This interview, conducted by Art Practical Associate Editor Matthew Harrison Tedford, is part of the ongoing collaboration between Bad at Sports and Art Practical.
Abby Chen has been the program director of the Chinese Culture Center of San Francisco since 2006. She has overseen the Center’s Xian Rui Artist Excellence Exhibition Series and the Present Tense Biennial. Formerly, she was the cofounder and director of the Chinese Artists Network, an organization dedicated to contemporary Chinese visual artists. I began our conversation about contemporary Chinese and Chinese-American art by asking about the history of the CCC.
Abby Chen: The CCC is managed by the Chinese Culture Foundation, which started in 1965. The Center was built in 1973, right after Nixon's visit to China—a groundbreaking event for U.S. and Chinese diplomacy. At the time, the CCC generated lots of excitement and interest, as well as controversy over who defines Chinese culture. I think that question remains to this day.
Matthew Harrison Tedford: What is the CCC's role in the community? What do they want it to be?
AC: The CCC—located in the heart of Chinatown, next to the financial district—has an exhibition space, auditorium, gift shop, classrooms, and community space. The idea is to operate as a place that promotes Chinese culture in the U.S. and also influences the course of Chinese and Chinese-American culture in the U.S.
MHT: What role does the exhibition program play in the CCC?
AC: Visual art is really the face of the Center. It shows the value propositions that we adopt as an organization, so the organization does pour a lot of energy and resources into the visual art program. It has enjoyed a great legacy, starting with the very early executive director Lucy Lim. She organized groundbreaking exhibitions that showed some amazing artwork that the West hadn’t seen before, such as the Tang Dynasty murals, and work by the great painter Wu Guanzhong, a modernist who combined traditional techniques with his training in France. Since joining the Culture Center in 2006, I’ve tried to bring in a different perspective, including exhibitions of contemporary visual art.
MHT: That includes your several-part series, Fresh and Sharp.
AC: Fresh and Sharp is a translation of its Mandarin title, Xian Rui, xian meaning "fresh" and rui meaning "sharp." Through solo exhibitions, the series highlights artists of Chinese descent residing in the U.S., and the hybridity embodied in many Chinese-Americans today. These are not necessarily emerging artists, but under-recognized and under-represented mid-career artists who we believe create exceptional artwork. As a cultural institution in the U.S.—and sadly there are not many—we can provide institutional support to individual artists to gain the recognition they deserve in the mainstream.
MHT: The series includes Stella Zhang's exhibition, 0-Viewpoint, which just closed.1 It featured a lot of sexual imagery, such as phalluses and labia. How did the CCC and viewers in the community receive the work?
AC: That exhibition differed greatly from the previous ones. Stella Zhang is a Palo Alto–based artist who was trained in China, lived in Japan for ten years, and has lived in the U.S. for the past ten years. Her work engaged with feminism in a way that we have not seen at the CCC before. For a cultural institution, representing an entire community, it becomes quite sensitive to bring in artwork that is provocative and might not appeal to everyone. When you do decide to push some buttons, you do need to think of the consequences as well.
This show is really about the artist’s emotional journey, her self-perception of being a woman, immigrant, mother, and wife, and shifting among these different roles. However, the work is not only somewhat sexual, it is also abstract. The comments heard from the Chinese community were that the work had nothing to do with Chinese culture. To my surprise—well, not to my surprise—we also received complaints from the Caucasian community. They found the show to be really unexpected. They felt that the work had nothing to do with Chinese culture, and that we should promote what they see in Chinatown, where there is a lot of traditional folk art being displayed.
MHT: So even though Zhang is a Chinese artist, schooled at the Central Academy of Fine Arts (one of the major Chinese art institutes), exhibiting in a Chinese culture center gallery, curated by a Chinese curator, the work was considered by both the Chinese community and the non-Chinese community as not being Chinese enough?
AC: Well, there were those comments that we received, but at the same time, I feel that the show was embraced by the community at large. We did get quite a few engaging reviews about the show. That was very encouraging. And the fact that this "has nothing to do with Chinese culture" is exactly the point that we're trying to make, particularly for me as a curator. I wanted to take the initiative to show the very unique individuals that are coming out of this culture. Trained as a brush painter, Zhang started to discover this new identity through living on multiple continents, which is very much part of the contemporary discourse about migration and feminism. This is really about how as a community, or as a society, we view an individual expression.
A lot of the time, we see avant-garde Chinese contemporary art in non-Chinese venues. We see it in MoMA, we see it in Asia Society, but we don't necessarily see it in a place with a name or label that includes Chinese. So it seems that we're resenting the individuals of our own community. I hope that as a curator I am able to break that stereotype. It is a stereotype, but it is also a reality.
MHT: Do you think there is, amongst culture centers like yours—and I don't want you to speak for all of them—this sort of tension to both preserve this traditional culture and to not be defined by pagodas and kitsch sold in Chinatown? Is this a tension that you're dealing with?
