Inside-Out Practice|Series of interviews with authors from Yishu #2

Julie Chun

Julie Chun is an American Art Historian of Korean ethnicity based in Shanghai since 2011, where she has been critically observing and documenting the growth of the art world in Shanghai. Beginning in 2013 to present, she serves as the Art Convener of the Royal Asiatic Society China where she devotes her time to expanding the public’s understanding of artistic objects, past and present through monthly public forums where no two events have been the same. Her personal research interrogates the social value and worth of Chinese contemporary art in society and its aspects of publicness and relational engagement. She lectures frequently for various foreign associations in Shanghai, including the foreign Consulate General offices and is currently an adjunct professor of Art History for the Global Institute at East China Normal University. She has taught previously for International Study Abroad programs at Donghua University and Shanghai University of Finance and Economics. She remains a regular contributor to Yishu Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art since 2014 and her art reviews and criticisms have been published in academic and art journals in China and internationally, including the Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art, the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society China, British Council NOW, LEAP, ArtReview Asia, Art Forum China, Randian, Shanghai Daily, among others.

1. What is your story with Yishu journal?  When did you start writing for Yishu?

I was first introduced to my first Yishu Journal assignment and to Keith Wallace through Diana Freundl whom I had the good graces to meet when she was residing in Shanghai. Diana had just left China to take on her curatorial role at the Vancouver Art Gallery and connected me with Keith for a museum writing assignment. At the time I was working as an Adjunct Professor at Jiao Tong University teaching Chinese Art History and as a freelance art critic for Randian. The prospect of an in-depth research to cover the opening of the Long Museum West Bund allowed me the proper time and framework to examine the various operational and curatorial aspects of not only one but two branches of the Long Museum located in Pudong and West Bund with a critical gaze. This review was published in Sept/Oct 2014, Volume 13, Number 5, and I have been writing consistently for Yishu since then. Working in close dialogue with Keith as well as the two editors and the kind staff Chenyi and Lara as well as the firm support ofMr. Zheng Shengtian has been one of my career highlights, which I look forward to sustaining with the new Editors-in-Chief Diana Freundl and Rebecca Catching.


2. How many articles have you published in Yishu?  What are they about?

I have published 16 articles for Yishu thus far and I am currently working on my 17th article. Most of my articles have resulted from concrete ideas I pitched (and often had to defend why it was important) to Keith Wallace, my long-timeEditor-in-Chief. I am extremely grateful that Yishu is open to suggestions for articles about Chinese artists working in the periphery who are experimental and under the mainstream radar. Since I am based in Shanghai and can attend last minute exhibitions and ad hoc performances, my advantage has been having my eyes and ears on the ground of the local art scene that take place outside institutional spaces.

I feel compelled and am quite passionate about following artists and exhibitions on a long-term basis rather than a single encounter. The majority of the artists I have written about, I have stalked his/her practice for about 2-7 years. Similarly, with exhibition reviews, I make it a point of going back more 3 times or more when I am writing about it.

My personal self-funded research for 7 years has been observing and documenting public formats of art in Shanghai, especially socially engaging practices in alternative or self-organized spaces. These spaces and happenings tend to be ephemeral and some are not well documented. Thus, those generally outside of Shanghai and China would have little knowledge about what had occurred. It is truly my belief that many of these self-organized exhibitions and endeavors have been instrumental in shaping the discourse of contemporary art of Shanghai in the last decade, which I was able to witness, record and archive first-hand since 2011 to present. Unfortunately in the past 3 years, the majority of the alternative sites have been shut down or disbanded so I feel grateful that I was able to capture what I could and chronicle them in Yishu.

Being on the ground, I have also had the privilege of covering the Shanghai Biennale since it moved into the precinct of the Power Station of Art in 2012. In 2012, I reviewed for another art journal but since 2014, I have reviewed each consecutive edition of the Shanghai Biennale for Yishu. By taking advantage of being on site regularly from the opening press conference through its duration of 3 months, I am able to witness the life cycle of the exhibition and observe how the biennale directly affects the viewers and local society. The aspect of direct engagement with museum audiences has been an essential aspect for me because it provides a testament to the question “who are the exhibitions for?” Many museums in China still do not conduct visitor surveys or interviews so receiving feedback from general audience members who are willing to take a moment with me to answer a few questions have been vital to understanding viewer’s reception. While some may be quite shy in discussing their opinions, I find that a great many are quite open and willing to express their opinions about contemporary art. Thus, I feel my writing assignments with Yishu involve a certain aspect of anthropological field work, to add the component of interdisciplinary study which I hope our readers and subscribers find beneficial.


