schools, the academy, the national system.
Zhu: Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement in 2014-15 had a big influence on me. Because whether it’s Occupy Wall Street or those provocative European biennales, this kind of extreme two-year demonstration, everyone in the arts or media were discussing it heatedly, but the Hong Kong movement, as I see it, had very complex impacts. On the one hand, there was a sort of coldness in Guangdong, whether it was an emotional detachment or a disregard for the information. It shattered the image I’d had of Hong Kong since I was a child, and forced me to rethink my understanding of the Hong Kong situation; I struggled to put all the pieces together.
It made me want to do two things. One was to go see Hong Kong for myself [after the movement was over], the other was to seriously re-examine Guangdong’s previous practices; this altered the way I saw things. Looking back at 2008 from 2013 and 2014, I wondered why we in Guangdong were paying so much attention to Beijing? So since 2014, if you track my movements, I’ve stayed clear of Beijing and Shanghai, and have only gone to either one if I had to.
Another important point was in 2016, Times Museum presented a ‘Big Tail Elephant Retrospective’. I’d spent many hours working with Big Tail Elephant’s Xu Tan. I was familiar with all of them already, so they had that exhibition, and just then LEAP Magazine invited me to write a review of it, and I took that as an opportunity to read all their documents, and directly interview the major members, mainly Xu Tan, (and thereby learned a great deal about the history of local art development).
C: I think the viewpoints that you’ve just talked about, some of those values must have influenced the ways you make art, maybe even those around you? Does the system (independent spaces, museums, galleries) influence artists to some extent?
Zhu: Yes, it does. We call it an ‘art infrastructure’, but it doesn’t really provide a foundation. No aspect of Guangzhou’s ecosystem is ‘complete’, and it has been like this for many years. This is a reality, but it isn’t necessarily a restriction.
C: I’ve got a friend whose boyfriend is also an artist. She says her boyfriend considers Beijing and Shanghai as models, and says that Guangzhou could have developed that kind of system, a commercial market system, but in the end it didn’t. So her boyfriend thinks that Guangzhou suffers from its lack of such a system.
Zhu: But is the situation the same in Hong Kong?
C: Hong Kong is a bit like the situation you’ve just described.
Hong Kong has had an art market since last century. And the market tends to favour established artists, not necessarily Hong Kongers. Many transactions take place in Hong Kong, but in the end, art fairs don’t have a lot of positive influence on the local art circles. In fact, the art market has a very serious problem: Hong Kong has a lot of artists, and produces new ones every year, but most of them are looking out, rather than in, so a kind of scene developed where the market was very prosperous, and lots of artists wanted to get into the market, but the market was oriented towards foreign artists and collectors. So it’s very hard for young artists, but this is compensated for with government support.
Zhu: When did the Hong Kong Arts Development Council (HKADC) start giving out that kind of grant?
C: Very early. The HKADC started sometime in the 90s.
Zhu: And it goes directly to contemporary art?
C: Yes. Contemporary art covers a broad range: dance, movies, literature, all sorts.
I think this (public funding system) has an influence on practice. It’s precisely because of this system for government support of artists, that artists like me are nurtured, and can survive without being dependent on the art market. I can rely on research projects, or take on long-term projects, a project may take 18 months before I feel it’s complete. There’s a new term, ‘research-based practice’.
Last year I spent some time in Beijing, and I understand mainland artists a little better. I think this sort of thing can’t get off the ground in the mainland, because there isn’t that kind of public resource. I believe there are some private foundations, but few that can actually provide resources to artists. Or, suppose that Times Museum acts as a privately run organisation, and it commissions an artist to do a long-term project, and funds the artist, it can enable you to complete the project, but it can’t enable you to make a living.
SJ: The impact of resources on practice is also apparent at the institutional level. Zhu pointed out that a lot of alternative spaces appeared around 2008-12. Actually from early 2000 to around 2010, independent artists, projects and spaces could often apply for foreign funding, for example the Ford Foundation, the Prince Claus Foundation in the Netherlands, etc. Many art projects, or organisations that had been independent spaces or artists spaces, even private charities, could often receive Ford’s funding. In the 90s, Beijing’s first women’s charity was funded by the Ford Foundation, and hosted the World Women Conference. Some time around 2010, for some political reasons, it became more and more difficult for foreign foundations to support projects or individuals in China. Suddenly many of these independent projects had to find ways to support themselves and survive. By about 2014-15, the scene was coming to an end, and it became even more difficult, largely because of the level of basic support.
Zhu: By that time, independent spaces had already basically dwindled. Private museums became the mainstream, and most of them have corporate backers. Around 2010 there was another sign – in addition to the increase in art spaces, more mainland youth groups started up, like the Double Fly Art Center. Actually many artists from the 80s have run different kinds of groups, like Li Ran’s ‘Company’ and pdf, the very lively (at the time) Art-Ba-Ba forum, many young people’s groups would post there, there was a forum for exchanges, so that was when some of our earliest activities, including Fong Fo, came to be. These artists were called the ‘young artists’, but that term isn’t often used these days.
