Inside-Out Practice|Series of interviews with authors from Yishu #9

Jo-Anne Birnie-Danzker

Jo-Anne Birnie-Danzker is a curator, writer, cultural historian, and former Director and Chief Executive Officer of the Biennale of Sydney, Frye Art Museum Seattle, Museum Villa Stuck Munich, and Vancouver Art Gallery. She served as curator, co-curator and exhibition director of more than 100 exhibitions at these institutions and at Martin-Gropius-Bau and Deutsche Guggenheim in Berlin; Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago; International Center of Photography, MoMA- PS1, and Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York.

These exhibitions include The Short Century: Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa 1945–1994, guest curated by Okwui Enwezor; Shanghai Modern: 1919 – 1945 (cocurated with Ken Lum and Zheng Shengtian); and Art of Tomorrow (co-curated with Brigitte Salmen and Karole Vail).

Birnie Danzker published more than 50 books and exhibition catalogues and contributed to publications such as Muntadas: Entre / Between (Madrid: Museo Reina Sofía and Paris: Centre Pompidou); Geschlechterkampf (Städel Museum, Frankfurt), and Isamu Noguchi and Qi Baishi: Beijing 1930 (University of Michigan Museum of Art).

She has presented numerous papers at academic forums at institutions such as Central Academy of Fine Arts, Beijing; Centre for Aesthetics and Aesthetic Education, Peking University; China Academy of Art, Hangzhou; Humanities Research Centre, Australian National University; National Museum of China, Beijing; and Singapore Art Museum.

In 2015, Birnie-Danzker presented at the Third China Private Art Museum Development Forum in Yinchuan; the symposium Jewel City: Art from San Francisco’s Panama-Pacific International Exposition, de Young Museum, San Francisco, and ACAF Field Meeting: Take 3: Thinking Performance at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

In 2017, Birnie-Danzker was awarded an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts by Cornish College of the Arts, Seattle. Under her leadership, the Frye Art Museum was recognized with the prestigious Mayor’s Arts Award in the category Venture Culturalist in 2013.

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

My story with Yishu began two decades ago, in 2001, while it was still being imagined.
It was a time of intense collaboration with artist, scholar and curator Ken Lum and the late poet and curator Okwui Enwezor. Our shared subject was the rise of multifaceted Modernisms and Counter Modernisms that emerged in the twentieth century out of the ruins of colonialism. Our collective undertaking was a landmark exhibition, The Short Century.[1]

Soon after its premiere in February 2001, Ken Lum and I met in Vancouver to discuss the possibility of a new exhibition project for the Museum Villa Stuck. Our meeting began with the exciting news that distinguished artist-scholar-curator, Zheng Shengtian, would launch an English-language journal of contemporary Chinese art the following year, in 2002. Professor Zheng would serve as Managing Editor, Professor Lum as Founding Editor. The new journal, Lum explained, was inspired by Nka: Journal of Contemporary African Art, a publication that had been cofounded in 1994 by Okwui Enwezor.[2]

Lum mentioned during our meeting that the first issue of Yishu would likely focus on Modernism in Shanghai in the first half of the twentieth century, expanding on the findings of a Symposium which Zheng Shengtian co-organized in Vancouver in 1998.[3] I asked if the issue on Shanghai could be postponed? With more time, the Museum Villa Stuck could organize a modest exhibition on the subject and, perhaps, a special issue of Yishu,co-published with the Museum, could serve as a catalogue. We quickly arranged a meeting with Zheng Shengtian who embraced the idea. Three years later, our modest exhibition had become Shanghai Modern: 1919-1945, an ambitious Joint Project of the City of Munich and the City of Shanghai. The catalogue was no longer a special edition of Yishu but a 424-page book with essays by China’s leading scholars and the exhibition’s curators, Zheng Shengtian, Ken Lum, and Jo-Anne Birnie-Danzker.[4]

From my perspective at the time, the founding of Yishu and parallel realization of Shanghai Modern were inextricably bound, not only to one another but also to “the writing of new narratives and conclusions particular to the proper understanding of the twentieth century”[5] in China and abroad. The inaugural issue of Yishu in May 2002, however, laid bare inherent tensions within that perspective.

In his first editorial for Yishu, Ken Lum noted that “the view has been frequently put to me that China’s confrontation with Western Modernity resulted in a modernity quite different from that of other nations.” However, he continued, this insistence on China’s differences from the rest of the world should not “deflect from the greater common ground that China shares with Africa, the rest of Asia and the cultures of the non-European Americas.”

What is that common ground? It is an historical and cultural territory of a shared problematic relationship to the primacy of the Western narrative.[6]

In the inaugural issue of Yishu, leading Chinese artists, curators and educators expressed their resistance to the primacy of Western narratives – including those of Western artists, curators, and art historians.

