Interview with Hu Fang
iSh Jan/Feb 2009 issue 9.6
Title: Space and its Creative Energies: Hu Fang
Email interview conducted in English by: Michael Lee Hong Hwee
Translation of responses from Chinese to English by: Michael Lee Hong Hwee with Tang Ling Nah
Images and portraits courtesy of: Vitamin Creative Space
A writer, curator and gallery director, Hu Fang was born in 1970 in Zhejiang and currently works and lives in Guangzhou and Beijing. The graduate of the Chinese Literature Department of Wuhan University has written and published a number of novels and short stories, such as Shopping Utopia, Sense Training: Theory and Practice, and A Spectator. His recent publication is a compilation of fictional essays, entitled New Arcades (Survival Club, Sensation Fair, and Cool Shanshui). He has been a coordinating editor of "documenta 12 magazines" since 2006. Among his diverse curatorial portfolio includes being one of the curators of the recently concluded Third Yokohama Triennial 2008. With his partner, Zhang Wei, and artist Zheng Guogu, in 2002, he founded and is now the artistic director of Vitamin Creative Space, known in the art circuit as the cradle for international artists of Chinese descent, such as Cao Fei, Heman Chong and Pak Sheung Chuen. Recently Vitamin opened a new outfit in Beijing, called “the shop,” dedicated to presenting “a tangible interface of the philosophy of life…. for people to experience and re-discover life’s energy.” iSh catches up with this multi-hyphenate as he shuttles cities and projects, and quizzes him on his take on creativity in this digital age.
1. How did you start out? Would you say the shift from your training in literature to your current work in the visual arts as writer, curator and gallery director is a case of crossover, expansion or natural development?
I remember that, at the age of five maybe, I already had a special sensibility with words. I enjoyed reading picture-and-story books, and decided that by learning more words, I could better understand the stories behind the pictures. Looking back, I think verbal literacy addressed my wish to understand life and to go beyond the confines of time and space. Through reading, we get to know more about people and the world around us. The process of knowing is like a kind of ‘romance’; it is truly mesmerising. It also inspires me to create using words. In those days, image and text, as well as art and writing, were inseparable. From my formal training and experiences, I soon realised that not everyone is suited to be an artist. At the same time, it was writing that opened a door for me into the arts, a world where reality and fantasy collide. To this day, I deeply believe that, without writing, I would not have been able to enter this world.
2. Since the time you began to enjoy reading and writing, did you make plans to end up doing exactly what you do today? Who were your major influences? Any stumbling blocks along the way? Any unaccomplished tasks?
Life’s biggest mystery lies in its ability to mess up a person’s plans, while opening up new possibilities. Since young, I had the hunch that I would one day become a ‘writer’ of consequence, but I never expected I will become the ‘medium’ of writing about life. After graduation from the university, I spent a long time working as an advertising copywriter to make a living. Though I indeed became a ‘writer’, I did not expect to be a writer in the advertising line. During my childhood years, China hardly had any commercial advertising. Come to think of it, life is full of ironies.
I relate strongly with the protagonist in Russian writer Victor Olegovich Pelevin’s novel, Babylon (a.k.a. Generation Π, Homo Zapiens). The hero of the story, Babylen Tatarsky is a former student of the Literary Institute of Moscow and a disillusioned poet. After meeting a former classmate, he decides to become a copywriter.
In terms of literary influence, Franz Kafka has left a non-erasable memory in me since my adolescence. He led me to realise that it is the unknown that gives us the courage to live on. Since then, I have not burdened myself with any more task.
3. What is your opinion of the generic division between fiction and non-fiction? Are your ‘fictional essays’ attempts at blurring boundaries between them, as does Kafka’s ‘magical realism’? How do these categories figure in your engagement with the visual arts?
