Holly Roussell is an independent curator, museologist and art historian specializing in photography and contemporary art from Asia. Born in 1989 in Vermont (United States), she now lives and works in Suzhou (China). She served as coordinator of the worldwide traveling exhibitions program and photography prize, the Prix Elysée, for the Musée de l’Elysée, Lausanne, from 2013 to 2017. In 2017, she co-founded the Asia Photography Project, a non-profit curatorial collective and platform for photography from East Asia.
As an independent curator, some recent projects include the 4th Shenzhen Independent Animation Biennale (2018) produced by Li Zhenhua and the major exhibition project, Civilization: The Way We Live Now (co-curated with William A. Ewing and produced by the Foundation for the Exhibition of Photography and MMCA, Seoul) that started its tour at the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Seoul, KR (2018) and UCCA Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing. CN (2019), and will continue on to the NGV, Melbourne, AUS (2019) Auckland Art Gallery, New Zealand (2020), MUCEUM, Marseille, FR (2021) and other venues. During the Rencontres d’Arles 2019, she curated the Chinese artist Pixy Liao’s solo show in collaboration with Jimei x Arles International Photo Festival. On that occasion, Holly Roussell kindly answered our questions.
Marine Cabos-Brullé: How did you become interested in the photographic landscape in China?
Holly Roussell: I visited China for the first time in 2008. At the time, I was passionate about Buddhist art history and wanted to visit and document important sacred sites within China and India. I was very surprised when I visited some galleries in Shanghai and Beijing exhibiting Chinese photography and contemporary art. For me, it was a very sudden turning point. Having very little exposure to contemporary art from Asia beforehand and wanted to return to China to continue to explore the landscape. That year (my final in university) I changed direction within Art History studies, and immediately following graduation moved to Beijing to focus full time on Mandarin so I could interact with those artists on my own terms. I wanted to be able to understand first-hand the conversations we were having together.
M.C-B.: How would you describe Pixy’s works to those who don’t know her?
H.R.: Pixy Liao is an emerging contemporary artist from China who has lived and worked in Brooklyn, New York for more than a decade. When I met her in 2016 on a trip to Shanghai, Pixy had some exposure in local art galleries in Shanghai, such as Capsule Shanghai (founded by Enrico Polato in 2016) and (former) Leo Xu Projects, but for the most part she hadn’t yet received international or institutional recognition for her work.
Experimental Relationship, a long-term project started in 2007, is a series of portraits exploring how national culture and gender norms may influence and dictate our interactions in romantic relationships. The project is made up of staged photographs of the artist and her boyfriend, together and individually before the camera. What is surprising for many in Liao’s work is that the artist often portrays herself in the dominant role, while her boyfriend assumes positions of submission. Liao structures her images to appear often above her boyfriend, looking from above down to him, or fully clothed when he is naked - these subtle compositional choices subvert how a man and woman “ought” to behave with or interact with one another in “traditional” heterosexual relationships. The work is both informed by their gender (expected roles of male and female), as well as their nationalities: Moro is Japanese and Pixy is Chinese. A final element is their age, as Pixy is five years older than Moro. She describes their age and respective maturity as important at the origins of their relationship when they met in Memphis [USA]. At that time, Moro was at a very different stage in his life; he just graduated from high school and started university. Pixy had already worked in Shanghai and was coming to study in the US, so they were different places.
All of these different factors come together to create a work that is about how is a modern couple that doesn’t follow the prescribed norms and stereotypes we have of what a couple should be. The work is about how do we actually move forward when the traditional cultural expectations about our own sexuality and behaviors do not reflect who we are. I think part of what attracted me to the work early on is that if we have a certain level of visual literacy, knowledge of Art History, or about Japanese and Chinese culture, as a viewer we can unlock humorous references and symbolism in her compositions. On the other hand, even if we are unable to read these visual cues, the photographs are still going to draw us in, provoke us, they are going to ask us to say why is she in the position of dominance, why is he nude and she is wearing clothes, why is she creating these juxtapositions, why does she treat her boyfriend in this way? Experimental Relationship is about pushing boundaries and testing out what is possible within a modern couple. These are not the images of male and female viewers are accustomed to seeing, and this work consequently forces us to question our own gaze and expectations as we observe their interactions.
