Interview: A conversation with Xiaochan Hua from Hua International / Berlin & Beijing

Hua International was founded by Xiaochan Hua and operates in two locations, Berlin and Beijing. I met Xiaochan in Berlin at the showroom of the gallery, one floor above the main exhibition space. Currently on display is Atlas Of Affinities, a beautifully curated group show with works by Lucas Odahara, Christine Sun Kim, Kim Farkas and Xie Lei among others.

Xiaochan Hua at Hua International Beijing

Tula Plumi: Hua International was founded in 2017 and operated for two years as a project space. Its current incarnation launched in 2020, right at the beginning of the pandemic. Can you tell us about this transition?

Xiaochan Hua: The first project I ran was called XC Hua, which is shorthand for Xiaochan Hua, my full name. It was an experimental art and performance space that was bilocated in Berlin and Beijing. Until this day, I keep finding more ways that the two spaces complement and enhance each other in a kind of synergy. When we began working as a project space, we mostly invited curators and artists to participate in a flexible and open way, often in thematic group shows. We still have group shows like our current one in Berlin, but now we often continue to follow the artists and often do solo shows in Beijing after their presentation in Europe.

There were important artists that came out of the early group shows, three of which (Tong Kunniao, Rafael Domenech, and Fanny Gicquel) I had a strong desire to work with, which solidified after the first collaboration. For example, in January 2020, XCHua had a show called, A Year without the Southern Sun, with one work from Rafael Domenech. We quickly felt that a commercial gallery model was more suitable for the long-term development of the artists that we wanted to work with and could provide us with the means to better support the artists we wanted to represent—whether in terms of sales, cultivating relationships with curators, or placing their works in public collections. We jumped into the transition of operating as a full-time commercial gallery with both feet. Despite the pandemic, we had a clear desire to grow and we had the good fortune of finding a location in the center of the 798 Art District in Beijing, so we were able to move from the outskirts of the city. We renamed and rebranded as Hua International, with a new logo, for a renewed start. With our new name, we also wanted to emphasize that  we are not a provincial gallery that mostly focuses on local or regional (Asian) artists, but that we intended to build a program that was global. It was important that the gallery was cosmopolitan in approach, embracing cosmopolitanism as moral philosophy and the desire to be an ethical member of an international art community.

Installation view, Fanny Gicquel “now, and then”, 2022, Hua International Beijing, performance with co-choreographer: Mengfan Wang; dancers: Shuyi Liao, Dan Qian, and Sihan Cai, Ryotaro Harada; composer: Delawhere, photo by Haiyang. Courtesy of the artist and Hua International

TP: The gallery is based in Berlin and Beijing. What made you choose these two locations, why is this axis so important to you?

ΧΗStarting in 2012, I worked as the art director for another space with branches in Beijing and Stuttgart, so in this way, both Beijing and Germany in general, can be seen as the origins of my art career. This space operated more like an art advisory firm than a gallery, so I always saw the drawbacks of this model. Even if I curated shows there, I knew there was not a chance to represent artists. I saw first-hand the advantage of bilocation. I wanted to do the opposite of this previous space, to become a bridge between two worlds, and not to merely sell big name German artists on the secondary market to a Chinese collector base. I did not want to be an importer, I wanted to really contribute something valuable to both epicenters. 

The two cities complement each other in ways that can them both up: Berlin is still the most exciting, experimental, conceptual city for art galleries since the fall of the wall in the 1990s. Beijing, on the other hand, is the fastest growing new center for art that emerged from the Chinese economic miracle. It has a new young progressive community of collectors, highly educated with strong dedication, commitment, and huge incomes. Some of our Chinese collectors are first time collectors and they want to know about the most exciting art being made in Europe, which is often in Berlin. The Berlin location brings social, symbolic, and cultural capital while Beijing has the young, growing, educated, financial capital.

Rafael Domenech, plastic sunshine-opaque transparencies, 2021

TP:  Our conversation is taking place at a table made by Rafael Domenech. Another one of his works hangs above our heads, the sculpture Plastic Sunshine-Opaque Transparencies (2021), which bears a quote by Octavio Paz. How did you meet Rafael Domenech and what attracted you to his practice?

