Yining He (curator)
Yining He | Viewing, Curating & Researching
Interview completed on July 20, 2022
Editor: Emma Lee Images: provided by Interviewee
Yining He has a similar background to me: majored in communication in college, studies photography and likes to write. The Beacon focuses not only on contemporary art, but also on the historical background and cultural structure of art production, as well as its direction and inspiration for the present and the future. In my research on Yining’s work, I found that this young curator with study-abroad experience shares The Beacon's values. So, I engaged her in a thoughtful exchange of ideas with ten questions.
Q1: What books are you reading these days? What music do you listen to?
A: In addition to reading a large number of works related to the research and exhibition projects at hand, I have been concentrating on reading the autobiographies of three historians, namely Paul A. Cohen's “A Path Twice Traveled: My Journey as a Historian of China”, Wu Hong's “Leopard's Trail”, and Huang Renyu's “Yellow River and Blue Mountains”. Through them, I consider the continuing influence of emotional personal experiences on researchers beyond concrete knowledge and research methods, and the resonance between these personal experiences and the times.
My young son is a big fan of heavy metal, and in recent months I've been revisiting albums by some of my favorite bands from my youth: Metallica, Megadeth, X-Japan, and Led Zeppelin. It's not just nostalgia. I seem to have found some strength in the speed and furious rhythms of the music once again.
“A Path Twice Traveled: My Journey as a Historian of China” by Paul A. Cohen
“Leopard's Trail” by Wu Hong
“Yellow River and Blue Mountains” by Huang Renyu
Q2: How has the pandemic changed the way you work?
A: Since the outbreak of Covid-19, the psychological distance between fellow art practitioners around the world seems to have narrowed. Compared to the previous academic and exhibition linkages, which were mainly based on "presence", the number of international projects I have participated in and the depth of my involvement have increased in the past two years. At the same time, with the help of online meeting platforms, post-pandemic projects have been optimized in terms of communication and implementation. However, I have also noticed an undercurrent beneath the iceberg – a change in format and approach to work foreshadows the impact of the times on the profession and individuals long into the future.
The most representative cellphone photo during the pandemic:
An accident at the beginning of the month due to the temporary suspension of kindergarten classes of Yining’s son
Q3: I have a very corny question: What is your favorite curatorial project that you have seen so far? Why? How has it inspired you in your work?
A: I am a big fan of the Wellcome Collection in London, UK, a public museum institution dedicated to bridging the gap between science, medicine, art and life. Its curatorial team has a knack for linking the research nature of science, cross-media artworks and interesting human history. I see their curatorial practice as a kind of moving collection of wisdom, which helps me constantly reflect on the relationship between knowledge and sensibility in exhibitions.
Current exhibition "Rooted Beings" at Wellcome Collection (Source: Wellcome Collection)
Q4: About Richard Prince’s controversial Instagram-sourced “New Portraits” series, Nate Harrison of the photography site American Suburb X wrote a lengthy investigation titled “How to Sue Richard Prince and Win.” “[In Cariou v. Prince] the court essentially indicated that authorial intent is of lesser concern, because what ultimately yield meaning in a work is that which the reasonable viewer…brings to it." Harrison writes. As a curator, what kind of knowledge structure do you think a "reasonable viewer" should have? What do you think are the most crucial elements in the process of knowledge production through the interaction between exhibition and viewer (value orientation of exhibiting works, curatorial research, ethics of photography and viewing...)?
A: If there is something as a "reasonable viewer," how does the court define an "unreasonable viewer"? The viewer, whether active or passive, enters an exhibition institution; regardless of nationality, gender, or race, he or she perceives and transforms the work based on his or her own viewing experience, cultural background, and intellectual structure. On an ideal level, the key to whether an exhibition's interaction with viewers can result in knowledge production, or rather, in effective knowledge production, lies in the organic platform built by the curator, institution and artists in collaboration. On this platform, the "value orientation of exhibiting works," "curatorial research," and "ethics of works and viewing," as you mentioned, are all essential, in addition to aspects such as participatory orientation and public education, etc.
