Inside-Out Practice｜Series of interviews with authors from Yishu #15
Arriving in Shanghai in 2001, Rebecca Catching has worked in various capacities in the arts and culture sector in China. As a director of OV Gallery, curator at the Shanghai Minsheng Art Museum, and founder of the contemporary art magazine Ran Dian, she bore witness to a fascinating period of development in Chinese contemporary art. In 2017, she returned to Toronto where she continues to track the development of China’s cultural landscape, providing reporting and intelligence for the British Council on topics such as GIF Art, art book fairs, and the slow cinema movement. In 2019, she won an award for her review, “Costume Lectures in a Post-Socialist China — The Social Practice of Grass Stage,” from the International Association of Theatre Critics. She has also worked as a museum consultant for the Toronto-based museum planning firm Lord Cultural Resources, where she edited the book, Museum Development in China: Understanding the Building Boom, published by Rowman and Littlefield. Recent publications have explored topics such as gender and racial inclusion in Chinese museums, posthumanism in Chinese new media art practice, the influence of literati culture in Chinese contemporary art, and the distinctions between the state-led and private museum sector in China.
1. When and how have you come into contact with Chinese (contemporary) art and culture?
In 1999, I visited Beijing on a “package tour” with my boyfriend and his family, the kind of tour where they pack you onto a bus and take you to “museums” which are actually souvenir stores. Even though it was a smoggy-sooty March in Beijing where we spent a lot of time shivering inside a bus, I was absolutely captivated by the food, the culture, the people, and the frenetic pace of life in China. I guess for someone who grew up in a village outside of Ottawa of 5,000 people this heaving megacity was pretty thrilling. When I returned to school at McGill, I started a major in East Asian Studies along with my Art History major. I began studying Chinese intensively and did some exchange programs at Nankai University in 2000, and at Fudan in 2001. After spending a year in Shanghai, it was clear that I was not going back to Canada anytime soon. Between 2001-2017, I held various roles as an editor and curator. I ran the arts and entertainment desk for an English-language magazine that’s Shanghai. I remember the thrill of going to my first exhibition opening of Zeng Fanzhi’s “Raw Beneath the Mask” at ShanghART, back when it was still at its Park 97. I also wrote for a number of art magazines, Flash Art and Art Review, but it was often difficult to interest those magazines in a lot of Chinese content. This was one of the reasons why we founded Ran Dian, Chris Moore, Daniel Ho, and I, a bilingual art magazine with a kind of bi-cultural focus. As Zheng Shengtian mentioned in his talk for Inside Out, Yishu was also founded to meet this need for more informed writing on contemporary art, from curators and critics, writing in English or Chinese critics writing in English in translation. In the early days, so many of the foreign magazines would rather parachute in an editor who knew nothing about China than cultivate the on-the-ground writers. They sort of became these gate-keepers of artistic discourse about China. (Maybe this is the reason why a lot of magazines are founded, the whole salon des refusés mentality.) In 2009, I took on the directorship of a small commercial gallery called OV. Though commercial in origin, OV was really more of a curatorial platform for me, where I “cut my teeth” so to speak as a curator. Each show was curated around a theme and we produced proper bilingual catalogues for every single exhibition. We were hardly a resounding financial success, but we did build a small reputation for ourselves and I still maintain the website as a form of archive. After OV, I went on to the Shanghai Minsheng Art Museum and was part of the team that opened the Pudong location. That was an amazing experience, and I learned so much from my colleagues, all of them so bright, young, and hungry, but also so able to navigate such a large institution. After leaving the Minsheng, I curated some exhibitions for the Goethe Institute and some talks for OCAT on Posthumanism. I worked with Li Xiaofei on the Assembly Line Project, which explored not only industrial production but also how the “factory as a system of production” can be applied to all sorts of situations. (Are art museums not factories too?). Though I enjoyed this independent curatorial work, I was also watching a lot of Chinese friends immigrate abroad, to New York, Paris, and Berlin. Expats were leaving in droves as firms began to localize. There was something in the wind, which was pulling me back, and the fact that it is hard for laowai to obtain visas past the age of 55.
