Peng Feng: Professional Professor, Amateur Curator


In the early 2000s, the Peking University professor Peng Feng began to transform his accomplished academic career by entering into what is, by Western standards, an exceptionally intense engagement with contemporary art. Today, having curated over 200 exhibitions-now at a rate of about 30 shows a year-Peng Feng is one of the most prolific and influential curators in China. This ascent was marked by the invitation to curate the Chinese pavilion at the 54th Venice Biennale (2011) and the first International Sculpture Biennial in Datong, China (2011).

With a background in traditional Chinese aesthetics, Peng Feng is more sensitive than most curators to the ways in which contemporary Chinese artists redeploy traditional techniques and motifs in dialogue with Western artistic currents. In his shows and in his writings, he exploits a vocabulary adapted from Western philosophical sources, notably the writings of Immanuel Kant and Arthur Danto, in order to advocate for practices like installation art and performance art that are thus far not as widely accepted in China as in other parts of the world. Peng Feng conceives of curatorial work as a way to bring greater visibility to emerging artists, particularly women and others who have difficulty finding support in a complex system of patronage.

This June, he opened “Painful: Volunteers and The Aided,” an exhibition at the Times Art Museum, Beijing (June 14-June 20), sponsored by the Red Cross, which documented the challenges faced by those suffering from leukemia in rural China. Likewise, he organized “The Outdated and the Undated of Traditionalism,” a group exhibition of 21 professors from the Central Academy of Fine Arts held at the Bridge Art Space (June 22-June 28) in Beijing’s famous art’s center, 798. This show attempted a rapprochement between the district’s youthful audiences and the more tradition-minded CAFA professors.

Peng Feng spoke via e-mail with A.i.A. about his development as a curator, the different sets of expectations facing Chinese curators, and the structure of the Chinese art world.

JOSEPH TANKE In what way has your training in philosophy, in which you earned your PhD, prepared you for the work that you are doing now?

PENG FENG My academic training focused on aesthetics. After I earned my PhD, I began teaching aesthetics at art schools. This brought me into contact with contemporary artists, and my interests began to shift from classical Chinese philosophy to the philosophical interpretation of contemporary art. I began to write art criticism in 2004, and then to curate exhibitions in 2006.

TANKE My sense is that it is very different for you as a curator in China than for your colleagues in other parts of the world. How do you understand the differences between the Chinese model and the curatorial model in the West?

PENG FENG Yes, as a curator I am very unusual, not only in comparison with my colleagues in other countries but also in China. I call myself an amateur curator and a professional professor. For most of the exhibitions I have curated, I contributed only the concept. This includes selecting artists and works, titling the exhibition and writing a short text to explain the exhibition. Other specialists then help to realize the exhibition. I am only one member of the team.

I do not think that my work can be understood as representative of the way in which most Chinese curators work. In fact, there is no one Chinese curatorial model. The phenomenon of an exhibition with a curator is new in China, so we have many different ways of curating exhibitions.

TANKE Can you please describe, for those not familiar with it, the structure of the Chinese art world? How would you characterize the relationships between the Chinese government, artists and galleries?

PENG FENG Artists in China can be divided into three groups: freelance artists, professors in art schools and professional artists in government-supported academies. Both the professors and the professional artists get their salaries from the government, but their roles are different. The professors have teaching duties, while the professional artists work on projects sponsored by the government. The freelance artists are totally dependent on the market.

TANKE How do curators navigate these different relationships?

PENG FENG Often, curators in China are responsible for finding financial support for their activities. This money can come from the government, private companies or collectors. Most museums cannot invest much money in exhibitions. Rather, they rent space to curators and artists by the day. This is why the duration of many exhibitions is very short; most are not longer than one week. The art market is now cooling down, but there are still many different channels to raise money for exhibitions.

TANKE How do you understand the position of Chinese art in the world today?

PENG FENG In the past three decades, Chinese artists have created a number of marvelous works and movements, and this shows no sign of stopping. From Political Pop and Cynical Realism in the late 1980s and early ’90s to Chinese Style at the beginning of this century, the trends shift very fast.

Chinese art is still growing vigorously. In my judgment, the increasing presence of Chinese artists will reanimate the international art world. For example, at this year’s Venice Biennale, there are at least 10 collateral exhibitions, with more than 300 artists from China participating. The largest exhibition, “Voice of the Unseen,” includes well over 150 Chinese artists.

TANKE Are there specific themes that you see emerging in contemporary Chinese art?

PENG FENG After the international financial crisis in 2008, more and more Chinese artists began looking into their own tradition. New media artists such as Feng Mengbo in Beijing and Qiu Zhijie in Hangzhou are now doing ink wash paintings.

In 2012, I curated an exhibition in Shanghai at the Duolun Museum of Modern Art titled “Undoing Shuimo” (“Undoing Ink Wash”). I wanted to demonstrate the ambivalent attitude we have towards ink wash painting, the symbol of tradition. But after “Undoing Shuimo,” more than 10 large-scale exhibitions dedicated to contemporary ink wash painting sprang up in Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu, Shenzhen and Hong Kong, including a large group show titled “Shuimo Again” at the Today Art Museum in Beijing. In many cases, the attitude towards this traditional art form was very positive.