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Art's not just for rich

ONE of the world's most distinguished curators - China-born Hou Hanru now based in Paris and San Francisco - is the man behind a high-powered workshop at ShContemporary next month on collecting Asian contemporary art.

The VIP workshop on September 9 involves curators, collectors and other museum professionals from Asia, Europe and the United States. "Collecting Asian Art: What, When and How" is the topic and it focuses on museums collecting art for the public.

Hou also plans to curate an exhibition of contemporary Chinese art at Shanghai's Rockbund Art Museum in October.

Hou is director of Exhibitions and Public Programs and chair of Exhibition of Museum Studies at the San Francisco Art Institute. He has curated many festivals and exhibitions, including the 10th Biennale de Lyon and the 10th Istanbul Biennial. He has consulted for institutions including the Solomon Guggenheim Museum in New York, the Deutsche Bank Collection in Frankfurt and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.

On a recent visit he took time out of a busy schedule to speak with Shanghai Daily about contemporary art, artists and collecting.

Born in 1963 in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province, Hou received his undergraduate and graduate degrees from the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, where he was trained in art history.

"The oil paint smells terrible," he quips about not being an artist.

In 1990, he moved to Paris and began his career as an independent curator.

It was extremely difficult for an unknown young Chinese man to enter the mainstream international art stage. "If it were not for my passion toward art, I would already have retreated," he says.

Hou's career reached a high point when he was invited to curate the 2003 Venice Biennale.

Speaking perfect English, French and Chinese, his abilities are clear: He is quick to spot the essentials and trends in art and society and has a wide understanding of the international art world and how it works.

His close friends call him "Hou" meaning "monkey" (a word play) to describe his brilliance and ingenuity, rather like that of China's legendary "Monkey King" hero.

"In my view, language is like art through which people communicate, but today language has lost its power," says Hou. "We only write text messages and emails instead of talking." But art remains a potent communicator.

Asked for his views of the contemporary Chinese art scene, Hou says prices are irrationally high and the financial crisis has provided a much-needed correction. "Can you tell me if any art museum in China can afford to buy one oil painting by Zhang Xiaogang?" he asks.

"Some Chinese contemporary artwork fetches an incredible figure, which only leads to one thing - it's locked in a private safe rather than exposed to the public. What is the meaning of collection? The circulation of art should not be privatized and only becomes the possession of the rich people."

These are among the questions to be discussed at ShContemporary.

"In Europe, governments spend a huge amount of money to support museum collections, while in America, donations and private money are the main financial sources for many museums. It is these museums whether in Europe or in America that help to build their public's art memories and experience," Hou points out,

"What about Asia? What about China? We may not reach an answer but it's a focus that deserves discussion.

Asked about Chinese artists who return to China from overseas, some to considerable acclaim, Hou is not impressed.

"Don't make me offend anyone," he says. "I've been asked the same question before: Why are you back? The cost of renting a big studio is rather cheap, plus labor. Their return just shows their Chinese peers how big an art piece can be."

Hou feels uncomfortable seeing some artists who appear like celebrities on the covers of fashion magazines. "I don't see any connection between art and fashion," he says. "It's a tragedy for artists."

Hou says he is satisfied that his work has nothing to do with the market. "I'm fortunate that I use my capacity to help society build up public memories or art and support artists to create works that are not for sale."

In earlier interviews, he has cited a number of issues in museum collecting in Asia, including the relationship between flourishing economies and widespread art speculation, lack of proper financing and professionalism in Asian museums, and Western cultural "fetishism" concerning Asian contemporary art.

The art market in Asia has become the new Eldorado for the global art economy, he has said, but ironically very few public museums in Asia so far have been able to systematically build their collections of Asian contemporary art. Museums are still developing and lack expertise and financial means to compete with the private sector.

Private collections, meanwhile, are highly uneven in professionalism and quality. Speculation plays a large part in collection process. Confusion has arisen about the reasons for collecting.

The Chinese art market has been seriously affected by the global financial crisis for the last two years. Speculative growth has been curbed and it is time for reflection on the value of art.

The forthcoming ShContemporary discussions will be an opportunity for rational debate and discussion on the value of art, cultural memory, heritage and social change, Hou believes.


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