3.17 / A Living Thing That Changes

Sharing a Sensibility: a conversation with Hou Hanru

By Patricia Maloney, Julio C├ęsar Morales June 14, 2012

This spring, Hou Hanru announced he would be leaving his post as Director of Exhibitions and Public Programs and Chair of the Master’s program for Exhibition and Museum Studies at the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI), a position he has held since 2006. Hou came to SFAI at the invitation of Okwui Enwezor and Chris Bratton, then Dean of Academic Affairs and President, respectively, to be one of the core faculty developing the curriculum for the new School of Interdisciplinary Studies, a program intended to provide and generate critical frameworks by which students might examine the economic, socio-cultural, and political conditions that shape the production of contemporary art. During his tenure, Hou envisioned the exhibition program for SFAI’s Walter and McBean Galleries to be a series of interrogations into global perspectives on modernity structured along five axes: Global Figures, New Models of Culture and Art Production, Pacific Perspectives, Acting Out in the City, and New Voices. All of the exhibitions produced by Hou are documented in the recently published book, Paradigm Shifts (San Francisco, 2011).  On May 11, the artist and curator Julio César Morales (who co-organized Living in Studio Kuchar with Hou and assistant curator Mary Ellyn Johnson) and Patricia Maloney (who received her MA from the School of Interdisciplinary Studies in 2008) sat down with Hou to discuss his time at SFAI and his outlook on the program’s accomplishments.

Image: Hou Hanru with Sarkis, Face self portrait, 2006; neon and transformers. Courtesy of the Walter and McBean Galleries, San Francisco.

Julio César Morales: Patricia and I wanted to focus this conversation on what you’ve done here at SFAI and at large in the past five years, so I’ll start with your first exhibition here, Sarkis: Alive and After. I recently read a statement by Nicolas Sarkozy in which he called multiculturalism in France a failure, and I was thinking that a lot of Sarkis’s strategies for the exhibition dealt with those issues and conflicts, which are still lingering in France.

Hou Hanru: Sarkis has been very influential in my way of thinking about the relationship between contemporary art and the cultural transformation caused by contributions of different cultures, as well as how an the individual negotiates these changes, especially as someone that has been traveling in constant exile and has to negotiate a home in every place he finds himself. I also think Sarkis is a great educator, and much of his work is about turning an exhibition into an open school where the public can discuss many issues, from politics and cultural memories and identity to beauty, religion, spirituality, music, film, and philosophy. It’s extremely important that his exhibitions almost systematically have a pedagogical dimension. But his version of the pedagogical is based on the model of sharing; it involves a lot of time.

I officially accepted the job at SFAI in June 2006, and I moved here in August. Very quickly, I decided that the program should be structured on major global discourses, which was closely related to the program brought in by the new group at SFAI: Okwui Enwezor, Chris Bratton, and Renee Green, among others. The aim was to help the school transform itself from a traditional, painting-and-sculpture art school into a platform for research, discussion, and study on major artistic and cultural questions related to globalization. I thought that there was a real possibility to turn SFAI into a kind of Black Mountain College. I wanted to start the programming for the Walter and McBean Galleries with a global figure, and the first person that jumped to mind was Sarkis. He seemed like the perfect beginning to the programming here, being a great artist as well as a mentor and someone who is deeply engaged with various communities. It would be a direct contribution to the transformation of the pedagogical program of the school. Throughout the show, he transferred an important spiritual dimension into this cultural conversation, and he donated a piece to stand as a conversation between San Francisco and Istanbul. All of this together set a first note, the first goal in the whole program.


Sarkis: Alive and After, 2006; installation view, Walter and McBean Galleries, San Francisco Art Institute. Courtesy of the Walter and McBean Galleries, San Francisco.

Patricia Maloney: To what extent was Sarkis a proxy for yourself? The same conditions of exile, freedom, and cultural restructuring are applicable to your own experience, coming from China and integrating yourself into the contemporary art community via Paris.

HH: In my student years, I began to understand that art is not simply producing nice objects and beautiful paintings but much more about engaging in this tension between a creative individual and a transformative social background. It’s about finding ourselves in a constant negotiation, between the necessity of being part of a social transformation and, at the same time, establishing a critical distance for ourselves. We have to be ready to push ourselves towards a kind of spiritual exile. When we live in a place, we should constantly question ourselves and turn ourselves into foreigners of the place where we are, whether it is our country, city, families, or community. If the arts help us to understand the world in a more interesting way, it is because they help us create a distance by which we can be constantly alert of the risk involved with our existing conditions. Exile is always a part of me, of the identity of someone who searches for another identity. It’s a process; when we start talking about identity, it’s about de-identification.

We’re always trying to transmit a message that being oneself is not sufficient; it’s always a question, a deconstruction of self that forms the existence of the self, whether it’s an individual, community, or a nation. That is the condition in which a contemporary artist operates.

