A Report From An International Exhibition - Interpol

project time line|continents overview|concept|123incident




The Incident

The international exhibition, Interpol, co-organized by the Center for Contemporary Art & Architecture, Stockholm, Sweden and the Contemporary Art Center, Moscow, Russia. The subject matter of the show focused on the dialogue and collaboration between east and west Europe after the cold war, and opened on Feb. 2, 1996, at the Center for Contemporary Art & Architecture, Stockholm, Sweden.

At the opening one of the Russian artists named, Alexander Brener, executed his drum performance accompanied by wild screaming. After several minutes he turned his attention to my adjacent installation: United Nations art project Swedish-Russian Division:Interpol, a 84 feet. hair tunnel installation, as a target to attack. After destroying my work, he immediately fled from the scene. In a matter of minutes, the whole collaborative show turned into the “headquarter” of a “cultural war”.


The Formation Process of Interpol

About two and a half years ago, Victor Misiano, the director of the Contemporary Art Center in Moscow, and Mr. Jan Aman, the director of the Center for Contemporary Art & Architecture in Stockholm, stared to have a dialogue about the psychological and mental separation and its resulting conflicts after collapse of the Berlin Wall. The Wall’s demise has not eliminated the differences between the larger political, social, and ideological structures. In opposition, it intensifies the direct confrontation and reveals the psychological “Berlin Wall” which is more difficult to surpass. Both curators attempted to organize an international exhibition to address this historical phenomenon in art.

Both curators were to choose two groups of artists from Sweden and Russia. The international participants of the show were invited from this initial group of artists. In October of 1994, the curators and all of the artists had an initial meeting in Stockholm to discuss the subject matter of the show and the collaborative project proposals among the Russian, Swedish and international artists. (Later on, many collaborative proposal collapsed). The Russian artist, Gutove, known as a true believer of Marxism in Russian avant-garde art circles, invited me to collaborate as a Chinese/American artist. He repeatedly told me that he hates Capitalism and the Russian reality today. At the same time, he hates contemporary art. As a Chinese who has been living in New York for eight years, my role was as a “third party” person in-between these two groups of artists. I have a special sensibility to feel the conflicts between these two groups because of my past and present experiences with both Socialism and Capitalism. From these three days discussion, I could already feel the “smoke” of a “cultural war”. Instinctually, I predicted the chance of “danger”. The Russian artists, under the direction of their curator, Mr. Misiano, frequently attempted to conceptually control and occupy the whole exhibition plan, even trying to control the show’s catalogue. Evidently, it reflected the ambition of these Russian artists, who from this collapsed superpower nation, the former Soviet Union, exhibit a somewhat twisted notion of their former strength. Comparatively, the Swedish artists, who live in a privileged Social Democracy, have never really experienced hardship and tragedy, not even during the 2nd world war. Because of these disparate experiences these two groups appear in theoretical dialogue from completely different natures. The Swedish are romantic, gentlemanly, even scholarly while the Russians, having a great hunger and desire for better recognition operate from a more aggressive and controlling point of view. At that time, I was thinking how to represent these conflicts behind these two groups. I remembered making a joke during the break of the meeting saying when artists play in the court next to the center, they need a referee and I felt like I was the referee.

The Moscow meeting let the romantic Swedish artists understand how they are in the shadow of the Russian aggression and felt that the artistic dialogue and the theoretical collaboration was just a pretense and a reflection of the political, cultural and economic power game.


The Conceptual and Strategic Basis of My Participation

As a unique Asian artist living in New York, neither belonging to east or west Europe. My proposal was the continuation of my global United Nations project, Swedish-Russian Division: Interpol. The concept of the whole project takes into account all the regional dialogues and confrontations based on the many differences. And because of this projects’ concept and scale, the work brings me into the unique position of being a “third party insider”. My strategy is to try to symbolize the significant collaboration between east and west Europe. I decided to construct a pure hair tunnel made of Russian and Swedish hair. In the middle of the tunnel, I suspended a genuine rocket, loaned to me by the Royal Swedish army. The Swedish art center started to collect hair from about twenty barbershops beginning in July of 1995. In November of 1995, I went to Stockholm for a second time, to arrange for the production of hair bricks in a mineral fiber factory and negotiate the loan of the rocket from the Swedish Defense Office. (Actually, it was not until the last moment that they agreed to the loan). According to the political, cultural environment and the art show topic, I feel this project is very effective in terms of its concept, material and artistic strategy. At the same time I gave a lot of thought as to how this work would be visually powerful and stimulating. I wanted it to become a trap to take this dialogue to a new level. Before I left Stockholm this time, Mr. Jan Aman told me my work will occupy the central space as the main installation for the exhibition. That moment I intuitively felt the work could be a target for aggressive Russian artists to attack. In fact, my intuition was very correct.

