After experiencing the pandemic, they have changed from focussing on the ideal to reality in their daily lives. In terms of their artworks, they have all changed from reality to the ideal. Qian ZHAO, Pengyu ZHU and Zixu CHEN were from the same Chinese university but majored in completely different fields—landscape architecture and Chinese painting, but their creations during 2020 all tend to combine Chinese Tradition and Contemporary art techniques and ideas.
Qian ZHAO, Pengyu ZHU: Students of Landscape Architecture at Renmin University of China
Zixu CHEN: Young Artist – MFA Chinese Painting in Chinese National Academy of Arts
陈子绪，青年艺术家 – 中国艺术研究院中国画系研究生
Interview with Zhao & Zhu
The names would be abbreviated as “Cleo” (Cleo CHEN), “ZHAO” (Qian ZHAO) and “ZHU” (Pengyu ZHU).
Cleo: Can you tell us how you organised your life and work during this time? What has been changed?
ZHAO: Before the pandemic, we were in the same class and dormitory at school, so it was easy for us to communicate with each other. The outbreak occurred during our winter vacation, so we could only talk online and at home. My schedule was mostly involved writing papers or graduation projects during the day and then busying myself with other things at night.
ZHU: At that time, the pandemic was serious and the virus was spreading, so I tried not to go outside, and I also felt a little panicky. I seemed to repeat the same routine every day—like searching for materials or creating my artworks at home. The most significant change in this time that I noticed was that everyone around me was now wearing masks.
ZHAO: Now our vaccine programme has been administered widely, and with this, our life has basically returned to normal. Except for we need to report upon entering or leaving our school but there are really not too many restrictions at all.
ZHU: Our lives had returned to normal last summer, but it resurged again last winter.
Cleo: What changes have you experienced or discovered in this time? Whether it is in your life or your creative work? What do you think is your pivot to cope with the pandemic?
ZHAO: Being able to go out was the aspect of my life that was mainly affected, especially long-distance travelling. We were also asked to show the QR code pass whenever entering or exiting the busy areas. There were also restrictions that limited the number of people that could do activities indoors meaning that our sources of entertainment were limited.
ZHU: In this period too, I think the public has become more disciplined. For instance, people would agreeably wear masks or monitor temperature when getting on the bus but it also felt quieter not only at the bus station but in many places.
My mind has also changed a lot, I used to think that I could get what I want only through my own efforts, but now I find that my world can be affected by many other external factors. What is more, my goal was clearer, I would plan everything in advance prior to the pandemic.
ZHAO: Many unexpected things happened during the pandemic, like not knowing when we would be going back to school, for example. I used to think of myself as an idealistic person, this period made me become more realistic in my daily life but, in art, it has gone the other way from reality to ideal.
Cleo: When did you start to create the artwork Dreaming?
ZHAO: We started this at the beginning of last March. Previously, everyone was optimistic and felt that the virus, the pandemic, everything like that would be over soon. Hence, when it came to the theme of our graduation project in mid-March, I decided that I would like to create an idealistic surrealist artwork, and the work was finished at the end of last May.
Cleo: I noticed that you are students majoring in landscape design, so what inspired you to create the artwork? Why did you choose to build amusement facilities beyond the Forbidden City （The Forbidden City, as the palace of Chinese Emperors during the Qing Dynasty of Chinese history) rather than beyond other sites?
ZHU: Both of us were art students and we used to paint. Therefore, we would pursue aesthetics and artistry first and, then, we would plan the details when making the landscape which would have the look of architecture about it.
The context of the work was during the increasing severity of the pandemic period. The meaning behind the work, then, was that we hoped that the people who lived in isolation could go outdoors, so the whole building was in sharp contrast with the solemnity of The Forbidden City.
ZHAO: The Forbidden City was closed after the outbreak. So, we used our skills to design and install a temporary landscape for the future for people to enjoy and play to cope with emergencies of the pandemic. It also had the contrast that Pengyu ZHU mentioned before, that the atmosphere of The Forbidden City was very solemn but the one of an amusement park was lively. There was also a contrast between the material selected for this piece – wood and steel which represented the conflict between history and the present. We mainly used this contrast to express the aesthetic and quality differences.
Cleo: In my view, this work also implied that the country was still very optimistic about the pandemic at the beginning. The Forbidden City symbolised the general environment of China while the thoughts of the mass of people were reflected in the amusement park. There is a tangible contradiction between enclosure and optimism.
ZHAO: Yes, it also meant that no matter what kind of difficulties we’re encountering, we could overcome them with a positive attitude.
ZHU: Yeah it felt like the pandemic was a depressing topic, and the pressure of it all might be eased a bit by making an amusement park.
ZHU: It represents the end of our undergraduate studies. Then, same as its name, it is a design that emerges from our lived reality but carries our fantasy of The Forbidden City which is illusory and exaggerated.
ZHAO: I agree but, what is more, it is also an attempt at something new. Our previous projects were very realistic but, with this design, we have tried a totally new form of expression—to exaggerate without any restrictions.
Cleo: Since this work is still very different from the Beijing Folk House Museum that you had created before, so does this mean that you want to develop more in the field of contemporary art? If so, which direction will you take?
ZHU: Actually no, I would still like to be a designer in the future.
ZHAO: I have not thought too much about it yet. I like to experiment and I do not want to be confined in a simple style. All of my previous projects are different from each other.
ZHAO: The pandemic mainly impacted the form of the work I did which changed from face-to-face communication to being online. This meant that it was very easy for any information about work to be delayed and that always generated many different issues. And, also, the issues I have mentioned before.
ZHU: The biggest issue was travelling. The health QR code, temperature monitoring, and wearing a mask were quite time-consuming. Mentally, I was sort of concerned at first, but then I got used to the online classes and they even felt quite fulfilling and convenient.
Cleo: Has has your perception of art changed since the pandemic? If so, how, exactly?