The world is changing so fast, and it’s no longer dominated by a Western model of modernity. We’re engaging with globalization, but globalization is not simply one model being spread out, all around; instead, it’s the opposite. It’s various projects of modernization, various understandings, interpretations of modernity, or modernities crashing into each other to converge and form a new global identity. In this process, the most exciting and, very often, the most creative, innovative actions or products happen totally outside of the traditional centers for production and exchange. It’s really about the so-called peripheries, which are no longer peripheries.

Conversations like these are another dimension of the program and why I’m so interested in different models of cultural production. Those models are often generated and in places that are usually seen as marginal, alternative, or even thought of as informal. But all of the so-called experimental models happening in those informal contexts actually represent not only the most innovative aspects but also, maybe, the most engaging kind of political, economic, and social possibilities. This is why I came up with the project World Factory and another project related to migration, Wherever We Go. When we talk about the global, it’s about how to re-understand this context in the global map—and not simply seeing San Francisco as a provincial city but seeing it as a potentially important place that has a direct connection with the whole Pacific, perhaps the most exciting new center of ideas.


Wherever We Go: Art, Identity, Cultures in Transit, 2007; installation view, Walter and McBean Galleries, San Francisco Art Institute. Courtesy of the Walter and McBean Galleries, San Francisco.

PM: In that effort to reposition San Francisco, what was your understanding of San Francisco when you arrived here?

HH: Well, my first impression was that it’s really like a Truman Show city: this comfortable, very nice, Geneva-like place with a little color of multiculturalism but extremely comfortable, conformist, and extremely mellow. I tried very quickly to understand the complexity of this mellow place, what’s behind its mellow surface. I am not particularly interested in just embracing or criticizing what is already there; I’m more interested in creating the conditions where we can go further.

I was invited to come to SFAI at a time when I was increasingly interested in developing public art projects, questioning the issues of privatization and how public spheres can be preserved and can develop in that context. I tried to bring this dimension into the program. It’s about using small spaces as laboratories to explore the possibility of going out of the city, to create a connection between research on the question of public spheres and testing the prototypes. Today, contemporary art is not and should not be an activity mainly within the galleries and museums. Instead, it should be turning a gallery or museum into a laboratory for much-larger-scale experiments.

HH (cont.): So things can happen within the galleries, and they should happen, but in a totally different relationship to outside space.

And that brings me to the question of how to deconstruct the paradigm of museums. This is why, from the day that we started, we refused the white cube. It was a gesture, and maybe it sounds quite naïve and straightforward, but I think that when you do it, it’s actually challenging. It forces you and the artist to think, operate, and imagine a totally different context. After so many years of having white cubes as the standard, suddenly artists are in the place where they lose their point of reference.

PM: How do you perceive your role as an educator intersecting with and maybe operating in contradiction to your role as a curator? If you are trying to upset the point of reference for the artists, simultaneously you’re trying to create a set of references for your students.

HH: That’s right. Of course, it was a new experience for me to run a whole department and a program of education. My experience here makes me really think about what a curatorial or museum studies program means. Are we actually training students to become standard curators, so they can find good jobs in a museum, or are we training people who have more critical desire to challenge what the standard is? I don’t think that there’s a contradiction between these two. They’re two facets of the same engagement: trying to challenge the established paradigm of representation of art.

JCM: To what extent does your background training as an artist come into play here?

HH: Well, I have been trained in a very particular way. I was trained as an art historian; I even did archeology while practicing art, experimenting with painting, installation, performance, and so forth. I was also trained as a soccer player in an earlier period. But it’s all related.

I was reading an interview with Adel Abdessemed this morning, and he said an interesting thing: “People think that my work is performance, but I don’t call them performances; I call them acts.” Why acts? Acts are things that don’t have fixed forms and scenarios; they’re things that you continuously create in movement. They not only respond to a given cultural issue or condition but also intervene in created conditions as well. You’re not simply reflecting on the situation; you’re part of the making of the situation. This is essential. Being a curator, an artist, a writer, an educator—the common base is the possibility of this model/non-model that pushes us to create a cluster of various experimental moments. Those would suggest stability within a period of time, and you can see that as a paradigm or model, but they don’t sustain us for very long. They shouldn’t remain for very long.

JCM: It’s almost like Archigram: movable cities that should only last twenty or twenty-five years.


 Chen Hui-Chiao. Here and Now: Winter, 2009; bed, ping-pong balls, and beads; installation view, Everyday Miracles (Extended); 2009-2010. Courtesy of the Artist and Walter and McBean Galleries, San Francisco.

HH: Exactly. This is extremely important. If you refuse to embrace this changing world, you can choose to stay forever in the past, to be left out of the future. This is why some institutions remain in a constant crisis because they are too obsessed with the past for their own security, rather than trying to create a new security and a real confidence to face change. Of course, this is a general social problem, and we are in a very contradictory period in history.

People are educated—not only in school but also in everyday life—to work very hard to preserve a fixed value system, which is somehow understood to be a sign of safety. Every individual is thrown into this lifelong negotiation with permanence, a kind of insecurity based on monetary values and financial conditions. When you become an independent person, you have to deal with things like health insurance, and when you go to school, you have student loans. These things create a very efficient kind of social control and even violence that throws you into a permanent state of fear of being unable to pay this debt.

