Philip Tinari: Let the West Know More about the System of Chinese Contemporary Art
Q：胡震 James Hu A：田霏宇 Philip Tinari
Q: What’s the difference between the Armory Show this year and the previous versions in terms of scale and organization?
A: I am not the best person to comment on the overall organization of the fair, because actually I just cover the Armory Focus: China section. The show has got together 17 galleries and institutions from China to present some aspects of Chinese contemporary art in America. The Chinese section takes up around 10% of the whole fair, receiving much promotional effort, so it’s a highlight of this year.
Q: As the curator of the project, how do you go about your work?
A: What I did was actually to start with my own understanding of Chinese contemporary art and gather those galleries and art institutions to present Chinese contemporary art in New York. After all, the Armory Show is a commercial fair, so the organizational work is done through the liaison effort of the galleries and institutions. Just like any other art fair, they need to pay for booth rent and transport. Just that I am a very active person, so when I learn of some good artists, I will contact their galleries directly to see if I can bring them to the fair. Moreover, I am American and I know very well the American perception of Chinese art, so I hope to leverage our concerted efforts to bring more Chinese contemporary artists to make an appearance in New York and to present Chinese contemporary art in a way different from past approaches. Honestly, people in the U.S. are only familiar with those few famous Chinese artists. They don’t know much about the current Chinese contemporary art landscape.
Q: So a majority of the artists on the participant list are actually those active at home but not so well-known in the West?
A: Yes, and so are the galleries and institutions. Out of the 17 exhibited here, 9 have never taken part in any art fair outside Asia. So the Show is kind of a gateway to the international stage.
Q: With regard to the communication between the organizer and the gallery exhibitors, is there any particular problem worth mentioning?
A: On the whole, the communication is very smooth. The American organizer has done very well. They commissioned curators to run the whole show on their own. When selecting the galleries and artists, I took into consideration some of the new trends that I’ve observed over my more than a decade’s experiences in China. The organization of an exhibition like this is different from the usual kind. It’s sort of a two-way choice, because we had to get the galleries’ consent as well. Most of them would love to go, but there were many problems of costs involved. Those on the final shortlist were chosen by me. But at the same time, it’s also their choice.
Q: I’m sure you still remember the Parallel Exhibition of the Venice Biennale last year very well. There were about a dozen Chinese art institutions who curated exhibitions of different scales. The performance of the “Chinese exhibitor corps” drew criticism from both in and out of the circle. As for the joint participation of many Chinese art institutions in the Armory Show this year, people also have mixed feelings. So what do you think of that?
A: I think the circumstances of this exhibition are different from the Venice Biennale. The Chinese exhibitors are put in the Focus section, which is a very essential component to the whole art fair. As for the comments on the artist list, it’s only natural to hear different voices. But if we look at the structure of the exhibition, it’s an opportunity that will have very positive impacts on the participating artists and Chinese contemporary art itself, because we are actually using the official resources of the fair to promote ourselves. We are not running on the sideline.
Q: Judging from the site arrangement, it’s not difficult to see the organizer has taken the Chinese project very seriously. Putting that into the perspective of the ink art exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the “ink fever” thusly resulted at home, how do you interpret the importance and attention that the West attaches to the Chinese art circle?
A: This is not the first time they show much interest. In fact, it has been on for more than a decade. The end of the 1990s saw the first recognition of Chinese art by the West. And then later in 2008 there was quite a market boom for Chinese art. But to tell the truth, the Western attention has been focused solely on Ai Weiwei in recent years. So the exhibition this year can be considered as a presentation of the diversity of the Chinese contemporary art ecosystem, with which the American viewers are not particularly familiar. People might recognize a Chinese artwork that they once saw in an auction, or hear the Chinese art market is on the rise, but they don’t know much about the system of Chinese contemporary art, its internal logic, or some of its new players. So this time, the galleries have made a quite comprehensive presentation of the artists.
Q: Did you do the entire exhibit planning for the Chinese section? Or did you delegate the autonomy to each gallery as usual?
A: It’s the result of many discussions. Of course the actual discussion processes vary with every gallery. With some galleries, I would be more straightforward and ask if I could bring a certain artist to the fair. But other galleries might have their own proposals, so we tried to reach a win-win solution through discussion. But on the whole, we all tried to confirm the lists of galleries and artists as soon as possible to avoid repetition, as well as to make a diversified presentation. Some subsections are like a solo of a certain young artist, while others exhibit the works of a group of artists. That way we can maintain a sense of rhythm within the frame of the fair.
Q: It’s given to understand that galleries and art institutions take part in art fairs for artistic recognition and commercial success. I would like to know if the organizer of the art fair has any specific consideration and arrangement with regard to the sales of artworks.
A: Not actually. The Armory Show adopts the most traditional mode of organization. It’s not like the innovative method in Singapore which involves the fair directly in the sales. For this Armory Show, there are only some modest preferential treatments for galleries in the Focus section. For example, they enjoy greater promotional support. But it’s just for this particular situation. The overall organization is pretty much the same with traditional fairs.
Q: If a fair fails to achieve a satisfactory sales number, it will dampen its attraction for prospective exhibitors next time. According to what you know, are the Chinese exhibitors confident about their sales in the art fair?
A: I think they are. Of course, the Show as an organizer will bear the responsibility of promotion, but they don’t take part in the actual sales. So eventually it comes down to the galleries and their ability to make the best of the resources. It’s true that some of them are first-timers of the Armory Show, but that doesn’t mean they know nothing about the business. Besides, they do have some potential customers. So the final sales result will still depend on the performance of the galleries themselves.
Q: As a curator, what kind of reaction and result would you like to achieve at the end?
A: The characteristic of exhibition in an art fair is different from that in an art museum in that an art fair doesn’t just hang a piece up for the public to see. Instead, it has a commentary team, or should I say, a sales team. Communications with these teams would probably lead to some new possibilities and opportunities. And I am not just talking about sales. They may also include potential exhibition opportunities or more recognition for the artists. For example, the last time I went to an Armory Show was in 2006. Afterwards I worked in Beijing and never went again until now. At that fair, there was a gallery, which is now very famous, that brought a Chinese artist there to curate an exhibition for him. And that’s Zhang Enli. Although by then I had lived in China for two or three years, I had never heard of him. I believe it was actually through that exhibition that many art institutions and collectors in America knew about his works for the first time, just like me. And that exhibition brought for him a huge potential for further growth.
Q: Indeed, Zhang Enli is quite a hit in Europe and North America in recent years.
A: The Show in 2006 has paved the way for him. His influence is a gradual build-up over years of evolvement. But this kind of influence does show itself overnight. It’s a progression of establishing an international context. We will see its result in the future.