Art, Education and UCCA: An Interview with Philip Tinari

DATE: 2020.5.4



Prior to becoming the Director and CEO of UCCA Center for Contemporary Art, Philip Tinari already possessed a wealth of experience in art media and academia, having held positions including: Editorial Director and Executive Publisher of LEAP, Founding Editor of ARTFORUM’s Chinese language website (he is currently a Contributing Editor at ARTFORUM magazine), Visiting Professor of the School of Humanities at CAFA, Academic Advisor for the Chinese Contemporary Art Department at Sotheby’s, and more. From his early role as a writer, to a director of an art institution, Tinari has witnessed the “rebirth” of private art institutions in China over the past decade, and thus became one of the most influential critics, curators, and art historians in the field of Chinese contemporary art. Since COVID-19 broke out after Chinese New Year in early 2020, it has had a large impact on art institutions, and UCCA is no exception. Many museums have responded by taking exhibitions and other activities online; UCCA Dune has just launched its latest exhibition “Resistance of the Sleepers” with an online opening a few days ago. The show will remain on view for in-person visitors until September. CAFA ART INFO spoke to Tinari in an exclusive interview to learn more about the latest developments at UCCA and the impact of the pandemic on the institution.


Interviewee: Mr. Philip Tinari | Interviewer & Editor: Sue Wang  

Interview Date: April 21, 2020

CAFA ART INFO: As the Director of UCCA in Beijing, you have many years’ experience with critical writing and curatorial planning. From 2001, when you visited China for the first time, through to 2011 when you joined UCCA as Director, till now, you have spent almost twenty years in China. What do you think of the developments and changes that have occurred within Chinese contemporary art?

Philip Tinari: The work I’ve participated in over these two decades is in fact part of the process through which Chinese contemporary art was constructed and developed. For example in the 1980s, art in China was mainly about academic exchange and the official system, with things mostly kept within this framework; in the 1990s, the first steps were taken towards the establishment of a market system, and from exhibitions to collectors and groups of artists, everything and everyone absorbed a great deal of international influences; after 2000, it can be said that contemporary Chinese art underwent a process of legitimization. For example contemporary art has been incorporated into the teaching philosophies of the Central Academy of Fine Arts and other art schools. A further manifestation of this is that people in general began to be more accepting of and familiar with the concept of contemporary art, as seen through the emergence of 798, M50, and other art districts, the birth of a large number of institutions and galleries, and the voice of a dedicated art press. So one of the biggest trends of that time might be that the entire system was gradually improving. I have always hoped that contemporary Chinese art can stand on the world stage with its own place, unique approach, and voice. But the issue is that currently, the field and market within China are so large that artists might be fully satisfied with domestic opportunities. This could lead to a period where developments are subtler. The biggest change over the past five years is that the ability of the public to accept art has been continuously growing. There is a bigger audience with a wide range of interests, so right now we have the chance to present large-scale exhibitions with the potential to make a greater impact.


Working with Xu Bing on Tobacco Project, Duke University, 2000


At the opening of the exhibition Made In Asia, Duke University, 2001

CAFA ART INFO: UCCA is currently one of the most professional art institutions in Beijing, and the rest of China. From its opening in 2007 through to 2020, UCCA has become one of the landmarks of the 798 Art District and come to symbolize high-quality exhibitions, which could not have happened without your hard work. What do you think UCCA’s goal and mission are? What are UCCA’s plans for future development?

Philip Tinari: UCCA has always upheld the core value that art can deepen and improve lives, and we hope that all people can participate in the appreciation and understanding of art on an equal footing. Our goal for development is quite clear, that is, we hope to be recognized in China and abroad as a game-changing, well-rounded art institution, by showcasing the most important currents, figures, and artworks in Chinese contemporary art while also selectively introducing audiences to the latest and most relevant in art practices from around the world. We hope to contribute to the further development of the art system as a whole. As our museum group expands to Beidaihe, Shanghai, and other cities in the future, I believe we will have many new opportunities to share UCCA’s understanding and vision of art with an ever more diverse public.



CAFA ART INFO: The sudden outbreak of COVID-19 that began in early 2020 has disrupted the schedule of many art institutions and individuals in the art industry. Now the pandemic has spread across the world and left people with no choice but to slow down their lives… Where were you when the epidemic started? How has your life and work been affected by it? Did it inspire you in some way?