Zhu: The phrase ‘young artists’ was probably used to describe this group of people around 2012-14. The creative logic in that concept is of a pathway, from that kind of structure, moving up into a foreseeable environment where creativity is encouraged. Because our school provided no support in any aspect, often it was us encouraging each other. The small groups that appeared actually only lasted a couple of years, everybody would say ‘You’re just a baotuan (抱團)’. The way we saw it, that description was very strange, in that harsh environment it wasn’t easy to form your own group, not for everyone. ‘Baotuan’ was a derogatory term then, it meant that you weren’t much on your own, only by mixing with other people would you have any chance.
C: Isn’t that what all art collectives are supposed to have in common?
Zhu: But under the influence of this phrase, which is that a ‘baotuan’ is a short-lived thing, many times I’ve formed a group with other people, Fong Fo or whatever, and people ask “Isn’t the time for these youthful experiments over?” The logic and desire of Fong Fo was not a short-term project; from the very start we thought that each time we had an edition of Fong Fo, there would be a next edition, and so on. So we started to be aware of the “We’ve got their attention, now what?” concept. Around 2012-14, actually Fong Fo had some exhibition opportunities in 2014, but we never moved towards collaborating with galleries, because there were a lot of reasons, considerations, we had some discussions, but because Fong Fo sold for RMB 1, and we were self-sufficient, we had our own sales network, we sold every copy we could print, we didn’t feel we needed any more money to make the project bigger.
C: Suppose a gallery gave Fong Fo the opportunity for a solo exhibition, have you thought about making it more than a publication, turning it into something else?
Zhu: We have, whenever we’re given an exhibition, we want to turn it into something else. For instance, our early strategy was to turn one of our columns into an exhibition, to make it physical, if there was an opportunity to work with writers and turn their content into an exhibition, we would be like a curator and an ‘accompanist’. Later, we thought about ways we could break the structure of the magazine, make it into other structures: take out the advertising and make it into an exhibition, remove the layout of the magazine, and create a ‘Moving Images Department’. Some of us make videos, and the format we were thinking of is actually TVB, which nurtures a stable group of actors, they often perform in different programs, and the five of us can take turns acting, under the banner of our own Fong Fo moving images company, but it would be used to create videos that come from our own lifestyles, that we find interesting, so we would be creating our own content. With that structure, we feel that in limiting conditions, we could be self-sufficient, and not need any other resources. Because our Fong Fo spirit forces us to think of ways to operate with limited resources, even if there are no good conditions, we can deal with the bad ones.
Zhu: Just by having five people, it seemed like we solved a lot of problems, but reflecting on it later, I realised that we were engaging in some mutual aid and collaboration, we actually thought up some strange things early on, maybe we were thinking of modernism, very early conceptual art, we even claimed to be influenced by Lee Kit. Actually that idea came from a very twisted chain of thought. This is very personal, because for a while I found printing Fong Fo to be boring. I was at the printer, sometimes it was broken again, it kept happening. Later I ran across Lee Kit’s work, where he scrapes out the surface of his work table with his fingernails, and I thought, well, if Lee Kit could bear the long hours of scraping, printing this magazine wasn’t such a big deal, was it?
C: That’s the kind of suffering that comes with time?
Zhu: Yes, because in Guangzhou you do something that nobody pays any attention to, and then rely on your own energy to support yourself emotionally. Actually in conceptual art, there are many resources for support, and a lot of artists doing this, and it’s nothing to worry about, right? It doesn’t bring in money? No problem. It takes a lot of time? No problem. It’s repetitive? No problem. It’s all good. No problem, this matter is no cause for alarm, in fact every time someone offers support, or rushes in with it, we get a bit nervous. For instance, for a while some people would say, I’ll help you with the printing, you come over here, I’ll buy a printer, I’ll print it for you. But we start to worry, is this promise, this patter, something that can be trusted? So we begin to wonder, to what extent can this kind of one-to-one relationship define a kind of collaborative endeavour, maybe a lot of it is friendliness or urgent communication, but when you look at it from a long-term perspective, it’s not easy to do.
C: I’ve participated in collectives, and organised them, and actually it’s very difficult to collaborate with other members or achieve a goal in a short period of time, because communication is the spirit of the collective. I often find there are people in the group who have their own things to do, and can’t work for the group, so someone else has to do all the work. That’s one situation. Another one is there may be different opinions about direction, and someone might say ‘I don’t want to do it that way’ or use the group for their own ends. Suddenly a gallery came looking for me, and I really wanted to have a solo show, so everyone had a big argument, and finally that person had a solo show. It’s very easy for changes of direction and the question of allocating time to make it difficult to keep a group running, so like you said, a group usually has a honeymoon period, but after the honeymoon, it’s difficult to keep it going. Actually in Hong Kong, I feel it is very common, because everyone is too busy to make a living, let alone enjoy life, everyone has so much work to do, they don’t have time to do their own projects, how can they do the collective work? So if they don’t see it as an opportunity or a matter of urgency, [collective work] will not be a very high priority, or if the collective doesn’t have a very stable source of funding to keep it going, there are very few Hong Kong collectives that can stay together a long time because of an ideology, an event, or something that they think is worth researching.
Do you get into situations like that when you work with other people?
Zhu: It happens. In my experience, collectives don’t always work, so Fong Fo, as a group, I can say, is a miracle, the reason it’s still around is a mystery. For instance, I just mentioned Lee Kit, who is my earliest [influence], other early sources of inspiration were Pak Sheung Chuen, Chen Tong, and Hu Fang. These are the artistic networks that you can directly tap into in this area, they also use similar methods to do difficult things. I was actively absorbing their knowledge, their methods. A group has to look at many people’s different situations, it’s not that every time people understand a situation the same way as you do, they’ll have the same question as you. Some groups just go different ways.