ZHAO: In fact, there have not been many changes. Art and design were both means of expressing ideas and could reflect current social situations or existing problems. There were some changes in my mindset like, when creating landscapes, we would take this problem into consideration—whether we could have previously prevented some issues that may arise in the future.
ZHU: I feel art has become more fundamental. I used to think of art as something like caviar— it was something only the upper-class people played with and enjoyed, and there is nothing useful about it. After enduring this period, I have found a lot of artistic ideas which emerged from these events, and this made me truly feel that art and real-life were closely related, and art was not just for entertainment.
Cleo: Do you think art would tend to be more online in the future? What might be the relationship between technology and Art in your opinion?
ZHU: Only part of it will go online. It is still the most intuitive way for art to be appreciated physically and, because of this art is something that cannot be copied. Although art can be shared more quickly online, physical exhibitions will still remain mainstream, I think.
Their relationship to me is that art inspires technological development, whether it is through its human application or its design but, in turn, technology will support the innovation of artistic methods for creating and performing.
ZHAO: My ideas are kind of similar to Pengyu ZHU. Like paintings or sculptures, it is very difficult to transfer them online. For example, there may be colour deviations or picture distortions that would be very different to the physical appearance and experience. However, landscape architecture might pivot online.
As for the relationship between technology and art, I think they are complementary to each other. In China, VR, modelling software, virtual exhibiting space and exhibition halls are all being developed in tandem. One day, there might be new art forms along these lines introduced in the future.
ZHU: Being physical and up close to art is still the best way of immersing ourselves in art and feeling its charm.
The names would be abbreviated as “Cleo” (Cleo CHEN) and “CHEN” (Zixu CHEN).
Cleo: How did you do with your life and work during the pandemic? What was changed from before?
CHEN: The outbreak happened during my senior year of college, and I was preparing for my graduation and the preliminary examination for postgraduate. According to the pandemic, the examination was delayed to be held in May or June. Simultaneously, Heilongjiang which is the city I located in was always on lockdown, so as a result of all things mentioned above, I was very depressed those days, the only thing I could do was keep studying.
Cleo: Could you talk about the changes you’ve found or experienced during this period? What’s your Pivot like?
CHEN: My normal life has changed a lot. My high school was in Beijing so I seldom wanted to go back because I was used to living independently. However, I became accustomed to staying at home which caused by the pandemic this year. As for my Art creating, I’ve changed my material from colourful ink to wash painting. I have experienced a hard time doing this because my colourful ink paintings were based on sketching, so I could only create wash paintings due to there was no way for me to sketch with the condition of lockdown. I was used to painting with colourful ink, so at first, I felt particularly dull when painting washes painting which only had one colour of black, which actually just in line with my mood at the time. As a result, my later paintings had some elements of the swimming person or lifebuoys.
Cleo: When did you start to conceive the work of Settled to Look on the Emerging Clouds《坐看云起时》, Growing Freely-Mountains and Seas 《自由生长 – 山海》, and the Scenic Spot series artwork《景区》?
CHEN: The “Growing Freely” series artworks have started long before, I think it has represented the status of my art creation—some of my paintings were conceived previously while some totally weren’t. I always painted by following my vague feeling, I’d like to pile up elements in my mind, so each element was like a USB flash drive of my memory. “Growing Freely” means that I would start with a tree or a mountain, and then gradually growing out of them with significance.
Settled to Look On the Emerging Clouds was the work I created after graduating. Chinese ancient painting was very different from the West which emphasized forms and colours of paintings. Chinese painting focused on the vivid quality flowing inside the painting. Talking about this, I’d like to emphasize the feature of “vivid quality flowing inside”. Aiming of performing that, I try the painting technique of arranging rows after rows, it was also an attempt of experimenting with the traditional space painting approaches. The sharp peaks painted in the”Mountains and Seas” were like the thorns in my life, so after drawing the thorns “out”, I felt much better than before. The Scenic Spot was the work I’ve just started to work on. This work was inspired by the Taihang Mountain and the Sanya Forest Park that I go for sketching a while ago. Mountains performed in the Chinese ancient painting were mostly innominate ones, but nowadays, most of our painting elements were taken from the scenes spots. Therefore, the work was done. What satisfied me more were the little person standing on the bridge and the viewing platform they were more appealing to me according to my aesthetic standard.
The Scenic Spot was the work I’ve just started to work on. This work was inspired by the Taihang Mountain and the Sanya Forest Park where I went sketching once a while ago. Mountains depicted in Chinese ancient painting were mostly unidentified ones but nowadays, most of our painting elements are from scenic spots. What satisfied me most about this work was the little person standing on the bridge and the viewing platform, they were more appealing to me and my aesthetic standard.
Cleo: Among all these works, which one do you like best? and why? What has inspired you to create it?
CHEN: I used to like Settled to Look On the Emerging Clouds most because it has my mood and status during my vacation. In addition, because it took a while to paint, it has collected various elements of different painting techniques or languages making it more complete. Whereas now, my favourite is the Viewing Platform, and later, I would like to keep adding the element of the small person depicted in the painting. In terms of inspiration, I admire the brushstrokes of Western oil paintings. I also like Baroque and Impressionist paintings, so later I may enrich my paintings with these sorts of references.
Cleo: I found that these works were very different from the previous sketches, so do you want to go into the field of contemporary art later? If so, which sort of art theme do you want to focus on?
CHEN: I am longing to go into contemporary art. Chinese landscape paintings mainly emphasising the looks of paintings, sometimes I get tired of this aesthetic, so I want to make my pictures look like works that focus on our contemporary world and which cares more about the different meanings of our lives.
