Hou Hanru was born in Guangzhou, China, and studied at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. He moved to Paris in the 90s and to San Francisco in 2006, where he was Director of Exhibitions and Public Programs and Chair of Exhibition and Museum Studies at San Francisco Art Institute. He was appointed Artistic Director of MAXXI (National Museum of 21st Century Arts) in Rome, in 2013.
The interview took place in his office in Rome and revolves around complexity, reality, and action in his approach as institutional curator “on the move.” The audio file is the recording of a phone conversation that occurred a day after our meeting in Rome. It contains a couple of questions suggested by Hans Ulrich Obrist to Michela Alessandrini concerning Obrist and Hanru’s project Cities on the Move, and Hou’s relevant answers.
A conversation with Hou Hanru, the Artistic Director of MAXXI Museum, Rome
Conversation transcription below
Michela Alessandrini: What is your approach to the many cultures you have met during your curatorial practice?
Hou Hanru: I usually do not start thinking about what kind of cultural background a place has; I rather think about what kind of reality a place has. At the end of the day, the more you encounter the real situation, the more you find out that there is something increasingly similar everywhere. We are living in a time where you can travel from a place to another, but most of the time it is a very similar kind of metropolitan context. Our world is not defined by cultural differences based on geographic distance; we are in a time where each society, each place, is characterized by the coexistence of many different level of cultural systems. That means that in every place there is a multicultural situation. For me, the most interesting question is how to live with this multiculturalism, multilevel cultures and differences. Very often, these cultural differences turn out to be so real that they end up influencing your behaviours in your everyday life and the way you think about your work.
That systematically implies some kind of political relationship behind it. For me, the ultimate motivation to encounter this complexity is to try to understand how, in each place, one can be as open, as tolerant, and as generous as possible in order to allow all these different cultures to be expressed in an equal way. My work is very much surrounding this effort. Working as a curator in art, or working for a museum does really imply thinking about the extent to which contemporary creation can bring a voice to express this desire, or this hope.
I don’t know if this is the answer to your question, but this is really behind the main motivation of all the efforts I make.
MA: OK, so basically, if I understand correctly what you are saying, being a curator in a specific place means being able to express the complexity of its reality.
HH: Yes, absolutely. Especially through artwork, in order to allow the artists to express themselves in the best possible conditions. Also to create a space in which these expressions can be seen by everyone. I think this is also very important.
Somehow, the significance of an exhibition is not simply presenting the best artwork but also the process through which everybody can have a possibility to participate in sharing an idea — even if, very often, this idea is intellectually very challenging.
I truly believe that it is because of the intellectual challenges that can be shared by people that society can actually move on.
MA: How can we bring complexity into a museum?
HH: A museum has multiple functions. By definition, a museum is a place that represents some of the most interesting artworks in different periods of history — for contemporary art museums, clearly it is about now or the recent history. It is not only a place where you preserve these products, but also one where people can interact with this kind of cultural productions of different periods in history and the whole of today. On the other hand, a museum can also become a very active site of production. It becomes a place used by artists not only as a kind of extension of their studios, the place where their produce art, but also as an institution where research, education, and exchange with the public become increasingly a central mission. That makes the museum a very active player in the making of a new social culture. This is an important tendency today, when we look at museums: the extent to which they should become a really active part of the civil society.
MA: Is this possibly your idea of museum of the future?
HH: It is, probably: now and in the future as well. On the other hand, complexity should continue to be a kind of protection for cultural difference, for different kinds of intellectually challenging ideas, products, projects, and so on. I think that society needs institutions or organizations that can preserve what is supposed to be experimental, complicated, and controversial as well, as a very important part of the knowledge of today. It’s also very important for museums to be able to provide the conditions that allow these kinds of intellectually complicated projects to exist. Otherwise we would go down the road of the entertainment industry.
MA: MAXXI is the museum for contemporary art and architecture of the 21st century. How do you articulate the contemporaneity of this institution within a city — Rome — that is so much influenced by the past?
HH: Of course this city is influenced by the past and it is not a problem in itself. This is exactly what makes this city different from many other cities in the world. It could be seen as an advantage. In a way, being closely related to history can be a way of participating in making the contemporary. What you call the contemporary is not one thing. It’s not a single image. Once again, it should be a diversity. Being close to history could be an important element in terms of contributing to the making of this contemporary landscape. The question is how much the contemporary should not be simply understood as one kind of thing. It should be understood as a dynamic system that is continuously evolving.
