Xiaoyu Weng has been surrounded by art her entire life, from growing up in her dad’s studio in Shanghai and winning a scholarship to study curating in San Francisco. Now working at New York’s famed Guggenheim Museum, she is transforming the way the world looks at the relationship between curators and creators.
What brought you to New York?
I moved here from San Francisco in 2015, to take this position at the Guggenheim. New York is the place where everybody wants to spend some time during a lifetime! Because I work in the art world, I’d visited the city many times. You have to keep yourself updated about what is happening in the New York art world. What are these museums showing? Who are the artists on the rise? Whose retrospective is being planned? In 2014, I got tapped to apply for this position by the senior curator of Asian art, Alexandra Munroe. Of course, I was very flattered and honored to be invited to apply. After a few rounds of interviews, I flew out to meet the team in person. I remember New York being so grey and snowy, and being soaked because I was wearing this fancy dress for the interview! That was in February, and I moved here that summer.
Has art always been a part of your life?
I grew up in a very creative household. My dad is an artist and my grandfather was a stage designer for theater. I grew up in my dad's studio, more or less. He was a painter and sculptor—he worked with specific materials like traditional Chinese lacquer, though he also uses synthetic material from time to time. Chinese lacquer is very special. It's harvested from lacquer trees, so it's actually a very natural material that has been used for thousands of years.
I did art when I was younger in my dad's studio. I would be making drawings and paintings alongside him. We used to do portraits for each other. When it came time to study at university, I had a hard time choosing my major because I loved art but also writing. My dad suggested art history because it combined both of those things. So that’s how I really started my art career!
I left my home in Shanghai and went to the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. The interesting thing about the art-history program in China is that the art school followed closely with the Soviet Union model since the revolutionary time. So instead of having the art-history program in the liberal arts department, they have the art-history program with the studio program in the art school. The advantage is that we were required to take studio classes because we had to understand how art is created and made.
Did you ever want to become an artist yourself? Or was curating always your passion?
I strongly feel curatorial work has a very important expressive side. I'm always intrigued by the idea of the pseudo-curator as “artist” and other artists as “curator.” The line is very blurry now, especially with artists who are thinking about art that is part of the visual culture of our time. How do you organize it? What kind of story are you telling?
I think I became interested in curating contemporary art in my junior year in college because I was working with a young professor who was an upcoming curator in China. I thought what he was doing was so cool, because he got to hang out with artists, attend openings, and travel the world. I thought, "This is what I want to do."
He encouraged me to apply to a school outside of China because there was no specific curatorial training in the country at that time. One summer, when I worked as an intern for the Shanghai Biennale, I met Kate Fowle. She ran the curatorial practice program at California College of the Arts. We had a really amazing conversation outside the venue of the Biennale and she gave me a scholarship for the program! So that’s the story of how I came to the United States.
What an incredible opportunity!
I was so very grateful. Looking back, it’s interesting how many amazing people have shaped my path, and how that shapes my understanding of curatorial practice and contemporary art. I want to think outside of pre-existing ideas of curation. There are so many “rules” about how art should be organized. That's how our history was written and that is how we’ve been taught to read, see, and understand artworks. I'm more interested in being a deconstructive force to create space for new meaning to flow in.
I think curatorial practice is not so much about endorsing what you display but more about opening things up for discussion. As a curator, I don’t have authorship of the story—yes, I'm telling a story, but the story can be retold, reorganized.
Going back to your early days, can you talk about when you first came to California to study? How did that shape your career?
When I arrived, I had no idea what San Francisco was about. I thought it would be palm trees, beaches, and sunshine. It was foggy and grey! But, that made me open up and try not to set any preconceptions of what I was about to see and learn and embrace during my study.
I think the entire time I was in school there, I was trying to grasp the dynamics between me and my fellow students. I was the only one from outside the US, and most students were from California. There are not many artists in California working from an Asian background. In New York, it’s much more dynamic and there are more people working in the arts in different fields. In California, the demographic is geared towards tech and finance, so the cultural sphere can be both an advantage and disadvantage.