European artists such as Gerhard Richter and Anselm Kiefer both suffered a lot during childhood, so their artworks can be viewed as giving us a sense of reflection, guilt, or anger, which are really powerful ideas to convey. However, I am living a normal life, so I often feel that my paintings are too mediocre. I tried living in an intense and extreme manner, but I found it hard for me to use painting to record my reality and ideas. As a result, I may still focus on the expression in the picture itself at the moment.
At present, I still want to imitate more iconic paintings and many contemporary paintings are inspired by ancient themes. Like Lei XU, an artist who aims to promote the spatial feelings expressed in Chinese Landscape Paintings and his paintings are very novel by use of this method. I see this as a great example of a method for generating a symbiosis between the contemporary and the traditional. I thought a lot about this recently, and I feel there are many different potential ways I can pursue these ideas.
Cleo: How does the pandemic impact your art creation?
CHEN: The pandemic presented me with some barriers, and this period also represents my Pivot from undergraduate to postgraduate. Before the pandemic, I lived carefree like being in an ivory tower, but I was forced to pivot to become pragmatic and think about how to make money because my family was suffering from financial pressure.
In response, I developed my learning to focus more on which styles were popular in national exhibitions, and drawing more completely, in order to find a job. Owing to the fact that holding a solo exhibition or academic exhibition was not as convenient as the national exhibitions, I also thought about developing a fixed painting language at this time. It was a hard period, and I found that I work that I once felt satisfied with later revealed itself to me as something which was not what I wanted or intended to produce. Therefore, I had to adapt again to focus on my mood and surroundings, and I’m trying to let myself be satisfied in any given situation.
Cleo: Has your perception of art been changed now since the pandemic, and can you talk about these changes?
CHEN: At first, I did not think too much about art, it was just something aesthetic. This thought shifted changed during my second year of high school, though, when I went to the Chinese Academy of Fine Art High School. During my studies, I discovered that Art has a huge impact on our society and does so in a lot of amazing ways, for example, in Western Art history, there is the impact of the Renaissance, Romanticism, etc. To my surprise, Chinese Art had a period of realism, similar to this, which also left behind a positive legacy. I also came to feel the Religious power involved in art when I took up my studies. As for contemporary art, I am developing a technique whereby I try to make my work reflect society from an artistic, aesthetic point of view.
Cleo: Do you think art will be predominantly online after this period? What is the relationship between technology and art in your opinion?
CHEN: There are many more online exhibitions and each one keeps getting better than the last. And also, the maturity of online art courses is helpful for art’s dissemination.
On the relationship between art and technology, the development of photography has helped art’s development rather than just being a tool of recording a moment and has contributed to art technologically. For instance, an example from history, the moment of the ballerina lifting her leg in Degas‘s painting, The Ballet Class (La Classe de danse), was probably aided with the help of a camera. The printing technique produced photo albums which helped art’s education a lot. So, to end and, in my opinion, the development of technology has smashed down barriers to aid art’s development and I think this will continue.
OCAT Shenzhen x OCT Art & Design Gallery OCAT深圳 x 华 · 美术馆
“Decentralization” is a different attempt of this project from the past. “What’s Started and What’s Ended” Series 2020 Special Public Project provides an open and empathetic platform for the public to discuss four issues related to the epidemic in the “O₂ Online Chat.” “Design Notebook” used poster design techniques to record the five keywords raised from the conversation. “Collaborative Writing” guides two groups of writers to express their ideas through relay writing freely.
From a macro perspective, the digital tendency of our world might be the most apparent turn involved in all walks of life, including public education. Therefore, R-Lab invited the members working in the same field of public education but from different popular institutions in China. They would like to share their Pivot-related thoughts from dimensions of individuals, project creators, and Art partitioners of the industry. This would include: the personal pivot as art practitioners, the context of the project, how to balance its publicity and professional, the relation between physical and digital, and suggestions for young people who aimed to engage in public education.
OCT Contemporary Art Terminal (OCAT Shenzhen) and OCT Art & Design Gallery are famous contemporary art museums in Shenzhen, operated by Overseas Chinese Town Group (OCT). OCAT Shenzhen was established in 2005. It is located in Shenzhen OCT-LOFT. It is the earliest institution in the OCAT art museums that also opened in Beijing, Shanghai, Wuhan, and Xian. OCT Art & Design Gallery, established in 2008, adjacent to He Xiangning Art Museum, is the first art museum focus on design and experimental art in China.
CHEN: At that time, we had to embrace the internet to express various emotions and attend events. On account of that, we felt like the project should be transformed to make room for the public, like giving a place for people to speak. There was nothing special, we were in a constricted state at that point in time.
LIU: I felt like everything was nonsense at that moment.
WU: As it was the time for Chinese New Year, but everyone was staying at home with only few tasks to do. My mind felt a little bit scattered because I was being faced with too many intense news updates everyday.
What’s more, as we were with our family, we would watch the news on TV a lot. The updates on pandemic situation and the statistical figures appeared on all the different channels all the time. There were not just announcements about the spread of infection, there were also some reports of improvements we had made. For instance, doctors from hospitals all over the country went to Wuhan (the city which suffered the most from the pandemic) to give assistance, or the people in Shandong who delivered tons of food to Wuhan. This kind of solidarity provided us with warm and positive new updates.
At the same time, various independent sources exploded with negative information on Weibo or WeChat (digital social platforms in China). They were saying that the reports on TV were fake, that the reality was the complete opposite. So, when I read these two opposing pieces of information, I was very confused and felt split when thinking: “What was the truth? How reliable are these reports?” Then I became a little anxious and struggled during that period of time. However, this wasn’t that obvious when it came to work.
LIU: In fact, everyone was on vacation in those days, and we didn’t know when we could get back to work. We could get the news through digital platforms which always kept updating every day. Gradually, there were some institutions or individuals trying to do something through their official accounts online. For example, PSA (The Power Station of Art) began a project about morning reading. Whereas, from my position, things like morning reading was just an adjustment for everyone. In addition to receiving news everyday, we received other content but what else could be given to the public to comfort them in this pandemic?