For me and for my work, this psychological and realistic environment for the show provided a very unique situation to consider in which way it can hold all possible challenges. These external challenges in a way become a device for the work itself to become more challenging. At this point, I decided to lengthen the hair tunnel to 84 feet in length and suspend the rocket at audience eye level and face the entrance of the tunnel. The visual impression is that of running through the long, narrow hair tunnel as a hint of using “military action” to control the “cultural battle”. I want this work to stand as a “referee” of cultural confrontation.

The third trip to Stockholm was one month before the show. Twenty days before the opening I began intensive work with assistants provided by the Royal Swedish Art Academy and the School of Arts and Crafts. Two days before the opening, I hung the rocket. At several intervals, I came to it to find different things such as tape and wood sticks had been placed on it; I took this as a clear “warning”. The evening before the opening, the Russian artist, Gutove, executed his performance piece, “The Last Supper”, and all curators and artists participated in his seafood dinner. After this dinner started, the Russian artist, Brener, immediately said, “This collaboration between the east and west is a failure.” Afterwards, I replied to this statement saying, “You said that this collaboration is failed. Actually, it is your romantic ideology about a collaboration that failed.” That moment, I clearly could see that it was just theoretical dialogue and I mentioned the dialogue book between Beuys, Keifer, Baselitz and Kounellis. In the book, Beuys predicted that in the next generation of art will be a battle among races and cultures. This Last Supper fully predicted the danger veiled by the peaceful dinner. After the dinner one of the Slovenian artists said to me, “You’re in danger.” I responded with a smile of understanding and apprehension. At the same time, half of my consciousness believed he was “kidding”. Upon returning to my flat later that night, I deliberated upon the possible implications of that evenings’ performance dinner. Now as I suspected some type of foul play and prepared for a possible attack from the Russian side, even that of physical aggression, I returned to my pervious idea which was to hang a big European Community flag above the rocket to deepen the significance of my symbols which were now coming under attack. But, I did not imagine the Russian artist would really physically destroy the work even when one of the Russian artists mentioned to me that Brener and Kulik are the most dangerous artists in the Russian group.


The Opening Reception Of Interpol - Cultural Battle

In the opening, the Russian performance artist, Alexander Brener, began playing a set of drums which were at the front of my installation and began screaming while he was pounding the drums. I was paying special attention to him at that time as I was videotaping his performance. Observing him through the video camera lens, I realized that he was not emotionally engaged with his playing. Rather, his was carefully watching the audiences’ behavior and was paying close attention to my every move. I left the exhibition space momentarily to receive friends in an adjacent part of the building. One minute later, a German artist came running up to me shouting that my work had been destroyed by Brener. I immediately followed him back to the show to find the audience of about one thousand in absolute silence, in shock staring at my piece. At that moment, I was very emotional; I had never experienced this situation before. The work looked like a place after a terrorist bombing. Because of the materials and nature of the work, the hair, the flag and the rocket, it looked like a battleground. About ten minutes later, the audience regained their composure, some of them called newspaper reporters, the local radio and TV stations while the center notified the police. The French art critic, Olivier Zahm screamed, “This is absolutely a neo-fascist action!” The other French writer, Elein Fleiss, came to me and stated that if I would like to have a lawsuit, she would like to be a witness. When the police arrived, they arrested the other Russian artist who played a chained, naked dog as he attempted to attack and bite a two year-old baby. Some audience members actually kicked him in the face. Meanwhile, Brener escaped from the premises immediately after his actions.

With the arrival of the media, interviews with myself, Jan Aman and the Russian curator, Victor Misiano began. Misiano said to one reporter, “This action actually brought up the perfect stage for a dialogue and collaboration between east and west Europe, instead of every artist creating an individual work for the exhibition.” At that moment, I requested to the director of the center to hold a formal press conference the next day. The French critic, Mr. Zahm, asked me to take away the work by saying, “It’s not your work anymore. It’s been damaged by the fascists. Now having had time to regain my rationale, I responded to him by saying, “Whatever happens to my work, it is still my work. Whatever transpires from it, becomes a symbol and testament of its existence.”


Brief Analysis

This incident brought up a deeper, symbolic significance to my global art project United Nations, Swedish-Russian Division: Interpol. I as the creator of the work, born in China, but now residing in the United States together with the Russian artists’ “participation,” symbolizes the power structure of the world: China-America-Russia. It perfectly represents our present-day cultural reality as we transgress into a global community.

Several years ago, a Harvard scholar, Mr. Huntington wrote an article predicting that the essence and focus of the 21st century will be the cultural conflicts among nations, races and differing cultures. This incident witnesses the cultural conflicts which have already begun. But cultural conflicts have always been a part of human civilization; bloody religious wars are obvious examples. Historically classical cultural “battles” were hidden behind gentlemanly intellectual discussion and restricted further from physical action by geographical separation. Paraphrasing two Chinese idioms, before, we “lamented our littleness before the vast ocean.” Now we have transgressed our physical boundaries so that we can “fight at close quarters; engage in hand to hand combat. We can speak frankly, not mincing our words.” This is our migratory cultural reality.