Philip Tinari: When Wuhan was locked down, I was actually at the World Economic Forum in Davos. When SARS took place in 2003, I reported on it as intern at The New York Times, so I keenly felt some idea of what kind of countermeasures might be taken in China. But at no point did I expect that the scale and intensity of the pandemic might be far greater than the impact of SARS. I returned to Beijing on February 11, after spending three weeks traveling to Europe, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, and elsewhere over the Spring Festival holiday, through a complicated, convoluted route. Although the situation in China was more serious at the time, I thought it would be better to come back earlier, and I was constantly in touch with my team in Beijing. Due to this special period, our original exhibition program needs to be rescheduled, and we have been adjusting our work plans for this year. In the early days of the epidemic, everyone thought that it was just an issue for China, and then it suddenly became an issue for all humankind. I think this should be lesson for all of us.


With Qiu Zhijie and Wang Yuyang after the opening of a Post-Sense Sensibility theater happening, March 2003


Installing Wang Wei’s exhibition Temporary Space at Long March Project, July 2003

CAFA ART INFO: Some pessimistic opinions state that the pandemic could have a negative impact on the market and overall environment for Chinese contemporary art, possibly even threatening the survival of some galleries and institutions. How do you view this situation? What post-pandemic countermeasures is UCCA taking?

Philip Tinari: This can remind us that the daily operation of the art world is actually based on a complicated and fragile system. Everyone is currently faced with many challenges and tests.

We have been reflecting on the significance of UCCA to our public as an art institution, and accordingly we’ve tried to take action in a practical manner. We’ve also tried to maintain a positive attitude throughout this exceptional period. When public holidays were extended from February 10, we began working from home, and subsequently staggered the return of staff to our offices, in accordance with the government’s requirements. At the same time, we set our sights on the digital arena, trying to bring online artistic experiences unavailable elsewhere to our public. How to integrate online and offline presences remains an issue faced by many art institutions. The current situation provides an opportunity to explore new possibilities for solving this problem. Despite the difficulties encountered, all the experience we have gained during this period will bring even more vitality into UCCA when we reopen.

Liang Shuo, Fit NO.8, Mixed Media, 303 x 144 x 303 cm, 2014; Courtesy of the artist and Yang Gallery, Beijing. At the Armory Show, Focus- China..jpg

Liang Shuo, Fit NO.8, Mixed Media, 303 x 144 x 303 cm, 2014; Courtesy of the artist and Yang Gallery, Beijing. At the Armory Show, Focus- China.

CAFA ART INFO: In 2014 you curated “Focus: China” at the Armory Show and have continued to work introducing Chinese contemporary artists to the world, while also bringing exhibitions by leading international artists to China. What do you think are the most interesting and difficult parts of these processes?

Philip Tinari: I sincerely hope that contemporary Chinese art can be understood and appreciated by “ordinary people” in the West. This actually requires a great deal of transformation in terms of context. In “Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World” which I co-curated for the Guggenheim Museum in 2017, I hoped to present the key events and works of Chinese contemporary art in a more comprehensive manner, even to the point of including context on the entirety of society, economy and culture. At present, we have the chance to present truly world-class exhibitions to audiences in China. The results can also be interesting for the artists we collaborate with; for example, it did not occur to Matthew Barney that his exhibition at UCCA might be better executed and more closely satisfy his requirements than some of his shows at museums overseas. Meanwhile, the high-quality exhibitions produced by such collaborations may also help audiences in Beijing gradually build their ability to appreciate art and view it through a critical eye. Whether you’re a middle school or college student, or a recent graduate with an interest in art, you can see great exhibitions in Beijing. I think this is a sign of a healthy, dynamic society.


“Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World”,Photo Courtesy of Guggenheim Museum

CAFA ART INFO: In recent years, the Chinese contemporary art scene has become more international than before, as illustrated by last year’s UCCA exhibitions “Picasso – Birth of a Genius” and “Matthew Barney: Redoubt”, for which art lovers sometimes had to queue up to get into the museum. Meanwhile, there are also many young Chinese artists and collectors that have returned from time spent overseas. This has brought new influences and excitement to contemporary art in China. As a participant and observer, how do you think these changes will influence artmaking in China?

Philip Tinari: Many artists may not necessarily have a pointed goal for their works, nor do they have a way to clearly measure the impact of their creations on society. But here I think there are two points to be made. The first is that artists can sometimes anticipate larger trends in advance. Many great artists raise issues and possibilities that mainstream media and society are not yet conscious of or don’t view as urgent. As to whether this will encourage everyone to think about these issues, it is unnecessary to immediately define success in these terms. The second point is that if we look a things in reverse, and in a few decades or hundred years, want to understand our current era, looking at art is an excellent way to do so. It is like visiting a warehouse filled with past experiences, through which we can learn about the work that was done before. Of course, historical documents could give us this information, but art can, more vividly and with a greater sense of narrative, capture our lives and the present social order.


