In Chongqing, we sat down with Ni Kun, the curator and co-founder of Organhaus, in their recently opened second venue, LP Space.
China Residencies: When was Organhaus founded?
Ni Kun: In 2006.
CR: What’s your background?
NK: I studied industrial administration, I really just decided to get into art out of the blue.
CR: So how did you become interested in art?
NK: By accident, really. When I came to Chongqing, I studied at the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute because I was interested in lacquer painting and lacquerware making. I started becoming friends with others who shared my interest in contemporary art. I used to make art myself, but as time went on, I became more interested in organizing activities and planning exhibitions.
CR: When did you and Yang Shu start working together?
NK: We’ve know each other since 2000, when I arrived in Chongqing, but we didn’t start working together until 2006.
CR: He's also an artist.
NK: Yes, he was an important artist in the 80s. He participated in the China Avant Garde exhibition in March 1989 at the National Art Museum in Beijing and took part in the yearlong Rijksakademie residency in Amsterdam in 1995. That year had a big impact on him, and 10 years later, he decided to found Organhaus.
CR: How did Organhaus get started?
NK: His work changed directions after coming back, he had been teaching oil painting and creating art since 1996. He was also the first manager for Tank Loft [a residency on the old Sichuan Fine Arts Institute campus, across the street from Organhaus], but he quit after a year.
CR: We went to Tank Loft yesterday, is it not running any more?
NK: It is still running, but not much is going on. It’s technically a project run by the school. Yang Shu had always wanted to create a residency program, and although Tank Loft could have been a fitting location, the school didn’t agree. After he left Tank Loft, he still wanted to launch a program so he founded Organhaus in 2006. Back in 2001, I had formed a small collective with my friends in [the arts district] Huangjueping. Later, we combined our two organizations, and combined their names as well: Organ was Yang Shu’s organization and Haus was my collective.
CR: What’s the meaning behind the name?
NK: At that time there was an exchange program between artists at the University of Kassel and the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute. Yang Shu went in 2001 and said there was a great place there called Haus, so he also named his organization Haus. In 2005 or 2006 my friend and I formed another organization called H2. The first H stands for Huangjuepring, second is for Haus. H2 only lasted about a year, because many friends left Chongqing. I found out Shu Yang started Organ during a casual conversation on day, then we decided to combine the two organizations.
CR: Did you have many international artists coming at that time?
NK: We hosted a few, but there weren’t many at the beginning -- we only had about five international artists during 2006 and 2007. In 2008, we started to reach out to and partner up with international organizations that Yang Shu knew personally, then we slowly started building a network of collaborators, for example through the sister-cities program between Chonqging and Düsseldorf. In 2008, Yang was invited to go to Düsseldorf to talk about Organhaus, and since 2009 we’ve held a regular exchange program between the two cities. In the past two years, we’ve been focusing on building exchanges within Asia.
CR: Where in Asia specifically?
NK: We started an exchange with Japan and Iran two years ago. We are going to Thailand this June for a collaborative project, and then to Indonesia. Those are all interesting and important countries in the Asian art world. It’s also very important to keep building partnerships with Taiwan and Hong Kong, since we have a shared cultural background.
CR: We took part in a talk in Hong Kong on that topic [with 1A & Bamboo Curtain Studio], since there are about five residencies in Hong Kong. There’s also residency directory website for Taiwan, and later this year, the residencies in Hong Kong will start an reciprocal residency program to send artists between Taiwan and mainland China.
NK: Yes, I think this kind of exchange is to be encouraged. I spent two months at the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum in Japan last year and my research project was on the development of an artist residency network in Asia. The situations in Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Mainland China are all extremely different, so I feel the need to spend more time in Taiwan and Hong Kong to experience more firsthand.
CR: How do you select the artists for the residency?
NK: Right now, we depend on recommendations from other artists and we also accept public applications. We’ve been very interested in urbanization, and in how art can impact place by becoming part of public spaces in cities.
View of the gallery at Organhaus
CR: Can you tell us a bit about this new exhibition space, LP Space?
