Feng Boyi (curator)
Feng Boyi: Remain Simple and Frank — How I Face the Times We Live in
Interview completed on June 4, 2022
Editor: Emma Lee Images: provided by interviewee
As someone who studied journalism in the college but chose to practice in the contemporary art world after graduation, it is inevitable that I am not abreast of everything in the art scene. In the summer of 2017, I was working for a gallery in Wuxi, and by chance I read an interview with Feng Boyi published by art media ARTDBL and learned about this influential curator. At the time, I had no idea about his background (I was working mainly in Guangzhou and Hong Kong at the time and before that, while he was based in Beijing), but was immediately struck by one of his remarks. He said, "to work in contemporary art, one should face the times one is living in with stark frankness." One without certain experiences would not have said something like that. I became his follower from that moment on. It wasn't until 2019 when, by chance, a friend heard me saying that I admired him, and it just so happened that he was in my hometown Foshan at the time preparing for the opening exhibition of HE Art Museum, my friend forwarded me his WeChat contact, and we started an online friendship for nearly three years. This year, when I decided to relaunch The Beacon and open the platform with the "Ten People, One Hundred Questions" interview column, the first person I thought of to interview was him.
The interview coincided with the popular "Overlaid – Tokyo Gallery + BTAP (Beijing) 20th Anniversary Special Exhibition" that he was curating in Beijing. It was when Shanghai had been thrown under lockdown since March 26th and immediately entered a new phase of "routine PCR tests", and Beijing announced the reopening of 798 Art Zone after a period of ambiguity. The art presses seemed to have all gone to Tokyo Gallery to interview Feng Boyi, who was curating the exhibition with participating artists, a different cohort at a time. According to the first rule of journalism – timeliness, I interviewed him.
Q1: Do you believe in Confucianism, Buddhism, Taoism or Christianity? What books are you reading lately? What music do you listen to?
A: No, I don't believe in any religion. I only believe that man cannot prevail over “God”! Because I want to write an article, I'm reading the three volumes of "April Photo Society" edited by Xu Yong: “On the Scene”, “A Document”, and “Perspectives”. I do not listen to music – I am not a bourgeois. I especially like to watch videos of square dancing – I love it.
Screenshot of favorite square-dancing video
Q2: How has the pandemic changed the way you work?
A: It hasn't changed anything. It's just that there are fewer curatorial projects, or they are constantly postponed or aborted.
The most representative cellphone photo during the pandemic: Entry and Exit Permit of 798 Art Zone
Q3: In Tokyo Gallery's "Overlaid" exhibition, Song Dong’s "Omicron Cup" and Zhang Yi's "Into the Maggot Shell" are both works related to natural and man-made disasters. Is it because Tokyo Gallery has "diplomatic immunity" similar to that of foreign embassies and consulates, that it can show these works? In China, even in Shenzhen, the “Center of the Universe”, exhibitions are often censored…
A: Does any "diplomatic immunity" in the current ideological censorship of art exhibitions ever exist? By raising such a question, it is already self-censorship and paranoia! It should be said that under the chaos of natural and man-made disasters, there are still artists like the ones in the "Overlaid" exhibition who have created works with realistic relevance and fit the general "mood of the times".
Poster of "Overlaid”
Q4: Some artists once said, "When you hold an exhibition in China, the opening is the closing", and the attention attracted on the opening day is the ceiling, and you don't need to care about what happens afterwards. Is this the reason for your idea of progressive installation in this exhibition?
A: The progressive curatorial approach is to make the works ‘overlaid’ and stretched into an experimental process of continuous creation and presentation, so that the exhibited works are in response to the existing works created by other artists and used as the basis for autonomous creation or re-utilization of medium, giving the works and the exhibition an unpredictable and uncertain relationship and form. It also provides an opportunity for young artists to transcend the inheritance or imagination of their predecessors and to acquire a breakthrough through "self-expansion". During the exhibition, new works could emerge at any time, which will bring audiences constant surprises and expectations. Perhaps it will also inspire artists to unleash an intellectual, humorous and playful potential, just like the “strange, never defined, and possibly psychological, possibly supernatural force” described by Jorge Luis Borges. Thus, in the limited time and conditions of Tokyo Gallery + BTAP (Beijing), the exhibition constitutes a multi-dimensional manifestation. At the same time, it corresponds to the process of stacking, accumulation and concentration of Tokyo Gallery + BTAP in Beijing over the past 20 years.
Working photo of “Overlaid”
Q5: What about "Beijing Afloat", the opening exhibition you curated for this galley in 2002? How does it form a space-time dialogue with "Overlaid"?
