Redefining Ourselves in a Time of Rapid Change: Jérôme Sans and “Rear Windows”

Installation view of Li Qing Rear Windows showing the external façade and Rear Windows Neon Light, at Prada Rong Zhai, Shanghai, 2019. Photo credit: Zhu Hai. Image courtesy of Prada Rong Zhai.
Installation view of Li Qing Rear Windows showing Tetris Windows Rooms, at Prada Rong Zhai, Shanghai, 2019. Photo credit: Zhu Hai. Image courtesy of Prada Rong Zhai.
Installation view of Li Qing Rear Windows showing Tetris Windows Room, at Prada Rong Zhai, Shanghai, 2019. Photo credit: Zhu Hai. Image courtesy of Prada Rong Zhai.
Installation view of Li Qing Rear Windows showing Hangzhou House Series, at Prada Rong Zhai, Shanghai, 2019. Photo credit: Zhu Hai. Image courtesy of Prada Rong Zhai.
Installation view of Li Qing Rear Windows, at Prada Rong Zhai, Shanghai, 2019. Photo credit: Zhu Hai. Image courtesy of Prada Rong Zhai.
Installation view of Li Qing Rear Windows showing Writer’s Wall, at Prada Rong Zhai, Shanghai, 2019. Photo credit: Zhu Hai. Image courtesy of Prada Rong Zhai.
Portrait of Jérôme Sans. Image courtesy of Jérôme Sans and Prada Rong Zhai.
Portrait of the artist Li Qing in his studio. Image courtesy of the artist and Prada Rong Zhai.
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CoBo Social Chinese Abstraction Series

During a recent visit to Shanghai, Denise Tsui visited the beautifully restored 1918 mansion that is now the exhibition space Prada Rong Zhai and sat down with curator Jérôme Sans on the occasion of Chinese artist Li Qing’s solo exhibition “Rear Windows,” to discuss his curatorial approach and discover why we are now living in an exciting moment of change. 

TEXT: Denise Tsui
IMAGES: Courtesy of Prada Rong Zhai

In curatorial theory not all spaces are created equal. Some are deemed harder to utilize. The Solomon R. Guggenheim in New York and its various ‘architectural copies’ around the world are one such example. While its beautiful spiraling architecture is a pleasure for the visitor, it’s inclined flooring and angular walls certainly give curators a tougher task. Sunlight is a factor that can also give many curators a headache. Aside from the harm it can cause to artworks, the unpredictable lighting is rarely ideal. As a generation accustomed to, and favoring, the white cube model, a topic which deserves a discussion of its own, we are also more likely to feel anything other than the artwork—these days, even a wall text—poses a problematic visual distraction. Among the more challenging of art spaces are those that have to face nature’s temperaments, have heritage listing restrictions and those that are retrofitted.

 

Installation view of Li Qing Rear Windows showing the external façade and Rear Windows Neon Light, at Prada Rong Zhai, Shanghai, 2019. Photo credit: Zhu Hai. Image courtesy of Prada Rong Zhai.

 

So admittedly I had my reservations in Chinese artist Li Qing’s solo exhibition at Prada Rong Zhai in Shanghai. A three-story garden villa designed by a German architect and located in the historically affluent residential neighbourhood of Jing’an, the house had its heyday in the 1920s and 30s as the residence of national capitalist Yung Tsoong-King (1873–1938) and his family. Now restored as an art space supported by Prada, it’s a house full of history, memories, décor and ghosts of a time past. It is the opposite of the sterile, neutrality of the white cube. A space where the glorious nature of its architecture and historic precedence can easily overtake an exhibition utilizing it rooms.

Titled “Rear Windows,” the exhibition takes its namesake and inspiration from Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 film of the same name, a reference most obviously felt through Tetris Windows (2018–19) series on the second floor. A series of paintings depicting various architectural feats mostly existing in Shanghai, set behind old, wooden window frames, Tetris Windows invoke a strange dichotomy of fiction and reality. The discontinuity of the paintings within different panes brings a sense of transformation and time. And for Hitchcock fans, the allusion to the taboo pleasures of voyeurism and the visual framing of a narrative within a window pane is rather evident.