刘阳：其实当时的情况就是大家都在放着假嘛，你也不知道什么时候能回去。你能看到一方面是网络平台的那些消息，一个接一个新的过来，就每天都感觉不一样。慢慢地开始有一些机构，或者是有一些个体，他们也在通过公众号什么的做一些事情。比如说PSA（上海当代艺术博物馆, 英文名为Power Station of Art）做的晨读，随后晚一点也有找设计师做海报设计。可能就像晨读这种东西，我觉得像是一个对大家的一种调剂，就是每天我们除了接收，你全身心的接收这些新闻，或者是各种各样的一些消息之外，然后我还有什么东西能够给到大家一些安慰？
Actually, during that time, many people read more books. For example, readings about philosophy, history or even the plague. It seemed that everyone was pursuing something. Not just reading, there were also people learn to cook, etc. There were too many aspects of our lives that we had no time to pursue and enjoy during the normal, busy time and, so, these things were brought back to us as part of our adjustment to the pandemic pause, even in the very limited indoor space.
At this time, no one specifically said that we should keep working. This might be because we could not all handle our own situation well at that moment but what could we do to overcome these problems? And how? We could only leave a blank space after these questions. The only thing that might be a reliable solution was keeping calm and thinking, not rushing to act, probably most people were thinking this same thing. Many artists felt that art could not play a practical role within this situation. They had no idea how to respond to that.
I think for arts organisations, some of them were trying to do something. But things of the same kind as before the pandemic were meaningless. And if it acts as merely a calming effect, it can actually be replaced easily.
WU: There were some art institutions which started to publish information online to continue their work at the very beginning of the pandemic. The PSA was one of these institutions which has done quite well and attracted a lot of attention. The project they kept publishing was called the Pandemic Prevention Plan. Some of the content was readings, while other parts involved learning about collections and collaborating with designers. Therefore, when we came to think of our project, maybe just like what Liu said before, we needed to think about how to deal with this kind of new situation and what we could do more effectively because everyone has just experienced a a major disruption or only a small portion of restored reality.
It was the end of March last year when we all returned to Shenzhen to meet up. We sat together face-to-face, had a brainstorm and then communicated together. Our method was to gather all of our feelings and thoughts during the pandemic, and then sort them out. In order to do this, we have held several meetings, some lasting a whole afternoon and, during these meetings, we started to recall and organise those thoughts and memories.
The PSA Series project of Storing Electricity, Smiling, and Getting Together again-from Valentine’s Day to Arbor Day online activities (including the morning reading and the PSD of Pandemic Prevention Plan mentioned above)
Cleo: China has basically returned to normal now, so what have you found as the main change in your personal experience or discovery in this period?
CHEN: Do you mean to say what kind of feelings did we have in the process of returning from the previous online state to the physical world, yes?
CHEN: In fact, I don’t think we have completely returned to normal but have partially transformed into a hybrid form. I say this because, when we were doing public projects, we would still first consider online spaces and platforms. For instance, what are the advantages of doing things online and what new things it could link us to. In terms of the physical world, we would pay more attention to what kind of projects were more suitable for developing in person. Now we had another channel of digital approach, and it was quite convenient for cross-domain or cross-regional programmes. Accordingly, there was already a little part of the physical world which had already been transformed into a digital medium.
WU: If you look at this offline and online problem after more than a year, it is really just a formal problem. At the beginning, everyone might pay more attention to offline activities or exhibitions that are closed, so is that art activity is stagnant, or it has become necessary to use online methods, which is a substituted method, to achieve part of the programme or exhibition.
At the beginning, there were some concerns as well as some technical and platform related problems which needed to be solved. Looking back now after more than a year, it is just a formal channel. It depends on what the project is about, and then you have decide whether to do it online or offline. Many programmes or exhibitions are now combined online and offline. If you are offline, you will have a sense of presence. You can notice the expressions and movements of the guest, and you can communicate with them more directly. This is the advantage of the physical, real world scene. I think online has its benefits, and I find that online audiences are more willing to be more expressive. They may be more willing to ask questions that are not easy to ask offline because there is only one screen-name online, or I can’t see the face of the person or hear their voice, so I would be more willing to throw out my own questions and communicate with guests. This is a very good point that I recently discovered.
LIU: Thoughts and changes brought about by the pandemic still exist now. It has proven to be very hard to gain a consensus from the public. However, after this period, our sense of some problems or phenomena have become more and more intensified. This has also continued until now. When we are talking with the public about some of these issues, this is actually a bit of a minefield that was easy to make mistakes with, so we should pay more attention to these issues. Consequently, there is a phenomenon that things which used to be easily set aside have become intensified and can create ambiguity. It is more difficult for people to have a rational discussion during the current situation.
Another thought is our role as the art museum. Actually, there was a very crucial point in the process of creating this new project. During our preparation, we always felt that the pandemic was about to pass, but we never knew what was going to happen the next day. This was the reason we did not act quickly, and in fact, our actions to it were not prioritized. I felt that I didn’t see it clearly at the time, so when we came back to work, there was a realistic question: how do you reappear as an art institution to the public now?
I don’t think we can act as if no pandemic happened and reopen an exhibition that had been closed just like we’re back to normal, as well as restarting the other related activities. Ignoring it seems to cover up too much from this specific period and it doesn’t empathise with the public. So, this was one of our motivations to create this public project. Even until now, what we have in common in doing public projects is that after some things happen, it is difficult to argue with each other from different positions; if something has been experienced together, there will be a common understanding or overview. I may not need to say anything in fact, everyone can already understand.
