Shanghai, 1984 Bookstore Café, Wednesday May 1th 2013
Hu Yun, born in 1986, lives and works in Shanghai. He studied in Hangzhou at the China Academy of Art. In 2010, he spent 3 months in the Natural History Museum of London for a residency program based on the Scientific Illustration Collections of the Natural History Museum. Using different mediums to express his artistic investigations, Hu Yun’s work is exploring the boundaries between individual stories, History and imagination.
Cecilia Suarez : Your last exhibition fits in a suitcase. Why is that?
Hu Yun: Because the whole idea is about travelling, about a journey and an adventure. The first thing that came to my mind was travelling then I found this suitcase tag.
I always collect different kind of tags when I travel and I have them all hanging somewhere. I suddenly found one that said something like: « lift with care », « heavy, lift with care ». So I chose that sentence as the exhibition title and therefore it seemed a natural choice to have a suitcase as the container for the exhibition.
Léa Genoud: During the exhibition you tell the visitors many stories; stories about your grandfather, stories about an American explorer and also anonymous tales. Your exhibition is about telling stories but also about telling History…
HY: For me History is stories and stories are History. In this exhibition I think the only thing that seems related to me is the part about my grandfather.
Actually around 3 or 4 years ago I started to talk with him again. Before that I knew nothing about his life because my parents had had some issues with him. I remember, when I was a boy we didn’t live together. We were separated and I came to visit him twice a year. Somehow 3 years ago, because he is quite old now, we started to visit him more often and I found out that he was more willing to tell me some stories. I think because he can find some kind of response from me unlike my father and his generation in general who don’t seem interested in History. So my grandfather started telling me stories mixed with History.
In 2010, I started a project of my own: I had an artist residency in London, at the National History Museum. In the Museum of course you can read and see a lot of History but once you get into it and you do a lot of research, you realize that all the information you can find is related to different people and so it becomes personal stories. So for me actually it’s one thing; all History is created by people. People are telling their version of their stories and it is our History.
CS: We saw pictures of other shows. Last year you had a solo exhibition in the Goethe Institute here in Shanghai, it was about one of the first museums in China and the exhibition is called “Our Ancestors”?
Could you tell us more about it? We were especially interested about the installation called “Personal belongings…”
HY: So for the exhibition “Our ancestors” I used the name of a novel from an Italian writer. His name is Italo Calvino and in the book he tells four different stories about four different people. It looks like they don’t have any connection between them but as you read them together it is like reading our, all of our, ancestors stories. This is where the idea came from.
During my research at the Natural History Museum [in London] of course I read a lot of things about the first museums in China. The very first museum was brought by westerners; actually by a French missionary in Shanghai. He established a Natural History Museum in the Xujiahui area.
Then I found out about this Chinaman who established the first museum opened by a Chinese. I became interested in his story because he is really important. His ideas were quite different from other people ideas of that time. He earned a lot of money from business and he really wanted to build up a new city. He was based in Nantong, a very small city, close to Shanghai, along the sea. There he built: a hospital, a jail, a post office, a bus station in fact the complete system of a modern city. I see him more like an urban planner. He had a big dream for modern China.
The only connection between him and my grandfather is that he died in 1926 and my grandfather is born in 1925. The year he died my grandfather came into this world but my grand father’s life experience is the real version of modern China that is the reason why I chose these two characters to be my exhibition storytellers.
From this exhibition on I started to do these very casual interviews with my grandfather. I would think about some questions, like yours, wrote them on a paper and ask him about them. So this is the reason why I called this exhibition “Our Ancestors”.
Of course it has to do with the recent past and is related to modern China.
CS: Do you want a real connection with the past? You did one installation called “Personal belongings”. It is an installation directly linked with History…
HY: Yes. During the preparation of the exhibition I read about an interesting public sculpture in Berlin. There is a square outside the national library in Berlin where an underground sculpture can be found. They dug a square hole in the ground and covered it with glass but inside this underground space, there are empty bookshelves. Of course it reflects on the Nazis’ actions when they burned a lot of important archives.
I thought it was a nice way to bring people back to some important period in History; so I borrowed this display idea. I replicated this underground box in relation to the Chinese gentleman I mentioned earlier. During the Cultural Revolution, they found a lot of his personal belongings. They thought he was quite rich and hoped they would find a big fortune in his tomb but actually only these few things came out [nb: a hat, a pair of glasses and a book – those items were presented in the show].