Q5: Nowadays, people use cellphone cameras to "see/eat" when traveling, eating, or even visiting exhibitions before seeing/eating with their own eyes/mouths. Does this change in viewing style have any impact on your daily work? How does it affect you? How do you cope with it?
A: "Viewing/acting" has undoubtedly become a common daily experience, and we use cellphone cameras to record our lives conveniently, while expanding the timeliness of social interaction. The smartphone, the greatest tool of technocracy, has infiltrated power into the private space – and this is a cause for alarm: not only a change in the way we view, but also a "conscious" change initiated by power and capital in tandem in the logic of how we view, work, and think.
Q6: Your curatorial work approaches the study of photography as a visual evidence of social change, which belongs to the category of documentary photography research, and discusses the issue of visual order and control of viewing. Is this the right interpretation?
A: Studying photography as a visual evidence of social change was my initial focus when I entered the academic and exhibition field; in other words, a great deal of my practice revolves around an in-depth investigation of historical and contemporary photography, the relationship between social justice and technological ethics. However, given that the definition of photography itself and the forms of its creation are constantly changing, "documentary photography" here becomes a limitation that does not contribute to our broader thinking about the current ecology of images, visual order, and the surveillance of society.
Q7: Does the knowledge of literature, history and philosophy, sensitivity to social issues, and sensitivity to words to you as a writer have a positive impact on your choice of curatorial themes? How?
A: This, first of all, goes back to the core issue of curatorial practice, that is, to what extent the curator has the right to interpret the theme. An exhibition – whether it is a biennial or a gallery exhibition – has more or less different values behind it; in addition, the subtle relationship between the artist's work and the subject matter, how and to what extent the curator can appropriately translate personal experience, knowledge and sensitivity to the subject matter into the curatorial framework, is a common problem for every aspiring curatorial practitioner. One of my long-term strategies for the discursiveness of the exhibition space and site is to organize publications to continue and complement the themes that cannot be adequately discussed in the limited time and depth of the exhibition. Those themes are not only on the level of social issues, but also in the context of artistic practice and the sources of ideas.
Q8: Some critics in China say that curators care more about the "photography" of artists than the "photography" of photographers. What is the value of photography as a medium that you are concerned about?
A: As an art worker, a curator's personal experience and interests, the groups he or she is in, and the orientation of the institutions he or she works with are all different. To distinguish between the "photography" of artists and the "photography" of photographers, the premise is to draw a clear line between photography according to the function and classification of the medium. In my opinion, photography is an organ removed from science and transformed into a fluid form by the collision with the times. In other words, the freedom it presents inside and outside of art has always fascinated me. Thus, in a broad sense, I believe that as long as "photographic" technology exists, it will continue to play an important role in the technological, political and social life of mankind, and this thread is closely related to the relationship between photography and media ecology and philosophy of technology that I am trying to examine.
Q9: Regarding your 2013 interview with Dr. Daniel Rubinstein, Course Leader of MA Photography at Central Saint Martins, he suggested that the history of photography is no longer important because the media ecology has changed dramatically; you offered a rebuttal, arguing that all current technological changes still belong to the history of images, the history of photography, and that the history of photography still plays a key role in developing visual literacy. I agree with you. Regarding technological change, can you talk about the significance of the first images by the James Webb Space Telescope released on 12 July 2022 in the history of images, the history of photography?
A: Photography, as an important part of human technological development, cultural dissemination and artistic production, has helped us to record, carry and reproduce the recent modern history of mankind in a visual way. At the same time, what the history of photography carries is also indispensable to the historical study of different roles photography (and its technology) has played in and outside of art. In fact, a few years after doing the interview with Dr. Rubinstein in 2013, my understanding of his quote has changed: his thinking is more about the new shape of photography in the age of algorithms in terms of the ecology of media production and communication.
