Paula Tsai

Paula Tsai discusses “SEE/SAW: Collective Practice in China Now”

A Diaodui, A Project of Talking About After Life, 2012. Performance view, Ullens Center of Contemporary Art. (Photo: Peter Le)

Paula Tsai is curator of “SEE/SAW: Collective Practice in China Now,” an exhibition on view at the Ullens Center of Contemporary Art until December 30. “SEE/SAW” features fourteen different emerging Chinese collectives that are rotating their work in one-week durations in a dedicated UCCA gallery. The collectives have staged performances, interventions, and mini-exhibitions in the space.

“SEE/SAW” IS A SERIES OF CONFRONTATIONS. The six-week challenge of showing fourteen collectives in the same space was a rigorous exercise that required continuous dialogue with each group. The idea for the show came about during a research trip to meet with artists and collectives in Shanghai and Hangzhou. I was traveling with Bao Dong and Sun Dongdong, curators for the concurrent UCCA group show “ON | OFF: China’s Young Artists in Concept and Practice.” I further developed the idea during an ICI Curatorial Intensive session at UCCA that focused on new exhibition formats within an institution.

We approached “SEE/SAW” by keeping in mind that UCCA itself is a collective that provides exhibitions and public programs. Although the institutional role did not change dramatically, the participating groups have certainly challenged and expanded the expectations of the museum staff: for example, when A Diaodui took a nap in the space, or when Double Fly Art Center wanted to paint in the space after the center closed, or when the Museum of Unknown proposed selling an artwork by another artist in our space.

There is not a single city or place where collectives are being formed in China. You have collectives who originally met in academia—such as Irrelevant Commission and Double Fly Art Center at the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou, or 8mg at Sichuan Fine Art Institute. Other collectives, like Guest, have members who met in different places and are working between two cities. The DNA of these groups are also very different—sometimes you have obvious leaders in the case of LVXIAO or Art Praxis Space, and sometimes you have groups like Hexie Baroque whose members prefer to remain anonymous. The gender ratio is very similar to the status quo of individual practice in China—there tend to be fewer female artists.

I never thought that we would have so many collectives agree to show their work in such a small space and for such short periods. To my surprise, every collective accepted our invitation and they have all been enthusiastic about the opportunity to work with an institution. I think it’s important for collectives that are based in other cities—such as Museum of Unknown and TOF, who are both from Shanghai, Art Praxis Space from Chengdu, and 8mg from Chongqing—to be visible in Beijing.

The collective movement has become more active lately in China because the artists have been more open to different projects initiated by several for-profit and nonprofit spaces, and various curators. In addition, many of the artists who were born during the reform generation now have access to an abundance of information, which requires a processing capacity beyond that of a single artist. Increased collective activity can also be attributed to the fact that more and more artists are seriously and openly questioning the problems within the ecosystem of the Chinese art community.

It is hard to say whether this trend will last or die in this country. Many of these artists have individual practices and it will always be difficult for them to coordinate the time spent on their own individual and a collective practice. More important, individuals within collectives producing collaborative works might question whether it is necessary to distance their individual practices from their collective work.