AC: We do have this dynamic tension being an ethnic cultural institution in the U.S., yet Chinese-Americans are indeed American—their problem is the American problem. But we are always perceived as being exotic and ethnic. And the image of Chinatown does, to some extent, solidify that perception. But it also gives us more reason to really push the boundary and demonstrate the other side of our culture. As I observe, this dynamic tension is very serious. But to break free is not just about courage, it's really about resources and support. We're lucky. We have support from the Wattis Foundation and the San Francisco Arts Commission. At the same time, we also happen to be the largest Chinese community outside of China. So this is a very powerful community, politically speaking. Because of that, I think we are able to support this kind of initiative and take some risks. But it is a lot harder for other institutions when they rely solely on the support from the community. There is more at stake for those organizations; they need to hold on to that Chinatown image in order to survive.
MHT: You just said that you would like to see exhibitions like 0-Viewpoint take place in Chinese exhibition spaces, such as yours. Were this exhibition to take place in a non-Chinese center, how do you think that would change how it is framed? Would it lose some of that "Chineseness" of her experience and just be abstract sculpture?
AC: I don't necessarily think that she would lose her "Chineseness," but I like to view it as an entire package. It's an individual's experience happening in a Chinese community, where the community sees it alongside people from outside the community. The significance of showing this kind of artwork in the Culture Center is not only to encourage the artist’s freedom of expression, but also encourage the people within the community to express themselves freely. When you put this work into a non-Chinese venue known for showing the avant-garde, then, in a way, it takes away the tension and pressure. Honestly speaking, that kind of weight lifting removes some of the significance of the show. I feel that weight and pressure creates a stronger impact.
MHT: With Stella's show, one of these tensions is the multiplicity of who she is—a woman originally from China living in the U.S. Everyone has this multiplicity, but this particular identity is not easy to pin down, which is very much related to the symposium you recently hosted in Guangzhou, China.
AC: The symposium addressed issues related to gender identity. In Guangzhou, there are fewer galleries and auction houses, and more artists seem to be working independently of the market. For the past ten years, the economics of Chinese contemporary art have been booming, to an extent that I think is almost outrageous. It sends a very different kind of signal to the artists, suggesting that their only route is to participate in the marketing and price manipulation of their work, almost like a stock market. But the Gender Education Forum at the Sun Yat-sen University is in Guangzhou. This is a group of writers and scholars trying to create this grassroots movement that addresses feminist issues and gender inequality in China, which prompted the idea of doing the symposium.
MHT: You brought together scholars, artists, and activists who aren't necessarily working within a feminist framework. What was your impetus for bringing these three separate groups together?
Listen to the full interview on Bad at Sports: Episode: 265!
AC: First of all, I was very impressed by the grassroots, social interventions of the activists. The artists were not participating in those social interventions at all, although some of their work incorporates discourses on the body and environment. But those discourses remain sort of on the surface, and I feel that the artists lacked theoretical and academic support. Because of that observation, I thought these people should know each other.
Through the symposium I found that the artists were not as engaged as I hoped, but then again, this is a completely new world to them. And the viewpoints and perspectives of certain male scholars surprised me quite a bit. I wasn't necessarily expecting—maybe it's just me being naïve— a public policy professor to have very little to no understanding of feminist issues in China. Because of the socialist structure, women and men enjoyed equal pay and welfare. That seems structurally to resolve some major issues. But when you look closer nowadays in China, particularly since it opened up, there are lots of layers hidden behind this equal pay, such as sexual harassment; the definition of rape; and overall, the internalized perceptions of women and what their proper behavior should be. It's really severe and it has to be addressed.
MHT: So you put on this symposium on gender issues in Chinese culture with Sun Yat-sen University, which is a public university. Did you run into political issues, in terms of critiquing businesses, the government, or just traditional society? Or into problems with the state or local authorities?
AC: Not necessarily. But initially, we invited Professor Ai Xiao Ming, who is a famous feminist in China, to be the keynote speaker. It should have been okay. However, she was under surveillance because of different kinds of civil activism. She did a civil investigation—I think it's called "Citizens’ Investigation"—into the death toll of children in the  Sichuan earthquake, because the number that she found was a lot larger than the government’s. We were unable to have her participate because, as she said, "If you guys have me, probably you're not going to have a symposium." It was not because she's a feminist, it's because these not-necessarily feminist issues that she was examining were very sensitive subjects.
That was the only thing. To talk about gender is still a rather okay topic in China. But as we dig deeper, I think it's going to become more sensitive because we’ve started to raise these issues amongst artists, scholars, journalists, and the media. It's a very initial step. I think it has a long way to go.
MHT: Do you know of any mainstream Chinese artists that are working in this realm, in this more-than-superficial take on gender and feminism and sexuality?
AC: I will be very careful in answering that question. I certainly have seen female artists trying to address gender issues, but I’m not sure if their attempts are focused on just gender itself, or the issues involving gender. I think that the reason for taking on a social issue sometimes borders on going after some sort of shock value in order to gain the attention of a gallery. With many of these works that I have seen, in which the artist makes claims that it is about feminism, I'm a little bit suspicious about what that work is really about.