So far, I’ve been looking more rationally at Fong Fo, and what, ultimately, it’s given me, what working method it has developed to support my future endeavours.
Zhu: Most collectives focus mainly on what the majority of their members bring to them, and produce a collective image; but Fong Fo is a platform, it has many writers, a lot of input from people other than the five of us. This serves to encourage us. For instance, sometimes when we are tired, the enthusiasm of the authors submitting articles, and the broad range of coverage, gives us a buzz we can’t get through ordinary work. This has sustained many years of success.
SJ: I think that Fong Fo began with unknowing spontaneity, but grew into actively developing a system for collaborative working. The sustainability of the platform allows Fong Fo to keep going, and at the same time by its nature it can very effectively avoid being influenced by the participants.
Zhu: Yes, yes, this is an important point, there can’t be a dominant person steering it.
SJ: It’s a collective mechanism, so it’s hard to say who is leading it. But I’m curious, as you just said, you’ll all think of interesting things in the course of your work, and that urge to do something serves as your motivation, rather than having an exhibition or collaboration opportunity and thinking up an idea for it. Secondly, in starting up Fong Fo or other collaborative projects, it seems to me that you didn’t have a clear reference or objective. For example, in the organisation I used to be part of, whether the project was large or small, we’d break it down into many clear assignments. But I think that Fong Fo and your other projects don’t have that kind of set goal. The Guangzhou system isn’t perfect, and it seems like the older generation was at its peak from 2008-2012, when you started, seeming to want to do something unprecedented, a pioneering ‘new thing’, so will you start something new from interest all over again? For example, Chung just talked about starting a collaborative group, he really has a desire to work with other people. I feel these are two different motivations.
C: Yes. Actually it’s because whether I’m working on my own or with others, I usually have a clear goal. In fact I imagine what the result will be, very different from Zhu. (Editor’s note: this background is related to funding application requirements.) I’ve always thought that, in fact, this way of working, whether Zhu or his group, isn’t a good match for the art world’s funding systems, like the ‘method for considering the quality of a work of art’. Or take ‘Flash Fax’, is that a more detailed, interesting example? I assume when you started, you had a rough concept, but how it develops depends on how everyone participates. So I’ll try an even clearer example, that time when you were at the Huayu Youth Award exhibition, how did you position yourself within this competition?
Zhu: Well, I felt uncomfortable about it. I could have done it better, but the curators on the one hand wanted me to show a bit more ‘collective’-ness, which would give it a more chaotic effect, but on the other hand, they wanted me to appear as an individual. Not like my exhibition in the ‘Cafe do Brasil’ (Para Site, 2019), where all I had to do was show what I myself had created. I was a bit conflicted in the Huayu Youth Award exhibition, so I made some on-the-spot rearrangements.
There’s another thing, I’m very hesitant about that award. There were some collective projects I did not want to display in that exhibition, I felt it would be difficult to express them there. My installation was more like an open studio itself, so my design was funny, I displayed the table from my home, I wanted to remake that space like my own studio, every day I installed my work at the show, lots of spontaneous decisions were made on site.
Zhu: Although I work in an organisation, and I support youth creativity, my own creative direction isn’t really aimed at the exhibition process. I’d rather make my Fong Fo column more complete, or start a better column, that’s my creative ideal. In the present circumstances, I also feel that I have a lot of things I could do, not necessarily exhibitions or displays, it’s all the stimulation from the points in time that we’ve talked about. Chung mentioned a key point, the current requirements the funding process puts on artists, or the institutionalisation of the funding system, has changed in the last 10 years, pivoted, including the work that Shen Jun faces in organisations, it’s really been the last few years, it’s created a lot of employee Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), because more and more so-called professionalised organisations are becoming sites for mainstream art.
C: Yesterday, Shen Jun and I were talking about that kind of institutionalised and standardised work. Here’s an example: when an organisation commissions an artwork, why does it always have to be finished within 9 months? In my experience, very few curators or organisations, apart from awards, have given me more than 9 months prior notice before an exhibition, but they expect something totally new. Last year (2020) was a bit special, because of the pandemic, a lot of exhibitions were delayed, and so I had more time. But extra time doesn’t necessarily mean extra productivity, because if there isn’t a clear timeframe for the exhibition, I might not spend my time working on the projects. Now I understand that with the institutionalised funding system, there’s a financial plan every year, and it’s impossible to budget anything for next year. For the curator to find the artist, fix the exhibition date, and get authorisation, can take half a year, so there are only six months or less left. I feel that situation must have a serious impact on Zhu, because you need time to collaborate with other people, just establishing communication can take two or three months. So I think when funding is getting systematised, professionalised, institutionalised, it prevents artists from doing that kind of (long-term, collaborative) projects, unless the organisation invites you to exhibit an old work.
Zhu: This is a question I want to discuss, and it’s a serious one, but I want to find a good perspective on it. Technical bureaucratisation is now dominating the art world, and I wonder what that means we’ve lost? We haven’t discussed it seriously, or it’s hard to discuss seriously, because it’s a lengthy process, it’s slowly become the way it is today, and the signs of technicisation, or bureaucratisation, or institutionalisation are the things that the previous generation, or some generation, strived for.