Though I at first felt somewhat alienated in Toronto, a city I had never lived in, returning to Canada offered me a very new perspective, which though distanced from China, was also quite refreshing. I was able to bear witness to many of the social changes, for instance, the #Me-too and Black Lives Matter movements and the fight for truth and reconciliation for Canada’s indigenous peoples. People were talking about colonialism and settlers, repatriation of the traditional indigenous artifacts, pipelines, land claims, fishing rights. It is now customary when holding an art or cultural event for people to make a “land acknowledgment” whereby we recognize that this exhibition or event is being held on land which was stolen from a number of indigenous groups—for instance in Toronto we would mention the Anishinabeg, the Chippewa and the Haudenosaunee. (I even had a job interview which began with a land acknowledgment.) Coming from the China context, this kind of politicization seemed pretty radical, the fact that the art community was putting these concerns front and center. So, while I was absorbing this new discourse, I was also very conscious of the fact that applying certain discourses to Chinese contemporary art may be in itself its own form of colonialism. For instance, words such as feminism have very different meanings and connotations in China. Some artists don’t want to be associated with feminism or don’t want to be pigeonholed as a “woman artist,” even though their artwork may appear feminist in terms of content. I think we have to be comfortable with these contradictions and also to try harder to help bring the discourse with is indigenous to China to the eyes of foreign scholars and critics. These kinds of “bridges” are really important in connecting cultures especially during a time where China and the West have a very fraught relationship—at least on the level of political discourse.
2. When did you join Yishu’s editorial team and what does your job include? How did you collaborate with other team members?
I joined the team this December, right before Christmas. Diana and I have known each other since her early days at MoCA in Shanghai and we have had somewhat parallel careers working in museums, galleries, and publications. We are sharing the role fairly equally as we are both involved in conceptualizing each issue, going through submissions, deciding on what to commission, and looking for threads and themes which tie the issue together. We both do the querying (asking questions or clarifications from the writer) and we have another editor, Kate Steinmann, who goes through each article with a fine-tooth comb to check for clarity and to implement our house style. Chunyee Li helps with proofing and also checking Chinese characters, editing the website, and a number of other vital functions. Larisa Broyde is in charge of circulation and working to keep us on budget. Zheng Shengtian, who of course is well-known and respected in China, is our managing editor and the magazine’s founder. As an artist, curator, and writer himself, who has not only witnessed but played a key role in the development of Chinese contemporary art, he is a pillar of the magazine. Keith Wallace, editor emeritus, has edited the magazine since 2004, and as a writer for Yishu over the years, I was always impressed with his professionalism and his broad-minded vision. Yishu was a magazine you wanted to write for because Keith was such a great guy— he comes out of an artist-run-center tradition and really respected writers. We hope to carry on that tradition.
3. In what ways do you think Yishu distinguishes itself from other art publications and journals? What is particularistic about Yishu?
I think when I was in China, I used to think about Yishu as being this slightly far-away thing. It was a great journal no doubt, but because it was a print magazine and print magazines were hard to find, it was sometimes hard to follow what Yishu was doing. Since returning to Canada, I’ve learned that this status of being somewhat removed from the Chinese art world, from the networks of kinship and power, from the cliques of artists, curators, and editors, does give it an advantage. Certainly, we have networks and relationships, I am not saying that we are completely objective as no magazine can ever be, but people approach us with things that they want to write, which would be hard to publish in China for whatever reason.
In terms of our audience, it includes critics and curators, artists, dealers, those who are fairly interested in what is happening in China right now, but we also have Sinologists, anthropologists, and people with a strong interest in the historical development of Chinese art. Compared to other English-language art magazines we have much longer word counts (from 2,000-10,0000 words), and we are not afraid to take a few thousand words to analyze things, perhaps at the cost of timeliness. We don’t have to be as “of-the-minute” but we also don’t have to be as purely academic as something like the Journal of Chinese Contemporary Art which is published out of Birmingham City University in the UK. In terms of Chinese-language art publications, it is hard to make a fair comparison as our audiences are quite different. We may write about the same artists or exhibitions but we write about them in different ways.
I would say the balance of writers in Yishu tips more towards the international but we still welcome people writing in Chinese to approach us with texts as we do publish translated content. In fact, several of the new initiatives we are introducing will focus on translating Chinese content and creating stronger links to the scene in China. We have a new section called “Social/Discourse,” a regular column that focuses on a topic relevant to the art world which is currently being talked about on Chinese social media. We want to give the journal a bit of immediacy in the sense that not all of our readers will be regularly combing through social media, which is where some of the most interesting conversations happen in China. We have another section called “From the Archive,” which is a collaboration with the Asia Art Archive to present historical texts which have yet to be translated which have some kind of resonance with the themes of that particular issue. I think one of the aims is to present a more comprehensive picture of what is happening in China right now in a way that both Chinese and foreigners would find interesting.
If you’ll permit me a little anecdote as a means of explanation, I am currently writing this text sitting on a Qing Dynasty chair that was inherited from my great aunt in Baltimore.
