Opinions, (no)borders

You Mi on the Shared Cosmologies of One Northeast

Contact Zones: a series of interviews with cultural practitioners

Hong Jun. Map of the Borderlines of China and Russia, 1890
Harvard University / Library of Congress

You Mi, researcher and one of the curators of the Shanghai Biennale, spoke with curator and film critic Andrey Vasilenko about her work with the theme of Eurasia and the Great Silk Road, the dichotomy of the metropolis and the periphery, the need for common cosmologies, and the exhibition One Northeast, which she masterminded together with Binna Choi at the Zarya Center for Contemporary Art in Vladivostok. Beginning with this interview, we launch a series of publications in partnership with the Golubitskoe Art Foundation and the Contact Zones project.

ANDREI VASILENKO: As you know, Alisa Bagdonaite and I are now preparing an exhibition devoted to the history of the Zarya Center for Contemporary Art. Before we start talking about your participation in the so-called life of Zarya, the programming and creation of this wonderful, interesting, and inspired exhibition, I would like to say that initially one of the main missions and aims of Zarya was not only to make this region visible on the global art scene and to represent local artists and local cultural phenomenon, but also to represent the epistemological, sociological, and political relations that make this region very unique. 

So, first of all, I would like you to introduce yourself and talk a bit about your curatorial practice. 

YOU MI: There are a few ways to introduce myself: one would be to state that I teach media art and theory at the Academy of Media Arts in Cologne. An alternative one would be to say that I travel physically and metaphysically along the Silk Road.

AV:Could you tell me where you were born and how your professional life brought you to Europe, to Cologne? 

YM:I was born in Beijing. I have been traveling constantly between East Asia and Western Europe, which for many people probably appear to simply be two separate worlds. But in my caseme, I find that there are in fact quite a good number of other worlds in between those two points. I spent a lot of time in my childhood reading about history, specifically travelogues of great travels through Central Asia and Siberia from various periods in history, Those experiences form the personal backdrop to my practice, and serve as an explanation as to why I have spent significant time during the last few years working on questions that pertain to Eurasia and Silk Road, curating exhibitions and discursive events, making publications, and helping to sustain a network of artists working around that topic. I believe that it is always good to start with something that is more personal and passion-driven.

AV:Contemporary art is a global network that continues to expand rapidly. New initiatives like biennales, art festivals, or small art centers emerge all around the world, even in smaller cities. Sometimes these new institutions are initiated just to contemplate and reconsider the position of these in the global network. What do you find interesting and inspiring about this process, especially for your own practice?

YM:I think, as you have already suggested, this interplay or negotiation between the global and the local is quite interesting and it is not always an easy intersection with which to engage. My own approach is to keep them separate. There are certain things that you cannot transfer between these different scales. For example, during my own research trip some years back when I visited Novosibirsk, through a series of quite coincidental events I met Anton Karmanov. You may know him, as he was also in the show that we curated at Zarya. When we met, he was in his house—a sort of a squat with other artists and practitioners. They were making food and they showed me all of these self-made publications and translations that they had produced over the last few years. We started discussing architecture and the unbuilt paper architecture in Siberia. The next day we went to Akademgorodok to look at archaeological objects and a few weeks later we took a very long train ride in order to participate in a public art festival that they had organized in Izhevsk. 

What we can do is suggest that there are some untranslatable, unmediatable experiences

All these crazy and quite idiosyncratic practices completely make sense if you see what kind of community he and his colleagues are engaged with: they make children’s theater, they put things on display in public places for the locals. There is something very unique and sincere, almost wild about that whole body of practice. But then, of course, you can’t really exhibit some of these. Back in Europe, even at our institution, it would need so much mediation and people still wouldn’t be able to fully understand or grasp the meaning, the practice. In that sense, I think certain things cannot quite be presented just as they are. Yet what we can do is suggest, at least on the global level, that there are some untranslatable, unmediatable experiences. You don’t try to recreate the experience by retelling the experience, but you try to recreate it through other means and maybe with other media or other artists as well. We need to invest time in order to properly mediate these differences.

The article features photographs from the One Northeast exhibition curated by You Mi and Binna Choi at the Zarya Center for Contemporary Art

AV:I suppose your professional career started in the decade when the idea of relations between global and local in different dimensions became quite mainstream. How do you think that concept was transformed or became richer?