C: It’s a sign of professionalisation (and also the appeal of a stably functioning organisation).
Zhu: But in reality, because in the context of China, your organisation is like an island in the middle of a desert, the staff all have too much work to do. In this situation, a lot of the work is delegated to artists or entry-level staff, because a lot of non-profit institutions are really under-resourced, even if they have a lot of determination and energy, but the support required for the foundations of society, educational facilities, private or government funds just aren’t sufficient, so at the coalface, no matter how complicated something is, it takes one or two people to finish it, and the work that can’t be finished is delegated in a bureaucratic manner. Apparently, it’s a very professionalised large-scale exhibition, but in the end, it may be only a couple of people providing support, or artists staying up through the night, paying people with their own money to get it finished. Don’t say that it helps them earn a living, it’s pretty hard to avoid losing money on a project, it certainly makes people reconsider doing this as a career. I feel there are still many possibilities, however, right now it’s just that the direction we’re being led in makes everyone feel that they have to do it this way, and this is the only way to succeed, and to reach a more professional, international level, maybe there’s some unknown contemporary art paradise, and we are rushing madly towards it. We leave things behind in this mad rush, a wide spectrum of unseen things, so in my work at HB Station I’m always trying to balance this. Because I already feel this very strongly, we try as hard as we can to balance the projects we work on every year, putting aside some of the more primordial or impetuous ones. It can be hard to see clearly what a finished project will look like, but we can encourage half or more to get to that kind of possibility.
Zhu: But from the point of view of an organisation, this kind of project that you can hardly control, and you don’t know what it will be like when it’s finished, maybe it’s better to stay away from it, so at HB Station we force ourselves to be a place for projects with unforeseeable outcomes. Fortunately, some of our HB Station colleagues, just like the ones at Fong Fo, we all accepted that you can work without that firm plan in place, we all intentionally accepted that ‘If we don’t finish it this year, then next year’. We think of ways, we proactively do outreach, or we do more meaningful things, the more productive we can make ourselves, that energy can be relaxed, our energies don’t have to go into projects, we can do a lot of things. And the source of this ‘we can do many things’ thinking depends on everyone arriving at a common understanding. This requires a long-term, steady accompanying, sorting out with each other, it takes a scene where everyone is constantly thinking about this question. It’s hard to talk about how to work together at a meeting convened at an art museum, which methods to employ, even if I can say a lot at the meeting, when I go back to my own place I don’t have any opportunity to work with those people. So what you see in Guangzhou is that we have been doing many projects that help people relate to each other, help them feel the needs of others, the existence of others, not just the professional or aesthetic needs, instead, often the lifestyle needs, for example when you were looking for a house, I came and helped you out, a lot of tiny connections, but it isn’t a kind of benefit, or friendship, I feel its spectrum is wider than I imagined.
C: I like how you use the word ‘accompany’. I’ve been in groups or teams, but there’s always the feeling that I’m fighting on my own from inside the group; it’s a real shame.
Zhu: The feeling that you’re the only one responsible for the work?
C: That’s it, sometimes it seems like you’re all worked up about something, and everyone is worked up about their own thing, but there’s no overlap. But that ‘accompanying’ is as Zhu says, a non-profit, non-goal-oriented way of establishing a connection. But the pyramid model you just mentioned, like some unresolvable tension in the organisation, whether it’s real work pressure, or the pressure of curatorial art direction, in the end it comes down to the artists or the entry-level staff.
Zhu: There’s a trend to require artists to have more technical or administrative skills, now some curators even require artists to be in charge of translation, editing, plan-writing, and other administrative jobs, which will save them a few salaries, that’s the ideal artist. I feel that’s not a good form of institutionalisation, but in China, because Chinese organisations don’t have too much resources or support, this can put their staff or collaborating artists into insecure positions. I believe a better form of institutionalisation would possibly involve privatisation, with fair and open funding and support.
SJ: I think when we’ve talked about the funding system, what we’ve meant was the funding system for Chinese contemporary art, which is very different from the perception of the overall system, there are already some gaps. And I’m thinking that these gaps, these cracks, give rise to the possibility of new funding systems. The things we’ve been discussing today have been an issue as long as there’s been an art market. But I think Guangzhou seems to occupy its own space outside of this game, and it has hidden potential at critical moments in Chinese contemporary art history, but it still hasn’t developed into a market, maybe another face of it is the new possibility. One unique feature of HB Station is its support resources, and Guangzhou’s non-profit ecosystem is actually pretty good.
Zhu: There is a consciousness, HB Station has support from Times Museum, but it’s still limited. One advantage then was that we all had a non-profit consciousness. Our mindset was: figure out whether we can still do something without this bit of support. Think of the extreme situations. Also our incomes were used up on the various spaces. I don’t know if today’s young generation have the motivation to do this kind of unrewarding, but resource-intensive work. I feel a bit harsh for saying that.
I don’t know how to describe this feeling, from my point of view, it seems like we’re saying these channels, you have to find them yourself, through reading or going out and looking, there’s no way to copy another familiar model and put it in this place.