Initially, I regarded writing as simply an activity involving words, while fictional writing, in particular, a platform for ‘imagination’. This perception has a particular social context in the 1980s, which was ‘pre-globalisation’ and before all the liberalisation of ideas and cultures we have today. The distinction between the freedom of the fictional world and the restriction of the real world was stark for me then. With China’s opening up and the world’s globalisation forces, came a diversity of ideas. Suddenly a whole new world opened before me, including the possibility that “reality may be more imaginative than fantasy.” The line between reality and fantasy began to blur. New Arcades is a response to these changes in feelings about space. I melded fictional scenarios with my observations from real life, as a way of investigating the fuzzy situations around me.
4. What is, in your view, the relationship between writing and making, theory and practice in the contemporary art context? What is the role of publication, specifically the codex book format, in this regard?
What is interesting in human social structure is the perennial tensions between ‘thought’ and ‘action’. These tensions have inspired many schools of philosophy on how people should live. To me, what is important is neither to simplify their differences, nor to replace one with the other, but to search for alternative routes of relating them. This is precisely the domain of artists and writers: With certain acute sensibilities, they bridge the gap between the objective and the subjective, thereby engaging the diversity and completenesss of the world.
Publications are extensions of space. It is a communicator of thought, a compass for action, a medium for melding imagination and reality. Its magic lies in this paradox: Its intangible qualities exist precisely because of and despite its physical form. My fascination with books is also a continuation of my engagement with certain historical forces. It is hard to imagine a world without books; for books are the best medicines to inject spirit and energies into a new space.
This has led us to conceive a section in “the shop” called FAÇADE. By way of the selection and display of books, we hope to engage with contemporary knowledge and thoughts, especially how they are produced, expressed and spread. If we regard a publication as the ‘façade’ of thoughts, by examining the conceptual publications by different individuals and organisations, we can work towards a diversity of facades of different ‘architectures of contemporary thought,’ as well as ways to enter them. Based on this conceptual framework, FAÇADE does not carry books for sale per se, but serves as a platform for a contemporary mode of knowledge production and circulation.
5. Vitamin Creative Space aims to traverse a number of binary categories, most notably, the mundane life and creative energies; the Chinese contexts and beyond; criticality and commercialism. Why do you regard this as your most important mission? How do you make them happen? What is the relationship between Vitamin Creative Space and the newly opened “the shop”?
As human beings, we spend a great deal of our time ordering our lives according to social norms. In Vitamin Creative Space, we wish to open up a space – amidst the mundaneness of the nine-to-five office space, and beyond the safety of one’s own writing desk. It is a space into which the flow of creative energies in one’s body can be extended and explored. With the death of Hans van Dijk (dubbed the “Bethune” of artistic saints in the China art scene) in 2002, my partner Zhang Wei and I, together with artist Zheng Guogu, decided to conceive a space in Guangzhou in loving memory of his contributions and to extend his spirit. It was Hans who introduced us to contemporary art, as well as moulded our understanding of the relation between life and art. All these happened while life went on; they are actions derived from conflicts between the self and the reality around us.
The newly opened “the shop” in Beijing reminds me of the days when I had countless engaging conversation with Hans. In those times, the avant-garde artists were regarded the ‘enemies’ of the state. All artistic activities were conducted at the risk of official suppression. Hans’ passion towards the arts surpassed his material poverty. I wonder what Hans would think of “the shop”. Obviously, the conditions today and then are different, but I feel that it is necessary to continue his spirit.
In relation to Vitamin, “the shop” is a different space. We are interested in creative activities that make a difference and that continue the spirit of innovation. “the shop” is a like a person in society: It needs time to find its identity and reasons for existence; at the same time, it is part of a community.
6. Questions on time management: How do you manage family life, friendship and work? Do you compartmentalise your personal practice in writing from your more leadership roles in curating, directing and taking care of the artists whom you represent?
Conceptually, I try to regard the different matters in related terms. In practice, I work towards moulding them into a single entity. So long as I disregard them as responsibilities or duties, I experience immense joy while dealing with them.
7. How do you identify the artists, contributors and collaborators you eventually work with? Do you google for “the next big thing”? Do you have a talent-scouting team? Or do you know it in the first instance of meeting someone new? How do you work with them?