PM: But that’s also reality. The idea of shaping people who are not just seeking the safety of a profession but are actually operating as critical thinkers and challenging systems, who are seeking to create new systems, doesn’t necessarily come along with a paycheck. So how do you commit yourself to that goal and pay off the student loans?

HH: I come from a relatively “spoiled” position. When I was a student in a socialist system in China in the 1970s and ’80s, we didn’t worry about student loans. Then I went to Europe, where there is also a very developed, socially democratic system where no one is left out. Maybe the American model should not be the dominant model, where everyone is thrown into this competition for security. I’ve always thought that schools should have the possibility to develop very different kinds of programs—different degrees, even—but unfortunately, the reality is this country is less flexible than many other places. One of the efforts we really need to make is to mobilize resources to support diverse kinds of practices and institutions.

When we were thinking about ways to bring in new programming at the school, it was not simply about generating more material interest but also about generating the possibility for people to rethink this series of social and political questions and to rethink the work of the imagination. It has to do with what we think an artist should be and what people in the arts should carry with themselves, as an ethical position. All of the efforts, all of the contradictions, all of the conflicts happening here are really revealing a conversation that we need to face.

The combination of these major individuals coming to this place created a momentum that was important and even crucial. The whole experience has been positive. At the end of the day, it will be great if SFAI can preserve and keep this profile, but what is important is that this model will somehow create conditions and continue to be alive. When you really think about how much has been achieved in the few years that this group of people was here, I have to say it’s pretty amazing, not simply to be self-congratulatory but because how much it shows its relevance and necessity. We managed to have people who have become significant actors in the art scene one year or two years after graduating, whether they have a regular job in a museum or they’re like you, establishing independent activities. You established the most important website in the Bay Area arts scene in the space of three years. The influence is there, and if this experience cannot last for much longer, perhaps that’s the course this is supposed to take.

The question is actually one of how much we can diversify the notion of institutions into various possibilities or different models. We have this impression that all institutions look more or less the same. Yet there are many possibilities, many spaces in which individual initiatives can change the definition of institutions. I believe in that.

It’s been a learning process for me, working here in the past few years. I learned a lot in terms of how to adapt to the existing institutional framework while also trying to imagine and experiment with how to create innovative art initiatives.


World Factory, 2007 ; installation view, Walter and McBean Galleries, San Francisco Art Institute. Courtesy of the Walter and McBean Galleries, San Francisco.

JCM: I can think of two great exhibitions you put together: Everyday Miracles (Extended) in 2009, which originated in your project for the Chinese Pavilion at the Venice Biennale of 2007, and World Factory in 2007, which then went to the Istanbul Biennial. Those kinds of platforms and locations really speak to what you have achieved here in the past five years and to what was needed. You filled a specific void, in a way that needs to be continued.  

HH: SFAI is a small place, but at the same time, it’s a very, very big place. It’s a place where you can create a miniature of the world. And this miniature of the world doesn’t exist because we want it to be the world but because we want to bring the world here. We’re not just fabricating things here but bringing people to invest in this place, to make this place into the world, and vice versa. For me, this is a normal practice, but it’s often an ignored dimension to the potentiality of a locality.

To make an exhibition, whether it’s a biennale or a one-man show, is to intervene into a locality, to try to activate the potential of that locality by bringing a different kind of stimulus there and at the same time helping the specific locality to reinvent itself. This circulation is the opposite of a touristic approach. It’s a constant engagement with every place, and so it generates many possibilities to reinvent one’s identity. This is what art can help us to do. Of course, there are many other things that can help us to do this, but I particularly believe in the force of art.

Art is something in which the value is not inscribed in its material, but it’s something that you share with others. Art doesn’t have a fixed form; it doesn’t have a tangible materiality. Art is a constant effort to open yourself towards another, whether it’s a person-to-person relationship or something that you imagine out there. It’s the sharing of a sensibility.

Art can help us to rethink a series of questions about locality, including the questions that we mentioned—the questions of the society of fear, the obsession with security—and of course, fundamentally, it’s about really loving life as a changing process. It’s been inscribed in every project that we’ve tried to carry out here. And you might call it provocative, you might call it challenging, but it’s fundamentally about how someone lives in this world.



Born in Guangzhou, China, Hou Hanru received both his undergraduate and graduate degrees from Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA) in Beijing, where he was trained in art history, with additional work in painting, performance, installation, and architectural research. Hou gained international attention with Cities on the Move (1997–2000), a traveling exhibition he curated with Hans-Ulrich Obrist, which emphasized the ways in which Asian contemporary artists have dealt with rapid changes in urban lifestyles and values. He has also curated many seminal exhibitions in Europe, the United States, and Asia, including international biennials in Shanghai (2000), Istanbul (2007), the Chinese Pavilion at the Venice Biennale (2007), and Lyon (2009). He has acted as a consultant for cultural institutions across the world, including the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Global Advisory Committee of the Walker Art Center, and the Asian Art Council.

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