Like the nonprofit Asia Art Archive (AAA), whose board she chairs, Jane DeBevoise, Ph.D., is dedicated to advancing scholarly understanding, as well as popular awareness and appreciation, of contemporary art in Asia. AAA’s repository of more than 37,000 records, comprised of more than 300,000 physical and digital items, makes it the largest publicly accessible archive of materials on this subject. As an art historian and visionary nonprofit leader, DeBevoise has become a passionate advocate for archives as open, independent and creative platforms for research, learning and exchange. With major support from the Robert H.N. Ho Family Foundation, AAA launched the in-depth, bilingual website, Materials of the Future: Documenting Contemporary Chinese Art from 1980-1990, and will soon welcome the first recipient of a new one-year fellowship, The Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation China Research Grant.
Jane Debevoise, Ph.D.
My arrival in Beijing in 1980 as an exchange student from U.C. Berkeley was an eye-opening experience. I was particularly struck by the optimism and resilience of my classmates who had experienced the Cultural Revolution. I was moved by their stories and their enormous curiosity about what was happening outside China, since they had been more or less cut off from the rest of the world for decades. Today, 30 years later, I still go to China regularly and I’m still deeply impressed by the determination and drive of the people I meet. That drive, coupled with a sense of daring, continues to inspire me.
As time passes, narratives begin to consolidate. This is natural and often beneficial, because the consolidated narratives enable us to navigate large amounts of new and diverse material. But these narratives can also oversimplify and even distort history, and in Asia, where there is a lack of independent curatorial or critical platforms, there is a tendency for narratives based on the art market and auction price to skew our understanding of the history of art. At Asia Art Archive we’re especially interested in excavating information that might expand and enrich, complicate and even disrupt the narratives that are developing about art in the region. What motivates us is not only the opportunity to deepen understanding of art from Asia, but also the possibility that our collected archival materials will offer fresh perspectives and initiate new stories. History’s richness is in its complexity, and we want to make that complexity visible. We want to enable that kind of discovery.
For example, there’s a perception that art production in China is highly centralized, emanating primarily from one or maybe two major cities. This, of course, is not true, and was especially untrue in the 1980s. China is extremely regional, and so is its academic system. That regionalism was what we wanted to explore in our documentary about Guangzhou in the 1980s, From Jean-Paul Sartre to Teresa Teng: Cantonese Contemporary Art in the 1980s. There was a lot of interesting activity in Guangdong in the 1980s but for various reasons that activity has not yet been fully explored.
Regionalism is just one of the under-explored stories of Chinese art; there are many others. Related to regionalism are pedagogy and the role of art academies, with each institution having its own distinct character, institutional history and influential teachers. And what about the role of publishers, translators and translations in this early period? Translated texts of Western art and philosophy were extremely influential in China in the 1980s. It would be interesting to explore how these texts were chosen and what their ultimate impact was. Or how about the position of women in art in China? The list goes on and on. All of these questions arose as we began gathering the materials, and all of these topics now can be further researched and developed, based on the archive we created with the support of the Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation.
The art market—galleries, art fairs, auction houses—has raised the visibility of contemporary art in Asia, which is good. But certain artists have become much better known than others. This may be related to the nature of their practices. For example, installation art, performance art, certain forms of conceptual practice, and video are often less marketable than paintings. At AAA we are interested in the entire spectrum of art practice in Asia, and artists both well-known and obscure. But, through documentation and research, we hope to ensure that the contribution of more ephemeral, site-specific and conceptual art practices continues to be recorded and researched as well.
Primary documents evidence the ideas and events that shape art’s development. They underpin future research and the expansion of a critical discourse, forming the basis of all serious scholarship. But these documents often are scattered and vulnerable. Much of our work, therefore, focuses on locating these important pieces of historical evidence so they are not lost or overlooked, and can be made available to the widest possible audiences through our online platform. Archiving in the arts is still relatively unusual in Asia, but its importance has become increasingly recognized by artists, curators and collectors, whose confidence in our work is one of our greatest rewards. Thanks to these individuals, our collection is comprised of more than 80 percent donated material.
In the past, archives have been agents of control—control of what information is available and how it is interpreted. For that reason they have become vehicles of authority and instruments of certain ideologies. But control is not what we are about. Quite the opposite is true. While we are collecting and preserving documents, we also want to open them up and make them available to the widest possible audience. Our intention is to transform the archive into a vehicle for investigation, discussion and debate. While our collection is important, even more important are the new ideas, new perspectives and new writing that can develop from it. With this goal in mind, The Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation grant has enabled us to take the archive to the next level, opening up and activating it in order to generate new scholarship.
Through this grant and other initiatives, we hope that a wide range of students of China—including scholars, art historians and others—will visit AAA, both virtually and in our physical space in Hong Kong, to excavate new material that will encourage them to reconsider their own research and to re-imagine how the stories of contemporary art can be told. We also invite proposals from artists, for whom the archive can be a site of creative investigation and inspiration for new projects. This is all part of opening up the archive, liberating the materials and encouraging discourse and debate. That’s also why we regularly organize talks, workshops and symposia, and collaborate with like-minded organizations in the region and overseas, to facilitate the circulation of these ideas and to instigate exchange. Fostering collaboration is another of our goals.
The potential of an archive is limitless, so accessibility to the widest possible audience is key; but this doesn’t mean we need or want to possess the documents. On the contrary, while we have and will accept physical material case-by-case, transferring the original documents to our physical space in Hong Kong is not in any way a condition of our collection. We’re happy for these materials to stay in their countries or regions of origin. What we can offer is organization, digitization and annotation, which helps preserve the material and make it accessible and useful for future researchers.
The scope of art practice in Asia is daunting, as is the speed with which it changes, making our task sometimes seem overwhelming. But we hope to be strategic about future projects and depend on the advice of our partners and academic advisers for analysis and guidance. Moreover, as collaboration is central to our philosophy, we hope that other organizations in Asia will embark on similar kinds of activities—proactively collecting, archiving, digitizing and making accessible materials in their own areas. It is with this network of individuals and organizations that we will collectively build the foundation necessary to support much-needed independent analysis and historical research about the art of this important and fascinating part of the world.
(Clockwise from left) Wang Keping & Jane DeBevoise in Wang Keping’s studio, Beijing; Statue of Mao Zedong; Bicycle parking lot, China, 1981. Courtesy of Jane DeBevoise and Joan Lebold Cohen
Residency, International Writing Program (IWP), The University of Iowa 2012