Alexandra Munroe, Ph.D. is the Samsung Senior Curator of Asian Art at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.
Is there anything unique about the fair?
There is a lot of comparing this fair to the Hong Kong fair, which was in its third year in May 2010. There is a lot of competition. This fair strikes me as different. It feels messier, it feels edgier, and it feels younger, more experimental. It feels more curatorial.
How is it curator-friendly?
You have work that can't be collected, or work that is defying the market. It is work that is not about the commodity of art. Some of it is subverting the whole idea of the art market. The curated exhibition is very strong. It's very smart to position it as the opening experience. It sets the caliber of the exhibition as a whole. In that case, they set a very high bar for themselves. Curatorially and intellectually, it is gutsy.
I overheard one of the dealers earlier this evening lamenting the fact that the scene is still very Beijing based. Shanghai has this little-brother syndrome. Now Colin, who has done a good job, is still edging in on our turf. How can we move away from a unipolar art world, or even a bipolar one?
It's a really important question. The dominance of Beijing in the packaging of contemporary Chinese art has been limiting. I think that it is not representative of the vitality. Certain tastes have become tyrannically popular, and then become stratospherically high in terms of market value. Frankly, this has been a turnoff to collectors and museum people abroad. It's very dangerous to think of Chinese art world as unipolar. How can you have 1.4 billion people in a society as tumultuous as this and even try to present a single language. The whole point was that we were coming out of a totalitarian, ideological art world that was the Cultural Revolution. (But now, we realize that even the Cultural Revolution was much more varied and much more subtle and less unipolar than we had been led to believe.) Of course in the period since, there's been a tremendous amount of explosion. It needs to be messy. A good art world needs to be messy.
Not to mention the politicization of Chinese art…linking the art world to Beijing seems to invite this.
Actually, a lot of the artists and galleries in Shanghai and Guangdong have been very influential. If you look at the artists that were part of that move, many of them came from the South. Shanghai isn't getting the credit.
The Chinese collector is a huge presence and absence. Any insight?
The class of Chinese private collections is going to get stronger and more sophisticated. We've seen a lot of buying. I think a lot of that buying has been stimulated by speculation. Those collectors that are even buying in depth are often flipping that work. I think that's very unhealthy because what an infrastructure needs, what an art culture needs, is dedicated support, almost partnerships between artists and collectors—long term commitments where an artist can grow with the nurturing support of dedicated collectors. I'm hoping that the number of collectors that are collecting for the long term will make their museums or will donate their collections to museums in China or abroad.
You're giving a talk on the Western context of collecting Asian art. What is the Western context?
Each museum has to answer that question for themselves. Every museum, especially those established as the Guggenheim, MOMA, or Tate, has its own personalities. We have our own curatorial DNA—our attitude about what matters in art. We argue with each other and experiment. It would be a shame for our museums to be collecting the same artists. I advocate difference and nonuniformity, and a sharing of information.
As we begin to collect this material, we should complement each other and help the art world here. I don't want to make a ghettoized collection of Asian art at the Guggenheim. The Guggenheim is founded as a modern European and American art museum. I'm never going to have an Asian collection that rivals the depth of that—that is our origin. What we can do now is expand, or interrogate the canon. I don't want to topple the canon. We're not there to topple it, but to question it and make it uneasy and expand it. That's the most we can do, but it can still be very significant.