Perhaps I am on a constant lookout for certain life energies, whilst being curious about new things around me. I also believe that different bodies are similarly searching, and creating spaces of their own. When these different bodies meet, they may discover common grounds or aspirations; a ‘chemical reaction’ may ensue. What lie beneath such encounters are, I think, deep wishes to fight loneliness and strong desires to share new discoveries.
8. What drives your creative process? How do you research, explore, develop and resolve a project? Other than exhibitions and publications, Vitamin also has a blog that is bustling with activities and update: Please share on how the blog engages your idea of a creative life.
I slowly abandon the desire for a perfect outcome. Instead I pay attention to minute changes and nuances during the process. A process guided by intuition is far more precious than that bent on achieving perfection. At the same time, I tell myself: relax. Where Vitamin is concerned, we did not intend for it to become an organisation. We hope it can be a flexible space, which resonates with the creative energies of individuals. In this regard, we have to hold in suspect all those forces that are not conducive for creative growth. Societal mechanism tends to promote culture as an industry. Therefore, we have much to deal with daily, to carve spaces for the creative growth for individuals.
In my view, if the things happening around the art scene do not inspire creativity but are mere ‘mechanical exercises,’ then it is a pity; we have missed the opportunities to explore possible and alternative lives. Exchange and sharing are ways to engage the human desire to investigate life. At the same time, each person needs to pursue his or her own unique path. ‘Our Vitamin’ blog aims to relate all the different creative paths of investigating life. We call it Garden of Forking Paths. In this imagined garden, each contributor shares a fragment of his or her perspective of the day’s experience. This online sharing also connects with physical exchanges. I do not think people will regard this is an official blog of Vitamin. Instead they will discover a highly open space. Perhaps we are highly suspicious of corporatisation. Instead we are far more keen on detecting metaphors of life. As a physical space, Vitamin will disappear some day. But as a metaphor of life, Vitamin is highly fluid; it can exist in many possible forms, and continue its existence in different realities.
9. As a curator, writer and gallery artistic director, how do you look at art? For example, how do you tell if something is fresh, as opposed to being derivative? Where is ‘the art’ in a new media artwork, for instance, Cao Fei’s RMB City?
To turn sensing into a daily exercise: This will help detect life’s possibilities. It is important to use the senses to feel an artwork, to suss out the future embodied in it.
Often, in front of a piece of artwork, we overlook the fact that we are facing a living body. The life and creative spirits in such bodies surpass all limiting notions of ‘artwork.’ I enjoy the feeling of encountering an ‘un-artwork’ that which makes no statement, and no desire to be a ‘perfect masterpiece.’ Take Cao Fei’s RMB City on Second Life, for example. She is embarking on an exploration, and this desire to discover has such close affinity with our (Vitamin’s) interest in possible futures, forging a strong basis for collaboration. This collaboration is not merely built around a single project, but a long-term relationship, based on trust and faith. Mutual trust is a key to personal inquiry. After all, trust is the most fundamental quality in human relations. Between Cao Fei and Vitamin, trust has engaged the speculative tendency of society, leading to a creative project that is commercially viable without losing its cutting edge. This is indeed a miracle.
10. Finally, the chat is a recurring element in your work: You conduct and give interviews in your work; you chat with visitors to your space and continue some of the conversations over email (like this one we’re doing) and skype. A number of projects are said to have originated from conversations. What is the significance of the dialogue in your work and life? What, to you, is a marker of a fulfilling exchange?
Imagine a man who has been locked up in a room for 10 years. Despite not having anyone with him physically, he may still be having constant dialogues with himself and with the passage of time. In fact he may not be lonely at all. I believe that dialogue is an exercise in engaging the flow of life.
At the same time, one can find countless approaches to dialogue. Pavilion to the Heart’s Insight is my attempt to do this. In it, different texts relate with one another in dialogic manners and they collectively constitute an ‘Arena of Emotions’.
Michael, perhaps our dialogue needs not be limited to this interview, but can be extended into a co-editorial book project?
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