Thomas Fuesser, Hans van Dijk, 1993, C-print, 27 1/2 x 35".

Hans van Dijk: 5000 Names” is a two-part exhibition that commemorates the pioneering Dutch scholar, curator, and dealer, who was a foundational influence on contemporary art in China and died in 2002. The current exhibition at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing is curated by art historian Marianne Brouwer and examines van Dijk’s life and work through archival materials and artworks by artists to whom he remained close. The show also became the center of a debate when the artist Ai Weiwei decided to remove his works from the exhibition, accusing UCCA of self-censorship when his name was omitted from a press release although his works remained in the show. Here, Brouwer talks about her conception of the exhibition, which is open through August 10, 2014. The second part of the show will run at the Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art in Rotterdam from September 4, 2014 to January 5, 2015.

THERE ARE MANY REASONS to produce a show and catalogue about Hans van Dijk. He was a defining figure in China’s art scene from the early 1990s on, yet until quite recently there was little historical research of his work; there was nothing “official” to describe his role in the history of Chinese contemporary art. The idea to “do something about Hans” was around for quite a while—Frank Uytterhaegen, who cofounded the China Art Archive and Warehouse (CAAW) with Hans and Ai Weiwei in 1998, was among the early initiators of a plan to produce a show and a book on Hans. When Frank died in 2011 the project was in danger of coming to an end. One of the most difficult parts was to find funding for such a big project, as it involves editing and translating four languages (Chinese, German, Dutch, and English), interviewing an enormous number of people in various countries, and researching archival materials at the New Amsterdam Art Consultancy (NAAC) and CAAW in Beijing.

The exhibition consists of three parts: the artworks, the archival materials, and a lexicon of over five thousand artists born between 1880 and 1980, essentially documenting one hundred years of Chinese modern art history, which was discovered on his computer. My curatorial decisions were based on those artists Hans had promoted and “discovered” throughout his career—from his early time at university in Nanjing, where he studied Chinese language and art history from 1986 to 1989, through his later life in China, when he founded NAAC and cofounded CAAW. These artists are now very well known, but Hans’s instinct for good art and his choices at the time remain astonishing: When in Nanjing, he had already corresponded and met with artists such as Huang Yongping, Zhang Peili, Geng Jianyi, Ding Yi, Tang Song, Hong Hao, and Wu Shanzhuan. Others were given their first solo shows by him or remained close to him throughout his life: Wang Xingwei, Mai Zhixiong, Duan Jianyu, Zheng Guogu, Xu Hongmin, Meng Huang, to name only a few. He supported artists throughout his life with everything he had; any money he made from sales went back into art.

Several participating artists made new works especially for the show, but none of these were commissioned—they arose spontaneously from the artists’ proposals. It was incredible to see how many people had been deeply touched by Hans. Through the writings and photos on display I have attempted to give an impression of the many stories which connect the individual works in the show in a personal way to Hans. As for Ai Weiwei’s withdrawing from the show, I can only say that I came to UCCA to do an exhibition about Hans, which I did to the best of my ability. Like any artist, he has the right to withdraw his own works from an exhibition he disagrees with. I just deeply regret the attention taken away from Hans.

As artist and writer Chen Tong said to me when we were discussing the lexicon, Hans made no distinction between woodcut or photograph, ink painting or oil painting. Only the quality of the work counted and its relation to the historical development from modern to contemporary art in China. I think this is a good summarization of the most important legacy he left us. Hans was convinced that contemporary art in China was absolutely equal to contemporary art in the West. As Ai Weiwei said to me in an interview: West or East—there is only contemporary art. In the exhibition, I tried to follow Hans’s main curatorial decisions as I encountered them during my research as faithfully and objectively as possible. I can only emphasize that even so it has been impossible not to be fragmentary and incomplete. Thus I see this exhibition not as an end but as a beginning of much more research into China’s art in the 1990s and Hans’s crucial role.

— As told to Dudu Ke