3. Why do you choose to write for Yishu? In what ways do you think Yishudistinguishes itself from other art journals?  What is particularistic about Yishu?

By being based in Shanghai, I have had the wonderful opportunity to write exhibition reviews and artist profiles for many domestic and international art journals including Randian, LEAP, ArtReview, Art Forum China, the British Council, Shanghai Daily and others. But for most of these journals, there is always a definitive word count limit. Yishu has never dictated word count parameters. Excluding endnotes, the length of the articles I have written forYishu range from shortest at 3,000 words to longest at 12,000 words. There is always proper editorial oversight to ensure that superfluous writings are omitted while critical elements are emphasized. This is the strength of YishuJournal and a rare practice that is often not granted by many art journals.

In recent years when art reviews are becoming another form of press release, it is vital that Yishu grants an important platform for professional art writers to conduct proper interviews and critical studies to provide in-depth analysis that seeks to go beyond descriptive narration. When I write reviews, I feel my assessment is only one of many so it is fundamental to always incorporate the voices of the artists and curators as well as others who are involved in the process of art and exhibition production and consumption.


4. What is it like to work with Yishu’s editors?

My close working relationship with Keith Wallace has been incredibly inspiring. My messages and inquiries via email are always prompt, cordial and professional. Moreover, he has a solid way of helping me, as well as other writers, to think through dilemmas and obstacles. Oftentimes when I send him a question, he replies with more questions, which leads me to contemplate and locate the missing link that eventually becomes the connection to bridge the gaps I was struggling with.  

In addition to Keith Wallace, I am grateful to the two additional editors who also encourage me to define my writing with greater clarity. Most writers may groan when they see their draft returned with red or pink ink but I see each process as an opportunity to polish my next draft. No diamond can shine with a single round of polishing. After constructive dialogues and discussions, I feel my final article is able to gain the shimmer that can radiate to our readers. I see my relationship with Keith and my Yishu editors through this analogy where they are encouraging me to carve and polish what was initially a raw stone into a more refined final product. 


5. What is your research area?  What have you been working on recently?

As stated above, my personal research has been observing and documenting the aspect of public art, specifically alternative and self-organized art spaces, methods and socially engaging critical practices in Shanghai. Many alternative spaces are no longer extant due to the lack of funding and/or closure of buildings and sites, yet the ideals and enthusiasm for non-institutional practices remain ever present. The reality that art museums are considered non-essentials in the time of COVID pandemic serves as a good wakeup call for us to seriouslyreconsider and expand the definition of art to explore its potentials to become essential in the future.

I am currently volunteering as one of the initiators for a community-based project organized by the Rockbund Art Museum in Shanghai to provide research and networking support. If the local neighbors who reside on the same street are not entering the museum, how can we better share the essence of art by bringing art closer to their lives? This is the impetus of our Living Room (Khek Dhang Ke) project.

Through teaching art history to Chinese students at East China Normal University and Donghua University (none of whom are art students and unable to enter and attend universities in the US due to the pandemic), I am developing a new awareness and sensitivity as I interact with them about how the next generation of Chinese are formulating and perceiving the value and worth of contemporary art in society.


6. The inaugurating issue of Yishu in 2002 posed a series of questions to prominent art practitioners in Chinese contemporary art.  Now that Yishu has arrived at its milestone of 100 issues, we’d like to pose some of these questions to you: What are your thoughts regarding the situation of art and culture in China today?  What does Chinese art and culture mean to you?  What does “China” mean to you?  

This is a very relevant question for me and one that I have also been asking myself since I arrived in China in 2011. I am Asian, but not Chinese. I am ethnically Korean but American in upbringing and citizenship. Yet, I reside in Shanghai and I mostly teach and research about Chinese art. While fully bi-lingual I am still struggling with Mandarin. Yet, whether I am in Chongqing or Guangzhou, Luoyang or Shenzhen, I find ways in which the thread of China’s history is woven and even at times broken from the past to contemporary society. During school breaks, I make efforts to travel all over China including remote areas, not so much for art, but to better understand the diverse people in societies who reside in this vast country. The fact that I am an outsider is both an advantage and a disadvantage, yet one that I feel is intrinsic in allowing me to view the situation with a greater sense of objectivity than subjectivity. I can’t help but often bring an alien perspective to what may seem obvious to my Chinese colleagues and friends. By asking for clarity, there is the opportunity to reassess any situation and engage with plurality of interpretations.