You have to find a network, whether it’s a local network or one from outside, you have to put in some effort to find it, that’s what I know is important for the foundation of cooperative work, that your work has to stand on the network that you are linked or connected to, or develop that network. Otherwise, it’s very easy to fall into that fighting on your own that you just talked about. Although everyone is talking about publicness, you might think that no-one cares about it. Sometimes I feel that publicness isn’t about the fact that you’re open for business, or that you feel altruistic, but rather you’re looking for a context and a question, or a network that guides all of you. Without it, it’s very hard to get everyone’s empathy. Actually that’s where the threshold of participation is often opened up, you may make a big effort and still not open it up, but if you rather diligently unblock some local networks, maybe you’ll find the breakthrough point. This includes my friends and I, consciously giving tours of Hong Kong and other places, until we started to do SoengJoengTo, the Reading Room, a lot of work had to stand on a network. If you don’t worry about the things the older generation worried about, it may actually leave your work without any foundation.
Zhu: We have received a lot of criticism and comments in Guangzhou, I think it’s a kind of negotiation process. Precisely because of that, everyone will discuss or care about this issue. There have been times we’ve brought together all the criticisms we’ve received, but it’s actually all reflective of the question of a common context. It’s just that we’ve proposed a different case or way of thinking, but the publicness lies in the fact that everyone cares about it, so everyone will have comments or criticism. Actually we sometimes even have confrontations with the older generation, but I feel these confrontations are also a kind of dialogue, we need the courage to accept this kind of friction, otherwise there will be no foundation to grow from. But of course there’s a price, the more collaborative/open your work is, the pressure on you will actually be very big, so for years I’ve been getting a lot of institutional pressure.
C: Can I describe your creative behaviour as how everyone treats the question of ecosystem, or how fundamentally, artists work together?
What makes you want to start so many collaborative projects? Like Flash Fax?
Zhu: Flash Fax came at a time of crisis. The way I see it, there are several kinds of crises, one is the overall context, the mainland ecosystem crisis. After the movement, everyone pulls back, how should we respond? The second is our internal crisis, from the outside, Guangzhou seems like an aboriginal community.
C: You mean because it’s been marginalised?
Zhu: We can accept being marginalised, what we lack is a kind of external vision that we can reflect on. We had a predicament in those years, how should we see our larger ecosystem and understand ourselves, so I kept doing a lot of exchanges and making a lot of contacts. When people came to Guangzhou I would welcome them enthusiastically, whether the exchange was deep or shallow. But I don’t think you can stop at the level of introductions, so I really want to take this kind of discussion and put it in a long-term space and observe it. My most ideal situation would be hoping that outsiders coming to Guangzhou can stay here for a long time. I hope an outsider in Guangzhou could become like a host, and invite us ‘aboriginals’ into an exchange. Actually at Flash Fax I thought if an outsider came and stayed there for a month or for two weeks, maybe he would actively remake the space to his own liking, then in his space, the situation would change, and when I returned to the space to meet him, actually the role of guest and host would be reversed, and that switch would let me record the conversation. I think it would be a different feeling from that of taking everyone to eat something and being the tour guide. And speaking as an artist, that moment would be a very creative moment, while it isn’t an exhibition or part of a work, I would very much like to see or wait for that kind of situation to happen, and I think it would be very rewarding. It would not be a local identity that I could simply describe, but a local identity with special qualities.
C: This is also the importance of actual space. During the pandemic, everybody was talking about whether or not ‘art space’ really needs ‘space’. Could the internet solve the problem? I’m actually opposed to that idea, I think Shen Jun is too, and Zhu. Things produced in physical space have a meaning that cannot be substituted. But like Zhu just said, the Flash Fax space was recreated by someone else. But actually you really need to have a feeling of selflessness to think this way, or it’s a kind of vision. Suppose I want to manage a space, if I don’t have a picture in my head when I start, I’m going to have some setbacks …
(Zhu: it is adventurous too)
Yes, or maybe Flash Fax was the work of three people. If the three people don’t have this kind of simultaneous vision, or the spirit of adventure, then it won’t happen.
Zhu: That’s certainly true, finding collaborators is really a subject in itself, maybe the time I spend looking for collaborators is more than I spend researching my own things, as far as I’m concerned, Zhang Hanlu and Shih Yunyou are the subjects of my study, everyone’s collaborators, this is a very important foundation. Second is the moment in which we create a space, actually we probably know that this space has a mission, while it may not be very clear what kind of thing it is supposed to produce, we can still feel the urgency of that mission, otherwise it will be hard to push things forward, especially the moment when we made Flash Fax I felt it was at a time when everyone was feeling down, especially when Yinyou said he was gradually losing his motivation to come to the mainland just for exhibitions. This familiar place is giving me a feeling of strangeness that’s growing stronger.
Zhu: So, we toured Guangzhou and put together some older historical networks, we researched some historical events, and found the spiritual resources and support to reimagine them. Actually for me there was a sense of urgency, if in such a dark time, nobody has the motivation to make connections, we’ll lose an opportunity for negotiation. I don’t think the iron curtain will come back down and everyone will lose their space and energy, but we must prepare for that.
C: I feel very strongly, because I think in the current situation in Hong Kong, the iron curtain has already come down, and there is a kind of unavoidable despair in the art world.
Zhu: Right, despair is coming, so we must grasp the last bits of warmth and mutual support.