ΧΗ: Rafael Domenech is one of the core artists that pushed us to become a gallery—you can see why, we did a solo in 2021 with Rafa for both Gallery Weekend Beijing and Gallery Weekend Berlin—the exhibition in China won the prize, which was well deserved. In 2022, he now has one of the largest projects in the Carnegie International quinquennial in Pittsburg curated by Sohrab Mohebbi, as well as two solo museum shows, including one with the curator Loïc LeGall  and, finally, we will present a solo booth of his work in the Focus section of Frieze London. All of this was possible because we can support him as a commercial gallery. 

I met Rafa while he was still a graduate student at Columbia University studying under Rirkrit Tiravanija and Tomas Vu. At this point, XC Hua was already working on Tiravanija and Vus experimental project Green Go Home, which continually modifies its mediums and manifests differently each time that it occupies a new landscape. Green Go Home always invites other artists to join into a dynamic dialogue with the two artists. The project also responds to looming protests or civil unrest throughout the world today and combines fragmented language (taken from Tiravanija) with poetic agit-prop images (from Vu). Tomas, who is a close friend, had actually advised me that he saw Rafa as a full-blown artist and never a student. They took a studio together in Yonkers just north of New York City in an old High School building and made a whole social community program that included a local food drive.

I went to visit Rafa while they were building out this center and could understand his whole perspective and all of the interlinking networks that inspire his art, which draws upon the social experimentation of Bauhaus modernism, including its constructivism of geometric forms, while also understanding Theodor W. Adorno and the so-called Culture Industry. Rafa plays with the idea of the artwork as a commodity and the artist as a brand. He is also a deep intellectual, for the solo exhibition in Berlin where Plastic Sunshine-Opaque Transparencies was exhibited, he read all of Ocatvio Paz, who is one of the few Latin American authors to win the Nobel Prize and wrote a famous book on Duchamp. Here, Rafa is playing with a poem about spaces and so in the show he drilled a hole between the floors and hung the sculpture from the top floor down to the first floor with the entire text written on the electric cord that suspends it. It is also a hanging sculpture that looks like a lamp but without any light bulb or lighting element.


Xiaochan Hua in artist Tong Kunniao's studio

TP: Just behind us is a wall sculpture by Tong Kunniao, who is based in Beijing. His work shares similarities with Rafael Domenech's work, such as the use of found objects and an interest in assemblage.  What I find interesting is that Tong Kunniao engages with international contemporary art discourse and at the same time his art has clear Asian characteristics, not only the use of obvious Chinese elements such as lettering, but also aspects that I don't recognize as familiar or Western. Are you interested in promoting the contemporary Asian art identity? Perhaps in the antipode of the conventional Western perspective?

ΧΗ: Hua International truly began as a commercial enterprise with a solo exhibition by Tong Kunniao, this was before the solo with Rafa. It was his first show planned in Berlin. I will never forget visiting his studio in Beijing because I knew instantly how serious and important artist he is. In China he has already had a number of museum shows, been awarded grants and important Chinese art prizes and also has a critical following of curators and scholars. He was born in 1990 and graduated from CAFA, the central academy of arts in Beijing. Even within his university he was seen as one of the most talented minds of his generation.

Translation is important to Tongs work which you can see in many younger Chinese artists. This also plays on the very process of translation, bad translation and mistranslation by way of new technology. Like other artists, he is involved in what we can think of as bricolage, meaning he combines local materials that are overlooked or even discarded. We can see translations of  European artists like Swiss sculptor Jean Tinguely and the German artist Rebecca Horn into a Chinese context. They did not invent these modes but brought them to contemporary China knowing exactly who they are quoting or sampling and why. Its like DJs mixing music. You have two artists quoting older movements but imbuing them with completely new meanings.


Installation view, Green Go Home, 2020, XC Hua Berlin, photo by Timo Ohler, courtesy of the gallery and the artists. 

TP: Berlin galleries face a significant challenge, to prosper financially and simultaneously offer an exceptional programme. What is your unique proposition, what can make Hua International stand out in this vast network of galleries and project spaces?

