Perspectives

Why Zhang Enli Isn't a "Chinese Artist"

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Why Zhang Enli Isn't a "Chinese Artist"

Bernini, Caravaggio, Titian, Raphael, Rubens, Barocci… Galleria Borghese in Rome houses artworks by some of the most well-known artists of the 16th and 17th centuries. Add to this list: Zhang Enli, an artist based in Shanghai whose exhibition “Bird Cage, a Temporary Shelter” is on view until July 7. Consisting of four structures displayed throughout the property, the exhibition “reflects on the relationship between architecture and art, in particular on the special relationship between the Galleria Borghese and the adjacent secret garden.”

Podcast host Amanda Schmitt (of UNTITLED, ART Podcast) visited the exhibition and spoke with the exhibition’s co-curator, Davide Quadrio, an independent curator and founder of Art Hub. Originally from Italy, Quadrio lived for over 20 years in China and has organized hundreds of exhibitions, educational activities, and exchanges in China and abroad.

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To listen to entire episode, you can check out the podcast on Soundcloud here. Or, read our excerpt below, which includes a portion of Schmitt's conversation with Quadrio in Rome, and a portion of a related panel discussion in San Francisco. From a diverse range of perspectives, we hear thoughts on why Enli may be from Asia but is not an "Asian artist," why some believe "Asia" is a constructed concept developed by Europeans, and how museums are tasked with reevaluating how they define and contextualize Asian art.

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Amanda Schmitt: How does Zhang Enli feel about exhibiting at the Galleria Borghese?

Davide Quadrio: Zhang Enli is an artist from China, and has been living in Shanghai for a very long time. The connection between Zhang Enli and Borghese is extremely intriguing and interesting. Zhang was saying that it is an honor for him to be in this place because it's the pulsing heart of the Renaissance of Italy and there are masterpieces from Bernini, Belini, Raphael, Caravaggio... So for him to be here is actually to realize a dream. It is a dream to be here, I must say, also as a curator.

Galleria Borghese has got an amazing story. It is not a normal museum. It's never really been a museum—it's something that goes beyond that. It's in the center Rome in this huge park that was actually this amazing palazzo that Scipione Borghese built at the beginning of the 17th century. The story of the palazzo is something that has been extremely thrilling to really understand in a very deep way. And actually, it's also the origin of the project. 

Borghese was the nephew of the pope at that time. He collected antiques but also contemporary (at that time) painters and artists. The building was built for the collection. That it's a shrine for art is something that you can see from the theory of the building. You can imagine something special but you cannot see it from outside because the outside is very simple. The color of the facade is very light—golden yellow, and with almost pearly surfaces. Then you get inside, which is where the magic happens, because there is not a single centimeter of the interior that is not completely decorated and designed and fully equipped with visual content. This striking difference between what is inside and what is outside was the beginning of the journey that Zhang Enli took throughout the building, the gardens, and then also this amazing place called The Bird Cage that was a secondary building attached to the Galleria Borghese through this amazing little garden that is called The Secret Garden. So all that is of course incredibly powerful as a starting point for anything that is related to art.

Amanda Schmitt: Absolutely. I'd like to know when is the first time that Enli came to the Borghese? 

Davide Quadrio: Enli came with me in the beginning of last year, and it was a surprise, but it was also not a surprise because of course a lot of the work that is inside the Borghese he remembered from his training. It was extremely emotional because he saw things that he studied for so many years while he was learning to be an artist. So it was extremely powerful. Enli was explaining that the moment he came here, he realized the complexity of the connection between the contemporary and the past, and especially his own position of being a painter in the contemporary world and the complexity of actually doing something here in this context... what does it mean to be a painter today?

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Amanda Schmitt: One reason why I wanted to have this interview and come to this show in particular is because it's sort of an extreme example of contemporary globalization. We have this Chinese contemporary painter here in one of the most iconic museums for artwork from the antiquity, renaissance, and beyond. So I wanted to know in Enli's formative education with art and painting, if he was looking then at Renaissance painting at Italian artists. If so, if there was a particular artist here in the collection that spoke to him most strongly?