I thought this way of presenting was quite strong and I made this small box with walls inside. Actually, I copied the exhibition space and made a model of the exhibition area. I conceived this small box as if it was the last exhibition of this person. As if he had curated it for himself because when he died he decided to take these few objects with him.
I added a small title “Personal belongings – curated by Zhan Jian” and “Artist Zhang Jian”. Everything came out the day these activists dug out his tomb in 1966 [talking about the date used for the model exhibition staged in the installation “Personal belongings”]. It is as if the exhibition only had one opening but no on going show…
LG: You also did this kind of model with another exhibition; I believe it was for the exhibition “The Secret Garden I: Reeves’s Pheasant “ at the 4th Guangzhou Triennial. You built a small model of an aviary, wasn’t it? What is your interest in this approach, in a way it is an art installation but it is also like a museum installation…
HY: Yes, because it is a very common way museums bring the audience back to some context.
Actually in my work I always borrow these museum show techniques because people are trained to see objects this way. If you put something inside a glass case, people will think: “this is an important object”. People are really familiar with this type of display. I want to question it: what is the real relationship between these objects and ourselves?
I didn’t really want to make an aviary at the beginning for this project but during the research I read many things about this interesting Scotsman who lived in Macao for almost half of his life and had this fantastic garden. [nb: Thomas Beale (c. 1775–1841), was a Scottish naturalist, opium speculator and general merchant operating in the Far East during the 19th century]
The place was a “must see” for the Westerners at the time. In his house, he had this huge aviary and it was also in this aviary that John Reeves [nb: the East India Company tea inspector and naturalist around who Hu Yun constructed his work for the Natural History Museum] first met this animal [talking about the pheasant called the Reeve’s pheasant that was first introduced to Europe by John Reeves (1774-1856) and is the central subject of the exhibition].
Everybody said (the aviary) was huge but nobody mentioned the shape. There is no image of it, only inside images, some kind of bird views of the aviary.
It gave me the idea to use the exhibition space as the (Thomas Beale) “aviary”; because once you enter this space to look at my work, you are inside a period of History; you are a part of History.
I am always interested in (creating) this kind of exhibition space for my work.
CS: In a way you seem like an artist and an historian, do you feel you are a little bit of an historian?
HY: No, I don’t use the methodology of historians because they are interested in facts. Historians always dig out the facts or give you the facts. I do not want to do this.
First I am not interested in facts and I don’t see my works as factual. Facts are man made; they are ready-made. If you read History; you are reading about personal stories and that will take you somewhere. It has nothing to do with the facts, that exactly happened.
For example if some lady was murdered in an historical plot. When you read it you will think about how this lady looked like, how did she talk, what was her lifestyle? You will let your imagination wander; you will not just think of her as a neutral fact.
LG: So you are interested about the individual in History?
HY: Yes, and also for me History is not like as if something had happened in the past and stays there, for me what has happened could happen now or even is happening as we speak. I see all these stories that make History, past and present, as if they were happening in parallel time. The same events have happened, are happening and will happen again somewhere, someday in this world. Thus I perceive time as a flatline.
CS: Is it related to the present?
HY: Yes, somehow like the way dogs live; instant action-reaction; little perspective. Everything is flat.
CS: What is you next project?
HY: Well, after this project at the Aike-Dellarco gallery, I want to develop this approach further. I like telling stories and so far I feel it is only the beginning. In the future I want to develop maybe one or two stories more. Right now I am reading missionary stories.
CS: So you read a lot. All the stories you tell in your work, you have read them first. Are you doing research to construct your art?
HY: Basically I read books, I watch films but also I do a lot of drawings, watercolor drawings.
But when I draw my mind is very clear; I can think about different things at the same time. It is the time when all the stories form; as when you make wine or beer…
HY: When I do research or read a book, I don’t think much I just follow the lines. But when I draw; thoughts come to my mind and start brewing and one day something will come out and becomes the starting point of a new story.
CS: We saw the watercolor drawings and we thought it is very interesting because on one hand you have this History component and on the other hand there is a lot of imagination.
HY: Beside this kind of research or this kind of research based work, most of the time I do watercolor drawings, but sometimes I would also do a small installation, a sculpture or a video.
Artists are never satisfied with their life or with their work and they always have more things to say; sometimes even just to tell themselves. Sometimes I make works for myself. For example, I have a video that I have never shown.
Sometimes I just feel I have some poison in my body and I want to take it out. So I just let it out.