C: At the same time, I think everyone is creating a kind of ‘together’ concept, the kind of thing everybody here already knows, they want to use some methods that circumvent the existing system, and do something for which we don’t need to make sense of a clear objective, not just that I do it because I like doing it, but I have some approximate visions, ideals. Once it starts, everyone will understand.
If there’s time, I’d like to talk about audiences.
I think audiences in Guangzhou need something more than high quality. It isn’t the need to tick the ‘I’ve seen a work of art’ box, they need to get new things, whether it’s knowledge, emotions, or interaction with other people.
For my sharing sessions and walking project at HB Station, the visitors were very supportive, very enthusiastic, and there was a lot of follow-up, we couldn’t finish all the discussions.
Zhu: How is that different from Beijing?
SJ: It’s a little hard to find spectators outside the art world or academia through open call, 798 seems to be cut off from society, whether actively or passively. For instance, a lot of local people around me ask me where I work, I say 798, they don’t necessarily know that this is an arts district, maybe they’ve never gone there, doing art there’s often a kind of barrier. I think it has to do with Beijing’s system, awareness, and intellectual structure.
C: Shen Jun and I thought of this project [StepBackForward] a long time ago. Back then, without any funding, we wanted to create a platform for making connections with people. Of course we also very much want to understand everybody’s work methods, which are not very formalised, for example how to write a plan, because technical operations cannot correspond to every artist’s circumstances, or the subject and context of every project, it’s not necessarily good for the artist’s development. We want to create more real-life connections outside the pandemic.
SJ: Yes. In fact, Zhu recently used one of his long-term keywords, infrastructure, which I think is very important. This refers to the ecosystem, and also to the changes in the psychological atmosphere, with a great number of collaborative projects slowly building up to form a vision, whether it’s spectators or artists, people can imagine what they can achieve by being together, building a sense of intimacy and a desire for collaborative work.
C: That seems more like inner construction. Just like if you want to build a bridge, and the bridge is built very elegantly, but the bridge’s foundation is actually built from grass. But everyone sees it from afar, and they only see the many beautiful constructions on the top part of the bridge. It’s precisely because of the complete system and the wider environment that people need to get things very quickly, and it costs too much for society to exist, so everyone needs to get a certain level of reward. And the whole system, in the ecosystem, there are plenty of places to obtain resources, also in the art market, but because everybody lacks preconceptions about establishing a sense of togetherness, so some exhibitions discuss togetherness, but abstractly, while how we view locality is more urgent.
SJ: And this is as important as constructing a physical thing. A facility can be a place, and at the same time it’s an opportunity for everyone to appear at the same time. Without a physical space, actually people will have very few face-to-face opportunities for establishing that feeling of togetherness. And at the same time people are more and more picky, because as the boundaries of conjoined lifestyles gradually become clearer, the differences between me and the next person become more obvious to everyone.
Zhu: But it is all related to the rule the organisation sets itself, that it has set by itself. You can’t have absolutely no structure at all.
SJ: Of course, besides the contemporaries, there’s another barrier that has shades of social class identity, maybe it’s also related to different local customs, whether the older generations are helping and caring for the younger ones, and the level of tolerance. It doesn’t necessarily depend on the quantity of resources.
C: But I think Beijing has a certain uniqueness, because it is a centre for politics, resources, the art market, it’s all there, of course there’s a kind of centre-looking-out attitude – things out there aren’t as important as in the centre.
Zhu: Yes, that’s right. Perhaps because the older generation of Guangdong artists haven’t been ‘successful’, they are not without accomplishment, it’s just that they haven’t been as successful with resources.
One advantage Guangdong has is that every time China opens up, actually Guangdong will have an opportunity, because it doesn’t need to send things up north to export, it’s an export point itself. ‘Guangdong Express’ doesn’t need the approval of Beijing, doesn’t need clearance from the centre, we can take the fast train to the centre of the world, so it’s an exception. It’s a lot of fun.
C: That’s a very good description.
Zhu: But this exception in the way we think, I think it’s an ideological legacy that we can pass down to the new generation, or the generation after them, let them know, actually we could always be exceptional, without following the capital, getting an official seal to face the world. And I feel Guangdong is a fertile place for this way of thinking, not just because of the older generations, but many levels reinforcing each other. And this gives you a lot of support in your thinking. Because the real world will give you a lot of knocks, and hold you down, but if we can search for our own space, I think that ideology is an important layer, what you’ve always wanted to be able to do, the physical and mental strength, the concepts and ideology, including the research projects we do, it’s all good, but it’s also tied up with this, we certainly have to get, in some dialogue in space-time, an ideological resource. And I believe that that treasure exists in Guangdong, it’s very easy to find, sometimes when I’m looking in the archive, I feel that ‘all our current problems are problems we’ve had before’. It doesn’t force us to deny ourselves, but encourages us to continue our exploration and challenge the authorities. With a fearless attitude, taking to the field with a barest of armour, you’ll find this place a paradise.
C: This has a powerful effect on me. I know an artist, he graduated from the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou. He says “I really don’t want to stay in Hangzhou, because I’ll be absorbed into the Hangzhou art system”, yet in the end he went to Beijing. So then I thought, Zhu, what you’ve been talking about is subjectivity, how you see yourself, your lifestyle, creativity and events that matter to you. That’s the soil that determines how the artist will develop.
Also, I think language is another important element, Cantonese is its own linguistic system, a way of re-seeing your local culture, history, and network.
