You can visit the new DC site. Archived Edition www.nu.nl

Interview - Dai Hanzhi: 5000 Artists


The Exhibition ‘Dai Hanzhi: 5000 Artists’ is now on view in Rotterdam’s Witte de With, Centre for Contemporary Art. It is dedicated to the life and work of Dutchman Hans van Dijk (1946 – 2002). The exhibition outlines his seminal role in Chinese contemporary art. Van Dijk, whose Chinese name was Dai Hanzhi, was active as a curator, art historian and gallerist in China throughout the 1990s.

Earlier this year, a different exhibition with the same title was shown in Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing. We interviewed Defne Ayas (DA), director of Witte de With, the Dutch institution that initiated the grand art project, together with curator of the duo exhibition, Marianne Brouwer (MB).



Q: Witte de With is one of the leading public art institutions in the Netherlands with a prestigious national and international reputation. From your highly international programming, could you introduce how and why this exhibition about Chinese contemporary art became a choice?

DA: While living and working in China (2005–2012), it struck me how many of my peers and colleagues—artists, curators, and gallerists alike—all spoke so fondly of Hans van Dijk. He was commonly referred to in Chinese as the “older Hans” (to distinguish him from renowned curator Hans-Ulrich Obrist), acknowledging him as a mentor and an important influence on their own respective practices.

First and foremost, I intended to re-introduce him to the Netherlands and Dutch art scene and general audiences, as he is so little known in his homeland. Our intention was also to create/reenergize a community around the legacy of Hans van Dijk. To bring all the different partners, organizations and stakeholders together including Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing, Asia Art Archive in Hong Kong (who started the archival work on Hans van Dijk before anyone), Vitamin Space with Zhang Wei/Hu Fang and (former) Bizart with Davide Quadrio (two leading art spaces of China known to combine both a curatorial voice and strong business savviness, present their own contributions as to show their affection for and respect to Van Dijk.)

When noted Dutch curator Marianne Brouwer approached us, we immediately said, "Let's do it. And let's do it now!” Her timing was just right. I thought it would be a wonderful opportunity to go to different partners and say, "We are going with the exhibition. Let's come together and develop this project." That's how other partners get on board. So, we have given it a green light, and I am hoping the show will generate enough interest- the kind that Hans van Dijk deserves.

With Dai Hanzhi: 5000 Artists, Witte de With is also able to continue her investigative program across China and rest of Asia that she set out to do since 2012. There had been a substantial history of exhibitions that attempted to grant a more global space of representation for China. The most intelligent ones investigated the spread of Western modernity as a universal condition, while others worked mostly with Western models as their blueprint. As such, Witte de With for instance had worked with very few artists from China in its twenty-four year history, which I started changing.

Q: How do you engage the Dutch audience that knows little, if anything, about Hans Van Dijk and Chinese contemporary art? How has the exhibition received in the Netherlands so far? Are there any extensive activities around the exhibition?

DA: We used van Dijk as the software to resist the withdrawal and regionalization that is taking place in the Netherlands. We are saying, ‘Look one of you, did this!’ This works much better than simply just importing art from China. So it is the third way we are offering. In terms of attention; five-star national reviews we have been getting helps as well as the TV coverage; we are doing a master class with Xu Tan across Rotterdam; a limited edition based on a recording with Yan Jun with the Player; a foundation dedicated to his legacy and the works; as well as a book.

Q: Marianne Brouwer, as a well-experienced curator and art historian from the Netherlands, in the past years you have been meticulously researching into Hans van Dijk's legacy in Chinese contemporary art. How have you come to an affinity with Chinese art and what made you embark on the project at the very beginning?

MB: I have been coming to china since 1985 or '86. Even at that early time, I was looking for the new art I was certain had to be there. There was so much energy for renewal in China! Throughout the years I came back to china numerous times, and I worked with contemporary Chinese artists regularly. I met Hans in Beijing in 1996 through the recommendations of my Chinese artist friends, and knew how important he was to them. To them, and I might add to here as well, his choices in art were very informed and important, and not based on what "the market" currently dictated and increasingly dictates. Sometimes it seems as though what makes up Chinese art history today is almost exclusively determined by the fleeting choices of the market. So perhaps it was only natural that i wanted to fill a historical gap with an exhibition in his honor.

Q: You curated two exhibitions this year as the result of your research, firstly the Hans van Dijk: 5000 Names in Beijing's Ullens centre for contemporary art, and the currently on-view Dai Hanzhi: 5000 Artists at Rotterdam's Witte de With Centre for Contemporary Art. Could you tell us the similarities and differences between the exhibitions in China and in the Netherlands, and why?

MB: Of course it is very important to keep your audience in mind when you make exhibitions. Making an exhibition about Chinese contemporary art in china requires a different approach than making an exhibition about Chinese art for a Dutch audience. This is true in particular about the nineties in China; when so much was going on that reached the art market only much, much later. Of course the history i address is the same, but people in the Netherlands are less familiar with recent Chinese art history, so these are different responsibilities.

Q: In your opinion, what does Dutchman Hans van Dijk's legacy - his archive, spirit and influence mean for the present-day Chinese art world? What do you think re-discovering such legacy and history would contribute to, or affect the future of Chinese art?

MB: The most important aspect of Hans' work in china to me, is that he worked with artists who later on almost without exception came to be among the most important in china. He had a fantastic feeling for quality and independence in art. He supported the artists with everything he earned, with everything he did, already at a very early stage in the nineties when life was extremely difficult and there was no infrastructure for contemporary art in china. He has been instrumental at introducing the artists abroad, and teaching them about the western art system of curating, galleries, collecting, even down to shipping and crating. His importance, moreover, for photography in china has been enormous. And, most important: he took the artists seriously as contemporary artists; he considered their work equal to western contemporary art, and he hated anything to do with the exoticism of ‘Chineseness’. He had an incredible knowledge of Chinese iconography. Even while i was in the final stages of doing my research for the shows i learned a lot from his choices! I am certain that he incorporated this knowledge in his lexicon, which spans a hundred years of Chinese modernity in arts and crafts. This, too, had never been done before. So i am looking forward to starting the research necessary to arrive at the publication of the lexicon!