It’s an advantage because I never felt like I was being put in a box. The disadvantage is you don't really find many like-minded people you can talk to about some of the issues that you encounter.
During my time in California, I actually worked across the globe with many different artists from different regions, and that was a very precious kind of experience, as well. Being a curator who grew up in China, I’m always thinking about the context in which I am thinking about things. Working as I do now with artists from Asia, it’s still important to be actively participating in a global discourse, rather than putting things in ethnographic boxes. Somehow, we have a hard time getting over the system of organizing knowledge and culture geographically.
What were you doing when you got tapped for this job?
Prior to the Guggenheim, I had a job working with a private art foundation, which is very different from the museum because it's a very tiny institution. We had five people in the office. We also ran a space maybe twice the size of this office room, where we put up exhibitions and programs. We had a very active collecting program, with artists from everywhere. Although it’s much smaller than the Guggenheim, the pace is so much faster. We had a much quicker turnaround in terms of putting up programs. Also, I had the opportunity to work with artists that were very young in their careers and really needed the support. The experience was very rewarding, as well. I was travelling extensively to meet with artists in China, Japan, Korea, even Southeast Asia.
I have an extensive network in China as a result of this. When I was tapped for this role at the Guggenheim, it made sense. I was instantly like, “Bye!” [Laughs]
You can’t turn down the Guggenheim! What was your first curating experience like here?
Curating the first exhibition was challenging, because it was put up in a very short timeframe. Usually shows here can take three to five years to produce, but we did it in just over a year. These exhibitions are also special because they’re all new commissions. So, when we were working on the curatorial concepts and writing catalog essays, we didn't know yet exactly what the artists were going to produce.
I also co-curated the exhibition with Hou Hanru, who was a director of the MAXXI Museum in Rome, and is very known and respected in the international art scene. We’re actually curating this next show together, as well, which opens in May. It’s called ‘One Hand Clapping’, and will present new commissions by Cao Fei, Duan Jianyu, Lin Yilin, Wong Ping and Samson Young. The good thing is Hanru and I have known each other since I came to the United States. Of course, I knew his name when I was a student because he is such an established curator. He also lived in San Francisco while I was there, so we had worked with each other before. That really helped us hit the ground running when I came here. We already knew each other well and could be candid with each other.
I feel very comfortable disagreeing with him or proposing a different approach, but at the same time I can learn so much from him. Also, he can approach more experienced artists, and I can bring in younger, up-and-coming artists. Besides curatorial, we also work very closely with publication. We make books for the exhibitions, and also work with our PR team on videos and content. There is a lot to get done!
As part of The Robert H.N. Ho Family Foundation Chinese Art Initiative you have curated three exhibits. What are your feelings in the lead up to this third show?
Logistically, we're definitely doing so much better than the first show we did! As a team we are much more comfortable with each other.
Conceptually and curatorially, I constantly challenge myself because I don't like to repeat what we did before. How do you reinvent yourself? We want to challenge ourselves and our artists to come out of the box of “Chinese art.” How do you jump out of this geography-based perception about what artists should be doing and what kind of art they should be making?
What is the best piece of advice you could give?
I have a good one. It's three bullet points I received from an artist friend. I've been using it as a parameter for making decisions. First: Always believe in what you're doing and that you will get to where you want to go. Second: Never do things you don’t want to do. Third: Always be polite.
I find these three things very helpful. As a young woman working in a field that is still very male-dominated, it's really important to know that you can say no. You don't need to be intimated. You can refuse certain things that you don't feel right about. But you can say no politely!
What does New York mean to you?
Oh my god, I love New York. The city is so dynamic in terms of all the things you can do. Whatever you want is here. I even love the subway. Despite its problems, I like the idea of the public, shared space. It’s lively, it’s humanity!
To learn more about the upcoming exhibition 'One Hand Clapping', click here.