How Philip Tinari has Become the Authority on Chinese Contemporary Art

In the 15 years since he first stepped foot in China, Philadelphia-born and -raised Philip Tinari has become one of the most respected authorities on Chinese contemporary art. From co-curating the exhibition “Made in Asia?” as his thesis project, including now-household names Takashi Murakami and Do Ho Suh, to launching a Chinese website for Artforum, founding the bilingual art magazine LEAP, and editing and contributing to books such as Hans Ulrich Obrist: The China Interviews, Tinari has taken on many roles in the art world—academic, curator, writer, editor, professor. In 2011, he would take on a venerable position as director of one of the most established contemporary institutions in China, Beijing’s Ullens Center of Contemporary Art (UCCA). And this week, Tinari adds a new notch to his belt, as he curates of The Armory Show’s Focus: China section, featuring 17 of China’s leading contemporary galleries, with more than half of the exhibitors showing solo presentations by artists from the ON|OFF generation, a term Tinari himself coined in his 2013 show “ON|OFF: China’s Young Artists in Concept and Practice.” Additionally, Tinari recently opened an ambitious survey of Armory Artist Xu Zhen’s work at UCCA. Despite his very busy schedule, Artsy’s Marina Cashdan tracked down Tinari for a chat on the Chinese contemporary art market, curating in the for-profit versus nonprofit realm, and the most exciting cultural phenomena in China today. 

Marina Cashdan: Being American-born and -educated, can you talk about what brought you to China?

Philip Tinari: I grew up in the Philly suburbs, about as far from China as one can get. I came to China through a love for language and to Chinese art through a sense that so many of the cultural and geopolitical dynamics I became interested in were, in this seemingly narrow field, thrown into high relief. Beijing, despite its notorious smog and traffic, is an easy city to fall in love with—this is where people from all over China, and increasingly the rest of the world, come to think big thoughts and take big shots, always against the backdrop of an unpredictable political climate.

MC: How has Beijing changed overall since you moved there? And how has the art scene in Beijing changed?

PT: It’s a heady city and it mutates and matures every year. The art scene has gone from an extended group of friends making works to show to each other in basements to a globally relevant category with an institutional and market infrastructure to back it up.

MC: And more generally, how has the art scene and art market changed in China over the past decade?

PT: The big shift happened in the early 2000s when contemporary art found its way into state institutions and the powers that be signaled indirectly that it would be allowed to flourish. This led very quickly to a domestic market, the reform of the academies, and a proliferation of spaces for exhibitions and media in which to discuss them. Now there is an ecology in place that continues to grow but is more or less complete.

MC: Does your experience as a writer and editor inform the way you direct UCCA?

PT: The experiences of visiting a museum with multiple exhibitions on view and flipping through a magazine are not dissimilar; I’m always thinking about how distinct exhibitions will play off of each other and create an overall impression, much as I did with every issue of LEAP that I edited.

MC: Around this time last year, you organized and opened the show “ON|OFF,” a group exhibition of Chinese artists all born after 1975. Can you tell us a bit about the term “ON|OFF generation,” and why this group of artists is so important to have on our radar?

PT: This generation, which has just found its feet in the last five years or so, is the first generation of Chinese artists to have come of age with an acute consciousness of their place in a larger global picture. Their work is not united by a particular style, but by a shared sensibility informed by conditions both distinctly Chinese and decidedly international.

MC: Moving on to this year’s Armory Show art fair, where you are this year’s Focus section curator, why do you think The Armory Show decided to focus on China?

PT: The Armory Show’s Focus section has grown in scale and ambition with each passing year, and after several editions that looked at various locales in the Western world, it was natural to consider somewhere farther afield. Fortunately the timing seems to coincide with a renewed interest in what is happening in China, as signaled by things like the Met’s “Ink Art” show.

MC: Is this your first time curating within a commercial art fair? If so, how will you approach it, similarly or differently, to your approach as the director of a nonprofit?

PT: I have not curated inside a fair before, but I know the fair system intimately after working for five years as Art Basel’s China advisor. It’s a cliché to note that fairs now do much of the work that biennials previously did in terms of bringing the art world together, and while they are marketplaces, I am fascinated by their capacity to create new articulations and move the global narrative forward.

The presentation I’ve curated connects with a lot of the work I have done at UCCA on the level of specific artists; that said, curating an art fair section is completely different from a museum show, mainly because the actual exhibiting is done by galleries. In that sense it has to become a chance to put a gallery system on view as much as the artists they are bringing, and to think about how best to use the specificities of the art fair format to do productive work. For one thing, the speed at which a fair comes together offers the chance to present a more or less real-time reflection of trends on the ground, compared with a museum show’s multi-year gestation cycle. The fact that all the work on view will have real-life interpreters in the form of gallery staff and artists also mitigates a lot of the usual pitfalls of presenting works across cultural contexts—the people closest to the work have a chance to speak on its behalf.