It’s a fabulously-ornate thing with dragon-heads as arms. I jokingly call it my dragon throne. My family all assumed that these chairs must be of some great value, but when I asked a friend who worked in antiques, he said, “Oh no. These are just export chairs, produced for the foreign market may worth around 500$ (2,500 RMB) on e-bay.” I am sure my relatives had no idea what they were buying, and part of the problem is that it’s hard to be an expert when you have absolutely no reference point. Editors of mainstream art magazines that are writing about art from all over the world are bound to be out of their depth in one area or another. And just like my relatives, many writers and editors are dazzled by the exotic. The difference is always exciting and it takes a conscious effort to resist that urge to produce “export criticism,” but I think it is our goal to produce criticism which reflects a more informed view of what is happening in China written by those who are heavily engaged in China. All of our writers are heavily engaged in China, be they Chinese or foreign. But, at the same time, we are not myopically focused on China, we are also interested in what is happening in the diaspora—Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, and other areas of large Chinese concentrations which produce their own unique expressions—but given that they do not have the same land-mass, population and influence have been somewhat underrepresented in terms of English-language criticism.
4. The inaugural 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 back 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?
So you’re saving the easy questions for last right? In terms of China or any country for that matter, it’s hard to speak of it as a monolithic entity. Instead of asking “What is China?,” I might say “What Chinas are there?” The experience of someone in rural China vs urban China, the experience of growing up in Changchun vs Shenzhen, vs. Hong Kong, vs. Vancouver, or Kuala Lumpur, the experience of being a Hui minority, the experience of being a woman versus a man versus someone who identifies as queer—all of these things produce very different experiences of “China”. I think our goal is to better understand these Chinas which are contained within the whole. In terms of content, if there seems to be a clear connection to the Chinese culture and an original idea, we are interested in covering it.
In terms of Chinese art and culture, I think the art ecology of 2001 is so vastly different from that of today, it’s almost impossible to compare. At that time showing video or performance art was still considered a renegade. There were a few state-run museums, even fewer galleries and most publications were under government control. There were no “project spaces” (unless you count the occasional apartment exhibition), there were no WeChat and Weibo commentators. I think that the art world in China today is simultaneously expanding and contracting. There are more and more great institutions, more serious institutions, yet at the same time, lack of proper funding channels means that private museums are sort of hamstrung by the need to host blockbusters that bring in 150-RMB-a-person foot traffic, and many of them are not run in a very modern way, i.e. investing in buildings over curatorial talent. The state museums by contrast are fully funded by the government. Why are some of the best contemporary art museums left to fend for themselves? Given the service they provide to the public, this seems unfair. Galleries as always come and go, but we can say that the gallery scene has localized quite a bit, with a lot of the foreign gallerists repatriating. It is often not such a sustainable business, but where galleries disappear there will always be someone with a bit of money and idealism who wants to support artists and bask in their aura, or maybe is misguided enough to think that a gallery will make them a lot of money. Ha!
In terms of artistic practice, it has been interesting to watch Chinese artists absorb many of the trends such as post-internet art or institutional critique, (as artists are doing all over the world), but processing these trends in their own ways. I think we still have the same kind of rifts between painting and conceptual art as we did in the past. I feel like in people’s minds the painters are often thought of as “for the market” or people stuck in this kind of artistic time-warp and that’s a bit unfair, but this is not unique to China.
I think both Western and Chinese contemporary art museums and galleries could work harder on interpretation (meaning translating curatorial speech into a language that the public can understand). I think that curators often write for each other, in a sort of academic grandstanding, and this language is fine for certain kinds of texts but does it really need to be your wall text? I think, as is the case anywhere, the interesting work is often happening in the peripheries of art scenes, where it slowly gets hoovered up by the big institutions and curators. (Here I imagine some kind of weird hybrid creature, a museum director with a mouth like a funnel, something out of a Qiu Anxiong video). I would love to see the big donors of the art world funding projects of these smaller organizations. I know the foundation scene is growing in China, but I wonder how much of this is a conversation between already powerful people. Certainly, the grant system in Canada is highly problematic, forcing artists and curators to turn cartwheels just for a couple of thousand dollars but China needs more funding bodies that work in different ways to support different kinds of practices.
5. What do you think of the relationship between Yishu and art criticism in China over the years? What kind of criticism has Yishu fostered and promoted?
