Michael Xufu Huang discusses supporting emerging artists, using WeChat and his first curatorial project, ‘The Heart of the Tin Man’
Frieze.com: ‘Heart of the Tin Man’, the show you’ve curated at M Woods, proposes to “register emotion within a contemporary world increasingly governed by algorithms, measurements, and marketing.” What drew you to this topic or area of concern?
Michael Xufu Huang: By the time I was born, the shift from analog to digital was already complete—I attended primary school with cell phone in hand—so my perception of technology, especially communication technologies, can seem a bit skewed. They really define the way we live and absorb information. I think it’s a contemporary language, and I’m interested in a wide range of art and artists that address social issues that arise from this reality.
Frieze.com: Of course, in The Wizard of Oz, the tin man’s heart is something not there – something he strives to find. Did you – or do you still – have the sense that there is something “heartless” about the internet age - or the art made within and about it?
MXH: Yes, very much so. We are always connected to the rest of the world, whether or not we want to be, and there is a general acceptance that the speed of a response takes precedence over the actual content of the message. We continue to have emotions, but instead of taking the time to feel and process them, we might post a picture instead. There’s an element of human interaction that’s been lost, and that’s why contemporary art is so important. It reintroduces meaningful, shared experiences into society.
Frieze.com: Other surveys to which the exhibition might be likened (like Karen Archey’s ‘Art Post-Internet’ at UCCA, ‘Surround Audience’ at the New Museum, etc.) have arguably tended to be both weighed towards both emerging artists and somewhat intangible digital forms - screens, video, VR etc. Whereas ‘Heart of the Tin Man’ engages a range of generations - with mid-career artists like Gillian Wearing and Ryan Gander alongside very young artists like Austin Lee and Liu Wa – as well emphasising the sensory, especially in terms of utilising scent and sound, and even live performance. Can you say more about the curatorial approach you took for exhibition? Was there a conscious decision to “disrupt” the model or paradigm offered by some of these previous exhibitions?
MXH: All the exhibitions you’ve mentioned have been inspiring, and Lauren Cornell actually contributed a short essay to ‘Heart of the Tin Man’. Incorporating all of the senses through the artworks was an imperative. With some of the more ephemeral works, like Sean Raspet’s scent portrait commissioned for the show, I felt Chinese audiences lacked exposure to that kind of work. There’s been a huge upswing in the number of exhibitions addressing new technologies, especially in China, but as you’ve pointed out, they tend to be stuck in digital formats. We wanted to produce a show that was well rounded.
Frieze.com: What inspired the decision to turn your hand to curating with this exhibition? Did you look to any examples or other curators’ practices for inspiration? Or were there, say, particular conversations or books which sparked your ideas?
MXH: I think of this show as a graduation project of sorts. The artists represented mostly belong to the collection, so I’m very familiar with the works. I was really inspired by some of the directions presented in Berlin Biennale 9 — curated by DIS. People have a lot of complaints about that show, but I loved it.
Frieze.com: Of course, you must have already seen a lot of exhibitions as a visitor, and speak to a lot of curators – so was there anything that surprised you about the process of curating an exhibition yourself?
MXH: What I had to learn were the means by which one communicates through the environment constructed around the artworks. So for example, with Amalia Ulman’s Instagram pieces, we created a labyrinth with mirrors where viewers can ‘play’ and directly engage with the issues of representation that are so central to her investigations. We’ve also tried to reach our Chinese viewers over their preferred social media channels, so using WeChat, they can access a series of videos in which Wanwan and I introduce more information behind the works and the artists that produced them.
Frieze.com: You might compare the cross-generational mix in this exhibition to, say, the way that ‘All Means are Sacred’ at M Woods last year included examples of ancient Chinese sculpture and late medieval European painting alongside contemporary art from Asia and beyond. Do you aim for the programme at M Woods to create these kind of juxtapositions or surprises? I’m thinking here of the amazing decision to include Silver Clouds (1966) in the Warhol exhibition you opened in 2016, ‘Contact’…
MXH: The theme for ‘All Means are Sacred’ was lifted from Wassily Kandinsky’s text Concerning the Spiritual in Art and introduced the wide lens by which the other founders and I envision curation and collecting. In many ways, ‘Heart of the Tin Man’ continues in this vein, incorporating works that might otherwise never be associated under more conventional rubrics of geography or generation. We want to collapse the significance attached to temporal and media-specific aspects in order to expose more universal truths embodied through art.
Frieze.com: Both the exhibitions I’ve mentioned so far have, I believe, included works from the M Woods collection as well as loans. How would you describe the relationship between the collection, and the wider mission of M Woods - which includes e.g. a residency programme, as well as the exhibitions?