MHT: Do you think the commercialization of art in contemporary China plays any role in this absence of socially oriented, or socially active, artwork?
AC: Initially, no, not the commercialization. But I do think the change of ideology definitely plays a part. I think that it is good that some artists get supported. There's definitely an unprecedented enthusiasm about making art. But I certainly feel that this unified perception that art needs to make money, and that the art that sells is the good art—akin to the way we view art as a commodity—is very dangerous. If you look at a lot of contemporary art, it is really masculine, chauvinist. But we don't have enough female artists, and female artists' work is not getting attention. There are female artists trying to leverage the fact that there's a lack of feminist artists, producing the work that I found suspicious. I still find it complicated, and good artworks are not easy to find.
MHT: Do you think the political climate in China now is conducive to letting those artists flourish?
AC: They definitely have a lot more liberty and room to expand than before. The question is: are they willing to do it? When I see the social intervention that was performed by the Gender Education Forum, I feel like they're definitely testing the water, and pushing the envelope. They said during the planning that it was very exciting for them, but at the same time, they were very scared. They were thinking of different strategies to counter that. One of the participants, when I asked them about those fears, said, "Later on, after we did the intervention, we realized that many fears were imagined." I was very touched to hear some young folks saying this, because I feel that this energy is really trying to break free, even though there is pressure. I feel that when artists have the additional tool of visual language, they can make a bigger and stronger impact in society. I think we are about to hit that era. I am just not seeing a lot yet, because the ideological control is still pretty tight in China. On the surface, there is a lot of room, like I said just now. But it's about where that bottom line is. You continue to push, but you don't know where that is.
MHT: How much of this has changed over the last twenty-one years? Could you have held this conference before 1989?
AC: I think I could probably have still held it, but I don't think people would really be that engaged in the topic. I don't think sexual harassment was a term that people used twenty-one years ago. I think that people are a lot more aware of what sexual harassment is nowadays.
MHT: Is it just a matter of awareness? Is it that they didn't have the language to speak about this, or that it wasn't a concern among the mainstream?
AC: I don't necessarily think it was a concern. So many people internalized it; they probably didn't feel that that was an issue. In those days it was imperative to be subtle, fit in, and survive by holding onto a state-owned enterprise job, where there are no alternatives. Everybody had more at stake.
MHT: What about the change to Chinese art in the last couple of decades? There's more commercialization, but do you see something that has changed formally, or with the content—away from something more traditional?
AC: Right after the Cultural Revolution, there were a lot of artists already trying to break away from traditions. What I’m observing right now is that we're becoming like the West. Because of the commercialization, most voices that we hear come through that channel. So when you don’t have a commercialized voice, you cannot be heard. Which is really sad. Those voices are going to influence the voices that will be heard. I see very talented artists get buried in this commercial route, losing their talent, sharpness, or edge—which I think is an issue that we all face.
MHT: Do you envision any artists using this commercialization in their favor, and not just for their personal economic gain, but to be heard? To use this route in a more transgressive way?
AC: I really wish that is the case. A few artists are trying to do that. One is Ai Weiwei. This guy was almost like a hooligan at the beginning. He's from a prestigious family. He basically can do whatever he wants. And because of this contemporary art scene, he rose and thrived. And nowadays, I think he has become someone that is leveraging this platform built by this commercial power to really become a citizen, performing civil disobedience, which is very rare in China. Although they kind of use each other. The government is trying to use him to tell the West, “Hey, we honor human rights. We still let him speak.” But, of course, they shut down his blog as well. On the other hand, Ai Weiwei is also leveraging what China is allowing him to do and how this commercial power surrounding him really lets his voice be heard. So he was involved in the earthquake investigation, he was involved in the East Village artists’ community. He was involved in a lot of things. But he is in a very unique position, where he can seek protection when he's performing these acts, whereas other artists cannot be that lucky.
MHT: Because they're not commercial?
AC: They're not famous. They don't have the attention. If anything happens to them, no one is going to know about it. But if anything happens to Ai Weiwei, the whole world is going to know in a second. So that's why I'm saying they're using each other. But I'm glad that at least he's using it, unlike other artists who are playing along.
MHT: So it's this sort of back and forth, this dialectic almost, in which he has to give up something to be able to transgress certain cultural norms or public policies. He has to buy into this game or else he's just one of another 1.6 billion people.
AC: Yes, yes. I do think that Ai Weiwei has transformed himself. Because of that, I am quite impressed.
MHT: Speaking of transgressions, what's next for CCC?
AC: We need to continue to engage our community in a social dialogue. That's what I hope for. One of the things I want to do is make the organization sustainable. I'm hoping to achieve that with the leadership of my current executive director, Mabel Teng. She is very capable, and I think she also has a strong and clear vision for making the CCC a destination for a progressive Chinese culture that is innovative, willing to take risks, and not afraid of making mistakes.