When we were doing this project, we took an empathetic view of what the people might need. Therefore, we have made the project have a change of focus. As a result of being over saturated with information, this may stop people from thinking their own thoughts on it. What appeared most from the public were the voices of different people, leaders, or other artists and designers, telling everyone how they were thinking and living. In fact, it was nothing different from others, and I couldn’t see anything particularly unique. As a result, we wanted to give the right to narration and communication to ordinary people. Actually, with so much emphasis on sharing these thoughts, the desire to talk about them gets weaker, but it doesn’t disappear completely. Even in this state, it exists and just needs an opportunity to be expressed. That is how this project started.
When it was completed, we gained much more confidence. I felt that we all could have some discussions restrainedly, and people did want to express their perspectives. This also reflected that the young people nowadays were getting more interested in being vocal and it is something they need to do. A project like this was new for us, a kind of test. Consequently, when we do projects later, we would consider about how could normal people be involved and whether they might need a space of participation. I think the project was affecting all of us simultaneously more or less.
WU: When I was preparing for this interview, I also liked this “decentralisation” idea the most. In fact, this was also reflected by the following question 5 (Question 5-Have you ever thought about what effect or impact this project was trying to achieve?). The OCAT Shenzhen Pavilion has rarely done such activities before. Previously, we used to do more like professional forums or lectures which were academic, rather than some activities closely connected with the audience. In this term, holding the “O2 chat room” last year was also a beginning. Because as usual, whether we were generating reports, exhibitions, or listening to some lectures and forums in the library, it was all knowledge-based sharing with the unidirectional outputting method. The role of the audiences was always very passive, even the section of mutual communication was also around the theme set by the speaker, or the content mentioned before.
When designing the O2 chat room, we intended to only provide a platform and topics that everyone could discuss. Our role was to lead and connect. Just focusing on encouraging the audience to share, tell, and discuss with each other. We had also found the results amazing during the course of four games. Every scene there would be audiences sharing spontaneously, especially during the last two games. Although they didn’t know each other and could only talk through the audios, they still discussed a lot. With regard to the common experiences and feelings between everyone, they did give each other some opinions or suggestions. In conclusion, it was an incredible experience.
CHEN: Every stage the audience participated in was great, including the overall investment and their attention to the public issues. Since it was during the pandemic, it would cause everyone’s thinking to pay more attention to their surrounding environment and the wider context. Because the pandemic contained so many different factors, we’ve selected four main directions that we thought were suitable… (The directions mentioned above were the four themes of the O2 chat room: 1 . When the Internet has become the only thing we have. 2. Public communicating space and independent thinking; 3. Another eye; 4. Tearing and Recovering)
WU: Actually, there were a few great topics that everyone wanted to talk about.
CHEN: They effected everyone’s thoughts, that is, everyone could have something to add. Correspondingly, Consequently, we had a space that didn’t call on anyone specifically, but focused on public discussion. The guests involved were happy to participate by sharing and discussing these with each other. As a consequence of this virtual and online status, everyone could express it even more. The physical social pressure had gone, which could let them be more relaxed.
LIU: I totally agreed with selecting these themes for the chat room and we’ve paid a lot of attention to them. It’s not only about empathizing with audiences, but also about the problems exposed during this and the experience of this current situation that is the focus of our institution. The four themes formed an organic combination, all of them were necessary and representative. Regarding these arrangements, WU is being modest. We’ve made lots of arrangements of the context, it isn’t necessarily about finding only the right guests, you also have to make sure the form of dialogue and communication is right.
I remember at the time we considered which theme should come first, how to cut into the topic suitably, gently, influentially, and effectively, in a way that had the potential to be expanded on, or even which part to talk about at which point, etc. The project was actually arranged by considering about emotion and rhythm.
In addition, if you wanted to mobilize everyone to discuss actively, it’s actually not that simple to facilitate the chat. We’ve even made an Excel form for prearrangement which everyone signed up to, this helped to understand everyone’s situation or what they might want to express, etc. The preparation that everyone can participate in this project, and discussion can cover everyone, when to introduce what kind of topic, who is next to respond, who is the one to share their stories. These are all are related. When you ask a question, many Chinese audiences don’t answer it immediately or in detail. So we need to guide them to offer more details in the project and to help them to express their thoughts.
It’s also not enough just to let everyone discuss with each other, because the audience actually came to learn something. Thus, where this might come from? On the one hand, we did have very insightful audiences, on the other hand, we actually had done a lot of research. We also needed to prepare the propositions, to provide everyone with something to expand on, or create space to think more about the topics. We even interviewed different people about the questions of “Public Space and Independent Thinking”, some things were not easy to discuss, and some people knew a lot but they wouldn’t like to speak out. We also found someone in the press and communicated with them behind the scenes, and then went to analyze with everyone at the site of the project to let audiences realize how would people with that backgrounds face these problems with their judgments and so on. In fact, there were still a lot of things we didn’t cover.
And I was quite satisfied with the “joint writing”. In fact, it had already been done by others before, but it was really suited to our context, like everyone could erase and overthrow each other more dynamically.
But the rule we made at the time was that everyone could not change what the former said, but they could create their own space freely. It could be treated as a mirror image of the real society, like how would we express our opinions on the basis of respecting the thoughts of others. We should still have our own attitude.
However, there were still regrets. It was something we discussed after the text was finished, it was because of the rules we laid down that the audiences were not allowed to change the prior person’s opinion. Despite not being able to change what the previous person had said, if someone was very good at observing the relationship in society, people’s way of thinking, and human nature from the perspective of writing, then he could also see the relationship between people in the process of self-expression. Therefore I always thought: could we tell what everyone was trying to do from the text? They were always trying to confirm the previous one. Hence, it’s not just about a confirmation of the relationship between the front and back ends. It could have been that the second-to-last person disagreed with the person in the middle, so had taken over an answer. Then how could he use his own way to connect several previous stories to complete the whole round? There would be a lot of identities and disagreements involved, and also recognition of others’ expression. I thought that if someone could do this kind of research or analysis, it must be quite interesting. The disappointment was that we did not have time to explore this during that time.