Renowned artist Xu Bing, future Vice President of the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, spoke of the ability of Chinese contemporary art to demonstrate “a unique creative force that is not bound by pre-established perceptions both in terms of art and knowledge.”[7] The president of the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou, Xu Jiang, warned of “damages inflicted on the plurality of cultures under a homogeneous globalism”[8] while distinguished artist Huang Yong Ping (1954-2019) described globalization as “a process of greater alienation”: What is more important depends on whether you are part of the alienating process or a member of a force resisting alienation, not whether you are a participant or a part of the globalizing process.[9]

Two years later, in 2004, Xu Jiang published an essay in the Shanghai Modern catalogue titled “The ‘Misreading’ of Life” in which he spoke of módēng, the rendering of the English term “modern” into Chinese, as “a misreading [that became] a linguistic monument to a history of creation.”[10]

As a Western curator and museum director participating in national cultural exchanges with China since 1985, presenting at academic forums on Chinese art over the past two decades, and contributing to Yishu since 2006, it has been necessary for me to constantly question my own misreadings, linguistic and conceptual monuments, pre-established perceptions of art and knowledge, and the systemic constraints of Western cultural institutions such as those I led and represented.

This has been China’s gift to me.

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

Over the past decade and a half, I contributed eleven essays to Yishu. Seven documented international exhibitions conceived by curators from China, or which included artists from China: Asia-Pacific-Triennial (APT, 2007), documenta 12 (2007), Guangzhou Triennial (2008), Singapore Biennale (2009), Taipei Biennial (2009) and Venice Biennale (2009, 2013, 2015, 2017).

Post-West, one of my favorite articles for Yishu, captured a discussion among Gao Shiming, Sarat Maharaj, and Chang Tsong-zung, curators of the Third Guangzhou Triennial, shortly before the opening. What began as an interview became a two-hour long debate among them as to what exactly the Triennial was about? In his “Prelim notes on sounding Pandemonium Asia,” Maharaj posed the question:

“Does [it] herald an alternative conceptual continent or simply the desire to step in the West’s shoes, to be its rivalrous look-alike—in Milton’s phrase, its ‘nether empire’?” Will our post-West world—does our post-West world—offer conceptual alternatives to those the West propagated?[11]

Another essay, on Making Worlds: The 53rd Venice Biennale, began with the question as to who has the right to narrate. In this article, I described The China Pavilion as “spectacle resistant” with “highly personal artworks against the dark stage of an industrial ruin.” Among the artworks was Liu Ding’s Store – The Utopian Future of Art, Our Reality. According to the artist, his project was “based on the artistic ideal of unifying things of different values within a new order.”[12]

Cultural Memory, my first essay for Yishu, documented a three-day International Symposium at the House of World Cultures in Berlin. Titled China Between the Past and the Future, the Symposium was organized by the German Federal Centre for Political Education, an agency dedicated to the processes of Vergangenheitsbewältigung (overcoming the past and coming to terms with) Germany’s history of National Socialism and the Holocaust. One of the highlights of the Symposium was a session with Hou Hanru, Carol Yinghua Lu, and Pi Li, moderated by Ute Meta Bauer. In his remarks, Hou spoke of “a situation that emerges not only from the pressure of the global but also from the needs of the local without a clear vision of what ‘modern’ should be.”[13]

Of my remaining essays for Yishu, two were conversations with collectors Zhang Rui and Yang Bin who spoke of their personal and professional lives and passion for contemporary art.[14] My final essay was an interview with Ai Weiwei in which he spoke of his father’s generation who travelled to Paris in the early twentieth century. Towards the end of the interview, I quoted a Manifesto published in 1912 by artist Liu Haisu (1896-1994) and his colleagues in which they described the society of his day as “callous, apathetic, desiccated and decaying. [We] believe art can save present-day Chinese society from confusion and arouse the general public from their dreams.”[15] I asked Ai Weiwei if he believed art – his art – can accomplish that? He replied:

I once said that only contemporary thinking can save China, only modernism can save China. Modernism is not a style. It is more a way of how we can justify ourselves, how we can examine and criticize our acts, how we can be critical, break all boundaries and give ourselves a new position, and new possibilities. That is most important. We have such a long history and all kinds of historical arguments. We are also facing such complicated issues. There is the need to apply the attitudes of modernism towards today’s conditions. That is what I think.[16]

I have always wondered which modernism?

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?

For me, Yishu has been a continuous thread to China that enabled me to repeatedly step outside of, and examine, the intellectual and cultural constraints of the world in which I live and work. Writing for Yishu has been a learning device, and a platform, for formulating conceptual alternatives to those that have primacy in the West.