Davide Quadrio: Before answering this question can I just comment on some of the language that you had because I think it is very important. We have been based in China for a long time. We are ourselves very hybrid in that sense we're in the position of being not in the Western cultural centers until yesterday, and to really think about what it means to move to come from a globalized world, but also a sort of periphery of some cultural platforms. We're starting to think and talk about contemporary art coming not from Europe and the States in a different way and I think the language is extremely important. 

For instance, something that I know Enli hates, and I hate as well, is this kind of simplicity of thinking of an artist being a "Chinese artist" and not an "artist from China." It's something that dramatically doesn't really make a lot of change, but in the sense of the meaning it does. Just because Zhan Enli comes from China doesn't make him a Chinese artist. 

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Amanda Schmitt: This part of the conversation reminded me of a panel that was presented at the latest edition of UNTITLED, ART San Francisco this past January. So we're going to go back in time just a few months to listen to a snippet of that conversation, which was led by Xiaoyu Weng, the associate curator of Chinese art at the Guggenheim—joined by curators, Marc Mayer from San Francisco's Asian Art Museum and Marie Martraer, of Catalyst—titled "Thinking Geography." They spoke about their collaborative work with artists whose practice critically reflects our perception, definition, misconception, and misunderstanding of Asia and its relationship with the rest of the world. According to Weng, geography is an imaginative tool to test the boundary of our intellectual and emotional limitations.

Xiaoyu Weng: Of course, it's not a new idea to think of art and engaging with art and discourses from a geographic narrative. There's this concept from metageography: to divide the world into all these continents, to construct ideas of Asia, Europe, Middle East, North America. For me, I think it became much more meaningful and also effective to really deconstruct these ideas not as physical geographic locations or places, but a set of tools that you can use, and a tool kit to think about some of the issues that we're dealing with today through the lens of art. Particularly in the context of Asia, I would like to put forward a quote from a historian and cultural critic Hui Wang who is a professor at the Tsinghua University in Beijing. In his text, which he later turned it into a book called The Politics of Imagining Asia, he argues Asia is actually a European concept. What does that mean? It means the concept of Asia is much more an idea, a set of understandings than the location of how we geographically set the boundary of Asia. So for him, this concept of Asia is a European concept invented in the 18th and 19th century when Europe was undergoing a height of enlightenment as well as its colonial projects. So Asia becomes a thing that Europe positions itself in relation to; therefore European was European because of the existence of Asian. He also pointed out that particularly at the time, Europeans created this narrative based on three categories: the birth and rising of nation state, capitalism. But these contexts are lacking in Asia because Asia is pretty much an empire structure. There was not nation states and there was no capitalism.

Then there's this process of elevating the European project as capitalism as well as the democratic process and the so-called progress and advancement of the nation-state versus this backwardness of empire as well as this tribute system. So this is how the concept of Asia is formed, according to his book. It still has its relevance today; we're still considering how the relationship between Asian and European is constructed in an art world context. This is why I think it would be interesting to put these questions forward and somehow deconstruct how we think about Asia. How are these concepts are created, practiced, and manipulated throughout history, and how does it influence our thinking today and also the practice of artists today? How could we connect it back to the Bay Area and what kind of new meaning would rise from it? For the Asian Art Museum, Asia is a given, right? You work with this framework of Asia. More of an urgent task is how do we engage with the contemporary? I want to return to this question: how does the museum define Asia and how has that been evolving and adapting? How does that go into the mission statement of the museum as well?

