Inside-Out Practice|Series of interviews with authors from Yishu #4


Pauline J. Yao is Lead Curator, Visual Art, at M+. She has held curatorial positions at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco and worked as an independent curator and writer in Beijing for six years, during which time she helped co-found the storefront art space Arrow Factory. Since joining M+ in 2012, Yao has played a leading role in building the visual art collection by overseeing and acquiring works from around Asia and beyond. She is responsible for acquisitions, research, and interpretation of Visual Art at M+, including sub-areas of Ink Art and Hong Kong Visual Culture; and serves as the co-editor of PODIUM, M+’s online publication. Recent curatorial projects include M+ Pavilion exhibitions In Search of Southeast Asia through the M+ Collections (with Shirley Surya, 2018) and Five Artists: Sites Encountered (2019). Yao is a regular contributor to Artforum International and her writings on contemporary Asian art have appeared in numerous catalogues, online publications, and edited volumes. 

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

I came to know Yishu in its early days, probably 2002 or 2003. I believe Ken Lum was still active on the editorial team then. I was working at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco at the time and specializing on contemporary Chinese art and somehow it came up on my radar, at that time there were few, if any, serious publications concerning Chinese contemporary art and I was quite hungry for information. I think my first article published in Yishu was in 2004, it was a paper from a conference in Vancouver earlier that year. 


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

I can’t remember how many articles I published over the years – there were several. Perhaps your database will tell you that better than my memory! I wrote some more scholarly or research based articles and also covered certain exhibitions of Chinese contemporary art taking place in China and in the US. I was extremely lucky and grateful to have an outlet like Yishu for my writing at this formative period in my career.


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

The main benefit of writing for Yishu was that, as a writer, you knew that you were speaking to an audience that was knowledgeable and well versed in contemporary art and in Chinese art & culture (broadly speaking). It was quite different from writing for another type of contemporary art publication in which readers would not be familiar with Asia or China much at all. It was, in some sense, like writing for one’s peers. There are some that may have felt that Chinese contemporary art was too narrow a focus but to those who know the field, it is actually quite expansive and diverse. I really appreciated the opportunity to contribute my perspective to this field and set of readers. Yishu stood out because the texts drew upon artists, artworks and events in China or Chinese speaking world but presented analysis English language material but solidly aimed.


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

The working process has been nothing but smooth and utterly professional. I have enjoyed getting to know the Yishu team over the years. 


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

My area of specialization has always been contemporary Chinese art but over the years and since joining M+ my research interests have expanded significantly to include East Asia and South & Southeast Asia. My work for M+ collections and programs has also extended internationally to a variety of regions and practices.


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?  

Over the years working in this field and with Chinese art, I find the definitions of “China” to be increasingly diffuse. There are political ways of understanding China and there are geographic ways and there are cultural ways, and these multiple understandings do not always align neatly into one thing nor should they need to. And yet at the core, there is still something known and recognized as Chinese contemporary art, which is to say that the development of contemporary art on the mainland carries a uniqueness that is not synonymous with other Chinese-speaking art worlds. 


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?

I was fortunate enough to be able to see the 2000 Shanghai Biennale – a landmark event that took place around 20 years ago. That event marked my early interest and involvement with contemporary art in China. Thinking from that moment to now, approximately two decades of time, I would say that the most important developments in contemporary Chinese art have been around exhibition making and the establishment and growth of art centers and museums for contemporary art. Twenty years ago it was almost unfathomable for members of the public to visit museums solely dedicated to contemporary art and it is the rise of these spaces that has most fundamentally changed the landscape for art production and consumption. I am a believer in making art accessible to a wide sector of the society and the developments in the museological field in China have had a tremendous and lasting impact by increasing the opportunities for artists and audiences to have meaningful experiences with art that help to re-examine their own society and their place within it.

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

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