The risk of being too close to history sometimes can make you feel that there would be less necessity to change. In that case, it could become a problem. How should we turn this relationship with the past and with history into a new possibility of creating the new? This is an interesting challenge for us to consider. Anyway, I think that for a museum like the MAXXI this is not the main issue. The issue is to bring the institution back to the socio-political reality rather than being entangled in the issue of aesthetic canons. I think that the most important thing for a museum like the MAXXI is how to continue to invent new relationships between contemporary art creation, architectural ideas, projects and the changing reality. And this changing reality has many aspects: of course, the city and how it changes, the cultural identity of the place and how it changes. Also, in order to be able to understand this change, we need to put it into a global prospective. This is why it is so important that we should be open to different kinds of contemporary creation in the world, rather than simply following one line, one narrative of art history or architectural history. Then, of course, we are inevitably confronting a lot of issues, from social ones to ecological, environmental and individual ones, and so on.
These are actually topics for us. This is why I suggested that the museum should look at how to engage with some very important issues, such as the one concerning the crisis of democracy, how to find a solution or different proposals aiming at reconnecting artistic creation and the possibility of sharing it with people; and how to make the museum into a laboratory that proposes solutions to certain cultural and political issues in today’s society.
I feel that it is necessary to redefine our relationship with this changing world, starting from our relationship with our labour. How some originally established concepts and definitions have to change, for example the idea of Europe: who is European and why Europe? What is actually Europe? If we don’t look at these aspects in the prospective of important connections with the Mediterranean or other parts of the world, Europe can no longer stand, actually. All the crises we are facing today are somehow related because of the fact that this new perspective is not yet being taken into consideration in the social project, in political and economic actions. Even culturally, we are somehow too limited into certain kinds of tradition. These are very interesting times. This is why I suggested that we should work on exploring this relationship between Europe and the Mediterranean regions.
MA: How do you want to do that?
HH: We have a series of programs that present artists from these regions — not only presenting them as it is but also looking at the relationship, the interactions between the two sides. We started a series of major exhibitions two months ago, we had an exhibition on Iran (Unedited History. Iran 1969-2014, editor’s note) and now we are working on Istanbul and probably soon we will be working on Beirut; we are also working with different individual artists and filmmakers and so on — for example, we will probably organize a larger project with the filmmaker Amos Gitai for next year.
MA: What is urgent now, in your opinion… In one word?
HH: What is urgent now? This is a very interesting question. What is urgent is action. This action is not simply to be very active but also propose real cultural projects. At the end, it is urgent to think and act on defining a certain perspective for the world. I think we are in a time when all the events happening around us have completely surpassed our capacity or perception. And thus, rethinking a project for the world becomes totally impossible. Still, I think it’s urgent to act on how to rethink this issue.
MA: Thank you very much.
Some questions suggested by Hans Ulrich Obrist to Michela Alessandrini
Michela Alessandrini: The first question suggested by Hans Ulrich Obrist is: tell me about the archive of Cities on the Move.
Hou Hanru: Well, in the archive of Cities on the Move we have all the communications with the artists of the project, we have the slides, and we have a lot of books and so on. Most of the materials are now in Hong Kong at the AAA Asian Art Archive — which is scanning them — I’m waiting for them to finish the work and then they will return the originals to me. That’s the situation.
MA: How did you develop the archive? And especially, what’s in it?
HH: For the moment we just try to keep it organised, maybe in the future people will look at it and do researches and so on. An archive is an archive: so we keep it there and people can continue to use it. Probably, we are going to make a book soon, I think next year or something, hopefully. There will be the possibility to work with Afterall which is doing this series of books on major exhibitions. Recently, I’ve been invited to give a talk in London about Cities on the Move.
MA: Is this the unrealised book Hans Ulrich was mentioning in his second question?
HH: I think it’s this one. It is not ready yet. Probably, we will have the chance to revisit Cities on the Move. It was a project that travelled to seven places in the world. There is a lot of material and there has never been a kind of summary of this project. In the meantime, this project is really very special, it was very innovative at that time and I think even today it’s impossible to repeat the same exercise, because of the particular moment, the conditions, and so on. Because it is not simply an exhibition that tours to different places; rather, every time it is a reinvention of a new project. It’s an on-going laboratory of urban creation.
MA: OK, cool, thank you for your time!