Q&A: Gao Minglu, Curator Of MINDSPACE - Maximalism In Contrasts (Feb 15 - Mar 18, Pittsburgh)

    Gao Minglu has been an active critic, curator, and scholar of contemporary Chinese art since the 1980s. Last week, Professor Gao kindly spoke to Jing Daily about the artistic philosophy of Maximalism and how it fits into the contemporary art world.
    Jing DailyAuthor
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    Jing Daily Talks To University Of Pittsburgh Professor And Curator Gao Minglu#

    Zhu Jinshi, Stupa (2005-2010), Xuan paper, 140 x185 cm. (Courtesy: Contrasts Gallery)

    Curated by art critic and professor Gao Minglu, the group exhibition "MINDSPACE - Maximalism in Contrasts" is on view right now at the Frick University Gallery at the University of Pittsburgh. Featuring the work of contemporary Chinese artists Zhu Jinshi, Zhang Yu, Lei Hong and He Xiangyu, this exhibition explores Maximalism, a philosophy behind Chinese abstract art that places importance on the spiritual experience of the artist in the process of creation. Overthrowing assumptions about the meaning of art, Maximalism sees the meaning of art as transcending language and stemming from the dialogue between the artist and the material object, while often responding to and critiquing the rapidly changing material world.

    "MINDSPACE - Maximalism in Contrasts" first debuted last year at Contrasts Gallery in Shanghai, and will travel to Dallas, New York, and Los Angeles after it closes in Pittsburgh on March 18.

    Gao Minglu has been an active critic, curator, and scholar of contemporary Chinese art since the 1980s. He focuses on exploring the changing relationship between global art movements and Chinese tradition. Professor Gao kindly took the time to talk to us last week about Maximalism and how it fits into the contemporary art world.

    Jing Daily (JD): This exhibition was first presented at Contrasts Gallery, and since the gallery has a philosophy of not segregating art and design, as well as pushing the boundaries of art and craft, how does "MINDSPACE" connect to that?#

    Gao Minglu (GML)#

    : Well, actually, Maximalism definitely involves, I wouldn’t say craft, but labor, and time-consuming labor work. For example, [for artist Zhang Yu's fingerprint works], the artist has to do that everyday and a thousand times. When we displayed one of his pieces in the gallery...he [had to press] his finger on the film everyday, but actually after he did [that] for months, [he] only accomplished a very very short part. So that really requires a lot of intensive labor and repetition. Usually craftsmen are also associated with this kind of labor.

    It doesn’t mean that you don’t need to involve any spiritual focus, but when you do this kind of repetitive work, you sometimes keep your mind empty. That actually is something related to traditional Zen or Daoism. Craftsmen, I think, have some [similarities in] fundamental philosophy and process...but still, I think the group of artists in this show...are not craftsmen. (Chuckle) They’re younger artists or people who have a very strong intellectual [way of] thinking, but the way they make their artwork is close to [a] craft.

    JD: Since the show has been working closely with Contrasts Gallery, I was wondering what attracted you to Contrasts.#

    Zhang Yu, Fingerprint (2004-10.1), Plant Pigment on Xuan Paper, 125 x 250cm. (Courtesy: Contrasts Gallery).


    : Actually, they didn’t ask me to have this approach, their approach. They just asked me [to do] whatever I could do. When the show opened, it appeared with the Shanghai Expo, and at the same time, we organized a conference in Hangzhou that invited a lot of directors from international museums: the Guggenheim, Tate Gallery, the British Museum. We held meetings in Hangzhou and spent one day in Shanghai, so we brought them to visit the show. So, this exhibition was also designed for the conference.

    JD: So how was Maximalism received at the conference?#


    : I think the response was very positive, though I think there was some confusion or some ideas that need to be explored in the future. Two things were perhaps difficult for audiences to understand. One is that the artwork in this exhibition is similar to modern art, abstract art, minimalism or whatever, so for the audience it’s easy to immediately think of these similarities and ignore the local or personal context in China, where this artwork is produced.

    Second is the difficulty for Western audiences to understand the difference between this type of contemporary art and traditional philosophy and artistic styles, like literati or scholarly painting, landscape [painting], and traditional ink painting. [Despite these difficulties,] I feel that people tried to get past this and they loved the artwork. They tried to go beyond the artwork itself and understand what the artist was thinking about, what the artist's intentions were, or what the artist was feeling or why he or she was doing this.