I think Yishu has supported a kind of academic criticism that is articulated in a way that any educated person can understand. Clarity has always been a goal for Keith and both Diana and I started out writing for newspapers, which is a very different kind of writing. But at the same time, I think Yishu is also kind of a critic’s and curator’s journal in the sense that it published texts on these very niche topics, for instance, the calligraphy collection at the Tsinghua Art Museum, (this kind of analysis of institutions and the politics of presenting art), or something such as the Friday Salon a three-year-long photography home workshop which was held in the staff dormitory of the Beijing Film Studio in the late 70s. Yishu is as interested in history as it is in contemporary and there is not really a hierarchy between them as long as it is interesting and well-argued. Yishu has featured texts by all the greats and big names but has helped nurture generations of scholars working in universities abroad and in China, supporting them by publishing their work but also guiding them on what others might find interesting and polishing their language when they may be working with English as a second language. (We all need a good editor, myself included.) Yishu has also supported foreign critics and curators based in China who do not have so many outlets for their work given that there is still a limited understanding of Chinese art in the west. Writing for Yishu is kind of like attending a party of like-minded friends where you can speak freely, no need to modify, explain and censor. You go into a lot of detail because you don’t need to waste as many words contextualizing.
6. We have learned from Zheng Shengtian that all editorial staff work part-time. Besides as an editor at Yishu, what other activities and practices do you engage in?
For the past six years or so I’m embarrassed to say that I’ve been somewhat “promiscuous” workwise. Perhaps it’s the thrill of being engaged in projects where I call the shots or where I work with a small team, or maybe it’s just my own personal path, but I’ve done quite a lot of different things related to art and culture. Besides the curatorial work mentioned above, I write regularly for the British Council on topics relating to the cultural industry, art, and museums. These are more intelligence gathering missions, taking a deep dive into particular topics such as the use of technology in Chinese museums, the success of traveling exhibitions in China, or the rise of the pop-up exhibition experience. I think this research into the cultural industry as a whole allows me to take a step back from contemporary art and view it with more of an “end-user” perspective. I’ve also done other work such as running a museum training program with the University of Nottingham in Ningbo which totally opened my eyes to the museum ecology as a whole. I’ve also done work in museum planning with a museum planning firm in Toronto where we worked on a project developing a museum in Shenzhen and I edited a book for them on Chinese Museums. Another thing which I very much enjoy doing is translation. Unlike a lot of arts practitioners, I don’t see doing translation as a kind of side-hustle. I see translation as kind of a necessary part of staying in touch with Chinese culture and language. I am working on a contemporary poetry anthology right now just out of interest. I like translating poetry because it is very visual, much like art.
7. Starting from 2021, Yishu will have two Editors-in-Chief. Have you worked with Diana Freundl before? Have you two started the 101st issue? If so, could you tease out a bit about the forthcoming issue? What is the collaborative editing process like and how do you divide the work? What is your vision of Yishu’s future?
I first met Diana when she was working at MoCA and I was an editor and I thought, “Wow this girl is really switched on! I wonder if I can convince her to write for us.” She wrote a profile of Alicia Framis which was excellent as expected. For most of the time we have known each other we’ve been working as curators in galleries and museums, watching the scene develop and facing new challenges in our careers. Diana returned to Vancouver a few years before I returned to Toronto and she taught me a lot about Canadian art ecology. For the past two decades, we’ve had a relationship of mutual respect and friendship and we were always waiting for the opportunity to work together on something. Yishu provided that long-awaited opportunity.
We are plunging into issue 101 as we speak. Though we did not start out with a theme, there are a number of articles addressing feminism and gender. We have an article on Ren Hang by Anthony Hongwei Bao where he conducted extensive interviews with Ren Hang’s friends; we have some poetry about the pandemic; we have an article on Ye Funa’s work and ideas of race and gender. We have a piece on Taiwan’s Oxygen Collective, a feature on the artist Jen Liu, and a piece about Suzy Lake’s exhibition in China and the asexualized depictions of older women in Chinese visual culture. We’re hoping to dig deeper into the more regional scenes of China and also of the diaspora, such as Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, bringing these areas more into the center of our discourse. We would also like to create more of a cross-disciplinary dialogue between scholars in film, literature, theatre, anthropology, and other areas as everything is quite siloed right now. Other new initiatives include a journal re-design and a new website in the coming years. These are big ambitions but thanks to the pandemic clearing all of our social schedules, we’ve certainly got time to think about it!
Interview Planning: Liu Yusi, Huang Wenlong
Interview Translation：Liu Qian
Proof-reading：Ninjia, Zhang Ligeng, Huang Wenlong, Zhu SIyu
Post Editing: Liu Qian