Yishu is an artist-initiated platform focusing on contemporary artistic, curatorial, and institutional practices in, and of, Greater China and the Chinese diaspora.

One of Yishu’s distinguishing characteristics is its recognition of China’s highly diverse diaspora as a site of significant discourse. It offers views of China from inside and outside its borders, and inside/outside from the diaspora.

The subjects Yishu addresses are highly diverse. There is no singular subject or approved intellectual position that it supports, other than being open.

The voice of the author has primacy.

One boundary of choice has been to publish in the English language. Yishu commits to translating important texts in close collaboration with the author.

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

Yishu has been a labor of love for Zheng Shengtian, Ken Lum, Keith Wallace, their small but mighty team, and the generous sponsor and individual supporters who have ensured Yishu continued to thrive for twenty years.

As a contributor, I am deeply grateful to Zheng Shengtian for founding and sustaining Yishu, and to Ken Lum and Keith Wallace for their intellectual and curatorial leadership in shaping its content.

During our fifteen year-long collaboration, Keith Wallace, in his role as Editor-in-Chief, provided me with exceptional support. The Yishu team is a respectful, patient, fair, profoundly collaborative, and generous community imbued with a sense of common purpose.

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

China has been an abiding presence in my life since I was a student, especially after I was awarded a short-term appointment as Teaching Assistant for an Interdisciplinary Course on Asian Art at the Department of Fine Arts, York University, Toronto. One of my responsibilities was to give lectures on Chinese historical art.

When I was appointed Director of the Vancouver Art Gallery in 1983, I embarked on several initiatives to “decenter” the Gallery’s Euro-American exhibition and collection focus. One such undertaking was to turn over the entire Vancouver Art Gallery to five exhibitions of Chinese art and culture. Among them was Gum San: Gold Mountain. Images of Gold Mountain 1886-1947, an exhibition I initiated on the Chinese diaspora in Vancouver. Another was The Single Brushstroke which presented 600 years of Chinese painting from the James Cahill Collection. A third, The Persuasive Image, consisted of contemporary political posters while the remaining two exhibitions drew on the collections of Brian S. McElney of Hong Kong.[17]

In a special celebration in March 1985, the exhibitions were opened by the Lieutenant Governor of British Columbia and 叶选平 Ye Xuanping (1924-2019), former Mayor of Guangzhou, who had just been appointed Governor of Guangdong.[18] It was at Ye’s initiative that I was invited to lead a Cultural Delegation to China only months later to negotiate an exchange of exhibitions.

Despite internal concern that the Vancouver Art Gallery might be moving beyond what was perceived to be its institutional mandate, the Vancouver public embraced the exhibitions of Chinese art, and the Gallery enjoyed its highest single attendance in one day since its founding, a half-century earlier, in 1931.[19]

The exhibitions of Chinese art and culture that were shown at the VAG, and my first journey to China in October 1985, would shape my passion for China, and my research, for the next three decades. They also anticipated the collective ambitions of Shanghai Modern fifteen years later, and subsequent projects.

Since the1980s, the pillars of my research, curatorial, and institutional interests have been:

-cultural exchange from 1919 to the present day
-discourse around Literati and Western-style painting from the módēng era to the present day
-contemporary Chinese art and culture in all disciplines from the late 19th to the 21st century

And what have I been working on recently?

Since Canada’s border closure and mandatory lockdown in March 2020, I have been working remotely, serving as Advisor to an international Biennale on the other side of the globe which will open later this year. As well, I am undertaking provenance and authentication research on two early twentieth century paintings from Russia and Germany, respectively. Previously, from 2017 to 2019, I was Director and CEO of the Biennale of Sydney for two international Biennales: Superposition (2018: Artistic Director Mami Kataoka), and NIRIN (2020: Artistic Director Brook Andrew).

6. 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?

When I am asked what “China” means to me, the first thought that comes to mind is “which China”?

When I first visited China in 1985, as a guest of the Chinese government, I had the tremendous privilege of traveling to Beijing, Xian, Kunming, and Guangzhou where I met with artists, museum specialists, and officials. In Beijing, I visited the galleries and working spaces of the National Art Museum of China (NAMOC) as well as other exhibition spaces. The small delegation I led was greeted with enormous warmth and generosity, but communication focused primarily on technical issues. I left China with a longing to return and a hunger for deeper exchange with the distinguished people I had met.

That would begin as of 2002 when I travelled to China on a regular basis with Zheng Shengtian to negotiate Shanghai Modern. Because of the high regard in which Zheng Shengtian is held, and the fact that almost everybody we met had studied under him, our conversations, translated by Zheng, were extraordinarily rich. It was one of the great privileges of my professional life, to undertake the complex negotiations and research of Shanghai Modern together with Professor Zheng.

