In Conversation with Hot Contemporary Artist Hu Xiangqian

Bethina Liu
Mar 10, 2014 5:44PM

In anticipation of Asia Week, Artsy’s Christine Kuan and Bethina Liu chatted with one of China’s hottest young contemporary artists, Hu Xiangqian. Born in Guangdong, living in Beijing, and now an artist in residence at Residency Unlimited in New York through the Asian Cultural Council fellowship, Hu is best known for his video works, Blue Flags Everywhere, which features the artist’s mock attempt to run for mayor of his hometown at the age of 21, and Sun, where he tries to tan himself the same shade as his African friends. His work is currently on view at the Rubell Family Collection in “28 Chinese” (Dec 4 2013-August 1 2014), and has previously been exhibited at Rockbund Art Museum, Centro per l’Arte Contemporanea Luigi Pecci, Minsheng Art Museum, UCCA, and more. Subversive, talented, and wickedly funny—despite his not thinking so—Hu talks to Artsy about the similarities between New York and Beijing, how he still can’t eat noodles and burgers, and why he’s actually been famous for a long time.

Read the interview in Chinese here.

Bethina Liu: Welcome to New York. This is your first time in the U.S., how are you liking it so far?

Hu Xiangqian: I feel culture as a whole is very emphasized here, whether it’s Chinese culture or African culture, for example. I personally think that culture is not necessarily a good thing. It’s very strange. it could be very interesting, but at the same time very boring—it’s a complex mixture. Perhaps because I’m an artist, people have said that I belong to a subculture, but I’m very skeptical of this. What is culture, and what is subculture? While in San Francisco I saw a lot of graffiti. Is this subculture? No, I think it’s actually very mainstream. Things like that are very emphasized here.

BL: As an artist, do you feel you are accepted by Chinese mainstream culture?

HXQ: Not right now. But I think it’s probably the same in the U.S.; mainstream culture is usually not very accepting of artists.

BL: Where do you find inspiration for your work?

HXQ: I like to look into the everyday—this is such a cliché, so overused—but still, I like to find the seemingly normal things in everyday life. I like to make work about these things. To be inspired by a single work of art or a single thing, that kind of inspiration is very rare. I feel that the things hidden just beneath the surface of normality are the most interesting.

Christine Kuan: So how did you decide to become an artist?

HXQ: Actually, my father is a folk artist. Art and music were his hobbies. My older brother also studied art. But at the time my parents didn’t encourage me to study art, nor did they oppose it, as long as I could make a living. I grew up around art, but when I decided to become an artist, that was very early on, I was still in high school, and at the time I didn’t know what else I’d rather be. I’ve had my doubts, like becoming a traveler or soccer player [laughs]. But in the end I felt that art is unseen, and to find something you can’t see, that’s more fun, more challenging.

CK: You have been extremely successful with exhibitions worldwide and your work is currently on view at “28 Chinese” in the prestigious Rubell Family Collection, Miami. Has all the international acclaim changed anything about your work?

HXQ: No. To put it bluntly, I feel like I became famous quite early on. To me, they’re simply buying a work, I didn’t get paid much either, I sold the works to them at low prices [laughs]. Really, these kinds of things won’t affect me. I had a performance there, I was very unhappy with it. It was extremely noisy and crowded. I had no idea there would be so many people!

CK: How many people were there? A few hundred? A few thousand?

HXQ: About a thousand people attended. It was so loud that, at the time, I almost lost my temper, I wanted to stop performing and take off [laughs], but I made it through.

CK: I’ve been told that China is building a museum a day and collectors are buying art at auction houses, galleries, and art fairs. What do you think the art scene will be like in China in the next few years? Will it become the next world center for art?

HXQ: To my knowledge, it’s the real estate developers who are building the museums. They have the funds, the land, the buildings, and I think Shanghai is where most of the new museums are being built. I’m of the opinion that this is still a good thing, having [the museums] is better than not having them, and the more the merrier. But whether China will be the future for art, I really can’t say, because there’s too much that China needs to do, it’s not as simple as putting up a few new buildings. One of the best examples I know of is Taikang Space—I think the work they do is very professional, and very much in the right direction. They are very low-profile, and they work very hard. Although they don’t call themselves a museum yet, they have been working towards that goal for many years. This is something that most Chinese museums don’t do. Usually they just build a big building, without doing years of preparatory work to build up their collection like Taikang, and then gradually become a museum. I think this is the right way to do it. Of course, I’m not opposed to putting up buildings and calling them museums, I just hope they can last.

BL: What kind of work do you hope to make at Residency Unlimited?

HXQ: Right now I haven’t had a chance to really think about it, possibly some performances. Next month or the month after I’ll know more, because I haven’t started working yet. Next week, after I find a studio, I’ll start thinking more about it. Right now I’m still working through ideas I’ve had from before.

CK: This is your first time in the U.S.—is it like you imagined?

HXQ: Because I’ve been to Europe, I thought the U.S. would be a lot like Europe. But now that I’m here, I actually think it’s a lot like China [laughs]!

CK: I think so too. Beijing and New York are a lot alike.

HXQ: [Laughs] Yes, Beijing is dirtier and more chaotic, the air quality is worse, and people here are friendlier. I don’t know if friendlier is the right way to put it, but at least more polite. But the feel is very much like China, and very different from Europe. Where would you see such tall buildings in Europe? Never! [Laughs] And people here are very diverse. Europe feels much more conservative.

BL: Can you talk about how you see humor in your work?

HXQ: [Pause] Actually, I don’t intend for my work to be humorous [laughs]. It just comes out this way. Many people tell me my work makes them laugh, but I never feel like I’m being funny.

CK: Really? Not even in Sun?

HXQ: No, never, I’m always very serious, but other people think it’s funny, I don’t know why, it’s very  strange. When I’m performing, I never think it’s going to be funny. But when I was learning about performance art in college, most of what I saw was early Chinese performance art, those very serious, very bodily works. At the time I thought I should make something more lighthearted, but never humorous. I don’t know why people think my work is funny [laughs]. I just didn’t really like the very cruel, bodily works, so I try to approach it from a different perspective, to make something a bit more fun.

CK: What do you eat in New York? Chinese food? Have you been eating Western food?

HXQ: On occasion, I’ve had Western food. I love Italian and Spanish cuisine, but I can’t stand American food!

CK: Really? Like hamburgers?

HXQ: Right, I never eat hamburgers or fries, I think they taste terrible! [Laughs]. I’ve had a burger here once, at the airport, I just don’t like it. And the portions here, so big! No wonder obesity is such an issue in America [laughs]. I joke. My taste is still very Cantonese, I can’t even eat noodles [a northern Chinese food], I’ve been living in Beijing for so many years, I still don’t eat noodles. I need to have rice or congee. Old habits die hard.

Hu Xiangqian at Artsy HQ, February 17, 2014. Photo by Ara Qiu.

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Bethina Liu