Thursday, May 8, 2008

Interview: Christopher Phillips & Shanghai Kaleidoscope

China is a hot topic in many disciplines right now, art being just one of them. So with Shanghai Kaleidoscope, a much-ballyhooed survey of Shanghai art, opening at the Royal Ontario Museum this week, it seemed a good time to chat with a curator (in this case the ICP's Christopher Phillips) about what freedoms and limitations still exist for Chinese artists. The National Post ran a condensed version of our chat today. A full transcript is posted after the jump.

Interview with Christopher Phillips, curator of the International Centre of Photography in New York and curator of the exhibition Shanghai Kaleidoscope at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. The interview took place at the ROM on May 1, 2008.

Q You’re a busy man, curator of the ICP. Why Toronto and why Shanghai? Why these things together?

A It was a marvelous series of coincidences. In 2004 I organized a large exhibition of Chinese photo and video works at my museum, the International Centre for Photography in New York. Just by accident Kelvin Brown of the ROM, who at that point was the director of ICC happened ot see the show and gave me a call and said could we bring this exhibiton to Toronto at the time of the opening of the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal? And I said unfortunately the exhibition tour is fully booked but I have lots of other ideas. So we met and started to talk and he showed me the architectural plans for the Liebeskind-designed gallery here and I said “this is such a crazy and unusual architectural space, the best possibility I could imagine would be to do an exhibition about today’s Shanghai, which is equally disorienting and unusual and architecturally crazy.” And we took that idea and shaped it into what you see here in the galleries.

Q And you have experience in curating Chinese contemporary art. What’s your history with that?

A I started traveling to China in 1999. AT that point it was really through meeting some young Chinese artists who were working in New York, I thought they were enormously talented and I wanted to know what kind of culture was producing such extraordinarily ambitious and skilled young artists and they said “You have to come to China it’s crazy there, you won’t believe what’s happening.”

And so in 1999 I went to Beijing for the first time, and Shanghai, and they were right, it was crazy, I couldn’t believe what as happening. But more important I discovered a very large number of supertalented superintelligent young artists. I was lucky enough to meet them before many of them became the international stars they are today.

And it quickly became a long-term interest. For the last 10 years I’ve been traveling to China, 4 or 5 times a year. Mostly in order to really see what the artists are doing. So that’s really the background that the exhibition Shanghai Kaleidoscope emerges from.

Q So what is so crazy and exciting about it to you? Do you feel the craziness in the architecture is intermeshing with an excitement and energy? I get the sense from the show that you feel they are converging or playing off each other. Can you talk about that a little bit?

A Shanghai from the 1850s has gone through a number of dramatic transformations in terms of the look of the city, in terms of the city’s cultures. So what’s been happening for the last 15 years since the Chinese government gave the green light for major overhauls of Shanghai’s urban infrastructure is really part of a long tradition of Shanghai reinventing itself. It’s sort of a perpetual reinvention of the city and its culture.

What’s happening now is the 21st century version of that. And I have come to see Shanghai today as a kind of laboratory, a kind of experimental lab for new developments in urban culture that may or may not have not just local but may have global significance that involves the idea of an extraordinary density of population. And extraordinary building of high-rise residential towers on a scale that has probably never been seen before on this planet.

Q Wow.

A In the last decade Shanghai has seen over a thousand skyscrapers go up and there are probably that many more that are currently under development and that will be completed in the next decade. Shanghai today has four times as many skyscrapers as Manhattan, which gives you an idea of the scale of this.

Q Yeah, we see it in the Barbieri works. I want to talk a little more about the art in relation to this theme. So part of the works here is about playing with the city, and playing with architecture. Which I expect comes out of seeing the government wholesale change things, well why can’t I do that too? Can you talk about that a little bit in relation to the balancing tower piece [where the artists balances a tower on his fingertip] and the blowing piece [were a woman controls the speed of a streetscape pan by blowing]?

A I think all of the artist who are living and working in Shanghai today, the enormous physical transformation of the city taking place all around them every day, that’s got to be one of the key influences on the art that comes out of their process. For this show I tried to select works that give a sense of the very different attitudes that artists have taken as evidenced in their works to the changes taking place in Shanghai. In several works you see a very playful attitude, the sense that the city is like a big toy construction set that can be dismantled and put back together in different ways. It’s just play, whatever goes up today may come down tomorrow. So this attitude of transience, of rapid turnover in urban space, the idea of a lighthearted casual playful attitude towards those changes is one very characteristic mood you find in a lot of Shanghai art today.

