Following the footsteps of Hans van Dijk: Art Basel Hong Kong 2014 – Salon Talk summary

Four panellists look back in time at Hans van Dijk’s contribution to the contemporary Chinese art scene.

As part of the Salon series at Art Basel Hong Kong 2014 (15 to 18 May), four leading art professionals discussed the life of curator and scholar Hans van Dijk, sharing found archival evidence and their personal life experiences with the man himself. 

The panellists at the Salon Talk "Hans van Dijk: Dialogues in the Development of Contemporary art in China"  at Art Basel Hong Kong 2014 (Starting from the left: Zhang Wei, Fiona He, Marianne Brouwer and Ian Yang).

The panellists at the Salon Talk “Hans van Dijk: Dialogues in the Development of Contemporary art in China” at Art Basel Hong Kong 2014. From left to right: Zhang Wei, Fiona He, Marianne Brouwer, Ian Yang and Philip Tinari.

The Salon Talk “Hans van Dijk: Dialogues in the Development of Contemporary Art in China”, on 16 May 2014 at Art Basel Hong Kong‘s second edition, explained how one man became an institution in the Chinese art world.

Recognised as a key figure in the 1990s in China, Dutch curator, scholar and dealer Hans van Dijk contributed immensely to the Chinese contemporary art scene. He was based in China since 1986 and, though he passed away in 2002, his influence still remains, owing to the archive of photographs, letters and books he left behind.

The four panellists of the Salon Talk looked back on Hans van Dijk’s life and reflected on the lessons we can draw from it. The panellists included:

Bringing China’s art to the world

Philip Tinari, Director of UCCA, opened the panel saying that contemporary art in China is now “much more developed then ever before.” According to Marianne Brouwer, art had no particular place in China during the 1990s and there was no real infrastructure for art: no galleries or museums that would allow Chinese contemporary artists to show and sell their work.

Hans van Dijk had thus been influential during this time, managing to channel Chinese art to the West while also bringing Modern art to China. The exhibition “China Avant-Garde”, curated by Hans van Dijk alongside Andrea Schmidt in 1993, was proof of this important contribution. It was one of the first Chinese contemporary art exhibitions in Europe, shown at Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin and including work by Ding Yi, Geng Jianyi, Fang Lijun, Zhang Peili and Wang Guangyi.

Considering that there were no art collectors drawn to this kind of art in China at the time, van Dijk was instrumental in guiding foreign collectors to Chinese artists’ studios. He also took famed art critic Andrew Solomon, from The New York Times, through the studios of the artists.

Hans van Dijk had a terrific eye for choosing people. He supported artists who were not supported by the market at the time; according to Brouwer, this was probably the reason why he remained poor. The people who bought these artists’ works were private collectors and other people he advised.

Hans Van Dijk visiting Ni Haifeng in Shanghai, 1988, Courtesy Asia Art Archive

Hans Van Dijk visiting Ni Haifeng in Shanghai, 1988. Image courtesy Asia Art Archive.

A one-man institution

Zhang Wei, who personally worked with van Dijk, described him as an optimistic and relaxed man, despite the hardships of installing art in China and the financial troubles they encountered. According to Zhang, when finances were low, he would often say, “Okay, it will come” and “something magical” did usually come along. Zhang believes this was because of van Dijk’s passion and love for art, and how he created prospects and opportunities to shape a life. She now sees the possibilities of “each individual being a space” as Hans van Dijk was: not only a researcher and a gallerist, but also an institution.

Not only was Hans van Dijk a great advocate of his artists, he also lived the same lives they led. When he founded the New Amsterdam Art Consultancy (NAAC) in 1994, which served as a home office and an artist hub, it had “no place to be”, as specified by Brouwer. Hans van Dijk was at the time “a city nomad”, refusing to live in the compound where foreigners had to live, and deciding to search for an apartment to live the same kind of life his artists lived.

Hans van Dijk aimed to set up a western-style gallery and curating system in China by teaching these artists how to create their work, take care of it and frame it. Marianne Brouwer believes that this legacy has remained until today.

