Changing faces: critic and curator to broaden global appeal of Chinese contemporary art

Yongwoo Lee, a South Korean art historian, who is executive director of the Shanghai Himalayas Museum, is keen to make art far more accessible to ordinary people around world

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 14 July, 2015, 9:30am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 14 July, 2015, 12:58pm

Interest in Chinese art has flourished during the past two decades.

Works by contemporary artists, including Zeng Fanzhi, now attract the highest prices at auction. Investors can take advice from experts at museums and leading contemporary art exhibitions, such as the Venice Biennale.

Yongwoo Lee, a South Korean, globally recognised art historian, critic and curator, has been executive director at the Shanghai Himalayas Museum, since May. He spoke to the South China Morning Post's Peggy Yuan

Why did you join a Chinese private museum? 

It's far more appealing to be in an environment that I enjoy - where I feel I can "breathe" - than [consider] the national or geopolitical importance of my choice. 

I think the dynamism of contemporary Chinese art today is interesting. Like a solution to a problem, the visual cultural scene of China is brimming with energy, pain and progress.

Exhibitions can be 'too curated' for the elite ... I'm firmly against the kind of attitude in some museums that believes its visitors need to be educated. Museum visitors should be people who love museums and are passionate to interact with the exhibits.
Yongwoo Lee

So I was very interested by the job offer and the opportunity to establish a biennale exhibition that will be distinctive compared with others. 

What is going to be your strategy for developing the museum? 

In the future, the public and private museums will coexist within a competitive and collaborative structure. 

Over the years, Shanghai Himalayas Museum has held more international exhibitions than any other mainland institution. 

I'd like to create a "gateway", which can connect with the international art scene and opens up the museum even more. I believe more museums like this are needed in China. 

How did you help South Korea's contemporary art exhibition, the Gwangju Biennale, and Korean art become known internationally?

The Gwangju Biennale was able to establish itself very rapidly within the international art world because of its absolute openness. It is not limited only to those in the art industry, nor does it have any geographical or political restrictions. 

From the start we boldly opened it up totally to art directors, curators and artists worldwide. We firmly believe that it is natural to offer a diverse make-up; of course, there are other professionals that think quite the opposite. 

The Gwangju Biennale is a reflection of my personal view that the "Gwangju Spirit" - of breaking down barriers - should be deeply and broadly applied.

Will you promote the internationalisation of the Shanghai Himalayas Museum and Chinese contemporary art?

I do feel that is one of the reasons the Shanghai Himalayas Museum felt it needed me. Supporting contemporary Chinese art and artists is an extremely important duty for me. 

Access to Chinese contemporary art until now has been quite limited for people overseas. But Chinese art will become more visible if more institutions proactively work together to promote it. 

Does the government's strict censorship of contemporary Chinese art place restrictions on your work? 

"Censorship" is a sensitive word, which is not often heard these days. So-called censorship occurs widely around the world. Although there may not be an official system of censorship, it occurs in many places, including the United States, Europe, Asia, the Middle East and South America.

The Chinese censorship system has become institutionalised. Some might think it will intimidate cultural producers. But I'd like to discover the potential for alternatives because those restrictions focus on political aggression and excessive obscenities. 

Of course, freedom and imagination are at the core of art creation, but the issue here is to discover workable alternatives. 

What is the target audience for your art projects in China? 

If an exhibition scares off its audience, then I feel there must be a problem. Exhibitions can be "too curated" for the elite or the art professionals and this puts others off. 

I'm firmly against the kind of attitude in some museums that believes its visitors need to be educated. Museum visitors should be people who love museums and are passionate to interact with the exhibits. 

I feel that for the time being, Chinese museums should adopt a strategy that welcomes more people to its exhibitions and displays.

The Kenya pavilion at this year's Venice Biennale would have been represented by a number of Chinese artists - rather than Kenyans - until a petition was launched against this. Why did the problem arise?

I was a member of the jury at this year's Venice Biennale and it was quite unfortunate that this misstep became an issue. 

I think such mistakes arise because there is too much of result-driven mindset, and also a lack of understanding about how international culture operates. So I will try to take a lead to bridge these kinds of cultural gaps and misunderstandings in future. 

Is it important to highlight the regional or cultural identity of Chinese contemporary art?

Discussion about aesthetical globalism and regionalism has come to a close. Globalism must be based on regionalism or it will be just an illusion. 

Yes, there are different cultural identities in different regions and there may be many differences geopolitically, but these two cultural phenomena are not isolated, like remote islands: instead, they should converge yet also grow so that they are distinctive within a single context.

Chinese art must be independent, autonomous, and establish its own independent aesthetic form. It should stand like an aesthetic archipelago. 

The reason why movements in the past, such as the Gatai group - a radical Japanese artistic group from the 1950s to early '70s - and Korea's 1970s to '90s Dansaekhwa monochrome painting, stood out in art history and became known globally was exactly because they had independent aesthetic form. 

The identity of contemporary Chinese art from the 1990s is no different. I think it is wrong to try to imitate the context and form of Western art and consider it is an authority. 

It is very important to find an original cultural and political perspective that has its own distinguished independent aesthetic form.