Cleo: The project was still very close to the audience, which was not the same as the previous lectures and forums. In your opinion, how could you balance the popularization and professionalism of public projects?
CHEN: We could neither purely allow one way of doing something that the audience must accept, nor could be completely without guidance and clues. The two states must occur simultaneously, including the interaction and the later status of audiences’ participation which could actually form feedback. It may affect your future plans, or the directions you want to explore.
WU: What kind of activities an art museum does, whether it is more professional or more connected to the audience, are connected to its position. This will depend on how the art gallery positions itself. Whether it’s more professional or community-oriented that has a closer relationship with residents, or is it more focusing on children like A4(an institution). Even if the position of an institution is biased, it should take into account a wider group of people too. I think we need to consider about the audience, they should participate or have a certain connection with the project, as well as interactivity.
LIU: That point is great. In the field of public education, we can feel a sense of unity. It’s like on one aspect art museums were saying that public education was very important. On the other one, the resources available to these museums were very limited. Thirdly, we could find that most of the projects may be the public guided tours for special groups of people, such as children’s education, that’s all the most obvious thing.
What you had just talked about reminds me of this problem, I think the reasons might be: First of all, people working in public education should know to what extent the problem was in their own knowledge structure. When it came to the balancing problem, you needed to have to be able to go deeper yourself, then take a simple matter from this as a goal. You must consider different audiences and adjust to their knowledge level in different ways. But as a working individual, whether it was about the problem itself, or the ideas and the Art world, you should always have professional requirements for yourself.
I don’t think that it is a service relationship with the curator of the exhibition, or what you need to do is to explain or make efforts in simple terms. You have to consider a complex issue first, and then consider how to present this for different levels of understanding. We all should have this ability to adjust to their abilities.
CHEN: I don’t think I can be included in that. (Laughs) I feel that everyone’s demands are still very different. When they were complaining about things whether from the institutional or structural constraints, or the direction and philosophy of their work, they didn’t actually understand it. At that time, it was obvious that everyone was doing various things, including inside of the institutions and outside. At that time, many of the people who participated were from the National Art Gallery or local museums. In fact, everyone did much of the same. It seems that I didn’t want to break through the siege, or to have a new direction of exploration.
We shared the project (In)finite Museum Night at the time. Everyone thought it was good and we did a good job by exploring that direction. However, things like this do happen relatively rarely in art museums and institutions. No one has the intention of developing a new direction. This thinking sometimes prevents actions. It has a lot to do with the awareness of the staff in each agency.
LIU: Public projects are not superficial. There are various kinds of various groups in the public community. If you really want to engage with the public, you may have to be flexible and able to meet the needs of people at different levels. Some people require more advanced engagement, while others are easier. Even just in terms of self-demand, we should at least be able to do this.
So in the process of creating O2 chat room as we said earlier, we couldn’t just stop at letting everyone talk to each other, we still had to do things that could improve and enhance the projects. This is related to our consciousness.
WU: Public projects are quite two-sided. It is necessary to connect with the exhibition and research departments to discuss the exhibitions or research projects together, and know what the concept and topic the curator is trying to convey. Then we have to come to the following consideration of what kind of professional forums or lectures we need to output, and also consider the diversity of the public and what they can accept. Although what we do is to contact the public community more, we would also collect professional concepts and ideas to support it, and we would still throw out some content and information. As for whether the audience could accept or realise these points or not, it’s also a point that we shouldn’t ignore when planning or considering projects.
Cleo: What kind of changes have taken place in the domestic public education industry or the entire art museum group during the pandemic?
WU: Obviously, we’ve all turned our attentions and work online.
CHEN: And at that time, many people were discussing issues around the pandemic, whether to do exhibitions or not. The pandemic topic was even included in the official needs. Despite the pandemic period I wanted to meet the situation head on and I wanted to make things happen quickly, this needed to be done effectively. The entire art museum industry actually had devices and mechanisms for this. It has completely turned to cope with the conditions of the pandemic. However, we still chose the topics we were most concerned about and put them into practice.
LIU: In fact, it is not only for the public education. The public education was most obviously the online one, but there was not only us. We were all the same. As for the art industry, everyone was aware that when we had no way to link with foreign artists and treated them as the main body of art, a lot of artistic creation and artistic attention turned to be internal. One way was the cooperation with domestic artists, and the other was the re-exposure of locality. It was the field of observation within which we currently work in. This was quite obvious and was including artistic creation and the project itself. Like communities and local discoveries, these two directions should continue to accumulate in hot spots. In the past, people regarded this kind of project as something that was done by artists, for the public, and cared about the relationship with the public. Some artists lived in another art system and totally didn’t need to think about the public. After the pandemic, public awareness has increased, and the objects of everyone’s work had been internalized. I think that the entire art world should be allowed to make public and community-based creations or projects. Then there could be more kindness and understanding. I wouldn’t divide it like I used to say, community or connected artists, I’m not that kind of person.
CHEN: At that time, I heard that because of the pandemic, the operation of MOMA was not well, so the marginal public education system staff were fired from outside. In fact, when I heard this news, I was very sad. It seemed that the channel facing the audience was the first to be targeted, we seemed to be seen as the dispensable ones. It was like a crisis of survival and at the end of the world, you were the first group of people to be left behind. This was what I thought, I don’t know, maybe from the view of the public, they might not even know what we were doing. Then I interviewed many interns and talked about that position. The first thing they talked about was exhibition, and the thing they wanted to contact most was curation. Besides those, they didn’t think about anything else in this field. I also asked them what was the role of the public in the art gallery? Or what did they know about it? They would directly say about the curation or exhibition. At present, there were still too many misunderstandings about this field in China. We are always in a marginal position.