YM:I think that the inclusion of the time dimension may be important, as it’s true that in the earlier stages of my career, when I was still working in China, I observed how China was slowly, basically step by step, assimilated into the global art network over the period of something like fifteen or twenty years. Fifteen years ago I was spending time with artists who were complete unknowns and who were just making funky stuff and entertaining themselves. They didn’t have any money and were supporting each other, whoever made some money would host the others with food and drinks. They were also making publications, it was a very self-initiated atmosphere.

With the economic advancement, China became more integrated into the world market and a lot of money was coming in, so of course art became an investment tool. The same process was happening, I believe, around the same time in India. This assimilation seems almost inevitable, but at the same time, when this happens I feel some things get lost. Speaking, for example, of political pop art in China as a genre, which became really very stifled and boring. That would last for some years and then things would start to resettle to some degree and then you would start seeing movement coming from below again, and those moments are always more interesting. 

Also, China is huge, as is Russia, so in a way this warrants attention to the sort of parallel history between the two countries and cultures. Then you start having smaller, “non-art-center” spaces where you begin observing interesting idiosyncratic practices. I think it is always an interesting development that needs to be both nurtured in some ways and protected so that it does not fall into the same traps that the major art centers in Beijing and Shanghai have been experiencing. We will be looking at cities beyond the scope of Moscow and Saint Petersburg cities in the same context. 

AV:In your view, can we predict that the dichotomy of metropolis and periphery can be abolished in the future? 

YM:It is an interesting moment. Since we are now still living in a pandemic, many people are rethinking this dichotomy. At this point, people are beginning to consider the possibility that there may be some beauty and merit to living in a non-urban center. I am not exactly sure about that. I feel it’s an organic process: first you have condensation, concentration and then things may loosen up and go the other way for a little while. The question of scale is a bit tricky because we are looking at continent-sized countries like Russia and China. So it is difficult to say if there might be actually four or five different Russias inherently, and for the four or five different Russias you can have four or five different Moscows. For China at this point it’s getting a little Beijing- and Shanghai-centric. There are other regional centers, but some of them reproduce the same logic.

Hopefully, when all of this is over, we will not just try to bring everything back to normal as fast as possible, but we can also learn from our experiences

AV:The epidemiological situation really undermines the normal system of cultural production, especially distribution. The logistic system failed, exhibitions were closed or cancelled. What future do you think we will have? Are you working with any projects exploring the dichotomy between the metropolis and the periphery? Especially, since now we have a common place—the virtual space?

YM:Yes, however, this common place is not neutral, I guess. I am partially living through this kind of struggle because I am one of the curators of the current Shanghai Biennale. We already postponed the opening date of the real, physical exhibition. We have put a lot of thought into rethinking the form of the biennale and we are considering what the biennale is for. One approach we are taking right now is that instead of thinking of a biennale as a huge event that happens for three or four months in one city, we instead delegate the agency to many other different cities, to practitioners that are already doing work there—artists, organizations—so that they can be supported in the run-up to the final exhibition in whatever activities they are doing and also in sustaining the local network, interacting with the local audience, carrying out critical research, etc. This whole process becomes more important than the final exhibition itself. So this is the shift, at least in the way my colleagues and I see it, in terms of what the pandemic means for curating.

When it comes to distribution, this shift translates into the redistribution of artistic content but also the symbolism of art. Before, for an artist to make it into this biennale meant that their work would be shown at an exhibition where hundreds of thousands of people would see it. But now we are changing all these formats so that artists can stay where they are, do their work, and partially show the process online. It has the potential to reach many more people than just an exhibition in Shanghai would. So these are all the considerations and tactics that are being used to confront this problem. Hopefully, when all of this is over, we will not just try to bring everything back to normal as fast as possible, but we can also learn from our experiences and try to give more support to the kinds of infrastructures that make art possible, that is to say, smaller spaces where art collectives or artists work on their research before an exhibition.

AV:Why do you believe an exhibition is an event that has to happen in physical space?

YM:The inverse of your question is to ask why I believe exhibitions that happen somewhere in the virtual space don’t work. And I have to say that they work really poorly. I have seen many virtual art exhibitions, AR and VR exhibitions that happen on your tablet, theater on Zoom, and all of that is really quite awful in terms of the delivery of the artistic experience. So, I think that no, we are not moving everything online, we are not moving the works online, but we can highlight the process more. 

AV:Let’s go back to your practice. All of your projects aren’t just art projects—they aren’t just projects that reveal the aesthetic dimension of cultural production. They also contain political statements. Do you think it is possible for cultural production to become a real instrument of geopolitical statement and activity?