Marc Mayer: Well, we actually start our collection galleries with that question—What is Asia?—and the acknowledgement that it's a Greco-Roman construction of a false sense of geography, and then looking at the specifics of it. Embedded in that as well is something that I think is crucially important: how do you start engaging in thinking about not only Asia as a concept, but what happens through the diasporas? Does Asia exists in the Americas and what does that look like? What are the questions in terms of how we think about regionality, specificity, and culture and cultural interchange, an exchange? How can we also mine those types of histories, not just here but between countries, let's say in Asia, to understand some of those types of relationships? How can artists bring new light to that, but also make visible those things that, from the outside, we might not be aware of? Thinking about how artists practice engaging questions of empire or post-colonial mindsets, and thinking about how to complicate those histories in the context of the Asian Art Museum, is something that I've been really interested in—and allowing a sense of imagination to think about other possibilities in terms of that history, in terms of social structures, economic structures and such, but also while considering our audience and the people visiting the Asian Art Museum here in San Francisco. 

Xiaoyu Weng: When we talk about Asia or any geographically oriented practice, I think it becomes even more relevant to speak about the birth and the original model of the museum and why it exists. Today the museum is still more or less a continuation of this Victorian model of educating the public, right? How museums pose through the making of exhibitions and through the engagement of art or objects. Also, the 'encyclopedia museum' context is to provide this knowledge to the public. But then the model is gradually getting outdated because there is so many other sources of knowledge that can be engaged in much more interactive ways; the museum seems to be struggling in terms of how to reinvent itself. And then for our larger institutions—the encyclopedia museums like the Metropolitan or the Louvre—many of these geographically based categorizations of displays, exhibits, and objects are traded with the places that are being displayed there, but with force to bring it back. How could we reengage with that kind of a history? I know many museums now have practice of returning these objects to their country of origin, but at the same time, is it effective? The context is not so black and white, right? It's not about originality or who robs who and who got what from where. It's much more fascinating to think about the merging and re-appropriation and appropriation and in the case of United States, you talk about diaspora and then how these objects play a role in the experience of the diaspora. So maybe I would be interested in thinking about how contemporary art—or the mapping of these ideas by contemporary artists—could contribute to these discourses. It's not just a curator's job or a museums administrator's job to figure out; it's also the job of the practitioners, the artists, and it's more of a collaborative work.

Marc Mayer: It's definitely collaborative. Oh, there's so many ways I could go on about this. I don't know if I can really speak to the question about provenance and objects and ethics. But I'm really interested in what you're raising about how artists deal with these frameworks and diaspora. Seeing diaspora as an active and even freewheeling mode seems to present a fresh approach to thinking about multiplicity, not just of culture and archetype, but of ideas that are necessarily diasporic in terms of their future and network nature. That type of free wheeling approach, permission about this different hybridity, is cultural mixings of cultural diffusion. Like, how do I connect to my father's culture when Spanish might not be my first language? What does that free us up to do and how can we give that type of permission to others to think about that? Maybe the only thing museums can teach us is how to deal with ambiguity. While we cant hold the object, we can hold its culture or its meaning in quite that literal way.  I'm really inspired in thinking about that experience of being both and maybe neither that allows us to have a sense of freedom in thinking about ideas, thinking about culture, and creating new culture. 

Xiaoyu Weng: I think I'm certainly less interested in this idea of a provenance because it's important to acknowledge figuring out the factual informations of certain objects, but then how can you reengage the objects to give it a new life? You use the term ambiguity. For me it's more interesting to think in terms of appropriation and reappropriation. Culture really is in perpetuating modes of appropriation. Really, it becomes frustrating if you have to distance the originality, the provenance, with its resonance today. It is truly the coffin for any object or artwork because it will stay there as when it was created. 

Marie Martraire: It's interesting to think that somehow our vision for understanding of heritage is encapsulated in the object. If you preserve the object where it is that's how you're going to preserve this cultural heritage, but if you shift the perspective a little bit and consider heritage as the forms of knowledge, traditions, rituals, or everything that's almost immaterial, how do we think through heritage  through that aspect rather than the object itself? And how the object actually isn't the heritage but a tool or a technology to actualize the heritage?

To listen to the entire podcast, and other episodes of UNTITLED, ART Podcast, click here.

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