LIU: This was more obvious before the epidemic, but it has changed after the period. In fact, the space of the “white box” (a name of the the Art institutions that hold exhibitions) has expired during the period, because there was no way for everyone to enter the space of the white box. Another experimental site during this period of time, was that everyone would find the charm of their experiments in other places, or place art back into the social scene. The vitality and possibility of this was more anticipated and more promising than the white box. Some things that couldn’t be anticipated could even inspire more new possibilities. This was being accepted in the art world, and its charm was renewed.
On the other hand, it’s about whether public projects are equivalent to curation. This is what we practitioners need to show in the creativity of public projects, and the the benefits are not less than those exhibitions at all, and could also impress the public and promote the Art creation. If this is done, everyone would realize that there are many things that could be done in this field. In the past, as CHEN said, in many organizations, there was not enough space for public projects to work independently. We are in a relatively good situation now, including the era we are in, there is also room for full absorption, including the positioning between professionalism and the public, and you can also define it through your own vision and methods. However, how to let it affect more people and get rid of stereotypes? It may depend on something that we do.
The huge difference from the West is that the West would not say that publicity is not only important, but a very important part in the entire system and social fundraising. Actually, when discussing the concept of “public” in China, it is actually more about getting close to the meaning of Western society. However, there are many differences within the inner logic between public education in Western countries and China, so there must be some bluntness to this. Therefore, we still need to combine our own background and situation, and have our own ideas and identification for specific goals.
Cleo: I also followed some activities of art museums, and I really feel that they have shifted from physical artworks to the spread of online artistic thoughts. It feels that public education has become more important. Then I would like to ask what do you think of the relationship between online platforms and physical space?
LIU: They are not a relationship of reflection either. That is, online is the digital community, and offline is the physical space. Facing with different dimensions, there must be different goals and different methods. Advantages WU and CHEN have mentioned are that they could be connected to a wider network, and cross the physical distance to achieve exchanges within a wider coverage. To a certain extent, it has returned to the blueprint that the Internet originally gave to the world— we could achieve an unhindered communication. In fact, it is true that there are some issues that are not easy to implement physically, but if they are online, there will be a digital space, and then more people from different regions could have the opportunity to participate remotely.
CHEN: It is not only about real-time state, but also the state of knowledge sharing. Just like the contribution and knowledge-sharing status emphasized by the early founders of the World Wide Web, comparing with this, offline might be a bit more conservative. Whereas, they are not in an antagonistic relationship.
CHEN: Right. It depends on it and what field the object needs. There is choice to make or it may be a combination of online and offline.
LIU: Current blockchain, digital art.
CHEN: About decentralisation.
LIU: Yes, as a financial investment approach, a brand-new product has been made with the help of online platforms. It’s about how you use the line as a space or parallel world, in which many possibilities might occur. Regardless of whether this thing is being used as art or as an investment, just on its own, it shows how you understand online channels, which is another field of your work, and a world in which art may emerge. If you want to go deeper, there are lots of things worth exploring.
CHEN: This is what happens from using a certain medium, but it’s like that when it comes to relationships.
Cleo: The last question, do you have any suggestions for young people who aim to work in the field of public education?
CHEN: Firstly, figure out what you want to do. (Laughs) It’s really important. And you need to prepare to be an all-rounder, because you need to do everything, from beginning to end, from scratch to establishing.
LIU: In terms of the direction we are doing now, the requirements of comprehensive abilities are still very strict. At the same time, it may not be as simple as the exhibition department producing several exhibitions during the year. You need to have ability of both dealing with extended issues and working with ideas and specific goals. And everyone is also interspersed with each other, so you have to deal various things simultaneously with flexibility. To ensure these, the personal professional ability is still needed.
In terms of this point, if you want to achieve flexibility in public projects, you not only need to have related knowledge, but also need to have the ability to transform the project. If you only stay at the surface level, or you couldn’t go deep into the artistic dialogue, or you just only take it as social services, these are all treated as limitations to public projects. You may prevent other possibilities of the social elements to art.
But having said that, this is still very ideal. It does not mean that there are all the same cases in every organization. You have to look at it according to the needs of the institution, and also the needs of your own position. It is also helpful to do audience surveys and research. The core is still to have the ability of promoting and innovating. This is required regardless of the career.
CHEN: The work of public education is also changing as time goes by. Including the things you care about, or whether you are in contact with the exhibition, or the exploration in the network of your own development, no matter the medium of expression, the topics being discussed, or the people involved, they are always changing. Public education is changing along with the change of perception of society.
“During the pandemic, I was able to focus on my own research, which resulted in a new dimension to the painting series I am now working on.”
Natalia is a Spanish artist focusing on adapting traditional techniques and formats from icon paintings. Through this, she explores the traces we have been left with from traditions that have prevailed over mainland Europe for centuries and their capacity to continue to exist through time. She is also the co-director of Subsidiary Projects, an artist-led space to promote the work of emerging artists.
The names would be abbreviated as “Isabel” (Isabel DIERINGER) and “Natalia” (Natalia GONZÁLEZ MARTÍN).
Isabel: How did you organise your work and life during the pandemic?
Natalia: With the lockdown measures, many artists weren’t able to access their studios, which has translated into adapting our domestic spaces and consequently our practice, to create. In my case, the main difference is in the scale of the work, which has been reduced considerably to fit in my home studio.
Isabel: What is different from before the pandemic?
Natalia: Before we could discuss our work and other artists’ IRL, now studio visits have been reduced to zoom calls which isn’t the best tool for the appreciation of some mediums. That dialogue has been lost in some ways but enhanced in others. Instead of discussing the work itself, I find myself sharing tips or advice with other artists that I haven’t even meet in person yet – however, I am eager to be able to see art in person again and talk about more formal elements.
Isabel: What is the biggest change you have been through or found? In other words, what is your Covid-pivot?
