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Switching Roles: Interview with Liu Wei and Bowen Li

by Anna Ling Edwards

Bowen, could you first tell us a little bit about yourself? What drew you to study art history?

Bowen Li: I was born in Shenzhen and initially received classical ballet training for eight years. I was motivated to study art history, because it was something I did not know anything about, which made me more keen to pursue it.

With one of you being an artist and the other an art historian, do you think your two different backgrounds affected your approach to curating the show? For instance, in a recent interview, Liu was quoted as saying, “When I create, I think about the theme and my approach. It’s no different from curating an art exhibition. I see myself as an artist and a curator at the same time.” With that in mind, do you think your artistic background differentiates your style to that of other curators?

Liu Wei: Yes, differences in age, education, identity and environment all determine how we individually approach the curating of an exhibition. However, both [Li and I] tried to express it through our understanding of art and reality, and together we discussed future possibilities for our curatorial direction. To a certain extent, we shared and expressed our values. Curatorial practice, to me, depends heavily on visual logic, and it has to start from the work itself and then later about associations and further possibilities. Eventually, through these works and processes, it structures questions in the realm of the real.

The theme for “Nocturnal Friendships” touches on philosophical ideas of what friendship is, as well as the vagueness of some of its aspects. Can you tell us how this theme came about for the show?

BL: The notion of “friendship” is something that a lot of us are concerned with—maybe not on a daily basis, but it becomes a sort of thing that, from time to time, gives you a kick and you suddenly dwell upon it. What is friendship? The vagueness of such a notion can concern not only friendships between people, but also friendships between non-human beings.

You’ve stressed that the exhibition is about the relationship or “friendship” between the works presented. Could you give an example of what links the diverse groups of artworks in the show?

BL: To me, one such instance among many is the relation between Tant Zhong’s installation Walking Balloon (2014) and Tang Yongxiang’s painting A Lot of Dark Blue Legs and Patches of Color (2015). The enactment of a certain movement by a spectator is very important to the Walking Balloon; for its full manifestation, it is required that the artist or viewer runs around the installation [which consists of four yellow balloons, whose strings are attached to a sheet of paper on the floor]. But instead of asking each spectator to run around it so that the sheet of paper can start “dancing” along with them, A Lot of Dark Blue Legs and Patches of Color, hung on an adjacent wall—an individual, independent work in itself [depicting three sets of torso-less blue legs protruding from amorphous, pinkish-blue forms]—becomes an indicator of the “leggy” movement that is important to the minor, mild, childish joy [that Walking Balloon encourages].

Liu, you recently said that “The more ways an artwork can be interpreted, the more questions it asks and the more powerful it becomes.” Do you think presenting an artwork without textual information has any limitations?

LW: To me artworks are very much about chemical reactions; they bring about different results and energies. Visual art is itself a language—a language of fusion. So, in a way, verbal language becomes superfluous and can only lessen the power of a work. The only occasion on which there should be an explanation of some sort is to provide the audience with access into an artwork, but that should be all it does. I am not a manual to provide an “answer.”

What do you think of the curation of Chinese contemporary art in recent years?

LW: I have seen many approaches and energies in the curation [of Chinese contemporary art], but some tend to become rather banal, [especially] exhibitions that are neither too radical nor too classical.

Any particularly memorable exhibitions?

LW: I once saw an exhibition of an important collection, where all works are classics of the time. Brought together, they all looked like money.

When curating, what do you look for in a piece of work or in a set of works? And what other elements would you say are needed for the perfect exhibition?

LW: We need art that is part poetic, part humorous and a little sexy. As for the perfect exhibition, I can’t say, and this is why I need to move on and keep working on it.