NK: This space opened at the beginning of this year -- we are planning on opening an ever bigger space end of the year. LP is right in the city, and we are hoping to conduct more projects about urbanism not just through exhibitions but also by organizing forums and hosting independent research projects. Along with this space, we are also hoping to do a few projects in rural areas. My friend’s company would like to sponsor us, he has some land in the countryside and could provide support for rural projects. But this space is first and foremost so we can study the city.
CR: Tell us a little about the art scene in Chongqing:
NK: There’s a pressing demand for art right now all over China, and especially in the bigger cities. Unfortunately, because the field isn’t led by experienced professionals, huge amounts of resources are being put towards mediocre outcomes. Everything is booming on the surface, but there’s very little serious discourse underneath it all, and even less long-term planning. That’s the current state of the art world in China. This has to do with the government's policy on cultural industries after 2000 -- since it was an economic policy, lots of investment went into building arts districts. But the people building these arts districts cared more about finance than about art, so in the end it became just another business to them. Chongqing’s no different. Lots of galleries popped up in the past two years, but very few are run by people who are seriously thinking about the future of what they are starting. There is nevertheless a positive aspect to all this, as it does make the general population aware of the fact that lots of cultural activities are starting up.
CR: What other projects do you run outside of the residency?
NK: The residency is our core program. We choose artists that are the right fit, but we only act as facilitators to help artists with their projects. Another side of what we do is to map out new initiatives for artists from inside and outside of China. Both sides are equally important to us. Local artists aren’t that interested in leaving the country, mostly because of the language barrier, but also because they’re afraid of missing out if they leave for a few years. But we try to offer all kinds of opportunities for artists to choose from.
CR: As a curator, why do you think there are so few serious art initiatives, and such a lack of concern for the artists in China?
NK: This also has to do with where China came from. From the 1980s onwards, people were taught to think of things in economic terms, which is misleading. People were instinctively interested in new things, in how things were packaged. But marketing has nothing to do with art, artists don’t think that way. That’s also why I don’t care much for Beijing. The galleries in Beijing are very powerful, they can devour young artists. Artists need at least five years to develop their practice, but nowadays they only get two, or even just one. The art they are making isn’t meaningful. That’s why we shouldn’t make art spaces too commercial, my approach is to keep things separate. It’s very complicated, and this make the appeal from an arts professional’s perspective more challenging from the get go, there’s not all that much demand [for jobs in the arts]. As time goes by, and as the field becomes a bit more regulated, people will start to take this field, and themselves, more seriously, and go about things more earnestly. Last year, we had a forum with young artists and curators from Sao Paolo, Berlin and Chongqing on the possibility of curating in developing cities.
CR: Do you try to build relationship with collectors?
NK: We personally very much hope that the artists we show can sell their works, but we don’t actively market them. Marketing is a lot of work, and it’s not really what we’re interested in doing. The artists in this exhibition sold some work, and we’re of course very happy for them, but it’s also not a problem if nothing sells.
CR: Who else is on staff besides you and Shu Yang?
NK: The team is getting a little bigger these days. There’s always at least two or three people, and now we’re six. Sam Gong was the main liaison with the international artists, Lili is the on-the-ground facilitator for the residency program, there’s another woman who takes care of the technical aspects of the space, organizes events, and updates the website. We also have the help of students who come and volunteer.
CR: How do you build an audience to your events and exhibitions?
NK: We’re more focused on building relationships between artists. The general audience and art students who come are self-selecting. We’ve been around for so many years, anyone with an interest in art took the initiative to come find us. We don’t go out of our way to promote our activities. Contemporary art is intrinsically an elite thing, we don’t care all that much about what the general public thinks. We’ll start thinking about reaching out to the public more at the new space once it’s finished at the end of the year.
Performance from the 2012 International Artists Workshop
CR: How will all the spaces work together in relation to Organhaus?
NK: They’re all part of the same system. They all need their own names for marketing purposes, actually, but we all make decisions about exhibitions and programs together. LP Space is more accessible to the greater public, so we’ll keep the more experimental works at Organhaus.
CR: What’s in store for the rest of the year?
