The artist in residency exchange program that is part of the sister city alliance between Zürich and Kunming is now in its tenth year. Although often operating out of the spotlight, in 2016, the Kunming Bureau of Culture, Broadcasting and Sports, the Kunming Foreign Affairs Bureau and the Overseas Chinese Affairs Bureau organized an exhibition and published a catalogue of the involved artists' work. The mayor of Zürich visited to attend the exhibition.
It sometimes happens that the artists are in the same city at the same time. December of 2018 was such a time, and I got the chance to meet up with Roman Blumenthal and Luo Fei, from Zürich and Kunming, respectively. Both had recently participated in the program, and we talked about the differences in art practices and institutions in Switzerland and China, as well as how their experiences have benefited their methods and understanding of each other's countries.
The focus has shifted from landscape painting in the early years to more performance, photography and new media arts for Kunming artists. Luo Fei is a well-known face in the Kunming art world, and Roman met him on his first day in Kunming. He is a Chinese performance artist, curator at TCG Nordica and Tai Project, art writer and overall spider in the web of Kunming's art scene. Luo Fei spent three months in Zürich in the summer of 2018, researching, writing and traveling. On the Swiss side, the F+F School for Art and Media Design helps out with organizing the residency. They provide a loft that serves as both studio and apartment. Tanja Kalt, a teacher from the school, assists with practicalities.
Luo Fei has met several of the Swiss artists who came to Kunming over the years. Roman is the first more traditional artist and the first painter — the Swiss artists who proceeded him have all worked in different media. He knew of them, had been to Kunming before and wanted to participate in the residency for a long time.
Roman says he is extremely happy with the assistance he received from the people involved with the Tai Project space before he arrived. He's also especially happy that he was provided with not only an apartment but also a studio, as many residencies only guarantee a living space. Roman lived, worked and exhibited his work in Kunming until December 2018. Just before he returned home, he held an exhibition at Barfly, where he showed the paintings he has produced in his Kunming studio, thus wrapping up his seven months in the Spring City.
I'm interested to hear what has materialized from the residencies for both artists. Roman held an exhibition, but did the program produce other tangible results, such as collaborations, inspirations or new plans? Roman's exhibition was funnily enough not in the Tai Project space, as they had no gap in their planning and he couldn't deliver an exhibition at short notice. He works with oil paint, which needs a long time to dry. Later during his stay, he was offered the opportunity to show his work with Barfly. But an exhibition is not an obligation, not a formal requirement of the artist exchange program.
There are some tangible results, however. Luo Fei tells me that the Kunming city government expects him to write an article about the experience — something like a travel blog — but that an exhibition is not compulsory on the Chinese side either.
He considers it a positive that there is little pressure to deliver something, as for most Chinese artists it's their first time in Europe. Typically, they travel around, trying to see as much of the continent as possible. For many, the residency is a chance to ingest as many different art museums and cultural experiences as possible.
Luofei has already traveled a lot, but he had not been to Switzerland before. For him, it was interesting to see the differences between places in Europe such as between Switzerland and Sweden.
While in Zürich, he focused on how artists run their own spaces, as opposed to the management of big galleries. Luo Fei was interested to find out how smaller art spaces operate, while also exploring the richness of the experimental side of the field. There are many big galleries in Zürich, but he visited open spaces out of an interest in seeing artists work by themselves or in small groups — the grassroots of art.
With regards to the tangible results of his residency, Luo Fei gave lectures to students in Zürich, an artist talk at Helmhaus and three talks about his experiences when he came back to Kunming. H also wrote a diary, conducted one interview with the director of Cabaret Voltaire and another with Andreas Marti of the Dienstgebäude art space. His insights were also published in a Beijing art magazine and online.
Influence on personal art practice
I want to know if apart from the direct and tangible output, did the residency also have less tangible results? Has it left an influence on either man's work? Do they expect echoes of their stays in Zürich and Kunming to show up in future works?
Roman certainly thinks so, as he often sees this, if only afterwards. Already in his recent exhibition, he saw things he hadn't noticed previously. He expects that when he goes back to Zürich he will see more of what he experienced in Kunming in his work than what he currently knows. When he first started working, he was continuing what he had done in Zürich. Later on in the residency, he wanted to let some of the first Kunming memories be part of his new paintings in an abstract form. In one such instance, he portrays the cage separating taxi drivers from their passengers, which shows up in one painting as a bright orange grid.