ΧΗ: From the very beginning, Hua International shares a spatial duality, thus forming an axis that is more extensive and flexible. At the same time, as a young gallery, despite the impact of the pandemic, we still maintain our drive, with a clear direction and insistence on the quality of our exhibitions. In addition to the aforementioned exhibitions by Tong Kunniao and Rafael Domenech, we persisted in presenting a solo exhibition and performance by the French artist Fanny Gicquel during Beijing Gallery Weekend, despite the ongoing lockdown in Beijing due to the pandemic. The exhibition won the Best of Beijing Gallery Weekend Exhibition Award. This was a shock because now we have won the prize two years in a row. The jury made the decision unanimously and many other galleries agreed.

TP: Running two spaces in two different parts of the world requires a lot of work, travel and a very careful selection of partners. Can you tell us about your team?

ΧΗ: Our team is a very diverse and dynamic team with a cosmopolitan spirit. We have colleagues from China, Germany, USA, South Africa, and other places who have different personalities and interests. We have a clear division of responsibilities, but at the same time we are working with each other to grow. We may have a larger team than most of the young galleries in Berlin, but in our unique spatial configuration each team member is indispensable.


Installation view, Atlas of Affinities: Vol.1, The Far-Near, 2022, Hua International Berlin, photo by Timo Ohler, courtesy of the artist and Hua International

TP: Your current show is called Atlas of Affinities: Vol. 1, The Far- Near. Can you tell us about its concept? What is the reference to volumes?

ΧΗ: With the current series Atlas we wanted to acknowledge the absurdity of having an atlas to begin with. What does an atlas mean? In part, we were responding to the idea of Aby Warburgs insane Atlas project, its a work he undertook as an art historian that addresses the important concept of topologies and topographies. The different volumes of the exhibition gesture towards the idea that completing an atlas is impossible. Our current show considers how to draw these lines and trace these different directions or anti-colonial gestures with trajectories mapping stories that often intersect in Asia. We recently did a talk with Lucas Odahara—who is part Japanese and born in Brazil and queer—he used a term in the talk vaguely Asian,” which is a wonderful expression that came from the interdisciplinary collective CFGNY. But of course, Brazil was deeply intertwined with the project of the Portuguese empire. So you have an artist who is looking at these intersections and hybridity, asking what it means to be Southern, South American, Asian, and South Asian?  An important artist in the program is Chen Dandizi, who contributed a video work The Sun Never Sets, which is a critique of the term used by many Empires including the British Empire. It refers to how if they conquered expansive territories, then the sun would never set on their lands. Dandizi cuts the final moments of the sun setting in cities, mountains, and most of all oceans in found footage. You have this universal feeling of kitsch, but we all know how beautiful a sunset is and Dandizi asks what really happens if it never sets.

Installation view, PLATE SPACE “The dispersion of settlements“, 2022, Rearwindow. courtesy of the artists and Hua International

TP: What is Rear Window?

ΧΗ: Rear Window is an open project space created in the unique spatial and cultural context of Berlin, in collaboration with artists and curators. As mentioned earlier, we feel we are in an exploding community, so at the same time, we want to bring more layers of activity to this community

TP: What are your future plans?

ΧΗ: We will do our second solo exhibition with Tong in November 2022, and it seems Covid restrictions are finally lifting enough so that he can come in person. We are planning to do a tremendous amount of programming around the show, including multiple performances. We will follow Tong to the flea markets of Berlin as a kind of workshop. Our artists really like doing public workshops. This is almost obvious now, but it's important to state clearly that we imagine our international program to also be intergenerational. By the end of this year in Beijing, we will have a solo by Dorothea Reese-Heim who is in her late 70s and is an overlooked post-war German artist. She has been working with textiles since the early 1960s, which is very relevant now with the current emphasis on blurring art and craft. She was literally coming of age when the Staatliches Bauhaus professors came back to teaching in Germany being in exile during the war.

Ultimately, we see the gallery as an open project looking at things such as borders and hybrid identities. I hope to make a unique impact as a gallery with a dual identity and geographical position. In a post-pandemic world, whether in art or other areas of life or politics, we need an opportunity, a power to reconnect ourselves with each other and eliminate prejudices, and I hope my gallery can provide such power.

-Berlin, July 2022 

Xiaochan Hua interviewed by Tula Plumi