YM:Geopolitics is a space laden with symbolism. When, for example, the leaders of the four Northeastern Asian countries convene in Vladivostok, they are not making the region any more liveable than it is now. This is more of a symbolic gesture of all of them coming together. It doesn’t even translate into trade immediately. If we look at large countries’ points of geopolitical tension, we can say that geopolitics is surely more artistic and performative than the other way around.

If we approach geopolitics from the perspective of artistic and cultural production, we can see organizations like Zarya—or even if we zoom into particular artistic practices of an art collective or an artist that often go beyond the state borders—that these are all movements that happen from the bottom up. Whereas the overall top-down geopolitical imagination and cultural diplomacy, which is largely missing, will remain gestural and symbolic. One example is that with all the historical baggage that Japan has had, its cultural policy these days is to pump a lot of money into Southeast Asia, while even though at the same time it has this huge neighbor—China—the Japan Foundation has a minimal presence there.

This level of cultural diplomacy and geopolitics being two sides of the same coin is what we often see on the official level. But in the sort of informal cultural production circle, which is the one we are examining at right now, a lot of other things are happening. This shows that there really is a common curiosity from artists and cultural producers across borders that working to understand each other and to collaborate on something together.  

We all belong to the same tectonic plate  

AV:Your project with Zarya, One Northeast, was a process of producing a portrait of the territory. But this process remains subject to all kinds of critical statements. First of all, because it is often carried out from the outside and inherits the logic of colonialism. In your view, is it possible to reconcile difficult optics, external and internal, conceptually and ethically in such projects as yours and the ones at Zarya?

YM:That’s a very good point. One key component of an exhibition comes from the works that artists have been producing at the Zarya residency. Maybe that doesn’t count as a very authentic internal perspective, but because the Zarya residency has been running for quite a few years, we saw quite a rich body of work. Even if the presentation in the end only included a few of these works, it is quite important to acknowledge these forms of engagement with local history from a post-local but also trans-local perspective. 

I guess we wouldn’t feel very comfortable if, for example, Zarya was just a space without the residency and we were invited simply to curate an exhibition without being given this rich archive of what has already been produced there. That would be quite a different context.

AV:How would you briefly describe the main idea of the One Northeast project?

YM:The name really suggests that Northeast Asia is one. Vladivostok is not exactly considered part of the Russian Northeast but in terms of a grander geographical location, it is in Northeast Asia, where, as we all know, some of the strictest border zones are located. So, basically, we have Russia and China with their quite entangled history, North Korea—currently a point of pain in the region, South Korea, which has been lamenting the fact that it had been cut away from its homeland and the continent by North Korea (because you can’t travel across North Korea), and again, Japan with its very complex history and interactions with the rest of its neighboring countries. There is no place in any of these countries where you can learn the history of Northeast Asia i. There are few people who claim to understand this region or try to understand it because even to try you need to speak three or four languages in order to go through the historical archives. Studies on this region have been quite scarce and that is also reflected in how common people don’t consider this area to be an integrated region at all because these borders are so dominant. 

So, I think that the title and the key idea of the exhibition is to offer us ways to imagine Northeast Asia as one region and to consider all these historical undercurrents. We are looking at the trajectory of Tretyakov who traveled through the region, later writing a play about an anti-imperial riot in China that triggered and inspired many Chinese revolutionary cultural producers. We are interested in these kinds of concrete trajectories or passages in history and politics, in cultural artistic production, but also in metaphysical and ontological undercurrents, such as the geology of Northeast Asia. We all belong to the same tectonic plate and its mountains appear throughout the region. In Korea, in the late Joseon dynasty, there was a practice called “mountain walking.” They considered the mountain as forming the spine of a tiger. So you would basically be walking along the body of the tiger all the way from the south to the north, and that already extends into today’s Russia. So, we approached the exhibition by looking at this level of connections, commissioning or working with artists who work with these dimensions in their practices.

AV:Could you tell me about your impression of Vladivostok, the local art scene? What do you think of the future of art production in this region?