NK: "Smart City" is an important topic this year. Although we oppose the way the government’s been using “smart city” as a way to control the masses, we think it’s an important concept. Eastern and Western cities are all digitizing rapidly, we can’t avoid the fact that technology is part of life. We’re hoping to draw support for this idea, by organizing artists and architects to push this discussion, addressing the city and raise new lines of thought through their practice that will impact the way we live. The first phase of this government-led initiative started on April 1st, and will last for three to five years. But in the end, it all comes down to individual actions. Even though the city, the corporate sector and the government pledged to work together, in China’s current context, it will take a massive effort on the personal level to make change happen. That’s why we’re focusing on the “art” in “smart”, since that’s the one side of things we know how to do.
CR: Tell us more about the forums you’ve been organizing:
NK: Four artists from Austria and one from France are coming, and we’ll most likely discuss a few things, like what “Smart City” means in a European context. The architects will present examples of rural and urban development from their own work. Since 1949, China’s commercial and residential zoning laws have kept changing. Architects from Chengdu will talk about illegal construction, which is also quite widespread in Japan. They’ll talk about how unregulated architecture came about and how it affects the surrounding environment. A Chinese performance artist will talk about his work addressing all the demolitions and forced relocations across cities in China, he’s very interested in preservation, demolition and how it all affect residents. I hope these ideas will all collide and give rise to new discussions.
CR: How many projects and events host every year?
NK: There are about 14 residency projects and 8 exhibitions every year, and last year we held about 30 forums and events.
CR: Do artists from mainland China ever take part in the residency?
NK: Yes, but not that often, maybe two or three every year. But we host many more exhibitions and independent projects for Chinese artists, even if they didn’t take part in the residency.
CR: Can you give a few examples of independent projects?
NK: We work on many projects. Decameron is one project focusing on established artists in mainland. This project started in 2008 and we’ve had 8 artists so far.
CR: Do you ever collaborate with the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute or Eling Park?
NK: We’re friends with the people at Eling, but it’s more about communication than collaboration. We haven’t kept in touch with the art school.
CR: They also just started a big residency program for their recent graduates.
NK: I heard, but schools are too close to the market. They stifle students’ imagination and growth.
CR: Earlier, you talked a bit about the relationship between artists, the market, and art spaces. What do you think would make a good balance?
NK: It all depends on the context. If you’re operating in a ordinary environment, the balance happens naturally. At our forum on curating the city last year, a French curator also asked us that question: Why do we emphasize our non-commerical practice? Why don’t we think about creating contemporary art in a way that works within the constraints of the commercial system? It’s clear that we’re coming at the issue from different backgrounds, because in the Western wold, there’s good arts writing and criticism, and good curators as well -- there's a comprehensive cultural system that works. There are solid frameworks in place that can be discussed and evaluated. But China has no frameworks or regulations whatsoever.
CR: Since China’s art scene is fairly young and Organhaus is one of the first arts organization and residency programs in Chongqing, do you feel like Organhaus took the lead in some ways?
NK: Before, people used to ask me if we ought to be taking greater a responsibility in educating local artists and residents about the role of art in society. But that’s not really what we’re here for. We can only take on so much. If people take an interest in us, if they identify with what we’re doing, they’ll find themselves right at home here. But so much is out of our control.
Chongqing skyline from the top of the 501 building, where Organhaus is located.
Yang Yiran: I moved to Chongqing the same year Organhaus was founded in 2006, and I used to come to your events often. There is a dedicated group of people who always attend, how do you judge whether or not the event was a success? Do hope to extend the scope and the kind of audience you reach?
NK: Everything we do comes about quite organically, I’m more concerned about doing things consistently. Issues arise when things are too sporadic, that’s why we work with artists we already find interesting for our residency and programs, artists who already have certain ideas they want to explore. It’s easy to create a platform in China, you only need a few people to build something up from the ground -- but it’s much hard to start an organization that has a mission. You need to say no to everything that’s outside the scope of your mission. This is something we’re constantly discussing with the artists. Our individually emerged gradually, and we were able to start collaborating with likeminded people and organizations.
CR: Have you faced any major chanllenges over the years in operating an independent art organization in Chongqing?
NK: Not really, if something is important to you, you can always find a way to make it happen.
This interview was conducted in Chongqing (and translated from Mandarin) by Kira Simon-Kennedy & Yang Yiran for China Residencies.