    JD: You talk a lot about Maximalism and how it relates to tradition, so is this an artistic movement that is particular to Chinese culture? Does it have to be a Chinese artist to be categorized as Maximalism or is it a movement that can cross cultures?#


    : I think it can be cross-culture, definitely. There’s a relation between Chinese contemporary art and tradition, but we still have to place it into the current context, the social context and also the artistic context. I [first] organized Maximalism in 2002, a larger exhibition than the current one, which traveled between Beijing and the State University of New York (SUNY). This kind of movement has lasted already fifteen years. If there are any connections between tradition and contemporary in the sense of social mood, I will say that it's in traditional scholarly painting or literati painting -- I mean the ink paintings actually produced by the [ancient Chinese] elite: scholars, poets, officials, calligraphers. They did everything. A lot of these artists...[treated] art as something like Daoism, and they positioned themselves are reckless. In other words, they retreated from society and they quietly made something beautiful, something tranquil, and presented this reckless philosophy.

    I think in contemporary art, some artists have a similar [drive], they want to distance themselves from the material world, this type of noisy urbanization. They also [seek] the old ideological meanings. For example, in the early 1990s, by the time Political Pop and Cynical Realism got very hot in the auction market, they had already lost the early avant-garde [way of] thinking, and were [driven by the market]. Artists wanted to be stars rather than to critique society. The group of artists in "Maximalism" retreat from society, silently [presenting a] critique on the social and society, as well as a self-criticism within the avant-garde itself.

    So retreat itself is similar in a way to traditional literati painting, landscape painting. It doesn’t mean that it’s 100 percent certain that the artist wants to go back to tradition, but rather they want to critique contemporary society and our world.

    Does it make sense? This is my feeling -- It’s true that this group of artists is quiet and silent, which [means it's] very easy [for them] to be ignored. The market is interested in a kind of big-headed, kind of cynical artistic phase, which is very easy to recognize -- "oh, this is Chinese, this is a Chinese political response" -- but is actually very superficial. If you look at the artists very carefully, closely at the artist’s life and interests, it has actually nothing to do with politics but is [purely] commercial. It’s very sad actually.

    Professor Gao Minglu (Photo: Artinfo)

    JD: Maximalism is very interesting, because, like you said, there has been a very commercial and Political Pop aspect of Chinese contemporary art. Do you see Maximalism as something that’s gaining momentum?#


    : Maximalism has involved a lot of artists over the last decade, with a lot of artists using ink media. It’s also kind of newly emerged, but I believe in the next ten years it’ll get more, not "fashionable," but I believe more artists will be involved in this kind of art-making. One reason is, to me, individualism will get more attention in the future, and because Maximalism really exemplifies personal and individual feelings...what is truth in the bottom of your heart, your faith, and your true emotions, and you have to represent them in your artwork. That actually is not easy in contemporary society in China right now. Now everybody is [dealing with] the conditions of their personal lives -- everything’s the same, everybody’s pursuing the same thing, and achieving something unique [is a challenge for] every individual, not only for artists, but for everybody. Eventually, this kind of individuality or personal value will be recognized more by Chinese people.

    I think art-making still has to pursue the truth. That is the most important. Art in itself has to believe something. There are superficial things, superficial fashion, but you have to truly believe yourself. That is actually what Maximalism is. Individualism is not something grand, like a theme, but its something truly rooted in your heart.

    Since it opened at the University gallery here in Pittsburgh, people have enjoyed "MINDSPACE" very much. It’s tapped people’s emotions. There’s a certain type of direct exchange between the audience and the artwork. There’s a certain kind of value, no matter [the standards of] beauty, no matter the artistic style, it is universal.

    People will understand good artwork. I feel that here, our response has been very good, people really like the artwork.

    MINDSPACE - Maximalism in Contrasts#

    February 15 - March 18, 2011
    Frick Fine Arts Building, University of Pittsburgh, PA 15260

    Special thanks to Vanessa Trento from the Contrasts Gallery for assisting in arranging this Q&A.

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