GAOTAI, founded by Xing Musa Ma, is the first international art centre and contemporary art gallery in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China. Currently, GAOTAI represents artists from China and other parts of the ancient Silk Road, featuring works on environmental, cultural, and gender concerns. In 2020, Xu Guanyu, an artist based in the United States, represented by GAOTAI, won the 2020 Exposure Award for his work Temporarily Censored Home. In this group of works, Xu Guanyu juxtaposed, interspersed and nested a large number of images and physical space, thus forming a series of delicate and complex photographic installations that break the boundaries of time, space and dimension. This week, we are delighted to have Musa with us to review the 2020 Exposure Award and how Gaotai has developed in the past year.
PF: First of all, congratulations! Gaotai Galley has successfully worked with Pro Helvetia (Swiss Art Council) to bring the exhibition Between Mountains, Hills and Lakes to Xinjiang. As the founder of Gaotai Galley, what’s your interpretation of this theme? And did you find anything in common with the concern of you or Gaotai in the exhibition?
Masu: Curated by He Yining, Between Mountains, Hills and Lakes starts from the curator’s in-depth visual research in Switzerland in the past two years and goes on to examine artworks from nine artists that explore the country from different perspectives. Among them, I’m really into Christoph’s work which explores the complex relationship in climate change: leaders’ gesture in the UN climate conference was enlarged and featured in front of an artificial landscape about slowing the shrinkage of the glacier.
It’s so impressive that the exhibition presented the diversity inside a region, which is quite close to Gaotai’s position that we want to emphasize Xinjiang’s regional background while encouraging cross-cultural dialogue at the same time.
We worked well with Pro Helvetia this time, and it’s interesting that we met each other at an event held by PHOTOFAIRS. After this exhibition, Pro Helvetia has looked for local artists and musicians in Xinjiang, and we hope this could be a starting point for more artistic and cultural communication between Xinjiang and Switzerland.
PF: Can you please share with us why you founded Gaotai Gallery? What difficulties or challenges have you run into as an emerging gallery? And what advantages or qualities does Gaotai have in your mind’s eye?
Masu: I founded Gaotai after a period of inspection into the region. I visited many artists, curators and scholars who are also into Xinjiang contemporary art, which altered my initial plan to present today’s Xinjiang through only one exhibition. On the one hand, it struck me that it’s far from enough to respond to curiosity/misunderstanding and encourage dialogue at one go. On the other hand, I was not able to give a genuine presentation about such a complex theme for too little time.
After I founded the galley, what most impressed me along the way were my bonding with the artists, the time chatting with them at the studio, and the 100% creative enthusiasm we felt in front of the artworks. Looking back from now, I do feel very grateful. As the only art centre and contemporary art gallery in Xinjiang, we’ve got a lot of attention from our peers and gradually fostered a group of loyal audience. While there are still some expected obstacles, like how to transfer followers to collectors, how to evolve from a beginner to a professional, and how to be influential when being visited, waiting to be resolved.
PF: How did you find Xu Guanyu and choose him to attend the Exposure Award? What struck you the most in his work?
Masu: God, I love him. Even though we haven’t met each other because of the epidemic, one photograph from his exhibition Temporarily Censored Home is hanging on our office wall, allowing me to meet him “closely” every day. (smile)
I remember that, after the first wave of COVID-19, my friend Han Honghzheng organized an online exhibition of work by Asian artists living in America, and Xu Guanyu was included. At my invitation, Han Hongzheng then turned this online exhibition into an offline group exhibition Runaway World 2020 in Gaotai. That was the first time for us to work with Xu Guanyu, and for him to display his work in China.
I think the Exposure Award welcomes new things. It enables photographers to create works which can blow our minds, reflect on current issues and lead the future of photography. Order is discussed in Xu Guanyu’s sophisticated and complex installation of photographs. I was moved by his reflection on private identity while collapsing the boundaries of individuality. Xu Guanyu’s “trespass” on his home in Beijing can be seen as an entrance to the forum for intergeneration, Sino-US relationship and international order. His work provoked my reflections on uncertainty when I recently admired it again. Since there is a huge amount of information in Xu’s works, I can always get new ideas when I watch them.