What’s interesting to me is that very often its outsiders or foreigners who take a bit more of a distanced and perhaps more skeptical attitude towards the changes going on in Shanghai. And tha’ts why you’ll find on the walls vide works or digital slide presentation by for example Greg Girard, a terrific Canadian photographer, originally from Vancouver who’s been living and working in Shanghai for a decade now. Unlike most contemporary Chinese artist who are fascinated by the spectacle of the new city, Greg Girard has been systematically photographing the older, disappearing neighbourhoods in Shanghai. The neighbourhoods where many people may have grown up in the 1970s or 80s but now they’re anxious to leave behind and move into modern new dwellings.

Greg Girard is fascinated by the kinds of intimate human networks that really gave these older neighborhoods a very special character. And in his pictures you really get a sense of maybe decrepit or crumbling buildings. But you also get the sense that a really vibrant or flourishing human culture was part of this as well.

Q In the interviews presented alongside this exhibit we hear that Shu Haolun, a Chinese documentarian, has been making work around this issue of loss. So is it that Chinese artists aren’t making work around these issues, or is it that their work is less popular because of everything that’s happening?

A Well I would say that you have to keep in mind that for almost everyone in China and that especially includes artists and architects and writers, they’re very much aware that over the last 200 years China has really gone through a very bumpy patch in its history… having to face humiliation by Western powers, arriving and just sort of setting up shop as they have in Shanghai, passing through most or all of the 20th century continuing episodes of political and military turmoil, and it’s only really since the 1990s that China has sort of come out of that rough patch and reassert its traditional role as an Asian powerhouse.

I think because of that very bumpy history over the last two centuries a lot of people in China don’t have an affection for the physical artifacts or the housing that sort of symbolizes that period. They feel kind of like China is now turning the page ready to create a new culture, a new kind of dynamic urban space for the 21st century and basically that is the job of their generation and subsequent generations.

Because of that there has not been a strong architectural preservation movement in China. That’s only now starting to happen. It’s happening in Shanghai perhaps more than any place because there still are some beautiful 19th century neighbourhoods that look like French provincial towns in certain ways with tree-lined streets. All that’s going ot remain, that’s not going ot be torn down.

I think that Greg Girard to go back to his work, I think he’s been astonished at the popular response to his book, Phantom Shanghai, which really I think no Chinese photographer would have taken on this subject. It would have been, perhaps, too politically controversial for a Shanghai artist or a Shanghai publisher. But because he’s an outsider Greg has a little more wiggle room. And I know that his book has just done exceptionally well in China. Every bookshop you go into it’s prominently featured, certainly in Shanghai. So it certainly has touched an emotional chord that previously had not really been acknowledged in Shanghai.

Q Interesting. People are using photography for sure… many are photo-based. Could you talk about the panorama there [a ghostly panorama of a cityscape in negative form]?

A This is a large-scale unique photographic print by a Beijing based artist named Shi Guorui. He works exclusively with a pinhole camera technique. He has made extraordinary photographs of many of China’s ancient architectural monuments such as the great wall. And recently he has been traveling to Shanghai and capturing the extraordinary architectural lineup on each side of the Wang-Pu river. What he does was to rent a hotel room on the 24th or 25th floor he masked off the window, created a little pinhole in the window and put this sheet of paper hung it on the facing wall so that over the course fo 24 hours a negative image was formed. He processed the print in the hotel bathroom tub. Let it dry and it came out with this single one of a kind image. What’s striking about it is that it’s a negative image and that lends a quite ghostly character to this view of the Shanghai waterfront. On the left you see the classic 19th century buildings along the bund and on the right side on the Pudong side of the river you see these science fiction high-rise towers going up in the new financial district. It’s really an extraordinary cityscape and really captures something of the as I say science fiction like character of the Shanghai skyline today.

Q It also captures some of that darkness that the might be happening in Shanghai. Like I noticed the computer generated CGI people over there made a really neat work, but it’s all blue-skies, things are really hopeful.

A Well we tried very consciously in the exhibition to juxtapose some very glossy and uh, idealized visions of today and future Shanghai and certainly Crystal CG, which is one of the leading makers of architectural computer graphics videos in China, their work is here because it provides a totally spotless flawless vision of this clean city… no traffic jams no pollution problems.

So we consciously juxtaposed that with a video by a great Italian artist, Olivio Barbieri. It’s a helicopter flyover of contemporary Shanghai. And Barbieri has no interest in the tourist monuments or the famous buildings. He’s fascinated by uh, urban sprawl, by endless, endless arrays of high-rise development projects. He sees Shanghai as a kind of living, almost out of control organism that’s rushing past all the natural boundaries and creating this extraordinary urban environment like nothing that has been seen on this planet before.

So that’s kind of the grittier side of Shanghai and that’s it was a very conscious decision to play off the two works.