Zhu: Yes, that’s also key. But of course sometimes our discipline or the art world makes these questions specialised, academic, or aesthetic, I’m wary of that myself, for example if something can improve your practice, or help you discover questions that motivate you, I think it’s great. But if it is only specialised, academicised, or aestheticised, then it depends on the things that are done, the actions and the implementation, because sometimes institutionalisation can separate one’s public face from his practice, but when it becomes an exhibit, it’s removed from many real situations. Today the foundation and infrastructure of our institutionalisation are very likely to have come from so-called private enterprise, or like Qiu Zhijie and others of his generation want to find within the national system the possibility of a contemporary art infrastructure, but we return to ourselves, we can’t forget that we have our own duty to make infrastructure, because of their investment of resources. Many artists of the young generation are eager to experience a better platform, they suggest more professionalism, better resources, but what you can’t forget is that everyone must do their own construction, the possibility of a kind of self-sustaining infrastructure.
C: You have to initiate it yourself.
So, Zhu, do you think a lot of the Guangzhou artists actually see it this way?
Zhu: The older generation’s always seen it that way, and it continues down to the present, Libreria Borges and Big Tail Elephant, they’ve done it.
Zhu: One advantage Guangdong has is that it has always been in a ‘half-baked’ [immature and transitional] state, you can hardly put Chen Tong in the contemporary artist or Beijing artist categories, and this applies to many other people. You even wonder “What does Hu Fang really do? Is he an artist or a writer? Or a gallery owner?” Actually there are many unfathomable identities, I feel that’s a perfectly normal thing. Guangzhou has this kind of soil, that makes people feel that the infrastructure doesn’t have to be large-scale, it could also be the kind of scale that you can manage yourself. But the way that people connect with each other, I’m wondering why people can have that desire. Is it really because of the Cantonese environment?
C: I’m very curious, this kind of ideal, very rich publicness like Zhu’s, from individual creativity extending to artistic assemblage, is it very common in Guangdong?
Zhu: Sometimes I worry about whether this generation will lose a kind of scene that we’ve already seen, but I feel it’s difficult to answer this question for others. I don’t know why, but a lot of work situations keep repeatedly reminding me that I need to know something: actually the information and understanding that you gain doesn’t represent everybody taking the situation for granted, so I said there were many options, this kind of publicness actually requires everybody to be open to each other, if not then it would be very easy for you to think everybody’s like this, but they’re not, this can become a kind of tension, which is really a kind of consumption.
C: That’s right, in fact the older generation always look at the younger generation from their own perspectives. In Hong Kong, we call it ‘generational struggle’. It’s the feeling that they have experienced some hardships, but you haven’t, just like you (younger generation) are nothing. Actually every generation has its difficulties, but it’s like Zhu talked about, are we open enough to listen to, and understand, the younger generation?
Zhu: But I think there needs to be an independent awareness, for example you really need to be open-minded, so you yourself sort out, include this kind of content, you need to openly and honestly let more people see it. Of course you can’t say that your own experiences are very unique or important. So at the beginning of today’s interview I said I had the chance to interview Big Tail Elephant, and write an article about them. My image of them was different from the feeling I got when I interviewed them because I wanted to write an article. If you’re not open, the younger generation won’t know.
C: There really needs to be a channel.
Zhu: Sometimes people must self-reflect and adjust their individual working methods, but in the public environment how many channels are there for people to really calm down and ponder these questions? Otherwise, it depends on your curiosity. So you might have to conduct a relatively public initiative (through your work), make everyone feel benevolent, a kind of openness-to-getting-together benevolence, I think that’s possible right now. Because confrontation without reason and without limitations is actually a form of consumption.
C: And I feel that the project Shen Jun and I are doing, from the start we’ve advocated one thing, which is the redistribution of public resources, actually it’s an attempt, but the redistribution isn’t purely money. And publicness means that everyone has a way of being visible. So I don’t think this is just a demonstration of work methods. The source materials we received were all very provocative.
C: Because I am always in an ‘on the road’ situation, it seems like I’m a guest. I don’t want to create a gap between me (I’m post-80s) and post-90s and post-00s artists.
In fact, apart from our glory, material lifestyle and opportunity, can we in the end create some shared lifestyles that everyone would want? The way I describe it sounds a bit phony or abstract, idealised or romanticised. But it’s actually very realistic, very straightforward, if nobody provides that kind of ambience, there won’t be an audience. The ecosystem can look like a big topic, but it can be created in an honest way.
Zhu: In fact the final question is how to make each person become a node of publicness, apart from you yourself building a social network, can your work actually inspire, connect with other people to become part of the network? Fong Fo is actually also a kind of accompaniment, you’re constantly publishing, people are constantly reading, many things are realised through trust and accompaniment. That’s not to say it’s very simple to do this kind of thing, everyone can do it, the question is can you keep doing it, keep doing it without the surety of unimaginable glory and success. You keep doing an ‘everybody can do it’ thing, which can be meaningful, or worth doing, and it doesn’t alienate people. Very often artists’ careers develop in an unhealthy direction, which is that as you become more successful you are more and more detached from your original community, it’s actually a bit embarrassing. It’s really an inevitable side-effect of the halo that comes with public funding.
C: This is the awards system, a situation I frequently encounter in Hong Kong.