The first images by the JWST no longer have the same meaning for humanity as the "Earthrise" taken by Apollo astronauts around the back of the moon in 1968, whether in terms of technical philosophy, image dissemination or politics. Especially in today's flat and fast image communication ecology, the dissemination of these photos, which show the technological progress of mankind, is itself subject to the impact of streaming media, and no longer enjoys the privilege of universal news as it did in 1968, not to mention the "exclusive" impact of the information explosion – the daily flood of celebrities, disasters, and violence that dominate the news.
Deep Field – Galaxy cluster SMACS J0723.3-7327, the deepest and sharpest infrared image of the distant universe NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope has delivered so far (Source: NASA)
Earthrise, taken on December 24, 1968, by Apollo 8 astronaut William Anders (Source: NASA)
Q10: Regarding but not limited to the incident that the Guggenheim Museum in New York was forced to remove three works by Chinese artists from the exhibition "Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World" in 2017, I think political correctness (animal protectionism, race, feminism, etc.) is a cannibalization of human intelligence and civilization. What do you think?
A: "Political correctness" is a sensitive and controversial term in the academic field. As a discourse with political tendencies, its role in Western culture, art practice, and social action is infinitely magnified, making people easy to overlook the justice that is being consumed by the discourse and the political logic behind it. As critical thinkers, we need to be wary of the value trap behind the so-called "political correctness" on the one hand, and to have the literacy to judge justice and values on the other.
July 2022 "The Port and The Image III: Echoes of the Port", China Port Museum, Ningbo
August 2022 "NL Imagined", Shanghai Center of Photography
2021 Main venue in between Portfolio Review, FORMAT International Photography Festival, UK
2020 "Between the Mountains, Hills and Lakes", Three Shadows Photography Art Center, Beijing
Part of the Swiss Photo Book Exhibition
2020 "Between the Mountains, Hills and Lakes", Design Society, Shenzhen
2020 “China Imagined”, co-curated with Ruben Lundgren, BredaPhoto 2020, Grote Kerk, Breda, Netherland
Chen Zhe's works "Bees" & "Affordable"
2018 “The Abode of Anamnesis”, OCAT Institute, Beijing
Dong Yuxiang's work "T01_[Z.32.45.37]-T04_[UN.1-7]"
2018 “The Abode of Anamnesis”, OCAT Institute, Beijing
Zhu Lanqing's work "Excavation of Shipwreck"
2018 “Troubled Intension Ahead: Confusing Public and Private”, 3rd Beijing International Photography Biennale, CAFAM, Beijing
Richard Moss's work "Incoming"
2018 “Troubled Intension Ahead: Confusing Public and Private”, 3rd Beijing International Photography Biennale, Beizhen Art Center, Beizhen
Zhang Jungang's work "The Bridge and the Nearby Landscape"
2017 “The Port and the Image: Documenting China's Harbor Cities”, China Port Museum, Ningbo
Xu Hao's work "Objects, Decades and the Transformation of Consciousness"
2016 “A Fictional Narrative Turn”, 2016 JIMEI × ARLES International Photography Festival, Xiamen
Yang Yuanyuan's work "At the Intersection of Sight"
On an academic level, Yining has written, edited, and participated in numerous books, including “Une Historie Mondiale des Femmes Photographies” (2020), “The Port and the Image” (2017/2019), and “Photography in the British Classroom” (2015), among others. Her papers have been published or forthcoming in the Routledge Companion to Photography and Visual Culture, Photographies, OVER Journal, Photography & Culture, Journal of Taipei Fine Arts Museum, New Art Museum Studies and Routledge Companion to Photography, Representation and Social Justice. Meanwhile, Yining has published more than 150 articles in art, photography, and visual culture magazines in China and Internationally, including FOAM Magazine, Aperture Photobook Review, IMA, ArtForum, Art World, China Photography Magazine, etc.
He Yining is a graduate of the London College of Communication, University of the Arts London. She will join the Centre for Chinese Visual Arts (CCVA) at Birmingham City University's School of Art and Design in September 2022, where her doctoral research will be centered on the decoloniality of Chinese contemporary art practice in the post-2000s period, examining the links between individual artists' experiences, global geopolitical interactions and decolonial art discourse.