So your mother is Chinese?
Both her parents were prominent writers in the 1920s and 30s. Our old home in Beijing is going to be converted to the city's first hutong museum, and a museum for the two of them. My mother's grandfather was the mayor of Beijing.
I was born and raised in Edinburgh, but I'm half-Chinese and half-British. I've been spending half of my life here since I started coming here in 1979. I'm very much half and half, both culturally and blood wise.
In addition to curating, you're an artist. How would you describe your work?
My work is more on the conceptual side—projects and installations and things like that.
You were in a band in the early 90s in Beijing.
That was a time in Beijing when music was still on the margins of being something really relevant. It was going from something that was really relevant to becoming something less relevant. But, it felt like the opposite. It felt like it was breaking out, like it was on the vanguard, like it was going to do something. It was a very exciting time, we felt that we were at the forefront of a movement. Everyone was full of idealistic energy. We were one of the first experimental art groups. In the states you'd call that art rock. Bands that came out of art school, like the Talking Heads or something like that. I was quite heavily influenced by New Wave–bands like the Talking Heads, the Police, and other post-punk acts. We were interested in the band's aesthetic. We liked making long songs…we wanted to break down the structure of the songs.
Later on you were making sound pieces. Would you say that this music and this experience affected your curatorial process?
No. That came much, much later from a visual art curatorial mindset. It's like, 'I want to do something with sound.'
But that's the beauty of doing something related to art: I think everything is relevant. Art school is one small part, going to exhibitions is one small part. Everything plays a part but you don't know what it is. That's how the music fits in.
So did you go to Art School?
I didn't, no. I studied Classical Chinese at SOAS at the University of London. I didn't study because I wanted the degree. I was just coming out of my band, and no self-respecting person who is just coming out of a band will say, 'Ok, my next step is getting a degree and getting a job.' But I wanted to because I've spoken Chinese since I was a kid but I never learned to read and write.
You said everything is related in the artistic field. You're an artist, a curator, and now the director of a commercial art fair director. How do these different sides of your character inform each other?
I was the founding director of the Ullens Center, and that was a tough job to put together a museum from scratch, but it was very exciting. To build a team from a scratch and form this bond, where you have a sense of purpose, that's a really beautiful process. And building a program, talking to people, that's really nice.
At heart I guess I'm still a nonprofit person, I'm a curator, and ShContemporary feels like a curator's show. It can't be helped that my personality is going to rub off on the art fair. Because I'm the director the decisions I make are going to influence the form it takes, and I've always been saying that this fair should be an experimental fair.
When they approached me and asked if I'd like to direct the show, I asked them if they had seen my CV. I honestly thought they had got the wrong person. I couldn't actually believe that they were inviting me, because I've never done anything commercial together. The Ullens side, the artist and the curator are more coherent. The art fair directing came out of the realization that there is no nonprofit sector in China. It is sorely missing. So everything relies on the commercial sector. I cannot hide my head in the sand and not understand the commercial side if I'm going to do things in China.
Do you think about going back to the nonprofit world after this foray into the commercial side?
Of course, I'm not doing any one job forever. I will move in various directions as time goes by. Right now I find this fascinating and stimulating. The thing is, I'm not doing sales myself. The great thing about directing an art fair is that you're doing commercial work but you're not buying or selling art yourself. You're one step removed. You're building a platform for others to buy and sell.
ShContemporary is housed in a bizarre Stalinist exhibition hall. How did you find yourself interacting with the physical space?
Last year we did. I worked with Anton Vidokle, who runs E-Flux. Anton was born in Russia. He was in this Russian building and said, "This is amazing, there's nothing like this in Moscow, apart from the underground. There's nothing this beautiful and ornate. So we started talking about what this means in terms of history-this weird Stalinist Rococo–the decoration of Russian folk stories within the Stalinist Façade. We were talking about the aesthetic motifs and the power structure. We were thinking about what Boris Groys was writing about, the Post-Communist Era, and how that affected global culture, because half the world turned super-capitalist overnight. We're in it in China. We're communist but we're post-communist.
That was last year, coming out of this historicity. We showed artists coming from that history. Anri Sala interviewed his mother (Intervista, 1998) who was part of the Albanian Communist youth and was super zealous. She couldn't believe her eyes when she saw old video footage of herself. She was in denial that she had this past. We had a Chinese artist responding to the Nixon-Kruschev Kitchen Debate. He made a model kitchen… We had Abramovic (Imponderablia, 1977).