 

Installation view of Li Qing Rear Windows showing Tetris Windows Rooms, at Prada Rong Zhai, Shanghai, 2019. Photo credit: Zhu Hai. Image courtesy of Prada Rong Zhai.
Installation view of Li Qing Rear Windows showing Tetris Windows Room, at Prada Rong Zhai, Shanghai, 2019. Photo credit: Zhu Hai. Image courtesy of Prada Rong Zhai.

 

This ghostly feeling of passing time emanates from each room where a different artwork or series marks yet another scene out of Li’s storyboard. Contradictions pointing at our contemporary behavior and way of life abound from room to room. “If you really want to experience the project, you need to immerse yourself in all the different realities and different rooms,” exhibition curator Jérôme Sans advised me.

In the ballroom hangs Hangzhou House Series (2019), a series of photographs of residential buildings in Hangzhou, a documentation of a period in their history of transformation that saw residents building and designing independent houses with the taste of their own luxuries. They appear peculiar, lonely, ghost-like and hybrid in their architecture. Many of these houses are fast disappearing in favor of newer construction. “It was a kind of sign of modernity, of contemporary building. And now we are at the phase where this is looking very old for China. Time goes very fast here, so this close past looks very fast, almost a prehistoric part of the contemporary life of China,” explains Sans. “He’s trying not to resist the speed of time, the speed of mutation in which we are now living in, but bringing kind of a slowing down to examine what we are looking at.”

Installation view of Li Qing Rear Windows showing Hangzhou House Series, at Prada Rong Zhai, Shanghai, 2019. Photo credit: Zhu Hai. Image courtesy of Prada Rong Zhai.

 

Co-founder of the Palais de Tokyo in Paris and former director of the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing, Sans began his career in the early 1980s, and grounds his curatorial practice in the everyday, away from traditional modes of exhibition spaces. “I was really interested in these kinds of places where life is converted to art, and not just taking art or leaving art in its protected zone that a museum or an art center is generally. It’s good to make a project in that, but I find it more adventurous to taste or to make experiences in real day life.”

Speaking about his invitation from Fondazione Prada to curate at Prada Rong Zhai, Sans told me with confidence that upon learning the history of the house, he was certain Li would be ideal. “The artist was for me one of the most interesting artists of the third generation of Chinese contemporary art to be working here, because he is really recording the change of the urban scale through a window. The window is really his vocabulary and not just a romantic part of the past.”

 

Installation view of Li Qing Rear Windows, at Prada Rong Zhai, Shanghai, 2019. Photo credit: Zhu Hai. Image courtesy of Prada Rong Zhai.

 

“And this house, for me, is this platform of this dialogue between the East and the West in a natural, human scale,” said Sans. “And the artist and I were very interested in inventing a project as a story, as a film somehow, where you could start from the beginning with this rear window and neon light.”

With some 35 works spread across the three floors, the garden and façade, there is hardly a space left unturned in the house. A commentary on social transformation and contemporary life in China, each of the works draw upon the essence of a bygone era, the documentation of living, the dialogue of cultures.

 

Installation view of Li Qing Rear Windows showing Writer’s Wall, at Prada Rong Zhai, Shanghai, 2019. Photo credit: Zhu Hai. Image courtesy of Prada Rong Zhai.

 

“There was real life here, where we were easily dialoguing without any differences. And I think the time now is close to the same as well, where we are able to dialogue.” In the bathroom, along one side was Popular Novel (2016-19), a collection of various editions, translation and versions of cult classic Vladimr Nabokov’s 1955 literary fiction, Lolita. On the opposing side, Writer’s Wall (2019) is a curious collage of magazine and newspaper clippings, receipts, bank notes, maps and more. Most curious and alarming were the various oil-absorbing sheets with the grease of human faces glued on top of selected portraits, creating an amalgamation of realities.