The following day, the art center held my requested press conference. In the beginning, I pointed out that this incident was not personal and my speech was neither defensive nor offensive. I stated that I saw this “performance” as a mirror reflecting the political and economical power game. I disagreed to simply label their actions as neo-fascist or neo-nationalistic in art stating that we need to analyze it on different levels. First of all, on the level of their actual action, it was a “crime.” On an artistic level, it was a repetition of old Dada ideology. On a purely ideological level, it relates to a deep historical, cultural, social, political background. But the artists themselves and the curator himself are not neo-fascists; they are Russian Jews who are not embraced by Russian nationalists in their own country. But their ideology and action abroad has many links to nationalism and communism, which has many tendencies similar to Nazism, with their inherent dictatorial formats. In the western artistic circuit, Mr. Misiano is well respected as a scholar and art organizer. Yet within his own country, he encourages artists to act with aggression which reflects a nationalistic attitude.

The mind-set of Alexander Brener precisely reflects the reality of Russia today - a politically, economically, socially, extremely degenerated, chaotic, frustrated society. Historically, Russia has played as a superpower in this world; now, due to their current environment, their great confidence and aggression has become thwarted. This incident for Swedish people is inconceivable but for me, coming from socialist China and living in the U.S., I can understand it from both Capitalistic and Socialistic perspectives. These well-known Russian avant-gardists are known to go against communism with pride. With the downfall of Communism, these heroes lost their target of attack. They shifted their attentions to find a power structure in the west to fight against the killer of communism. One the one side, they eagerly chase western material civilization and recognition. On the other hand, they hate being subservient. This kind of unsolvable predicament is their ideological base. Gutove repeatedly said to me, “I hate Russia today and I hate contemporary art.” But they are the representatives of Russian contemporary art and it is not difficult to imagine this paradox. Interestingly, the criticism of this incident from the European artistic community was more theoretical in nature. But from an American point of view, there is simply one answer: process a lawsuit and put him in jail. You must prevent this type of action from happening again in the art world.

On the artistic level, Brener’s action has no significance at all. The old Dadaists threatened to destroy art museums but ironically, after forty or fifty years, the museum system not only has not disappeared, but is still a dream-like goal for artists. The conclusion is that subversion and invention has its reason and value to exist in human civilization’s history only when it follows indisputable, universal objective law. Strictly speaking, as ideology, Dadaism has its ultimate significance in art; but some aspects of Dadaism, when brought into physical practice become false according to universal law. Mr. Brener has not comes to terms with the full realization of his performance according to this separation of ideology versus fruition as he blindly acted out old Dadaist concepts in a frustrated act of aggression. Was Mr. Brener’s intent to mimic historical acts of such Dadaist predecessors as Marcel Duchamp or Manzoni or the more contemporary Jeff Koons? If so where is the sophisticated subversion and strategy evident of the “silence violence” of the toilet and the shit box and pornographic photos? In the past, so many destructive happenings have occurred which now appear as insignificant and only for temporary publicity’s sake. Mr. Brener has not deeply considered the sophistication of today’s contemporary media; his old-fashioned shock-value will be easily dismissed. Instead of addressing his actions, Mr. Brener immediately fled the scene. He doesn’t have the gut of a terrorist who sacrifices him or herself for their belief. He said in the press conference that the show has no reason to exist, the collaboration is a failure and Wenda Gu’s work shouldn’t exist here. But he has no reasons supporting his ignorance beside a true mismatch of talent and self-ego. In our reality, art stands for freedom and is regulated by democracy. This pair of counterparts direct human development.

Mr. Misiano said that this incident brought up an essential stage for the dialogue between east and west Europe. I believe his words have some reasons. But he cannot admit that a crime is reasonable. As humans, we still have the responsibility of knowledge, basic humanity and common destiny. From his words, as a human, Mr. Misiano loses his very basic position; as an intellectual, he loses his responsibility.



There were many people from the audience who came to me expressing their sorrow with their tears. I repeatedly replied to them that I interpreted Mr. Brener’s “destruction” as a “special participation” in my global art project United Nations. I feel sorry for him. This work contains thousand and thousands of Swedish people’s contribution. His “attack” put him in direct opposition towards the Swedish people.

On the day after the attack, one Russian artist came to me inquiring if the art center had any insurance. The other Slovenian artist said, “If you could get the money from the insurance company, you can use this money to sponsor Mr. Misiano’s wife’s art magazine and these Russian artists.” While still deliberating over the incident itself, and recognizing their blind lust for gain, I could only respond with a laugh.

For the sake of my United Nations global project, I said to Mr. Brener, “Thank you for your ‘collaboration’ and have a good trip back to Moscow.” Mr. Misiano came to me and said: “I remember there was a postage stamp with a picture: Stalin and Mao are shaking their hands-Russian and Chinese are great friends...”

The Interpol incident has left ice cold relations the between Swedish, international artists and Russian artists. My installation leaves a witness of “The Cultural War,”...


Wenda Gu
Feb. 25, 1996. New York City, USA