Sydney's 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art is an initiative of the Asian Australian Artists’ Association (4A), a non-profit organisation established in 1996 to present and promote the work of Asian and Asian-Australian artists. Several years ago, 4A launched a residency program for Australian artists in Beijing, hosted by Chinese-Australian artist Shen Shaomin in his studio in Huairou. 

4A's Assistant Curator Toby Chapman tells us more about the 4A Beijing Studio Program, which is currently accepting applications for 2015 until June 19th.

China Residencies: This is the 4th edition of the 4A Beijing Studio Program. How did the idea for this residency come about?

Toby Chapman: The 4A Beijing Studio Program is the result of a long-standing relationship between our organisation and the artist Shen Shaomin. Shen lived in Australia for many years during the 1990s and was involved in the early days of 4A. Since returning to Beijing, where he has developed a significant international profile, Shen Shaomin has been thinking about ways in which different kinds of support could be offered to Australian artists, both in China but also abroad. One of the key components of the residency program is an ongoing mentorship between 4A and the participating artists, which we believe, and have been told by previous participants, is integral to the development of early-career artists.

CR: When the program launched, Aaron Seeto, 4A's director at the time, stated “We are proud to be working with one of the key Chinese-Australian artists who has been involved with 4A’s activities for over a decade. Since returning to Beijing, Shen Shaomin has been thinking very deeply about the type and quality of support that can be offered to Australian artists, and he has very generously offered his own studio as this cultural bridge.” Can you tell us a bit more about how 4A and Shen Shaomin work together to plan and run the residency?

TC: From the outset, the development of the residency has been highly collaborative. In early discussions with Shen Shaomin we talked about the need for a residency program that had an emphasis on research and specific cultural experiences, rather than focusing only on the production of work. This is still a core concern for us during the planning of the residency, and specifically what the artists want to see, visit, or participate in during their stay. On Shen’s end, he is very generous in organizing opportunities for participating artists to meet local artists and curators both formally and also socially.

CR: As the Assistant Curator at 4A based in Sydney, what is your involvement in the residency?

TC: Initially my involvement in the residency was purely in a logistical and organizational capacity – I hadn’t even been to Beijing before 2012! Since then I’ve been lucky enough to have visited Shen during the residency and catch up with the participating artists while they are there.

Going forward, I’m planning on maintaining that involvement, especially to get a better understanding of what each of the participating artist’s experience is like and where their research is taking them. Once the artists return to Australia, they present proposals for exhibitions or specific projects which I then curate/manage, so increasingly my role is focused on maintaining contact and developing relationships with the participants.

CR: Could you please tell us a bit about yourself and your background?

TC: I’ve studied and spent most of my life living in Sydney. During my undergraduate degree (B.A. Art History and Theory at the University of Sydney) I was taught by Dr. Thomas Berghuis who has worked extensively in contemporary Chinese art and really encouraged his students not only to research but also to be involved in the curating and development of art from our region. With that I mind, I then worked at regional galleries and on projects that were working specifically with artists from the Asia-Pacific region.

In my previous roles I’ve worked primarily on socially-engaged and non-exhibition-based projects which equipped me well for working as Assistant Curator for the Sydney Pavilion at the 9th Shanghai Biennale in 2012. Since then, I’ve been developing my practice through my role at 4A, working with a pretty diverse group of people.

My background is in socially-engaged and non-exhibition based projects, but I’m beginning to generate more ideas in a gallery context, including curating the exhibitions and programs that the residency participants are involved in.

CR: The residency is based in Shen Shaomin’s studio in the Qiaozi artist village, an hour North of Beijing. Is Shen Shaomin usually present for the duration of the residency? And is there anyone else on staff to help coordinate, translate, or assist the artists with their projects?

TC: One of the most important components of the success of the residency has been, and I believe will continue to be, Shen’s hands-on approach. He is present for the vast majority of the time of the residency and is more than happy to assist wherever possible. As well as Shen, his daughter and manager is present to act as coordinator, driver, translator and all around assistant. She is integral to the residency and each of the participants have sung her praises.

In addition to the artists that 4A sends to Beijing, Shen will have anywhere between 10-20 assistants living and working with him, so there are always people on hand to assist.

CR: What kinds of artists does the program host, and do they need to be Australian citizens, or simply Australian residents?

TC: The program is open to any/all visual artists who are Australian citizens or permanent residents. We have previously attached the work ‘emerging’ to the program but have since shifted to refer to it as an opportunity for early-career artists. From our perspective, that means artists with less than five years continuous professional experience, or who consider themselves early-career for other reasons. It is important for us that we are not limiting those that may apply based on strict guidelines.

In terms of the kinds of artists that have been selected, the range has been pretty diverse, from artist collectives through to those working in video or installation.

CR: So far, the program has hosted Bababa International, Tully Arnot, Sarah Contos, Jensen Tjhung, Claudia Nicholson and James Nguyen. Can you give us an example or two about some of the most successful projects that have come out of the residency?

TC: In 2012 Bababa International went to the residency in order to develop and construct (with the help of Shen’s in-house engineer!) their work for the Sydney Pavilion at the Shanghai Biennale, which 4A curated. The work, Flue (2012) was a highly complex architectural intervention at the site of the exhibition. All of the components of the project (moving hallways, concealed rooms within the space, a makeshift brick construction site) were made at Shen’s studio and then shipped to Shanghai to be installed. Bababa International have said that there is no way the work would have been realised without the knowledge and guidance of Shen and his team.

Flue (Water) by Bababa International

Flue (Container) by Bababa International

CR: The selected artists can submit exhibition proposals after finishing the residency. Have there been any shows by past residents yet, or are there any in the works?

TC: Previously I curated an exhibition of work by Tully, Sarah and Jensen, all of whom participated in the program in 2013, and exhibited in 2014. In 2015 I wanted to integrate the participants into the existing program in a more organic way, rather than having an exhibition that was a direct outcome of or response to the residency. Both James and Claudia are included in our 2015 program which is very exciting.

CR: What are your aspirations for future editions of the residency?

TC: The most encouraging outcome you can ask of a program such as this is for the participating artists to have experienced a shift in their way of working. A number of artists, in particular Tully Arnot, have spoken about how the residency has illustrated to them how to conceptualize and work on a larger scale. Moving forward, I’m looking forward to seeing how the residency program can challenge younger artists, and encourage them to look towards Asia as a site for serious engagement.

CR: Is there anything else you'd like to add about the program, your mission, or the opportunities you provide for artists?

TC: Just that I really do believe this is a fantastic opportunity for early career Australian artists! In my experience it is rare for artist to be offered this kind of support  not only in terms of the resources, but more importantly in terms of Shen Shaomin’s time. 

This interview was conducted over email by Kira Simon-Kennedy for China Residencies.

Applications for this residency are now open until June 19th.