Joe Zhu On Curating Chinese Contemporary Art And Being David Hockney’s Interpreter

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Meet Joe Zhu, curator and journalist working from Hangzhou, China. Find out more about his ideas on art, get his insider knowledge and check out his exhibition for Collectionair here.

Can you tell our readers a bit about your own aims and focuses as a curator? What was it about Collectionair that appealed to you? 

I tend to put up exhibitions more towards personal interests, or the neglected sides of the market.

Collectionair has provided this alternative window for emerging artists to be seen in a globalized context. I think it’s really cool to look at Chinese arts from an unorthodox perspective, in which we are not classified because of our nationality or political background.

Which show of yours to date are you most proud of and why?

I’ve just finished this project called The Spring is Coming-Fukubukuro, it’s a non-profit open call project which anyone could take part in by sending us a parcel with what ever they believe is an artwork. We ended up with more than 270 parcels from all over the world. The sales went well, and we are designing the catalogue at the moment. I think this could be the first public-funding exhibition catalogue ever?

You can find out more here.

We know that the Hangzhou Academy has produced some of the most well respected Chinese artists such as Zao Wuki, Chu Tehchun, and Pritzker Prize winning architect Wang Shu, but can you tell us what it is that makes this institution so unique? 

I think because Hangzhou was not very big at the time of Zao Wuki and far enough to keep out of the political turbulence in Beijing. Artists could have a free practice here. It is still true for the moment. Although the city has grown more than 10 times bigger in the recent decades, the market is still not good, and we are still far enough to avoid the noise out there. You can feel the art is truer, in a sense.

And for Pritzker Prize, I think the main reason he won is that the jury was not doing their job! I’m not joking. If you could spend a day or two in these buildings, you would agree with me. They only appears good looking, and the function is bad. I think one thing that appeals to the big name architects is that China is an experimental lab for the projects they can not do anywhere else.

Are there any other residencies, schools or art projects that we should make sure to watch out for? What exactly are they doing?

 I think Hong Kong is the next place to watch. It is the total opposite of Hangzhou, commercial, noisy.  All the big name galleries went there are come here and almost killed all local culture. But what remains there is the true survivor. Because of it’s unique history and culture, Hong Kong artists have shown a different take on the commercial/pop/political element and the result are very interesting. Chow Chun-fai, Lee Kit, and Chui Pui-chee are three of my favourites.

From left to right: Chui Pui – chee Wyman Wong’s Lyrics Tourbillon in Cursive Script, Lee Kit, 5, projection and painting, 2014 and Chow Chun-fai, Shanghai Grand, enameled paint on canvas, 2008.

And what about any artists that you think are working hard to push the boundaries of traditional art that might be imposed on them? 

 Depending on what your definition of tradition is, and I tend to look at this question from out side of the art world. If a government or politician could be seen as an artist, there are plenty of them.

Check out Chen Guangbiao, this entrepreneur/ philanthropist has done many outrageous things, including having people dressed in the Red Guard costume and sending money at the Central Park in New York, try to top that! Ai who?

Lastly we heard that you were the official translator for David Hockney on his visit to China, this must have been a great experience! Tell us a bit about it.

Yes it was. My ‘daytime job’ is as a journalist, and the gallery had turned down almost all the interview applications, I had to find a way to get close to him. I attended his first talk at Beijing University, and I thought the translator was not very good. I knew he was going to give another talk at the Central Academy of Fine Arts, and I happened to know the curator there. Lucky enough, he agreed with me about the translator in Beijing University and asked me if I wanted to do the translation for them. It’s an obvious decision!

There is a book about his first visit to China, and Hangzhou was among the cities he visited. And the interesting thing is, we’ve used all of our recourses and could not find a single person that had met him in 1981. All the legends about him making prints in CAA without anyone knowing him turns out to be, well, legend.  And the only one person who could confirm his visit in the 80s is Shao Dazhen, who we met in CAFA during the talk. He told me that he could not find anyone who could recall about the trip either. Weird.

One more thing is that, I have this on-going project of collecting artist-related garbage. Hockney is a heavy smoker, so during the time I’ve collected several of his cigarette butts. In last years Art021 art fair in Shanghai, I actually sold some of them!

Pallas Kalamotusis

Pallas Kalamotusis is Collectionair’s Editor in Chief. She has an MA in Modernism in Europe from the Courtauld Insitute of art, and works closely with collectors and curators on a variety of different projects.