Sitting in one of the restored rooms, I pried into his curatorial approach. The role of the curator, according to Sans, has changed immensely. “When I started three decades ago, it was totally different. There were very few institutions dedicated to contemporary art. There were fewer galleries. There were fewer spaces for artists to express themselves. Now we live in a time where—and Shanghai is a very good example—there is more and more institutions. What was not even possible a decade or two ago, we are doing now. The world has changed a lot and is bringing back cultural responsibility to the private sector.”

Having co-founded and led major public institutions as well as instigating many curatorial projects aside, Sans believes it’s not just artists and artworks that need to continually evolve, but places of exhibition must too. “We cannot only stay to a model that was invented in the 1950s in Europe and in America, it makes no sense. Imagine if you were still phoning the way we were doing in the 1950s, it would be a little difficult for you to communicate nowadays. So the same goes for the way institutions or cultural places who must regularly readapt, reevaluate and update to the latest way that people behave or live in.”

Portrait of Jérôme Sans. Image courtesy of Jérôme Sans and Prada Rong Zhai.
Portrait of the artist Li Qing in his studio. Image courtesy of the artist and Prada Rong Zhai.

 

“Globally, we will have to redefine ourselves. There is a need everywhere, and we have seen that for the last decades and especially now, there is a need at different levels to be reinvented, and this is the excitement of the time and the trends we are living in at this time.”

Even though most artworks shown were not to my liking, it was an exhibition that delivered its concept and coherently married the artist and space. “Rear Windows” indulges in our voyeuristic tendencies, giving pleasure to nostalgia and faded memories. Like many ghost love stories, the exhibition brims with romanticism for the bygone. It seeks to breathe life into what has since been let empty. The neon light on the façade of the house introduces the exhibition and sets the tone of the coming together of East and West, old and new. Sans believes there has long been a “permanent co-influence of both sides” that plays a heavy role in how we are seeing more people rethinking how to read the present time, with more people embracing a re-reading inclusive of Asiatic culture.

“It’s like a personal relationship you know?” He says, as he looked me in the eyes. “What we do have to be true for both sides.”

 

 

 

About the curator
Jérôme Sans is an internationally renowned art critic, curator, and institutional director. He was co-founder and co-director of the Palais de Tokyo, Paris from 2000 until 2006, former director of the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing (UCCA) from 2008 to 2012. Most recently, he was appointed as artistic director of the Emerige contemporary art foundation, Île Seguin, Paris. Sans has curated numerous major exhibitions, including the Taipei Biennial (2000), the Lyon Biennial (2005) and Nuit Blanche in Paris (2006), among others.

About the artist
Li Qing was born in 1981 in Hangzhou, and currently lives and works between Hangzhou and Shanghai. His practice focuses on mass consumerism and society’s hypocritical stances on ideals of beauty through various painting and multimedia techniques. His solo shows have been presented in galleries and museums such as Tomás y Valiente Art Centre, Madrid; The Orient Foundation, Macao; Goethe Institute, Shanghai; and Arario Museum, Seoul. He has also participated in a number of significant group shows in important institutions, such as the 9th Shanghai Biennale, the 55th Venice Art Biennale, Institut Valencia d’Art Modern (IVAM), Seoul Museum of Art; National Gallery of Indonesia in Jakarta, Fukuoka Asian Art Museum, São Paulo Museum of Contemporary Art, and Asian Art Museum of San Francisco.

 

Li Qing: Rear Windows
7 November, 2019 – 19 January, 2020
Prada Rong Zhai, Shanghai

 

 


 

Denise Tsui is currently the Managing Editor for CoBo Social. A Hong Kong-born Aussie with an addiction to coffee, her research interests are primarily in the study of exhibition models and curatorial practices and art from the Southeast Asia Region. Previously she was an editor for ArtAsiaPacific and curator for a private collection of Australian and New Zealand art. A condensed version of her postgraduate curatorial thesis on contemporary Indonesian art was published in the Journal of Southeast Asian Studies in 2015.

 
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