In conversation with Aric Chen in Shanghai

On 1 May Aric Chen succeeds Guus Beumer as the General and Artistic Director of Het Nieuwe Instituut in Rotterdam. Who is Aric Chen and what are his views on key issues in the discourse of architecture and urban design?

Aric Chen (l) and Harry den Hartog (r) / selfie made by author

Aric Chen (l) and Harry den Hartog (r) / selfie made by the author

I meet Aric Chen in a coffee bar on a rainy Sunday afternoon in Shanghai. There’s jazzy piano music and the buzz of chatter among young Chinese people drinking coffee and taking selfies in the background.

Aric Chen grew up in Chicago, studied architecture and anthropology at Berkeley, and obtained a master’s degree in the history of decorative arts and design at the Cooper-Hewitt. As a design journalist, his articles have been published in The New York Times and Wallpaper, to name but a few. In 2008 he was co-creative director of 100% Design Shanghai and in 2010 he was creative director of the Beijing Design Week. From 2012 to 2018 he was the lead curator of design and architecture, later to be appointed curator-at-large, for M+, a new museum for visual culture in Hong Kong’s West Kowloon Cultural District, scheduled to open this year.

Harry: Can you tell us something about your time at M + in Hong Kong? What aspects of your work there gave you most satisfaction?
Aric: In the most concrete way, it was building the collection — not just in the act of assembling it, but in what I hope it might add to, let’s say, multivocal discourses. I was overseeing the formation of the design and architecture collection within a museum of visual culture that was international in scope, but rooted in Hong Kong, China, Asia. In building the collection we wanted to do it in a way that contributed to, built upon, and in some ways even helped construct lesser-known narratives of design and architecture within the region, while also revisiting familiar global narratives from our vantage point in Asia. So it wasn’t about creating a museum of “Asian visual culture” per se, but rather an international museum that looked at the world from its own geographic and cultural perspectives within broader transnational networks.
It’s interesting that I had to explain this to people. Because even within Asia there has been for a long time this binary idea that “contemporary” or “modern” equals “Western,” while “Asian” equals “traditional”. Meanwhile, “Western” means “global”. Early on, it was sometimes hard for people to immediately understand how an “Asian” museum could also be “modern” and “global”, but that has changed very quickly.

We did our exhibitions and collection building with a broad view, parsing both the canonical and non-canonical, across design disciplines, bringing into the collection works by the Taiwanese modernist Wang Dahong, but also Mies van der Rohe in dialogue, Shiro Kuramata and Masanori Umeda with Ettore Sottsass, in ways that allowed us to reframe postmodernism, Le Corbusier, Jeanneret and Chandigarh. But as background for our main focus on Balkrishna Doshi, Raj Rewal, Mini Boga and other architects and designers of post-independence India. We also collected neon cows from 1978. Hong Kong was long known as a city of neon, but that has rapidly changed, and so we mounted an online project to examine neon as part of the city’s visual culture while creating an archive of the signs that remained.
We also looked at copying as a form of creativity, and the role of activist art and design after the 2014 Umbrella Movement protests in Hong Kong. There was a lot going on.

The coffee bar in Shanghai/ photo the author

The coffee bar in Shanghai/ photo the author

In 2019 Chen left Hong Kong for Shanghai, where he runs the Curatorial Lab at Tongji University.

Harry: Can you tell us more about the Curatorial Lab?
Aric: Broadly speaking, our Curatorial Lab works across teaching, research and practice, and collaborates with everyone from museums and biennials to local governments and real estate developers to rethink curatorial practices, especially in China. In the fall, we teach a design history and criticism course that aims to expand and re-centre historical narratives, while in the spring, we do a research studio. Last spring we looked at the convergence of art, shopping and entertainment, using Rem’s famous Harvard Guide to Shopping as a starting point, but re-examined in the context of China and the digital age of e-commerce and social media and the ways in which they’re reshaping content and public space.
In China, we have the phenomenon of the “art mall”; for example, K11 and TX here in Shanghai. Generally, what we’re seeing is that cultural production here increasingly relies on brands and real estate developers. It’s an entrepreneurial model of cultural production, and comes with a slew of questions about the role, and nature, of culture as situated in the environment of, say, a shopping mall, and how that’s specifically being enacted in China.

This spring’s research studio, which starts next month, is about “reverse curating”. In China, thousands of museums have been constructed in the last ten years. Many are lacking the software or content as these buildings are often driven by economic and political agendas, rather than curatorial ones. They can be spectacular and beautiful buildings, but they often aren’t. Well, you can’t even say they aren’t fit for purpose, when it’s often unclear what the purpose is supposed to be. These buildings are not going to go away. So we use them as starting points to work backwards, to start with the building and context and attempt to extrapolate curatorial strategies from that. As with art, shopping and entertainment, we begin by accepting a reality in China as a way of investigating new possibilities.