My response to the situation of art and culture in China, especially in the most recent years, is that there seems to be a greater disconnect within some in the contemporary art circles and those who navigate the sphere of official art. I have observed that many Chinese artists purposely distance themselves from being labeled as “Chinese” so as to develop their global identity. Yet, I do not know if art and culture when created or produced in China can be separated from China itself. Aspects of Chinese culture are distinct from elsewhere, especially the diversity of food and the tradition of child rearing by grandparents rather than parents to at-home geriatric care.

In almost a decade I have been residing in Shanghai, there have been dramatic changes to the city, but the cultural foregrounding in China is so deep that the roots will remain firm while new branches sprout. From my observations, the majority of the Chinese students or artists who go abroad will return with broadened views and the advantage of their international education. Yet, I have witnessed that many of the returnees also comfortably ease back to the ways of their former life. Aside from those who immigrate abroad with their family as a child or were born outside of China, most Chinese prefer to congregate with those who speak the same language and share cultural affinities while studying or residing abroad. This is also true with other nationalities when they go abroad as teens or adults. Thus, to answer the question of what China means to me is not necessarily about ethnicity but the coalition of shared culture and language that unifies those within and even beyond the borders of China. In its simplest terms, it’s about identification and acceptance, which is a universal longing.


7. What are your thoughts regarding the situation of art criticism today?

Not only art but also affecting film, theater and music criticism, I do wonder if professional commentaries will die out with the expansion of social media where the general public cares more about the opinions of Influencers, KOL (Key Opinion Leaders) and Internet Celebrities. Unfortunately, there is the dull, boring and unglamorous reality to studying, research and academia, which provides a stiff competition to the sexy buzz of glamorized life that constructs and dominates popular culture. Art posts on wechat need clever designs and funny commentary for it to circulate. Many young people have now gotten to the point of bypassing texts just to flip through images. For sure, those who write and read art criticism are a minority. Yet, in this world of cacophony, I do believe a few like-minded people can gather to synch our voices in a duet or quartet. Who knows, maybe if some of us can produce a sensible and pleasing sound, some will stop and listen. Or better yet, join in so that the duet and quartet will become a choir. I believe one way we can attempt to achieve this is to inspire and nurture future scholars. I always wondered why art symposiums are for professionals and professors. Why don’t we start with mini-symposiums with fun workshops to nurture middle school and high school students and inspire them to love what we love? Why don’t we share with them the beauty of critical thinking and the ways in which the world can benefit from awareness and foster positive changes for the future?


8. Keith Wallace has posed a question in the 100th edition of Yishu, and we’d like to pose the same question to you: What are the most significant developments that have taken place in contemporary Chinese art in the past two decades in terms of the art produced and systems it functions within?

This is an extremely difficult question and one I don’t know if I am fully qualified to even answer since I have been a witness to contemporary art in China for only one and not two decades. However, having spent much of my life studying Chinese art and artifacts, I will attempt to do my best.

The main and most notable development, to me, has been the rise of females as artists and those working in the arts industry. I don’t have the data but a general observation of students and recent graduates entering entry level positions at art museums, galleries and foundations reveal that there are far greater numbers of females than males. I cannot determine for now, but I do believe this phenomenon will have some form of cause and effect in another decade or so. As to the direction and the ways in which discourse in art and exhibition making and consumption will be shaped by more females entering the art industry remains to be seen but I sincerely hope that certain energy evolving from expanded inclusion of diversity including hopefully ethnic minorities and LGBTQ+ will bring alternative discourses and fresh perspectives to contemporary art in China.

In regards to the system in which Chinese contemporary art functions, I believe artists have had to leap over higher bounds especially in regards to institutional and self- censorship than those in the US and western Europe. Yet, it is my firm belief that creativity and innovation often emerges under distressing and limiting circumstances. Art is a form of visual expression but more importantly, it’s a statement about who we are as people and society and this has been the guiding principle since all art has been contemporary in its own time. I find it promising that some of the next generation of artists and curators are quite interested in using art to find solutions to persistent problems and issues. The aspect of design is being incorporated more and more into art and architecture and the conflation of creative practices are becoming the standards of our new normal. The definition of art and artist is also expanding. Beyond designers and architects, graphics and fashion designers as well as musicians and dramatists are also entering the realm of the visual arts and there are many cross-over collaborations taking place. What used to be an inclusive realm is seeping and overlapping with another. This seems inevitable and a brighter outlook since the essence of hybridity is increasingly redefining many societies with increasing rates of inter-racial marriages and multiple categories of gender and sexual identities to re-inscribe what means to be participating agents in the 21st century.

Interview Planning: Liu Yusi, Huang Wenlong
Interview Translation:Ninjia
Proof-reading:Liu Qian, Liu Yusi, Zhang Ligeng, Huang Wenlong
Post Editing: Sun Gaorui
Design: Onion

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