A: There is no dialogue of "space-time contact", only "the same dream in the same place at different times".
* "Space-time contact" refers to a contact-tracing method used by Chinese authorities to rapidly identify people at risk of COVID-19 infection. In November 2021, some people in the southwestern city of Chengdu received a message on their phones saying they were identified as "space-time contacts" of confirmed cases. According to local health authorities, "space-time contact" refers to a person identified as having stayed in the same space as a confirmed COVID-19 patient, within an area 800 meters in length and 800 meters in width, for over 10 minutes. The determination is based on tracking mobile phone signals.
Posters and photo of "Beijing Afloat"
Q6: After nearly three years of the COVID-19 policies in China, the dimension of doing an exhibition now is not just counting the numbers of visitors who come to see the exhibition every day – you never know whether it will be shut tomorrow in the name of the pandemic, so you have to establish an online event, keep speaking out in the media, and keep the discussion going. Do you agree?
Q7: In addition, the current curatorial research of exhibitions is not prominent enough in China, and exhibitions are like: "Do it whatsoever. It’s all over when it’s over". There should be thematic research for exhibitions, as well as publications to form dissemination – this should have been the standard mechanism. Do you agree?
A: I strongly agree.
Q8: Moreover, China’s art scene should include more international exchanges after the borders are open again – the necessity and obstacles in reality are just poignantly visible. One cannot really ‘involute’, ‘lay flat’ and ‘slack off’ as today’s popular mindset goes, right? How do you think international exchange can be carried out under the limited conditions?
A: There are zero, not even “limited conditions” exist. Listen to all the yelling of our so-called "country" in the world, look at its image, status and future, one can only “involute” and “please oneself” in the closed-loop system created by our Motherland.
Q9: Ai Weiwei is an inescapable name when talking to people who care about art in China and abroad. Can you share the causes and consequences, the inside stories and experiences of the exhibition "Fuck Off" you curated with him in 2000?
A: In the summer of 2000, I had just returned to Beijing from a three-month residency at the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum in Japan, and was working part-time as the content director for Tom.com's "Art Alliance" website. Ai Weiwei approached me at my office in the China Resources Building on the 2nd Ring Road in Beijing, hoping to work together again.
The reason Ai approached me again was, as he said, "The idea for this event started in early 2000, going back as far as 1994 when I edited The Black Book." I remember in the office of the "Art Alliance" website, he smiled and said to me, "Let's make an exhibition when the Shanghai Biennale opens and torment them again! I've got a title for the exhibition. It's called 'Uncooperative Way' in Chinese and 'Fuck Off' in English." I said, "The title of the exhibition in Chinese is not the same as it is in English. Is that okay?" He said, "What's wrong with that! The meaning is the same. According to Beijing slang, 'fuck off' means 'go play'!"
Today, among the exhibiting artists, Peng Donghui, Chen Shaoxiong, Jin Le, and Huang Lei have died of illness, Feng Weidong has become a monk, and Gu Desin has long since stopped making art…
The group photo of the participating artists and curators of "Fuck Off"
Q10: The China Pavilion at the Venice Biennale has been widely criticized this year. Do you have anything to add?
A: It's not just this year. Which year's China Pavilion was not criticized? This involves two key questions: First, the mechanism. Who decides the curators of China Pavilion each time? How are the participating artists selected? Second, the authorities have an incorrect attitude towards the China Pavilion, and the job of each curator, apart from curating, is mainly to "pull in money". Therefore, every year, the China Pavilion can only be a mishmash of token and indiscriminate works. How can it be decent when it lacks an effective mechanism for open, transparent and equal competition, and lacks authority? I am most surprised that some curators and artists are still damned happily "bolstering around" – not ashamed, but proud of it. Shame on them!
Photo of the China Pavilion at this year's Venice Biennale
Due to some indescribable reasons, some works of “Overlaid” were not successfully exhibited, so here are photos to keep as a historical record.
The classic work of Mr. Li Yuhe, "The Legend of the Red Lantern"
* "The Legend of the Red Lantern" is one of the eight model plays, the only opera and ballet performances permitted during the Cultural Revolution in China.
Curator Feng Boyi (left) and exhibiting artist Zhang Xiaotao with the latter’s work "Thunder – Silence”
Zhang Xiaotao with his work after being censored
Participating artist Song Dong's work "Chain and No Chain – Painting”
Song Dong's 22 paintings were censored and 5 were removed
Video Interview of Feng Boyi | “Curator in Focus” Video Series, Gallery Weekend Beijing 2022 (with English subtitles)