Harry: We meet at this location close to the Wukang Mansion and Ferguson Lane in the Former French Concession. The former a French Renaissance style apartment building from 1924 where several celebrities lived; the latter a renovated industrial building which now houses creative industries. Both are currently the stage for crowds of young people taking selfies. What is your view of the selfie culture in China where architecture seems to have become a gimmick?
Aric: Actually I live just down the street, on Wukang Lu, and I pass by that crowd taking selfies almost every day. Going back to your selfie question, it’s everywhere and, like everything, it’s accelerated and amplified in China, especially in Shanghai. We all know that social media and the digital proliferation of images is having an impact not just on the design of objects, spaces and buildings, but also on curatorial and cultural practices more broadly. That’s one of the things we’ve been looking at with the Curatorial Lab.

Harry: We first met some time ago on the platform of Lishui Railway Station in Zhejiang Province. We were both there for a conference organized by Aedes Architecture Forum about a new generation of rural Chinese architecture. After years of focus on the city, building in the countryside is a hot topic again in China, and also in the Netherlands. Yet this is often still viewed from the perspective of the city, and the countryside is used as a base for urban entertainment. The contrast between city and countryside has recently become sharper in the Netherlands — socially, economically, culturally — and this was also reflected in recent election results, just as it was in the United States, where you’re from. How do you view this contrast? And how can the design world respond to this?
Aric: Its complexity speaks to its importance. When you bring in the Trump phenomenon, it highlights the social and political implications of this issue. Though in different ways, this also applies to China, where unprecedented urbanization has not only depleted the countryside of people and resources, but also restructured what was until fairly recently a predominantly agrarian society. The implications are social, economic, political and, of course, cultural.

The Netherlands is extraordinary as a country that has, almost literally, been constructed; even the countryside, which is really interesting. You know, China is seen as a top-down system. But we see nowadays a growing emphasis on grassroots, or at least locally-driven, development in rural areas. I’ve always thought of the Netherlands as having a very strong top-down planning approach, and I’m curious to understand this better, and to see this in comparison to China… I’m just speculating…

Selfie hotspot Wukang Mansion October 2020 / photo author

Selfie hotspot Wukang Mansion October 2020 / photo author

Harry: I read an interview with you in the Volkskrant, a Dutch daily, in which you state that “Post-Globalization” is becoming the trend, reinforced by the pandemic. What is Post-Globalization?
Aric: Whenever we see big changes but don’t have the distance to fully understand where they’re going, we stick the prefix “post” in front. And here I’ve used the term ‘post-global’ for an exhibition I curated in Lisbon that just opened. (
You and I are living in China. We’re products of the era of globalization as it began in the 1990s with the WTO and so on, and the idea promulgated by a certain elite, however flawed and self-serving, that we were moving towards ever-greater openness. However, in the past few years, we’ve seen Brexit, trade wars, refugee crises, rising populism, growing calls by some governments for “Internet sovereignty”, hints of a return to old paradigms of great power conflicts.
But it’s not “de-globalization”, which is not really possible. Instead, we see fluctuations of restriction and access operating at the same time. As some borders and pathways close, others are opening. While we were working on a show, India banned all Chinese apps after a series of skirmishes on the two countries’ disputed Himalayan border; meanwhile, Bahrain and the UAE suddenly opened diplomatic relations with Israel, a country whose existence they did not formally recognize until now. Or take China and the EU, which are currently throwing sanctions at each other over Xinjiang — at the same time as they’re trying to push through a trade deal. As the previous order loses its hegemony, things are getting more chaotic.

So we’re talking about a much more complicated landscape where you have multiple, often conflicting, logics operating simultaneously and the only way to function as a world is to figure out how to navigate between these contradictions. This ties into the idea of multivocalities that Het Nieuwe Instituut has been emphasizing, and that appeals to me. We can no longer see issues through single perspectives, logics or worldviews, but rather multiple ones concurrently. Otherwise, we’re probably headed for an even darker place.

Harry: What is your take on star-architects in the post-global era? Do they still have a role?
Aric: Interestingly, many star architects already have a lot of experience with this post-global condition. They were poster children of globalization, in terms of their globetrotting ways and how their work became iconic of the forces of globalization. As such, they’ve already confronted some of these thorny post-global questions, which have been arising for a while. Think of the controversies that Zaha met with her World Cup stadium in Qatar. Rem and Norman Foster also come to mind. The arguments they’ve been embroiled in are just the tip of the iceberg of what’s to come. To me, Rem has offered the most articulate responses in favour of engagement, by reminding us that these governments, to say nothing of these societies, are not monolithic. There are a lot of voices and differing agendas within them, many of them progressive, that are trying to bring about positive changes. It helps no one to isolate them.
Of course, we should distinguish between constructive engagement and pure opportunism. And let’s see what the architectural landscape looks like post-pandemic. Whatever the case, it’s not helpful to see things in black and white because reality is not black and white.

Harry: Looking at your work at M+, I think it’s clear that you’re committed to making changes, to starting new things, a new outlook. Can you relate that to your new position at Het Nieuwe Instituut?
Aric: I always start by seeing and observing, and based on this, developing an approach. I have strong ideas about what’s important, but in terms of approach, context is everything. At Het Nieuwe Instituut, I’ll be looking for an understanding of the context of the institution, and the Dutch landscape, which of course is very much embedded in all kinds of local and international relationships. And I hope to find interesting new ways for what we can do as an institute, and how we can operate.

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