Natalia: Isolation has brought a lot of introspection for everyone, now that my time wasn’t packed with different events or appointments constantly I have been able to focus a great part of my day on research, which has really given a new dimension to this new series I am working on.
Isabel: What is your most proud creation since the pandemic started?
Natalia: For the past two years, I have been developing the same series of work, however, I am currently working on the development of a solo presentation and creating new pieces where all of these ideas meet.
Natalia: The works for this particular exhibition which will take place in September have been in the making since November 2020. I have been able to explore the ideas and subjects that I had been developing during the past years.
Natalia: It has been an exploration of Spain and its traditions. I have been visiting old photographs, stories, folk songs to develop these. During a time where I could not visit my family and my country, this series of work has been almost therapeutic.
Isabel: Has the pandemic had an impact on your work/work plan? (Was there any change in your thinking focus?)
Natalia: I have always balanced my practice with another job, but with the money, I was saving from not having a studio I decided to focus solely on my art career. This has been the best decision I could have taken as my work has evolved much quicker than it would have if I had had a part-time job. It is not easy to do this and in my case, I needed the world circumstances to change in order to take this step.
Isabel: If this applies, is there any funding for freelancers or artists in your city or in your country?
Natalia: The Arts Council has offered a lot of support for artists and art organisations during this time. Galleries, art magazines and other organisations have also been incredibly supportive by offering grants, free studio spaces or exhibiting opportunities.
Isabel: Have your feelings about art now changed from your first encounters with it, or rather before the pandemic? If so, how?
Natalia: The pandemic has allowed me to realise the importance of a strong online presence. Social media has been key to connect with galleries, artists and collectors from all over the world, which helps expand our networks.
Isabel: Do you think the arts will mostly remain/move online after the pandemic?
Natalia: I still believe it is important to experience art in person, some art mediums cannot be translated to an online format, however, some artists have evolved their practices to fit the digital realm, a very clear example of this are NFTs, and the hunger for innovative digital proposals is undeniable.
Isabel: How do you see the relationship between technology and art?
Natalia: This pandemic has definitely changed the way we approach art and technology, the differences between the two have become more blurry and I think this is a great opportunity towards a more 21st-century approach to art and its market.
During the pandemic, Lulu created two sets of photographs. 2020 is her hope to preserve this special memory through images to keep everyone from forgetting it and, if possible, to pass on the memory and with the images to those who will come after. At Home was created because, during the pandemic, time spent alone became more frequent and all the senses heightened, details not normally noticed were magnified and recorded
The names would be abbreviated as “Christy” (Christy YANG) and “Lulu” (Lu CHEN).
Christy: How did you organise your work and life during the pandemic? How was it different from before the pandemic?
Lulu: My work and life were basically integrated, but during the pandemic, I was more regular and disciplined than before.
Christy: What changes have you experienced or noticed? What do you think was the turning point for you during the pandemic?
Lulu: The change in my life leading to the search for new work possibilities, the first two changes have made me feel that the present moment is more important than any other moment. I spent more time alone, had more limited space to move around and started to focus more on reading and thinking.
Christy: What does this series of work mean to you?
Lulu: It means that I can remind myself to be a person with a memory imprint. To remind me to think independently and to remain rational and human.
Christy: Has the pandemic had any impact on your work/work schedule?
Lulu: My workload has decreased and has only recently recovered.
Christy: How do you feel about photography now compared to your first encounter with it, or to before the pandemic? How has it changed?
Lulu: I think it has changed from just recording and outputting to a more conscious output. I can observe, feel and experience more deeply before outputting, and I value the number of times I press the shutter more.
“Lockdown opened a shut door and I began looking for space which led me to an abandoned chemical site in town that offered affordable spaces to small businesses and individuals. I went from a dark small cellar room to a 12m high and over 100m² big space within a subculture of individuals who are pursuing their dreams.”
Kira is a Swiss/Danish artist based in Zurich who holds regular exhibitions at Galerie Wehrli. She focuses on urban and landscape painting, inspired by the instant moment. “I work horizontally, as the paint flows with the intent of two worlds: from a distance, it’s nearly photographic; from up close, there is chaos and it’s abstract.” Her traditional subjects clash with the metallic material that stands as a metaphor for light.
Kira 是一名现居于苏黎世的瑞典艺术家，其曾在基尔希画廊多次举办个展。 “我个人的绘画创作主要以城市和自然景观的主题，这些创作的主要灵感来自于瞬息之间的感触。远看，这个世界是十分具象且固态的，但近看，却又尽是游离与喧嚣；我的创作意图去把握这两者之间的关系与节奏，并流连其中。我欲以金属去冲击那些传统的主题，并以某种光的隐喻为身份进行存在。”
Going the opposite direction 逆行
In the years after art school, I had an independent studio in London, Denmark and Madrid. When we moved to Zurich our family situation and property prices meant that I had my workspace in the cellar of our rental home. I have been living, working and perfecting the “home office“ over the last 18 years while exhibiting regularly with a Gallery in Zurich.
And then Corona happened. With everyone around me moving in, my carefully constructed border between my art world and my everyday life started to blur, slowly paralyzing my creative process. However, the Lockdown opened a shut door and I began looking for space which led me to an abandoned chemical site in town that offered affordable spaces to small businesses and individuals. I went from a dark small cellar room to a 12m high and over 100m2 big space within a subculture of individuals who are pursuing their dreams. While Corona forced people into the home office it felt I was going in the opposite direction. As I draw my inspiration for my paintings from the outside world (which wasn’t available in lockdown) I started looking inwards, visiting and reworking themes from my past.
My planned exhibition in the gallery in Zurich got cancelled. In spite of having an ambiguous relationship with marketing myself (leaving that job to my gallery and agent), I began to post my work on social media. New and old collectors started to show interest in my work and the new loft studio, which led to sales and commissions. Although I’ve not quite yet arrived in the NFT world.