I guess I’m most interested in the fair—and particularly The Armory Show as a fair in a metropole rather than a destination (meaning it should draw a huge number of junior people in the field and interested outsiders, rather than just the VIP crowd)—as a place where new connections might be formed that might lead to bigger things years down the road. The last I visited The Armory Show (in 2006), I saw a Hauser & Wirth solo booth by Zhang Enli, a painter then totally unknown to me who has gone on to become a major voice in China.

MC: Can you talk about your relationship with artist Xu Zhen, who is The Armory Show’s commissioned artist this year, and why you chose him for this role. Why is he so important within the context of the global art world?

PT: For me Xu Zhen marks the link (or break) between the underground avant-garde of the 1990s and the infinite possibilities of the present. In addition to making consistently intriguing and beguiling work, he has also been intelligently conscious of his own role inside a larger art system, and generous in using that role to bring new knowledge and practices into Chinese art world. I have watched his work develop in a conversation that has lasted more than a decade, and in the end I thought he was the strongest manifestation of so many of the trends this section is hoping to highlight.

MC: You recently opened a survey of Xu Zhen’s work at UCCA. Can you give us a brief overview of the show and why it’s important within China and also the global art world right now? How has it been received so far?

PT: It’s an immersive survey in which his works almost combine to create a single larger piece. The show spans his entire 15-year output but it is not organized chronologically or thematically; instead there is one very strong spatial conceit—bilateral symmetry—that unites a wide range of works from individual paintings and sculptures to entire rooms, along a rigid axis. Some of the highlights include the ShanghArt Supermarket installation of 2007, a real-size reconstruction of a convenience store in which all the products have been drained of content and are for sale at their original price; the Physique of Consciousness Museum, wherein he and his team created a set of “cultural calisthenics” based on postures that run throughout global heritage and then used them as a taxonomical device to sort images of art and artifacts from around the world; and a giant monumental sculpture that juxtaposes a Chinese bodhisattva and the Winged Victory of Samothrace neck-to-neck.

In China the response has been amazing: For people who don’t have a concrete sense of everything that can fall under the rubric of contemporary art, it has been a welcome crash course; for artists and others who have watched his career unfold, it is amazing to see how what started as a very lo-fi practice has expanded in so many directions while still retaining a basic integrity.

MC: How many galleries did you choose for Focus: China? And why did you choose this group of galleries? Can you offer any personal highlights from the galleries’ booths?

PT: There are 17 galleries represented. The majority are from Beijing and Shanghai, with a few from Hong Kong and abroad. Nine of them have never shown outside Asia previously. More than half of the booths will show solo presentations of younger artists (mostly from the ON | OFF generation) while the others are presenting curated group presentations that look at artists who emerged at earlier moments in this now 35-year story of contemporary art in China. I’m particularly excited to see a group of abstract paintings by Huang Rui, one of the key members of the foundational Stars Group, realized between 1982 and 1985 and never before shown publicly. I’m also excited to see what the nine pranksters of the Double Fly Art Center (the “Bruce High Quality Foundation of China”) end up doing—they have funded their trip to New York through an auction conducted entirely on WeChat, and are going to install a range of “carnival games” in the Space Station booth. So it will be a wide range of positions, to say the least.

MC: What do you think is the most exciting cultural thing going on in China right now, particularly something related to technology’s impact on culture/art? And on that note, how do you think the presence of art on the internet is helping (or not helping) artists in China?

PT: Definitely WeChat. This omnivorous mobile platform does all the things that Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook do best, and has gone yet another step further in creating a shared simultaneity among groups of users, who mostly know each other in real life. In the context of the art world it has become the first place to look for images of shows, seconds after they open, anywhere in the world. For artists in China the instant access to images and texts that the internet offers has gone a very long way in empowering people to engage with ideas and forms that used to arrive only after a prolonged, distorting process of transmission. Of course that in turn creates a whole realm of new problems!

MC: Finally, what are you most looking forward to seeing/doing in New York during the Armory Show, related to the Armory Show or not?

PT: I’m really looking forward to seeing Pawel Althamer’s outing at the New Museum. We are opening a show with him on May 24th and it will cover a lot of the same ground work-wise (including notably the Draftsman’s Congress), albeit in a radically different context.

Explore The Armory Show 2014 on Artsy.

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