Q Yeah, no city looks like that [computer graphic]. I was like, whoa!

A But in Shanghai that is the vision of the future that people carry around in their heads very often. So you can’t dismiss it as just someone’s fantasy. This really is a kind of shared collective vision of a future everyone believes is definitely going ot look like.

Q Could you talk a bit about this piece, the tower top piece [a grid of tower tops].

A This is a piece by an artist named Shi Yong, he was born and raised in Shanghai, it’s his native city. He says that over the last ten years as the city has changed it has become more and more unreal to him. It’s become sort of a dreamscape environment. And sort of recognizes the old areas where he recalls playing as a child, but he says also the whole city has become like a kind of phantasm or hallucination to him. In this work what he has done is to create a grid of colour lightbox illuminated photographs of the tops of some of the most famous skyscrapers in Shanghai. And some of these are very unusually ornamented. He’s photographing them very often on a cloudy or foggy evening so it appears as if you’re seeing them and the rich colours surrounding them as if it’s filtered through a dream, as if something seems slightly unreal about this urban space. And that I think captures also a very common vision of the city shared by many of those who were born and raised in Shanghai. The whole city environment has become something that’s half-real and half-unreal.

Q Wow, I know this might be amore difficult question but it’s one that people will wonder about when they see this is an exhibition of Chinese art. You did say earlier that some native artists of China might shy away from topics that are viewed as too controversial. What are the threats there for artists?

A Well, China is still an authoritarian state. And if you are a writer or a moviemaker or an artist there are definite political limits to what you can exhibit in public spaces. If you criticize the current communist party leadership, if you openly criticize their policies, you are very probably going to get a visit from the security police. And you can very likely end up in jail. What all this means is that creative people in China have a good nose for understanding how far you can go at this moment or at that moment.

Many of them developed a kind of coded language so they can allude to political events or can use moments from China’s past as a means of indirectly pointing to what they see as some of the contemporary problems in China.

Q What kind of things would that be?

A That could involve … corruption, certainly part of the urban development that’s happening all over China is enormous payoffs, government officials, real-estate developers, this you find reported in the Chinese press, it’s not a secret. Certainly the displacement of ordinary Chinese from their longtime homes, so that new skyscrapers or high-rises can go up, this is a very hot political issue in China. Legally the government owns all the land, you can only lease it, or rent it. There are no individual property rights in China. And this is again a continuing topic of discussion for those who are pushing for changes in China’s legal code.

Q Now that I understand the issues they might point to, what are some of the codes they might use?

A Oh, maybe using tabletop models and using dolls, its using a kind of universal language of contemporary art, but giving it a certain twist so that it takes on a new resonance in China, so that it’s understood by Chinese viewers or readers who can sort of read between the lines. It’s the same sort of artistic and literary devices that you find in any country where there’s a government censorship. You start to develop a kind of private language that hopefully can’t be deciphered by the censors but hopefully can be understood by educated audiences.

Q And before we end I just wanted to ask you about the fashion component of the exhibition. Can you talk about why that’s here?

A One of the most interesting thigns happening in Shanghai today is the emergence of a strong contingent of talented young fashion designers. Shanghai for centuries has been the traditional Chinese home of the textiles industry. And for the past 15 years, Shanghai has become famous worldwide as a low-cost manufacturer for almost every well-known international apparel line. The Shanghai city authorities realized that in order to make the really enormous profits that can be made in the apparel industry, they have to move to the next level, moving form being a low cost manufacturer to establishing and promoting worldwide Chinese fashion brands. So there is an enormous amount of government support in Shanghai to train young fashion designers send them on world tours so they can see how the global fashion industry works. And then often in Shanghai they are given stipends so that they can use time to develop their creativity.

What we are showing in this exhibition, Shanghai Kaleidoscope, are a sample of outfits by three very talented young Shanghai fashion designers, all of whom are starting to win not just attention in China but attracting attention from around the world. For example they have all been featured in Chinese Vogue. And I predict that within the next year you’ll start to see stories on them in all the Vogue editions around the world. So that they will be seen not just as young Chinese designers but be seen as emerging international fashion designers.

Q Great. Well, my last question is, what are you doing next?

A In two weeks I open in New York an exhibition of work by young Japanese artists. I think in the last 5 or 6 years all the international attention has been focused on China. That’s been the big story. Japan is a rich culture with an enormous number of very talented young artists. They’ve been overlooked for 5 or 6 years so we’re going to turn the spotlight on Japan in my museum.

Q It’s interesting that China’s been the big powerhouse story, but Japan…

A You can’t overlook Japan, it has long fabulous cultural heritage and it also has extraordinary young artists and they’re ready for their close up.

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