YM:As for my immediate impression, I've traveled extensively through various parts of Siberia. My travels usually follow the same format: you arrive on a train or a Blabla car, then go to see a “kraevedchesky” museum to understand the local history and then visit contemporary art centers if there are any and get introduced to some artists. Everywhere from Perm and Yekaterinburg to Tomsk, Novosibirsk, or Krasnoyarsk, you meet people concerned with all these different levels of history. I got the same impression in Vladivostok. But the unique feature of Vladivostok is that you see East Asian features, you can find kimchi being sold next to vinegret in the supermarket. It is much more cosmopolitan than Siberian cities.

Whales, beluga, and deer are common motifs that could be found on petroglyphs or in depictions all the way from Siberia to South Korea

AV:The art scene isn’t very developed there in spite of it being close to Seoul or Beijing. Why is that, what do you think?

YM:Because it hasn’t actively looked that way, and vice versa, other East Asian art centers haven’t looked that way at Vladivostok. That goes back to the issue I raised earlier, namely how we don't have a common history or common understanding of the territory.

It’s true that the contemporary art scene is not very developed, and also, from the things I saw it seems that many people move to Moscow, and start activities there. So there is still a connection with Moscow. But I wondered if there could be other connections or directions, so it would be more interesting.

One example, not from the contemporary art world, is our visit to the private museum called ARTETAGE where we found a late Modernist painting from the 1990s by Igor Dony. It is not very interesting in terms of technique, but the motifs the artist depicted were traditional petroglyphs from Magadan. Those motifs open up a lot of speculation, not only in terms of an interconnected archaeological history, but also the cosmological history of the entirety of East Asia. You can see whales, beluga, and deer, which are common motifs that could be found on petroglyphs or in depictions all the way from Siberia to South Korea. Whales are an important part in Daoist stories and connected to Chinese cosmology. So, we mused at all of these connections in front of the painting. That really gives us very different perspectives on the region. Examples like these could be found in Vladivostok, but I think very few people take notice of them. You need a transnational and transhistorical mindset to be able to read into these things this way.

AV:When I saw your exhibition, my first impression was that it was an attempt to write a new speculative history of the region combining different historical, visual, and cultural concepts. Now, especially in America, the idea of revisionism of any historical narrative is very popular. It seems that the future of history is revision, a diverse revision of narratives. Do you think it is possible to apply this approach to the context you usually work with to produce new historical narratives? Either as official history or on the level of independent initiatives?

YM:Revisionism is a heavy word for anybody who grew up in a communist or post-communist context. The example I have just been talking about, with all the cosmological connections through the motifs with belugas, whales, or deer, is not exactly revisionism. If anything, it is a part of history that people simply overlook that does not belong to the grand narratives of history, such as the history of political formations, states, and empires. Such things are often relegated to folklore art or different belief systems. When we unearth the transregional connections through them, we only add a missing piece to our understanding of history. 

But it is true that there are more speculative aspects in the exhibition. For example, Anton Karmanov and a Korean carpenter collaborated in making two architectural statements. Anton made a hexagonal structure, based on the model of the dwellings of the people of Altai, and the Korean carpenter Cho made a Korean traditional architectural object based on a square. The two of them worked together extensively, considering whether or not there are certain connections between them. So, if you ask an archaeologist or architectural specialist or historian, they would say that there is no real connection between those two objects, but at the same time there is something quite beautiful about trying to reach beyond your culture and understand or even embody another person’s culture. At this point you stop seeing things separately but as part of the same family. The background of that project was that the carpenter travelled to Altay and spent a few days with Anton in the mountains. We also invited Anton to Seoul and rural Korea in order to observe cultural forms there. The project was the outcome of that exchange, which is speculative, I suppose, but also if you look at it on the personal level I think it is an embracing gesture. 

I do not wish to make a grand statement as to whether or not the future is all about revisionist history or speculative history-making, but I believe it makes sense to look at each case individually and see in what context history is being rewritten.

One should really treasure this shared cosmology more than the disputed geopolitical borders

AV:You mentioned cosmology a few times. Now, this is a very popular notion and a point of departure for new understandings of the world. We took this idea from Asian philosophy. History is a political tool, it is a very conflicted phenomenon. But not cosmology. Cosmology has a specific dimension of solidarity. What if we actually try to change the idea of history, of reading that big narrative of the past, to cosmology, to making multitudes of cosmologies? Is it possible to make the world more peaceful if multitudes of histories are replaced by multitudes of cosmologies?

