In 2008, A4 Contemporary Art Center was created to promote the development of art in Chengdu and Southwestern China and to strengthen both regional and international cultural exchange. Following its rebranding in 2016, with years of insight into non-profit art spaces, the now A4 Art Museum has zoomed in more on systematic academic study and local artistic ecosystems, exploring and activating the potential of this region in image-based art with regular exhibitions and projects.
The following script is based on a recent interview between PHOTOFAIRS and Ms. Sun Li, Director of A4 Art Museum. Written from the perspective of the narrator, we hope this will give readers an in-depth view into the history of the museum and its contribution to image-based art in this part of the country, with exhibition Loop: Photography and Video Experiments in Southwestern China Since 2000 cited as an example.
Sun Li, Artistic Director/Director of Luxelake A4 Art Museum, lives and works in Chengdu. Since 2007, she has studied, curated and produced a series of contemporary art exhibitions, cultural and educational campaigns that are dedicated to discovering new artistic viewpoints and emerging artists.
“We came up with the idea of A4 Contemporary Art Center in 2007, right after the entire Chinese market for contemporary art entered into a period of adjustment following its bubble bursting. That was the context when we were preparing the space. We wanted it to be a space for growth and so we set up its framework and organizational model in line with the direction of academic, cultural and urban development.
From Art Center to Art Museum
Chengdu is not considered a 1 tier city in China. The local art market has never been very vibrant, especially in terms of transaction. But the city of 16 million residents presents an enormous demand for culture and art. Three important principles became clear to us. First of all, we want it to be a space dedicated to the study of contemporary art. Second of all, it is a not-for-profit space. Last but not least, it assumes responsibility for promoting cultural and artistic exchange. From A4 Contemporary Art Center to Luxelake A4 Art Museum, we have always known that the art space/institution that we envisage is not only a property development project. Rather, it is a place that truly helps Southwestern China find its own role in contemporary art in order to drive local academic research.
The re-location of Luxelake A4 Art Museum in 2016 presented us with a new opportunity. As Chengdu becomes more attractive, art practitioners increasingly leave super cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou in favor of Chengdu.
“We live in a time of visual communication, when the utilization of image for expression is an indispensable part of people’s life”
In 2017, we hosted the exhibition Loop: Photography and Video Experiments in Southwestern China Since 2000. Leading up to the exhibition, we spent over 3 years doing research, visiting artist studios and holding seminars to further analyze and understand the work and methodology of artists. Based on our observation, 2000 is a good time to gain a glimpse into the image-based art landscape in Southwestern China, because that was around the time when a few institutions began to intentionally drive the growth of this type of art. At the same time, artist communities were also on the move, organizing exhibitions or events on their own. More importantly, artists from this part of the country began to make a name for themselves internationally as they took home many artistic awards.
Please note that when I speak of Southwestern China, I am not simply referring to a region or a geographic concept. Rather, the term symbolizes a major shift in the artistic approach of artists living here, as they move from documentary photography and landscape photography in the early days to pure art photography. Artists like Muge and Zhang Kechun have created the “on the road” approach, taking photos while traveling, which allows them to merge physical perception with the creative work of photography. Artists like Adou, however, are more interested in minority ethnic groups and religious topics. Zhang Xiao and artists like him choose to return to their hometowns in Southwestern China, which serve as a stronghold for them as they extend their artistic practice to a wider space.
Space Connection and Open Creation
There is no denying that image-based art has emerged as an important trend within contemporary art. We live in a time of visual communication, when the utilization of image for expression is an indispensable part of people’s life. At the same time, there are many talented artists from Southwestern China who work with this medium. That is why photography is and will be an important direction of our work. When we put these Southwestern artists in a broader contemporary context, the relationship between geography and art, or to be more specific, the influence of geography on art, will become more evident.
Today, people are living in an increasingly connected space, which means such influence or relationship will not simply manifest in the form of artistic theme or language. In fact, early artists in this region are indeed interested in such topics. For instance, Southwestern China and the Yi ethnic group can be found more or less in the works of Zhang Kechun and Adou, but later in their career, they are less driven by these themes and instead embrace a more individualized approach. Another example is Feng Li, who insists on expressing how Chengdu nurtures him in his artwork, while other artists either become fascinated by the dark room to explore the ontology language of photography or become engaged in discussing about photography and image on the textual level or philosophy of self.
The reason why Southwestern China has given birth to such an amazing diversity of image-based artwork is perhaps that survival is easier for artists in Chengdu than in other cities, which gives them the needed space and freedom so that they don’t need to cater to commercial expectations. At the same time, the relaxing environment is less likely to induce artworks on social intervention or anxiety confrontation, which is why many artists here choose to go back to their hometown and their true intention, pondering about the ultimate questions and photography ontology.
Photography in Southwestern China: Looking to the Future
Loop: Photography and Video Experiments in Southwestern China Since 2000 is an important attempt by Luxelake A4 Art Museum. In the exhibition, we did not emphasize photography, but rather used the more encompassing concept of image as it covers video, image-based installation and even on-site performance. Li Chenchi, in his adhd, turns photography into a medium for performance, while Zhang Xiao’s Sweet Love features appropriation and re-creation of existing image. All of these artworks represent a valuable direction for exploration, as they impart more possibilities to image.
As for our next steps, Luxelake A4 Art Museum will keep up our research into the history of image and photography through exhibitions. In partnership with Yokohama Museum of Art from Japan, we will present an exhibition featuring photography literature, device and artworks since the 18th century. We will continue our focus on individual artists, through seminar, workshop and other forms of activities on existing topics such as photography and performance, photography and installation, to promote the development of image-based art in Southwestern China."