With Song Dong at the first exhibition of Polit-Sheer-Form, Only One Wall, September 2005

CAFA ART INFO: After its reorganization, in 2018 UCCA launched a specialized academic research department, and has regularly been holding forums and other public education events. UCCA is an outstanding representative of this broader trend within non-profit art institutions in China. What new initiatives in research and institution-building will UCCA undertake? Have you considered cooperating with other academic institutions?

Philip Tinari: The establishment of UCCA’s Research Department happened relatively recently, only two years ago. The primary task ahead of it is to organize the documents that UCCA has generated over its more than ten years of history, which has been a long-term objective of UCCA. The department also produces and publishes academic texts. We are currently preparing for the launch of our library, which we expect to open at UCCA Beijing in a year, as a space welcoming academics, students, and the wider public. Since UCCA’s founding, we’ve already collaborated with publishers, art institutions, and designers in China and abroad to produce more than 60 books on art—this is an important avenue for our museum’s contributions to academic discourse. I hope that in the future, we can cooperate with more institutions and explore other research projects, undertaking work and discussions that go past the limits of what can be studied by a single institution or in a single discipline. 

CAFA ART INFO: As an experienced art writer and curator, how do you discover new artists? Do you like to visit graduation exhibitions at Chinese art schools? What do you think of art education in China today?

Philip Tinari: I visit exhibitions all time, and this includes CAFA’s graduation exhibition. Actually the entire team at UCCA pays very close attention to what’s happening in the entire field of Chinese contemporary art, and whenever there’s a new project at the museum, we’re able to connect with the relevant people right away. I think observation of new developments is extremely important.

As for art education, I think a defining feature of Chinese contemporary art is the support of a tremendous education system. For example, a solid grounding in painting and sculptural technique has brought Chinese contemporary art to higher level, in general, than art from many other countries. The academy also plays a key role when it comes to the spread of artistic concepts and helping artists complete mature artworks. But as with any other field, education is just the first stage of career development, and work begins in earnest after graduation. Without a doubt, the education system produces artists, but the question of how to find your own path as an artist is something you can only face on your own. The reason art is art, rather than medicine, law, or another field, is precisely because there are no clear-cut milestones to pass. To move forward you must constantly strive to better understand and improve yourself.

CAFA ART INFO: Which of programs that UCCA has planned for after the pandemic situation improves are you personally most excited for? What has changed because of the pandemic? Have there been any additions to the museum’s plans?

Philip Tinari: I’m most looking forward to a smooth reopening for UCCA. We recently found out that Gallery Weekend Beijing, organized by 798 Art District, will open on May 21, which could mean that our professional and private lives will be more or less back to normal by then. The curatorial team at UCCA is currently hard at work preparing UCCA’s marquee summer exhibition, which will open at the same time as Gallery Weekend. The theme of the exhibition will respond to the global situation over the past few months. For me personally, I’ve travelled too much over the past few years, which of course has also brought some benefits—I’ve been able to see how exhibitions are done in major cities around the world, and search for suitable projects to bring to UCCA. And indeed, many of our collaborations have required me going abroad to sign agreements and undertake promotion. But at this point I’ve been in Beijing for more than 60 days straight. In the past decade I’ve never stayed in Beijing for such a long unbroken stretch, without even going to Shanghai or Beidaihe. The last time was maybe back when I was still studying at Tsinghua University. On the other hand, since the air quality has been quite good, I’ve been running longer distances recently, for example from 798 back to Sanlitun. Without the epidemic, it is hard to imagine being able to run on the East Third Ring Road. And in the first quarter of 2020, I read more books than in the whole of 2019… So I’ve found everyday pleasures in my daily life. Over the past few years, many people have busily hurried about just for the sake of appearances, perhaps not thinking clearly about whether each business trip was truly necessary. Yet now we find that work is still able to continue more or less as usual. I think this is a question well worth reflecting on. I think everyone knows it would be unsustainable to continue at the same level of business as before. I feel I’ve learnt that on a deep level through this experience, and I’ve also gained a new understanding of Beijing. This global crisis has brought so much uncertainty and too many new variables to the world, but I am still looking forward to going to cities like London and Paris again, or somewhere in the Italian countryside, whenever it may be possible in the future. I hope I might have the opportunity to travel to other places around the world again soon.

Photo Courtesy of the Interviewee and Related Organizations.

Note: The views and opinions expressed in this interview are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of CAFA ART INFO and its employees.