MXH: Lin Han, Wanwan, and I came together to establish M WOODS because there is still a long way to go for contemporary art institutions in China. We felt a responsibility as collectors to support artists and audiences in a way that institutions do. Our initiatives began (and continue) by building a permanent collection to share with a young generation of learners. The addition of further public programming and an artist residency is intended to compliment our exhibitions program. We’re a very young institution—both in terms of the average age of our staff and the years we’ve been operating—but we are dedicated to presenting quality programming to the public. So we are amongst many private collectors who are taking social responsibilities very seriously.
Frieze.com: You mention Lauren’s text for the show, and you’re on the Board of Trustees of the New Museum. Is this kind of collaboration with international curators and institutions something that’s important to M Woods? How do you think Chinese patrons can balance these kinds of international links with fostering the cultural eco-system in China?
MXH: Incorporating international links is part and parcel of fostering the cultural ecosystem in China. We aspire to contribute to global conversations surrounding art, bringing together the best of what we see domestically and internationally.
Frieze.com: Going back to the range - in terms of nationality, age and practice - of the artists in ‘Heart of the Tin Man’ and ‘All Means are Sacred’. Does that spirit of crossing boundaries and categories apply to your personal collecting? How would you characterise your collecting ethos or approach?
MXH: The other founders and I coined the term ‘FAT Art’ to describe our approach. Free, Alchemical, Timeless: these huge ideas describe the principles governing our collection and methods. We are not interested in pursuing artworks based purely on the nationality of the artist. Likewise, we are not solely focused on a single medium. Personally, I am very invested in supporting younger, emerging artists as they tend to drive innovation within the field.
Frieze.com: You must have a very global perspective on the art world – not least being recently based between Beijing and going to school in London and college in the US. Do you have any favourite destinations for experiencing art - in terms of where artists are based, or where great galleries cluster, or where the museums you most enjoy visiting are?
MXH: New York is great. Everyone wants to be in New York and every artist or curator longs to have a show in the city. But in terms of studio visits, the most productive have often been in Berlin. I like museums to be experimental. Of course, I always visit the New Museum, but in London, I greatly admire the Camden Arts Centre, Whitechapel, Tate Modern and Serpentine Galleries.
Frieze.com: Several of the artists included in ‘Heart of the Tin Man’ - aaajiao, Lawrence Abu Hamdan and Sean Raspet, to name a few - have all been significant presences in the young sections at Frieze fairs in recent years. What role do art fairs play in your pursuit of art?
MXH: Art fairs are a great way to discover artists, and I always head to the emerging artists section. I also like to see what young galleries are making an impact, so I can follow their programs.
Frieze.com: Could you give an example or two of artists in the show and how you first discovered their work? Many people first encountered Amalia Ulman, for example, through her Instagram project, ‘Excellences and Perfections’ (2014); on the other hand, the intangibility of some post-internet art can make it difficult for some collectors to grasp…
MXH: Kenny Goldsmith introduced Amalia Ulman during one of my classes with him at the University of Pennsylvania. I met Sean Raspet at Frieze New York 2016, during his scollaboration with Soylent at Société. Then I managed to become part of the work in a way by modeling in a photoshoot for the project. After that we kept in touch.
Frieze.com: In terms of the emerging end of the scene, are there any specific galleries that you are especially drawn to at the moment?
MXH: Arcadia Missa in London and JTT Gallery in New York, as well as a few other young European galleries.
Frieze.com: What would be your advice to a first-time visitor to “Frieze week”?
MXH: Do some homework on who is showing. Know which sections you want to visit. For me, it’s always the young section first. First time visitors shouldn't try to buy a big piece, wheras the young section is a great way to step into collecting. During Frieze week, all museums and galleries are putting out new shows: it’s a prime time for the art scene.
Frieze.com: I would ask about what plans you have for the future but I know you’ve been very tight-lipped about this until now! So instead, I wanted to ask: since the exhibitions at M Woods tend to have a long duration - with mostly just two taking place each year, do you think the pace of the art world today needs to slow down?
MXH: I feel with so much information that’s constantly available, we naturally want things to slow down. But things aren’t going to change just because I want them to. With this exhibition, I’m encouraging thoughtful reflection on the use of technology in our lives and suggesting we at least consider stepping away from the screen every once in a while. Austin Lee’s portrait of me does reveal, after all, that I am the model Tin Man.
Michael Xufu Huang participates in a panel on ‘Collecting Young and Emerging Art’ alongside Diana Campbell Betancourt and Heather Flow as part of ‘Conversations on Collecting’ on Saturday 8th October at Frieze London
Michael Xufu Huang started his personal contemporary art collection at age 16 as a London high schooler at Dulwich College. He co-founded M WOODS, an independent, not-for-profit art museum which, since its inception has hosted exhibitions featuring a mix of Chinese and international artists, from Andy Warhol, Ai Weiwei, and Tracey Emin to up-and-comers like Amalia Ulman, Yngve Holen and Yu Hongli. He curated his first major exhibition this past summer, 'Heart of the Tin Man', exploring the double effect of technology on our daily life. A recent graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, Huang also sits on the board of the New Museum in New York, USA. He is based in Beijing, China