We speak to Hou Hanru, artistic director of the MAXXI (National museum of 21st century arts) in Rome, on his take on Western art historical canon and curating in context of contradiction – an age of globalization where nationalist tendencies seem to be prevailing.
Text: CoBo Editorial Force
Images: Courtesy of MAXXI
“Once the world is formed, you always have to go against it,” says MAXXI artistic director Hou Hanru, with an attitude imbued with quiet rebellion. “Art is something that helps us to do that. What I’m interested in is the process of making forms outside of what we usually have. I always look for things that are not so easily definable.”
As a curator, Hanru is constantly trying to break free from pre-conceived, standard, concepts and definitions. In a way, his modality of thinking corresponds to the architectural design of the museum he is director of. The MAXXI Museum in Rome. Designed by Zaha Hadid, the museum is a fluid space where the viewer is free to navigate the exhibitions without being given a directive of fixed path or itinerary. Similar to Hou’s thought process, where concepts connected in unexpected ways. Not one for a following a linear sense of reasoning, his reflects on, and connects, multiple concepts on multiple levels.
This of course translates to the museum program as well. Whether a show at the MAXXI is based on a specific continent or a curatorial conceptual container, this is always nothing more than a point of departure. The reflections it elicits might even end up contradicting the premises of the show itself – or at least make us question it. Afterall, contradiction is embedded in human nature and is as natural as evolution, an organic part of our world.
“This world is not living forever, Hou expands on his methodology (or lack thereof), it’s always evolving towards a certain kind of end and mutation, into becoming something else. This process, sometimes involves some very clear, concrete social, cultural, personal and everyday life kind of issues. Other times they are very abstract, touching on the question of the universe, the material and immaterial. Even today there are many artists using new technology, virtual reality and so on. We are also inventing a lot of new terms like ecological art, post-human or anthropocene.”
In contextualizing trends and discourses currently raging in the artworld, within the current global cultural climate, we delve into matters which we feel resonate with Hou’s background and curatorial practice. In particular, the effect of a multiplicity of cultures on informing artists of a third culture background, as well as shifting the art historical canon from a Western standpoint, to that of an Eastern one.
Does being based in Italy and running one of its most important museums gives you a particular lens on your view how the world has changed?
I’m still learning about Italy, there is one thing that actually helps me, and that is examining the modern history of the country more closely. I can see how Italy has always been a laboratory of alternative or radical thinking. Very often it’s the combination of the most optimistic, humanistic thinking with the darkest side of humanity, such as fascism, totalitarianism and excess violence.
Speaking of the political climate in Italy, how do you position yourself as a museum director and curator in the current context?
The MAXXI program is not ideologically fixed. But there is of course a line of positioning based on an open and progressive understanding and engagement with the mission of promoting contemporary creation, and its organic relationship with the questions of globalisation and local transformation. It is related to the question of ethics and aesthetics. I tend not to judge the political scenario in Italy, which comprises the most unlikely alliance, in an easy and ideologically simplistic way. Actually the ideological line of the current authorities seems to be ambiguous and ambivalent. It’s a lot about a combination of political opportunities, opportunism and the organization of power that affects how the institutions function.
The MAXXI is perhaps the most important museum in Italy. What are the central questions you are tackling with the shows at the museum?
We are dealing a complex system of issues, like a genealogical tree with parts mutually connected and interacting, from interdisciplinary dialogue and collaboration – cogeneration of new projects among art, architecture, science, sociology, technology, ecology, etc., to the question of global transformation, local mutation and individual reinvention, as well as institutional restructuring in the age of domination of neo-liberalism and digital technology.
In the current context of social and cultural urgency, migration, not only in terms of people, but ideas, imaginations and different ways of creation, is definitely one of the most important themes. How to insist on openness when the society becomes increasingly self-reflective is another. It is essential to understand and claim that cultural identity and social coherence are part of the process of openness and change. In this process, a main challenge for a public institution is how to maintain and develop its role as an open platform for public debate, to make sure the democracy is protected and promoted. This has to be practised, tested and disseminated through creative work – artistic actions in the authentic sense of the word. Hence, it’s experimental and uncertain. There will be certain cultural – aesthetic, intellectual and psychological impacts on everday life.
For example, when you think that Italy is a European country, you immediately need to ask: what is European? What is Italian? Then, at the end your aim is to tell people that your idea of Italy or Europe, is not what you think. Then you need to look at the historical fact. You have to look at the reality of the interactions between Italy, Europe and the Mediterranean region. These interactions are not only transforming Europe, but they represent one of the most central conflicts, or transformational force, worldwide.
As a Chinese curator with a global background, working in Europe, how are you influencing the Western Canon?
We know that for the last two or three centuries, the world has been dominated by a European concept of modernity. There is almost nowhere in the world you can escape it. It’s the result of the expansion of the West through different ways, trading, exchange, wars, aggression, colonization and so on and the defeat of all these colonial powers in the process of the non-Western world’s decolonization and independence. But there has always been also interactions between both sides. And that changes also what the West think of itself.
On the other hand, the non-Western world is part of this interactive circle too. It doesn’t make sense to reject modernity, bringing back the so-called tradition to replace modernity. This is no longer possible. Of course, there’s a chain of questions that come with that. For example, when we talk about modernity, it’s no longer only about the Western modernity. There is always a tension between the intention to build a stable structure and the movement to destabilize this structure by introducing many other elements that are not originally from the West, right?
We should start thinking this way, especially in Europe. When you are outside of the West, also one of the most dangerous things today is to fall back to localism, regionalism and nationalism, to reject the communication and sharing with the other.
In this sense, is the paradigm of assessment based of a East and West standpoint still valid?
For the last 20 years we have seen a very interesting discourse arising. We started speaking about the South and the North, rather than the East and the West. This comprises a different approach to identity based on economic, social and cultural values. The North represent a more economically developed world and the South is more of a post-colonial world. The South brings forth a way of thinking that can be mingled with what comes from the North.
In a way this movement of ideas, goods and values is like the global climate. We have various currents going around, and influencing each other, rather than evolving in separate lines. And also we have to consider that at a certain point all this idea of the South and the North, the East and the West are just metaphors. They are basically expressions of political desires, often based on cultural clichés, with considerable misunderstandings. They are not facts, don’t mix facts with metaphors.
About the curator
Hou Hanru joined the Guggenheim in 2015. A prolific writer and curator based in Rome, Paris, and San Francisco, Hou is the artistic director of MAXXI, National Museum of the 21st Century Arts, Rome. Educated at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing in the 1980s, Hou moved to France in 1990, and after a period as an independent curator and critic, he became director of exhibitions and public programs and chair of exhibition and museum studies at the San Francisco Art Institute (2006–12). Over the past two decades, he has curated and cocurated more than 100 exhibitions at institutions and events around the world, including biennials and triennials in Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Gwangju, Istanbul, Venice, Lyon, Auckland, and Johannesburg. Hou consults for numerous cultural institutions, frequently contributes to journals on contemporary art and culture, and lectures at many international institutions. He is the author of such publications as Curatorial Challenges: Correspondences between Hou Hanru and Hans-Ulrich Obrist (2013), Paradigm Shifts (2011), and On the Mid-Ground (2002; Chinese edition, 2012). He is also a founding member of the Guggenheim’s Asian Art Council, a curatorial think tank. Hou’s latest project with the Guggenheim is Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World (2017–18), cocurated with Alexandra Munroe and Philip Tinari.