When Luofei learned he was going to Zürich, the first thing he thought of was Dada House, as the study of the beginning of early twentieth century art movements was a part of his artistic development. He went there three times on the day after he arrived, morning, afternoon and evening. As a performance artist he usually gives himself tasks, but in this case he just went to see the history, to talk to people, and to hang around.
He also visited Auschwitz in Poland. It was a part of his research and travel plan because the atrocities perpetrated there have had a huge impact on Western art, culture and society. Luo Fei has read Hannah Arendt's The Banality of Evil and considers the lessons from World War II to be valuable for Chinese contemporary art and society. Chinese artists are very much influenced by German post-war artists such as Joseph Beuys, Anselm Kiefer et al.
An unexpected inspiration came to Luo Fei from Haus Konstruktiv, a museum dedicated to constructivist art. He was amazed that there would be a museum devoted only to this one art form. All in all, the trip was about absorbing history, art and culture.
Discovering the differences
Luofei thought that performance art would travel better than painting, as you can do it anywhere. In Kunming, performance artists often operate according to the principle of
Roman notes that for a painter this kind of exchange is different. Painting, he says, is a more introverted practice. Language was another barrier to exchange. Luofei speaks English, but Roman doesn't speak Chinese, so during the residency, it was much harder for him to meet people. He was hoping to learn more Chinese and took classes in the beginning, but it distracted him too much from painting.
Another difference is the abundance of art galleries and museums in Zürich, a city much smaller than Kunming. Luofei tried to visit every opening until he realized it was an impossible task. He was there during Zürich Art Week, and every day there were several openings. Still, it was a great way to meet people — Swiss people are quite scheduled and don't do spontaneous meetings like in Kunming, so gallery openings were a good way for Luo Fei to meet people in informal settings.
Roman, on the other hand, tends to avoid openings in Switzerland. However, he likes them better in Kunming, possibly because he is kind of anonymous in China. Another plus is that openings in Kunming as not always in the evenings, nor are they attended by people not necessarily all that interested in the artworks. Openings in Kunming can be any time of day and Roman enjoys afternoon openings.
Understanding through exchange
Apart from time spent in Zürich meeting lots of people and traveling to other places, Luo Fei also enjoyed walking in nature. He went for a hike in the Dolomites in Italy and would walk in the hills around Zürich every week. Roman slowly expanded his action radius as well. In the beginning, he walked everywhere, then started taking the bus and eventually went further afield to Fuxian Lake, the Western Hills and Dali. One night when they we together in Kunming, Luo Fei took Roman to a village and he drank baijiu, which of course is a quintessential Chinese cultural experience. These trips also helped the artists feel more embedded in their residencies, to feel at home for the duration of their stays.
Artist in residency
Why do artists do residencies in the first place? Roman had previously been to Geneva for three months, which he also liked very much. He prefers cities that are not too hectic, so Kunming is in that respect was better for him than art hotspots such as Shanghai or Beijing.
But, to answer the question 'why', both said it is always a good thing to live in a different culture for a while. China is different but actually less different than Roman first expected. It is a great way to experience another culture without having to give up your entire home life. It was good to have a beginning and an ending to his stay abroad, and in between he was free.
These are the longest residencies either of them has completed. For Luofei, three months away from his family was a long time and certainly not convenient. But he cherished the time alone — finding ways to reopen himself, and to read a lot. He was actually quite busy, but a different kind of business from the responsibilities at home. For Roman, the value of seven months in China could be found in learning so much from Chinese culture.
When I ask them if they can tell me in one sentence what the artist in residency means to them, Roman thinks that time will tell the true value of it. Life in China became almost normal for him, but he is sure he will miss a lot about it back in Zürich. Besides working, he made friends here and can't imagine a life without Chinese food.
Luo Fei at first cannot capture the experience in one sentence. It was a time to rest and to focus and to open up to new experiences, away from a busy daily life back home. Then there were the many encounters, and subsequently his reflections once he came back to Kunming. He describes the total experience as a circular movement — he took in a lot of impressions, he had the time to process it all and everything will eventually come out in another form. It was a circular movement, mentally as well as physically. Maybe his personal experience is a bit like the residency program itself — migrating people traveling back and forth between Zürich and the Spring City, both looking and learning and making and sharing, in a continuous circle of artistic exchange.