Subsequently, I curated exhibitions on Chinese contemporary and modern art, undertook further research on Literati painting, and participated in a national exchange between museums in the United States and China. During this time, I witnessed and participated in remarkable conversations among some of China’s leading scholars and theoreticians at academic forums under the leadership of Professor Pan Gongkai, President of the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. I was able to take important lessons from these complex discussions because of the superb translation of Dr. Xu Jia, Director of the International Office for the Central Academy of Fine Arts.

One brilliant discussion in October 2013 was convened by Professor Gao Shiming, President of the China Academy of Art, and Chang Tsong-zung (Johnson Chang), cofounder of the Asia Art Archive in Hong Kong. If my memory serves me well, the translator, from The Netherlands, had studied philosophy. On another occasion, discussions among scholars and responses from students at the Center for Aesthetics and Aesthetic Education, Peking University, were memorable but, again, of necessity, in translation, with all its vagaries and potential for misreadings.

IOAM’s explorations of the experience of an individual (with all inherent limitations) in relation to understanding and narrating the course of art history are groundbreaking.[20] The present interview, designed to reveal an individual’s paths (my paths) of curated discourse on Chinese contemporary art, and my motivations and opportunities to curate and comment, will be revealing.

But I do not believe that such explorations are necessary to China alone.

On its website, IOAM describes its practice as constantly returning to artistic and intellectual practices in the second half of the 20th century in China, articulating the historical process of Chinese contemporary art, and uncovering “the clues of the ideologies, the rhetoric and logic, and the artistic concepts that still exert influence today.”[21]

The “west” is similarly examining its artistic and intellectual practices, and its historical legacies, which remain under the sway of ideologies, rhetoric, logic, questionable narratives, and systemic structures that exert a painful influence to the present day.

[1] Okwui Enwezor, ed., The Short Century: Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa 1945-1994 (Munich: Museum Villa Stuck and Prestel Verlag, 2001). Okwui Enwezor curated the exhibition, Ken Lum and Obiora Udechukwu served as Advisors and Jo-Anne Birnie-Danzker as Exhibition Director.
[2] Founders of Nka: Journal of Contemporary African Art were Okwui Enwezor, Salah M. Hassan and Olu Oguibe.
[3] The Jiangnan International Symposium was held in Vancouver, Canada, from April 21 to 26, 1998.
[4] Jo-Anne Birnie-Danzker, Ken Lum, Zheng Shengtian, eds., Shanghai Modern: 1919-1945 (Munich: Museum Villa Stuck and Ostfildern-Ruit: Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2004).
[5] Okwui Enwezor cited by Jo-Anne Birnie-Danzker in Preface to The Short Century, 7.
[6] Ken Lum, Editorial, Yishu: Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art, vol. 1, no. 1 (2002): 2.
[7] Xu Bing, ibid.,15.
[8] Xu Jiang, ibid.,17.
[9] Huang Yong Ping, ibid., 11.
[10] Xu Jiang, “The ‘Misreading’ of Life,” in Shanghai Modern, 75.
[11] “Post-West: Guangzhou Triennial, Taipei Biennial, and Singapore Biennale,” Yishu, vol. 8, no.1 (January/February 2009): 17.
[12] “Making Worlds: The 53rd Venice Biennale,” Yishu, vol. 8, no. 5 (September/October 2009): 14,15.
[13] “Cultural Memory: An International Symposium. China between the Past and the Future,” Yishu, vol. 5, no. 2, (June 2006): 18.
[14] “On Being a Conscientious Collector: Zhang Rui in Conversation with Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker” and “Gaining Happiness Through Collecting: Yang Bin in Conversation with Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker,” Yishu, vol. 7, no. 6 (November/December 2008): 38-45. 46-49.
[15] Jo-Anne Birnie-Danzker, “Shanghai Modern,” in Shanghai Modern, 25.
[16] “A Conversation with Ai Weiwei,” Yishu, vol. 7, no. 4 (July/August 2008): 18.
[17] The two exhibitions, organized by the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, were Porcelain of the High Qing Art (March 23-June 2, 1985) and Chinese Art (March 30-June 2, 1985).
[18] Guangzhou is Vancouver’s Sister City in China.
[19] Annual General Report, Vancouver Art Gallery Association, Director’s Report, p. 2.
[20] See Liu Ding and Carol Yinghua Lu, “Action Plans,” Yishu, vol.19, no.5/6, (2020); 111.
[21] See Beijing Inside-Out Art Museum,

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

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