This year, we've played with the architecture less. This year, we've recognized Stalin and Mao's power by switching off the lights in the main hall. It's so overpowering, we don't want to overawe the art.
The DISCOVERIES: Re-Value show is market-based criticism. Why not do that last year when the market was much more on people's minds?
Too obvious. It was like, everybody is talking about the market, let's talk about art. It was nonstop and relentless. If I was going to do another art market seminar, it's like 'come on Colin, you can do better than that.'
How do you think the Re-Value exhibit came off?
It's a really interesting process. It's not like curating a show for a museum where you have a budget and you just invite people over. This is a process of negotiation between the artist and the gallery. There's no cost to the booth, but there are lots of costs involved (insurance, transportation.)
I'm happy about how it feels. Overall, I'm very happy. There is a major Wu Shanzhuan piece at the top of the show. We have a lot of young artists making unaesthetic conceptual work.
Anything that you're especially drawn too?
Those super realistic paintings of pebbles (by Zhu Yu)? That was very unexpected. I put that in the show because they're just paintings of pebbles, but they have this power over you. It's really weird, and you don't know what's happening. I've tried to analyze it. Wu Shanzhuan today was like, 'my god, these stones! They're really good.'
I wouldn't say favorite, but I like it when art does something unexpected and you don't know how it does it. It's almost very important that you don't know how it does it. At least for a while.
It's a bummer to try and completely strip away the aura of a work of art.
Yes, but if you strip away the aura and you've still got an aura…well. I don't like work that completely relies on its explanation.
As someone with a long connection to Beijing, both through your family and through your art career, what does it mean to direct a major art fair in Shanghai?
It's a smaller scene, it's quieter. To be honest I prefer Shanghai to Beijing, although I shouldn't say that. Because the art scene is smaller, it's less competitive, there are less politics. Artists can just relax and have conversations about art, and just be artists. In Beijing it's really hard to do that. You're an artist-politician or an artist-Businessman. You're never just an artist.
Do you see the Chinese art world decentralizing even more? Moving past Beijing and Shanghai to smaller cities?
No, I don't see that happening yet. It's where the money is. There's no nonprofit sector. There are a few institutions here and there but they don't form a system. It relies on the private system and the money is in Beijing in Shanghai. There used to be really good artists in Guangzhou, but they all moved to Beijing. Not all, but lets say 90%. So, it's actually becoming more centralized. Before, there were great scenes in Sichuan, in Yunnan. In the 1980s, it was truly a nationwide movement. Now it's just where the opportunities are.
What challenges have you encountered this year, putting this on in Shanghai?
China still has some regulations from the past that need to be developed for the future. Clear cut business and trade is fast tracked, but the art world is lagging behind when it comes to tax laws and logistics and things. Because we suffer from that, it damages people's confidence in coming here. It's not going to be a problem forever, but for the time being it certainly is a handicap.
Once that's out of the way, Shanghai would be the most attractive place in Asia, even the world, for everyone. It represents the future more than any other city.
What have you seen lately that you're excited about?
Oh, this is a question that every curator should be able to answer, but when you ask it their mind goes blank. Recently I went to the Tate Modern and saw the Francis Alÿs show. That was an amazing show. For me, that was a show that encapsulates what contemporary art is.
Also, Xu Zhen, who has turned into Madein. His practice is really converting into something. He is an artist that will go really far. He's definitely someone to look out for. In China he's quite famous, but internationally he's not known at all.
Have you signed on for next year?
Actually no, this will be announced just after the fair, so if you could hold off on saying this online till Monday that would be really fantastic. I signed a two-year contract, and then in January I said I won't continue. It's nothing negative; I find this whole thing very fun and I get along with them very well. Nothing wrong with them, it's me. I don't want to be director anymore. I got more offers for directorships and they became more and more administrative and took me more away from my art.
I realize that as I'm hitting 40, I either decide to become a director for the rest of my life, like art administrator role, and I really don't want to do that. I want to get back to the ideas and the art—something much smaller and closer to home for me personally. So from this year on I won't be taking anymore fulltime, big-responsibility roles. I'll be doing my own work: writing, curating, and making my own artwork. So that's the decision you make.