Exhibition view of Zhao Bandi, Moonflight in 1994, Courtesy of Asia Art Archive

Exhibition view of Zhao Bandi’s “Moon Flight” in 1994. Image courtesy Asia Art Archive.

Hans van Dijk’s archive: A legacy

Presenting images from Hans van Dijk’s archive, Fiona He demonstrated van Dijk’s friendship towards artists. His relationships and conversations with artists began in the late 1980s: artists sent him letters and materials about their work and practice. In order to keep contact with the artists, van Dijk created a vocabulary list in which he would write down Chinese characters and translate them into Dutch. Some artists also sent him personal pictures such as family photographs. Hans van Dijk collected photographs, texts and data from every artist since 1986, transferring these materials into digital formats in 1991.

The Asia Art Archive (AAA) has been digitising his archive since their launch in the 1980s and Fiona He is the lead researcher on this project. During the panel discussion, she shared endearing images such as the manifesto of Hans van Dijk’s society, the exhibition “Moon Flight” by Zhao Bandi, a work by Zhang Peili entitled “Hygiene N°3” and a letter written by Zhang Peili in 1990, inviting Hans to visit him before the “China Avant-Garde” Berlin exhibition to show him his work.

By the last year of digitisation, AAA had scanned over 22,000 images from 480 artists’ files. There are also over fifty titles of periodicals and magazines in English, Chinese, Dutch and German; texts and primary manuscripts by over seventy Western and Chinese writers, critics and scholars of contemporary and modern Chinese art; and more than 1300 volumes of artist monographs and exhibition catalogues. Additionally, the archive comprises correspondence that van Dijk kept about exhibitions that he organised in China and elsewhere. AAA is also conducting interviews with people who knew and closely worked with Hans van Dijk during that period, such as Zhang Wei.

Fiona He believes that van Dijk’s contribution to our understanding of contemporary art in China, from the late 1980s to the early 2000s,

is his timeless effort to archive. Without this body of materials, the understanding of art production and art ecology, and the infrastructure on the semination of artworks would be very difficult in this pre-digital age.

The archive project will be available to the public on the Asia Art Archive website in October 2014.

Hans Van Dijk with artist Hong Hao, Beijing, 1994, photographed by Zhang Hai'er, Courtesy Asia Art Archive

Hans Van Dijk with artist Hong Hao, Beijing, 1994, photographed by Zhang Hai’er. Image courtesy Asia Art Archive.

The “5000 names” exhibitions in honour of Hans van Dijk

The Hans van Dijk archive will be showcased in two exhibitions presenting a retrospective of his life. The first show will take place at UCCA in Beijing from 24 May to 10 August 2014, curated by Marianna Brouwer. The exhibition will then travel to Witte de With Center for Contemporary Arts in Rotterdam, Netherlands, from 4 September 2014 to 4 January 2015. Ian Yang, the curatorial fellow of the exhibition in Rotterdam, is given the opportunity to present this exhibition titled “Dai Hanzhi: 5000 artists” and the gallery will be commissioning five artists who have worked very closely with Hans van Dijk, including Ding Yi, Zhang Peili and Wang Xingwei.

The exhibition will display loaned and archival materials from across Europe, mostly from Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands. Aside from the exhibition, there will also be a programme of events, a conference and a book co-published by UCCA and Witte de With. A foundation in the Netherlands, dedicated to Hans van Dijk and his research of contemporary art in China, may be in the pipeline.

What could have been…?

At the end of the panel, Tinari took the opportunity to ask the speakers how the Chinese art world would be different had Hans van Dijk lived another ten years. Zhang Wei responded by emphasising what our society is now lacking, noting that the market today seems to be ignorant towards artists’ history and how the work is created. She believes that if van Dijk were still alive, art would be looked at in a different way and a different context.

Marianne Brouwer mentioned the importance of Hans van Dijk’s lexicon and his project to turn it into a book, which he had already designed. Brouwer trusts that, if he had finished it, it could have had an enormous influence on the Chinese art scene and the way we think about Chinese art and its long history of modernity.

Claire Bouchara


Related Topics: archives, Chinese art and artists, promoting art, lectures and talks, art fairs, events in Hong Kong

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