M.C-B.: Tell us more about your Asia Photography Project.
H.R.: The Asia Photography Project is a non-profit arts association and curatorial collective based in Geneva, Switzerland, Hong Kong and Shanghai, China. Founded in 2017 by Bridget Noetzel and myself. Our mission is to work for and with artists to build a cross-cultural bridge between East Asia and the West. We are focusing our efforts on curating and producing exhibitions for circulation of promising artists we consider to be underrecognized or emerging, as well as collaborating with other institutions on site-specific projects and events (such as the ephemeral interactive exhibition with Sun Yanchu in 2018 at the Musée de l’Elysée) that can connect the general public, fellow curators and collectors with developments in Asian photography.
M.C-B.: Who are the Chinese artists you would like to work with?
H.R.: I would really love to work more with Ma Qiusha . She is a contemporary artist, based in Beijing working in video, installation, performance, painting and mixed media projects. Her break-out piece was actually from University, an eight-minute single-channel video From No.4 Pingyuanli to No.4 Tianqiaobeili (2007). In the work, which she has a razorblade in her mouth while talking to the camera about her relationship to her mother and parental pressure of having to succeed. It is a self-portrait, but it can also be related clearly to the stories of so many young Chinese students of her generation sent abroad with tremendous pressure and expectation bearing down on them. It is a really powerful piece. Other works in recent years have continued to explore social pressures faced by women, the impediments of gender, and temporality of life.
A recent series Wonderland, combines smashed cement slabs wrapped in nylon stockings in different shades of nude that compose what seems to be the topography of an unknown nation. Nude nylon tights (albeit out of fashion today were once trendy items among Chinese women in 80s and 90s) and for the artist are a way to relate back to her childhood and the masking of bodies and their inherent differences. I met Ma Qiusha in 2010, and was thrilled to show her video Star (2013) as part of a group exhibition at the Folkwang Museum in Essen (DE) in 2015. Still, for me she is one an artist I would be most excited to work with again if the opportunity came up.
M.C-B.: Are there challenges in curating exhibitions with Chinese photographers internationally?
H.R.: I would say that as someone who is working with Chinese photographers and trying to promote their work internationally, sometimes work of artists from China can still be perceived as niche. Perhaps it is that international audiences presume that they don’t understand, that there is a cultural barrier that comes with this art– something related to China’s traditional culture or recent political history. Getting over this barrier of working with China and also getting over a kind of preconceived notion that everything that Chinese artists are doing is in some way political. For me these are two essential challenges.
M.C-B.: What’s next for you?
H.R.: This summer, I have curated the work of Shanghai artist Coca Dai’s series Judy Zhu for the Shanghai Center of Photography (SCoP). This ongoing body of work gives us insight into the relationship of the artist and his lover, as they discover one another, experience pregnancy, convert to Catholicism and grow from young lovers to adulthood as young parents in contemporary Shanghai. This project is part of a larger thematic exhibition called “The Summer of Love” organized by Karen Smith including works by Liu Heung Shing, Olivia Martin-Mcguire and Maleonn.
In the fall, a long-term travelling exhibition project “Civilization: The Way We Live Now”, continues its tour at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne [Australia] in September. A book was published on the same topic with Thames & Hudson in October 2018.
And, for later this year I am working on a major archival exhibition and publication to celebrate the forty year anniversary of the Stars Art Group (星星画会), curated with Dr. Wu Hung (Distinguished Art Historian, Harrie A- Vanderstappen Distinguished Service Professor and Director of Center for the Art of East Asia, University of Chicago). The Stars Group, led by Huang Rui and Ma Desheng, organized one of the first unofficial outdoor and arguably most radical unofficial exhibitions following the end of the Cultural Revolution and their activities in 1979 and 1980 in Beijing represent the beginnings of a Chinese avant-garde. This project will focus on the group’s archive (documents and photographs) as well as the exhibition history. It will be presented at the end of 2019 in Beijing.