October 4, 2010  |  Publications
Documenting Histories: Contemporary Chinese Art: Primary Documents

On October 15, MoMA launches the fifth volume in its Primary Documents series, Contemporary Chinese Art: Primary Documents, which was edited by Professor Wu Hung. The publication brings together, translates, and contextualizes primary documents that are pertinent to a deeper understanding of recent artistic practice in China, but which were not previously available in the English language. The entire process took over three years and more than six translators, among others, to complete; so the question remains: what is the benefit of this type of research and book project to MoMA and its public? Simply stated, why do it?

When I joined the International Program department at the Museum, a little under three years ago, these were questions that I asked myself. At that time, Contemporary Chinese Art was in its nascent phases; it was a project that we discussed with Wu Hung, his assistant Peggy Wang, and our colleagues in the field and one that was very much in the making.

Throughout the entire life of the publication—or at least the part of that life in which I was involved—I grew to understand the sheer significance of the book and the series as a whole. In an age of online translation tools and social networking, we can presume that our narratives and stories are shared and accessible to all. However, in working through the process, and finally (just one month ago) seeing the results, I realized that much of the rich history of contemporary Chinese art, which is traced through these primary documents, was entirely new to me. It therefore became clear to me that the materials available to us, linguistically or otherwise, shape our canons and histories.

In early September, we worked with the Asia Art Archive (AAA) in Hong Kong to hold a series of co-launch events in Hong Kong, Beijing, and Shanghai to announce our book and AAA’s Web project “Materials for the Future: Documenting Chinese Art from 1980–1990.” For these events, I had the opportunity to meet, for the first time, many of the artists whose works and writings are included in the book, among them Huang Rui, Song Dong, Wang Aihe, Wu Shanzhuan, and Xu Bing.

Over the course of these lively co-launch events I was struck by the reactions of so many of those artists, scholars, and critics to the book and by seeing their work and history documented in both the publication and AAA’s Web project.

This was particularly noticeable in Beijing, where we co-launched these projects at the Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA). Due to some tricky customs issues, the books never made it to the actual co-launch. The event, pictured in the slideshow above, ended with a small reception where I noticed a group of leading contemporary artists, scholars, and critics pouring over the single available copy —already well worn—eager to see their writings and histories compiled in one English-language volume for the first time!