By: Sylvia Tsai Source: ArtAsiaPacific Date: 15/8/2015
A leading curator, critic and historian of contemporary Chinese art, Hou’s first internationally acclaimed exhibition was “Cities on the Move: Urban Chaos and Global Change East Asian Art, Architecture and Films Now” (1997–99), a traveling show co-curated with Hans Ulrich Obrist. Hou has gone on to direct numerous art festivals, including the Auckland Triennial (2013), Istanbul Biennial (2007), Venice Biennale (2003), Gwangju Biennale (2002) and Shanghai Biennale (2002), among others. Prior to his current role at MAXXI, which he began in 2013, Hou was chair of exhibition and museum studies at the San Francisco Art Institute for six years. In late 2014, he made his curatorial debut at MAXXI with a solo show of Chinese sculptor Huang Yong Ping.
In addition to his role at MAXXI, the 52-year-old curator also acts as advisor to many other cultural institutions around the world. Speaking to ArtAsiaPacific via email about his new consulting role at the Guggenheim, Hou says, “My main responsibility is to provide an orientation of the project based on my experiences and research, which will be in close collaboration with Weng Xiaoyu, the new associate curator, and the team. We’ll work together to develop the project with a strategic vision and implement it in various exhibitions and public programs within the next couple of years.”
Hou’s project partner, Weng, has also been active in the art world—both under Kadist Art Foundation as well as with independent projects. Earlier this year, she presented a solo exhibition of young Singaporean photographer Robert Zhao Renhui, who was a 2015 artist resident at Kadist. Weng was also co-curator of “The Invisible Hand: Curating as Gesture,” the 2nd CAFAM Biennale, Beijing, in 2014.
Recently, the rising curator has been busy relocating from San Francisco to the Big Apple and will assume her new position at the Guggenheim on August 17. Commenting on her new position, Weng noted, “My first project is to lead the development and implementation of the second commission [of the Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation Chinese Art Initiative] and the exhibition of this Initiative. Instead of considering it as a single exhibition, we will develop a vision that creates close connections among the commissions, the presentation of this exhibition (and the third one) and the series of discursive events and public programs.” Weng is also slated to make trips to the Greater China region for research and studio visits, with one currently planned with Hou this fall.
Launched in 2013, the Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation Chinese Art Initiative—supported by the eponymous Hong Kong-based philanthropic foundation—was designed to further the scholarship and exposure of contemporary Chinese art through research and exhibition-making. At the program’s core are artist commissions—a total of three projects have been commissioned so far—which allows the Guggenheim to work directly with artists from mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau, and those from the diasporic communities, to create new pieces that will later be added to the museum’s collection. The geographic focus of the Initiative expands upon Guggenheim’s wider Asian Art Initiative, which began in 2006 under the leadership of Alexandra Munroe, the museum’s senior curator of Asian Art. The Ho Family Foundation Chinese Art Initiative’s first commissioned exhibition, “Time Temple” (2014) was a solo show of the Beijing-based installation and performance artist Wang Jianwei, organized by Thomas J. Berghuis, the inaugural curator of the Initiative.
By embarking on this program with the Guggenheim, the Ho Family Foundation has become, as Hou puts it, a trailblazer in Chinese art—particularly in the way that the Initiative’s projects are shaping institutional exchange and dialogue. For him, these are “exercises” that pushes Chinese art beyond a myopic reading to embrace both the “global” and “singular.”
Still in its nascent years, Hou believes that there is much to do to move the Initiative’s program forward, particularly in regards to cultivating a public consciousness that will transgress contemporary Chinese art beyond geographical boundaries. He comments: “The most crucial step is to make the public and the institutions (who are highly diverse) share the idea that ‘Chinese art’ is a key element in the making of the global reality of contemporary creation, hence a part of their ‘real life.’ Through this commission, we try to provide opportunities for both the artists and the public(s)/institution(s) to experiment with what ‘being global’ can mean culturally, artistically and even (geo)politically. The audiences are not passive ‘consumers’ of ‘Chinese art.’ They should be provided conditions to participate in the conversations and discussions, even debates, evoked by the works of the artists and related publications, panel discussions, and other events.”
Adding to this idea, Weng says, “The Initiative, led by such a prestigious institution like the Guggenheim, provides a global platform and opportunity for us to reinvent what has been understood and perceived as ‘contemporary Chinese art.’ What is crucial to note here is that such ‘geographic specificity’ does not intend to single out ‘a particular kind of’ practice that is ‘Chinese,’ or to showcase that contemporary Chinese art ‘can be global;’ instead it examines how contemporary Chinese art practice and discourse are not only globally relevant in nature, but that they also play a radical role in critically reflecting on our global and contemporary reality.”
Hou and Weng will be collaborating with Munroe—who is currently working on another large-scale Chinese exhibition to open in 2017—to develop the next stages of the Initiative’s programming. As of now, the second commission-based exhibition for the Initiative will be a group show, set to open November 2016. Though the exhibition is still in its early stages—Hou and Weng are currently discussing the curatorial concept and selection of artists—Munroe has hinted that it will be a show not to be missed. “Our overarching criteria is that the works have great presence, intelligence and relevance,” says Munroe. “Given the vitality of artists working across Greater China today, I am confident our next show will be fresh and provocative—and knowing the curators, perhaps a little magical too.”