PF: Actually, Xu Guanyu has captured a lot of attention in 2020. Apart from his artistry, do you think he got the attention by chance or for other deeper reasons?
Masu: Most of this series were completed in 2019, before the outbreak of coronavirus. However, it’s worth noticing that the issues reflected in his work, like minority group identity or Sino-US order, then became trending topics in public life and art territory. It’s not the first time that an artwork has moved ahead of public opinion. Imprinted with the era in its self-refection, a good artwork is conscious of this earlier and more precisely.
PF: Besides Xu Guanyu, Gaotai has worked with a group of young photographers like Ma Hailun, Zhang Boyuan, Liao Yijun, Chen Ronghui and so on. Do you find any similarities or differences among their works?
Masu: I’m very lucky to have worked with many talented artists and photographers last year through exhibitions or other forms. As a young art institution, it’s grateful that artists are willing to present their works in our space out of trust.
Given my academic background in public policy, I believe similarities are always found in outcomes, while raising questions is more important in artworks. They not only focus on similarities which help us establish and obtain some collective memories, but also include individual, private and incidental findings. This kind of diversity complements a society that values similarities with things which are easily ignored, lost and even excluded.
PF: From a galley’s perspective, what kind of young artists are easier to be seen? And what should a gallery do in the development of an artist?
Masu: I highly value Gaotai’s role and influence as a public art institution, and gallery is more business-related. I won’t say it’s a must for young artists to enter the galley system since the current art industry is not well-established at home. Moreover, the career development as an artist is also uncertain. Therefore, I’d ask more young artists, not the chosen lucky dog who is seen and accepted by the market from the start, to look for an identify which can balance life and art and provides nourishment for creation.
In Gaotai, young artists’ empathy is underlined. The works should be closely related to the artist on the one hand and be able to provoke “empathy” among a wide range of audience. I think galleries have limited ability to help young artists who, as freshmen, can only work with emerging galleries like us. So, I think an open relationship of mutual trust and shared benefits between artists and gallery owners, and different galleries is the key to more cooperation.
PF: Which galley or gallery owner do you admire? What’s the next big plan of Gaotai?
Masu: I haven’t built connections with many galleries and their owners yet, but they are role models for me. Recently, I’m looking at Almine Rech and Bank. I want to learn how to present works in the way that is attractive to audience, supported by collectors and filled with aesthetic taste.
In 2021, I wish a speedy development of Gaotai’s public projects and gallery business so as to meet more audience offline. We will start our new plan Art Festival Xinjiang (April 28th-May 4th) soon in Beijing. People can attend exhibitions, fairs, films and forums during the day, and enjoy performances by bands and musicians from Xinjiang at night. If all goes well, we want to make it a tour across different cities, a carnival of Xinjiang art for young people. We are looking forward to seeing you in Shanghai!
Furthermore, I want to recommend this year’s Shanghai PHOTOFAIRS, in which the work of our two young photographers, Xu Guanyu and Ma Hailun, will be displayed. And Ma Hailun will start her new creation in Xinjiang since April.
PF: Lastly, what are your expectations for this year’s Shanghai PHOTOFAIRS? What’s the advice you want to say to the 2021 Exposure Award applicants based on your experience?
Masu: I have deep feelings for Shanghai PHOTOFAIRS. Before Gaotai was officially founded, we shared the works of five artists from our gallery in the fair, which was our initial connection. The feedback and response we received at that time have affected us for the better. Last year, the pandemic prevented the fair from opening, however, we worked closely with our PHOTOFAIRS counterparts in online exhibitions and a series of Exposure Award activities. I hope the year 2021 can be a new starting point for the development of the photograph market and more private and institutional collectors, and everyday audience can find the charms of photographs, and feel free to collect them.
For galleries applying for 2021 Exposure Award, I suggest that they should help artists collect works in a delightful way and clarify stories and concept behind. With rich experience and international background, I’m sure this year’s judging panel won’t miss any excellent work.