Zhu: This can be very embarrassing, everyone starts out mutualistic, but then becomes competitive. So really Fong Fo rejects a lot of opportunities over this point, because of our primary goal and what we now need, we’re not going to die because we don’t have that thing [glory, opportunity and so on], but if you want to treat it as fatal, this overeagerness can be very dangerous. So what we need is a kind of vision and judgement, this to me is not hard to find, because I have my teacher Huang Xiaopeng as an example, actually he is always struggling with funding and profit. I think it seems like it won’t kill you to be that kind of person, it’s all great. This has to do with examples, if your teacher is like this, you’ll naturally want to become like them. But I also think that everyone has their own context, for instance your situation, your whole environment, in Hong Kong it’s difficult to slow down, every minute counts.
C: If I rent a studio, HKD8000/month, that costs a few hundred a day, I must be productive all the time.
Zhu: So really we have a moveable standard for this, but there’s one constant, which is that everyone can, through creativity or a certain kind of judgement, live the life that they want to. I feel that’s the foundation for a collaborative lifestyle, I’m not saying look at my life, this is what a collaborative lifestyle looks like, there are really a lot of things that can be shared, that are open, this is also a kind of collaborative lifestyle, and it’s not identical. I feel in China when we say ‘collaborative’, it’s easy to think of Chinese collectivism. The problem is that that erased individuality.
C: It rubs out our uniqueness.
Zhu: Right. So right here and now if we’re talking about some kind of cooperation, or collaborative mutual aid, we actually have to beware of a certain kind of ‘homogenous collective’. We’re better off going back to specific situations to solve a lot of problems, so we don’t have that kind of strange constraint between us, but we need to spend time trusting each other, supporting each other before we can have that feeling. Everyone has different backgrounds, incomes, individual experiences, so how can we help relatively disadvantaged people feel equal? This really takes a lot of help, a lot of effort, before other people feel it. Otherwise, it’s easy to fall into a sort of, as you mentioned, “why should I serve you? I’m doing alright, why should I invest in this?”
The kind of situation we’re facing now, is that many many active participants can’t find a channel through which to participate. We’re the opposite: it’s not that people aren’t willing to participate, they want to, but “You’re doing another activity? Why didn’t you tell me?”, it’s that kind of problem.
C: That would be our wildest dream. I’ve done a lot of programs, and then not known how to promote them, and other people didn’t know what I was doing. The walking tour that time made a deep impression on me, like suddenly there were 30-some people? I was amazed. My public projects in Hong Kong sometimes feel like complete failures, but in Guangzhou it seems like I’ve suddenly arrived in heaven.
Zhu: And we feel very calm [about attracting audience].
SJ: I think today’s discussion was very productive, I originally wanted to trace back through the evolution of Zhu’s thinking and practice as a creator, but now we’ve brought in a lot of ideas about the ecosystem and public promotion.
You’ve talked about some individuals who are artists, but it really impacts on many people, making me feel hopeful that everyone can get together to develop some plans and blueprints for a common future. We can’t ask every person to have the same goal of publicness, but I’m very moved to see artists like Zhu or organisations like HB Station voluntarily stepping in to replace some of the groups that were supposed to be the seedbeds for this. Like Huang Xiaopeng, being an example for Zhu, the continuity between generations is core.
C: I once attended a lecture, where a teacher in a mountain school in Taiwan said this: he can use his example to get many people to follow him or imitate him, which he would call ‘followers’. But he doesn’t really need followers, but I again quote Zhu – ‘accompanists’, he said he needed people to accompany him, and those people would work with him at the same level. Because if they were just following him and could only try to imitate him, then it would be like the so-called ‘open source artist methodology’, everybody trying to imitate one way of working is a bit empty. On the other hand, everyone having a similar vision and ideology, but within their own scope, trying to create more possibilities or creativity appear in that group or that space. Those are accompanists, not followers.
1 Fong Fo (Raging Fire) Monthly magazine, founded by Zhu Jianlin and classmate Feng Weijing in 2013.
2 Flash Fax, an independent space and community project started by artists Zhu Jianlin and
Shih Yunyu and curator Zhang Hanlu in 2019.
3 SoengJoengToi (Top Tier) was a cooperatively managed art space in Guangzhou.
4 The full name is ‘Big Tail Elephants Working Group’. The members included Chen Shaoxiong, Liang Juhui, Lin Yilin and Xu Tan.
5 ‘Canton Express’ is an exhibition curated by Hou Hanru in 2003. Participating artists included Big Tail Elephant Working Group, Libreria Borges, U-Theque and Yangjiang Youth.
6 Huang Xiaopeng (1960-2020), a famous artist, a pioneer and innovator of Chinese contemporary art education. From 2003 to 2012, he served as Director of the Fifth Studio of the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts. One of the founders of HB Station.
7 An art group established in Guangzhou in 1986. Its members include Wang Du, Chen Shaoxiong, Huang Xiaopeng, Lin Yilin, Liang Juhui and other artists.
8 Artbaba Chinese contemporary art community, a forum initiated by many artists in 2006. http://www.art-ba-ba.com/
9 Baotuan’ is a term that comes from gaming, meaning a small group of fighters who, when working together, are undefeatable. It came to mean something more like ‘small circle mentality’.
10 Lee Kit, Scratching the Table Surface, 2006 – 2011, acrylic on plywood, photo documentation on 300 postcards.