YM:That’s certainly a very interesting thought. Again, in the case of Zarya when I started working on this show, Alisa told me that they had engaged with a Chinese curator before, around two years before my show, and that she had caused a lot of problems. That show must have been a part of the Vladivostok biennale. During the interview with the local media, she said that Vladivostok used to belong to China. That caused a lot of problems. We can go back to the historical materials to see who has more rights to this territory, but even if Vladivostok used to be part of China, it was at least 200 years ago. Even mentioning that today of course gets on the nerves of our Russian friends. This is an example of how, when we are stuck with political borders, geopolitical imaginaries, we are really not moving very far. What you proposed is exactly this alternative approach, the passageway we took, that is, approaching it through shared cosmologies that can contain pluralities. In different historical moments, there are many overlaps that make you realize that things you have in common are endangered by contemporary life, geopolitics, and a lack of education surrounding them, so one should really treasure this shared cosmology more than the disputed geopolitical borders.

AV:Did you establish any connections with local communities in Vladivostok during the development of One Northeast?

YM:Yes, and I wish there could be more connections. I think there was a plan for a research trip before but it wasn’t possible to schedule it for some reason.

AV:Do you keep in touch with them?

YM:Yes, I am still in touch with Hero4Hero. On a separate note, Vladivostok is quite an important city for people who study history. They need to go see the city archives that cover the entire Russian Far East. Interestingly, through Zarya and the opening of the show and the performative symposium, we actually attracted some people. Among them, in particular, was a historian that I really admire, Steven Lee, who was in Vladivostok during those days and happened to visit the performative symposium. It was a really nice surprise.

AV:Would you like to come back?

YM:For sure!

AV:One Northeast is a part of a larger research project. Could you tell me more about other elements of this project?

YM:One Northeast is a chapter/iteration of a larger project called Unmapping Eurasia. It is more of a platform that was co-initiated by Binna Choi, a Korean curator who is an artistic director at Casco Art Institute, Utrecht (Holland), and myself. We have been looking broadly at Eurasia and approaching it through the many different layers it entails. The top layer is probably the most superficial and at the same time the most concrete: it is the geopolitical veneer of Eurasia. We look at the Eurasianism of Russia, China, Kazakhstan, and others in history and now. We work with artists who deal with these topics. This is one layer as well. And then there is a cosmological layer, a common methodology to unearth other connections and possibilities. Ultimately, there is also an ethical layer: how we can translate what we learned from Eurasia in the better days, not what we learned from Alexander Dugin, but what we learned, let’s say, from historical nomadic practices, relations with nature, not dictating and imposing our will over nature? How can we practice these ethics? In the end, it’s not so much of an art project as it is a life project. 

Apart from these layers, we also have more regional focuses and different formats such as exhibitions, performative gatherings, and symposiums. Sometimes we also teach this topic at different art institutions.

AV:My last question is about the platform. Do you consider summarizing all the materials and research results in the form of a book or big show?

YM:I think part of our mission will extend for many years into our future careers as well, but we do plan to have a semi-conclusive exhibition somewhere next year. We plan for it to happen in Europe first (that’s where we are at the moment), but also Binna and I think it would be nice to bring this exhibition on tour to Vladivostok.  

The Contact Zones: Far East is an international residential artist exchange programme that was founded by the Zarya Center for Contemporary Art (Vladivostok) in 2016, and facilitated the exchange of artists, curators and researchers between the Zarya CCA and its partner institutions in North-East Asia: HOW Art Museum (Shanghai), Para Site (Hong Kong), MNG 360° (Ulaanbaatar), Points Center for Contemporary Art (Kunshan), Paradise (Tokyo), Aomori Contemporary Art Centre (Aomori). 

Since 2020, the program keeps developing on the basis of the residency at Golubitskoe Art Foundation. The new edition, Contact Zones: Azov, Black and Caspian Seas, is designed to facilitate cross-institutional exchanges for arts professionals from the neighbouring countries: Bulgaria, Georgia, Romania, Ukraine, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Iran, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. 

You Mi
Curator, lecturer at the Academy of Media Arts Cologne. You Mi works with ancient and futuristic technologies and networks. She is one of the curators of the 13th Shanghai Biennale (2020–2021).
Andrey Vasilenko
Curator and film critic. Studied architecture and philosophy at the Far Eastern Federal University. Since 2019, he has been a curator at the V-A-C Foundation. Andrey Vasilenko curated several exhibitions, film programs and retrospectives, including Ten Theses on Architecture, Mind the Gap: Contemporary Video Art of Taiwan, Wang Bing: The Helpless Age, Discovery, Discovery and other projects.