This article is by Tom Baxter, a Beijing-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Economist, Art Asia Pacific and other publications. His China-centric interests range from literature and art to religion and politics. You can follow him on Twitter @TomBaxter17.—The Editors
Hans van Dijk (1946-2002) was a reserved but frenetically active man whose impact on the Chinese art scene of the late 1980s and 1990s ran deep. He was a curator, collector, scholar and enthusiast of the young avant-garde art scene in China. During his decade and a half living in China, he brought numerous young artists to the attention of the world through his writing and curating. He helped these artists by promoting their work for exhibition and sale and by persistently and patiently offering words of encouragement. Many of them subsequently became among the most influential artists of their generation. History however has largely ignored van Dijk’s role in the promotion of contemporary art in China: a result perhaps of the quiet and cautious manner in which he went about doing things. This summer, a bold exhibition co-commissioned by the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA) in Beijing and the Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art in Rotterdam attempts to highlight van Dijk’s enormous contributions.
Hans van Dijk: 5000 Names is an expansive exhibition, containing letters, photography, notebooks and other archived material from Hans van Dijk himself, and a selection of works by some of the artists he worked most closely with. As exhibitions of Chinese art go, 5000 Names has much to boast about, containing works from such now canonical figures as Zhang Peili 张培力, Qiu Zhijie 邱志杰, Ding Yi 丁乙, Liu Anping 刘安平 and many more. The exhibition initially included three works by Ai Weiwei 艾未未. Because Ai’s name was left off an email newsletter about the exhibition (likely out of fear of the repercussions of showing his politically sensitive work), the dissident artist withdrew his works in a somewhat staged protest on the exhibition’s opening night. Ai’s action was criticised by many in the art world as a publicity stunt. Hans van Dijk’s friend and colleague Andreas Schmid called it ‘a shame and shameless’. See here for the back story.
Hans van Dijk was a Dutch designer and furniture maker from Arnhem, Netherlands. In the early 1980s, he developed an interest in Ming dynasty furniture and, in 1986, he moved to Nanjing to pursue research on this subject and to study Chinese. He arrived in China at the peak of the 1985 New Wave movement, a time in which, in his own words, new and radical art was emerging ‘like an explosion’ within the country. It was a scene which saw such radical works and happenings as Xiao Lu’s 肖鲁 firing a gun in the 1989 Avant-Garde Exhibition 前卫艺术展 and Zhao Shaoruo’s 赵少若 throwing ink at a cinema audience. Van Dijk wrote about Zhao’s performance art in his diary: ‘Suddenly a rumbling, furious Shaoruo staggered forward … . Everyone froze … . With one swing of a sizeable jug he lashed a liter of black ink three hundred sixty degrees around [the room].’ The excitement and energy of this new art was infectious, and from the diary entries displayed in the UCCA exhibition, it is clear that van Djik caught the bug.
He started to get in touch with some of these young artists, many of whom were based in nearby Hangzhou. From the early days of writing to these artists in messily scrawled broken Chinese, van Dijk began his immersion into the emerging avant-garde art scene. In 1994, van Dijk established the New Amsterdam Art Consultancy (NAAC) to organise exhibitions, connect Chinese artists with foreign collectors and curators and to help sell their works at favourable rates (van Dijk took a marginal cut of the sale price in order to sustain the consultancy). It became an important lifeline for the anti-establishment artists, many of whom became his lifelong friends.
From 1997-1998, the NAAC shifted to a new and bolder project. Van Dijk collaborated with artist and friend Ai Weiwei and Belgian collector Frank Uytterhaegen to set up the China Art Archive and Warehouse (CAAW) which continued the existing functions of the NAAC while also acting as a base for research into Chinese art and hosting its own exhibitions. CAAW was in operation until van Dijk’s death in 2002.
Through his enthusiastic correspondence with artists and the support he offered through the institutions of NAAC and CAAW, van Dijk became an important mentor to many avant-garde artists. In one anonymous artist’s words, displayed in the exhibition, ‘he was very supportive and pushed me to go on even in the most difficult moments.’
In particular, van Dijk was very supportive of young Chinese photographers, an art form he himself practised and was passionate about. On display in the exhibition are a number of now iconic works by photographers such as Zhang Hai’er 张海儿, Zhuang Hui 庄辉 and Yan Lei 颜磊, all of whom van Dijk worked closely with.
At a time when the novelty of post-Maoist art marked a stark contrast from the stifled art forms of the Maoist period, van Dijk urged Chinese artists to see contemporary Chinese art as both the inheritor of an enduring indigenous artistic tradition and a part of the global contemporary art movement. This was one of his major contributions to the development of contemporary Chinese art. He detested foreign curators who catered to the international art market’s Orientalist taste for Chinese ‘exoticism’ coupled with a touristic curiosity about art ‘behind the bamboo curtain’. One Chinese artist whom van Dijk worked closely with said, ‘One thing that Hans hated was the presumption that Chinese contemporary art was dismissed as a degeneration of Western art.’ To this day, Chinese art remains promoted in ways that reflect the tendencies van Dijk abhorred and curators, academics and artists continue to battle the forces of the media and the markets that seek to reduce Chinese art to a caricature. Van Dijk arguably foresaw how the battle-lines would be drawn and thereby inspired people to defend the integrity of contemporary Chinese art, as art.
Van Dijk’s biggest legacy, however, was his life’s work of compiling a comprehensive lexicon of over five thousand Chinese artists who lived and worked in the period from 1880 to 1990. The work, from which the exhibition takes its name, was thought lost to posterity until the Dutch scholar and curator, Marianne Brouwer, discovered hundreds of meticulously arranged files on an old computer which was gathering dust in van Dijk’s New York apartment. This digital version of the lexicon is on display in the UCCA’s exhibition. Modest as ever, van Dijk wrote in his introduction, ‘five thousand artists active in China, covering one hundred years is a kind of guarantee/confirmation/pledge to the incompleteness of this lexicon.’ To Brouwer, however, ‘finding the lexicon has decisively changed the way in which we must consider his legacy.’
The joint exhibition on Hans van Dijk’s life has rescued his name from the footnotes of history. More importantly the lexicon, which will soon appear in book form, has secured his legacy as a curator and scholar of Chinese art. With typically humble pragmatism, he wrote of the lexicon, ‘it’s not new and hot, but it will be useful.’ The exhibition thus offers a fitting tribute to van Dijk: a man who avoided fame and sought instead to secure a lasting place for Chinese art. His contribution to contemporary Chinese art of the post-1985 avant-garde scene is now duly acknowledged.