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  • Jan 31, 2020

Controversy After Jury of Huayu Youth Award Declines to Name Winner

The award ceremony of 2019 Huayu Youth Award at Art Sanya, on December 14, 2019. Image via Art Sanya’s WeChat announcement.

A debate over the purpose and practices of art prizes has rippled through the art scene in China, after a jury of art professionals decided that none of the ten emerging artists in the running for the seventh annual Huayu Youth Award, for artists under 35 years of age, were deserving of the grand prize. The artists shortlisted for the award were Chen Yiyun, Doreen Chan, Chu Bingchao, Vivian Xiaoshi Qin, Wang Haiyang, Pei-Hsuan Wang, Xin Wei, Hsu Che-Yu, Yao Qingmei, and Isaac Chong Wai. The award was established by Zhao Yisong in 2013 and funded by the Huayu Group, a real estate company in Shanxi province founded by Zhao Yisong’s father.

At the award ceremony on December 14, 2019, run by the Art Sanya organization in China’s southern Hainan island province, chairman of the jury, M+ Sigg collection curator, Pi Li, stated that the jury had chosen two artists but declined to award either of them the Jury Prize. Instead the jury awarded two Special Jury Prizes to Hsu Che-Yu and Pei-Hsuan Wang, because “their works are the best in terms of visual meaning, live presentation, and effective communication of ideas,” according to Pi Li’s statement

At the ceremony, Pi Li said the difference between the two prizes is that: “We give an artist a ‘Special Jury Prize’ based on apparent congruence between conceptualization and creation of a work as well as its completeness. On the other hand, the ‘Jury Prize’ is awarded on this basis, and in addition to this, to someone who can adopt a new method or attitude that displays the new definition of the relationship between art and reality, or perhaps even foresee certain aspects of the future.”

In the same statement, Pi Li elaborated that within the ten artists’ presentations, the jury found, “‘symptoms’ and ‘tremors’ that may foreshadow new things, and we still need time to wait for the complexity in these exhibitions to develop and improve, so that art can release greater capabilities and newer methods. However, the ‘new’ and the ‘different’ are not of the same quality, and in order for the ‘different’ to become the ‘new,’ some additional processes are needed.” 

The decision to leave the Jury Prize “vacant,” according to Pi Li, was an unanimous one from the five jury members who also included Hong Kong curator and founder of Art Appraisal Club, Ying Kwok; Beijing-based artist Liu Wei; Lu Mingjun, independent curator and associate professor at Department of Fine Arts, University of Sichuan; and Tang Xin, art director of Beijing’s Taikang Space. Previous winners of the grand Jury Prize have included: the collective Irrelevant Commission (2013), Hu Weiyi (2014), Tao Hui (2015), Hao Jingban (2016), Wong Ping (2017), and Tong Wenmin (2018).

In an email response to ArtAsiaPacific, Pi Li confirmed that the Jury Prize award amount was supposed to be RMB 50,000 (USD 7,200), and instead the two Special Jury Prize winners will receive RMB 30,000 (USD 4,300). However, both artists will also still receive RMB 250,000 (USD 36,000) for a future artwork. Pi Li maintained that the reason for not choosing a single Jury Prize winner was an artistic one rather than a financial decision.

The jury’s controversial decision prompted several waves of reaction in group conversations, extended open letters, and reflections circulated on social media. An anonymous WeChat handle called United Motion issued an open letter, which was co-signed by six of the ten shortlisted artists, other artists, and art professionals—among them Billy Tang, curator at the Rockbund Museum of Art in Shanghai, and Qu Chang of Para Site in Hong Kong—rejecting the jury’s irregular decision, claiming that the stated reasons for not choosing a winner were neither clear nor convincing enough. The co-signers of the open letter from the United Motion handle also said they hoped this would be an opportunity to initiate discussions on “industry issues, from the hierarchical model of the review panel to the observation of daily power structure, and reflect on how we participate in it. We hope to discuss the fair wages of art workers, the health hazards of the work environment, gender and privilege issues on a larger scale.” 

One of the two Special Jury Prize winners, Hsu Che-Yu, rejected his award on December 18. As he explained in his own statement, while he accepted the rules of the game when he was nominated, he questioned how the jury can judge the artists based on a fifteen-minute presentation and interview. “The result of the award seems to be telling the artists that what we hold to be the essence of art is only a few nights of installation manual labor.”

The ten finalists spent nearly two weeks creating and installing their works at the Huayu Art Center in Sanya, and participating in the event series called “Pre-Act: The Nights of Work-er” [sic] from December 4–11. While not paid any artist’s fees for their time, their accommodation in double-rooms and three meals a day were provided by Art Sanya. According to artists contacted by ArtAsiaPacific, they were each given individual production budgets in the range of RMB 3000–5,000 (USD 430–725) for the exhibition. In an open letter by a Huayu Art Center staff member, the production budget for the entire exhibition was just RMB 50,000 (USD 7,250), an increase per artist but decrease in total from the RMB 60,000 (USD 8,649) of previous years when the total number of artists was doubled. 

The staff member criticized all the parties involved, citing low production fees, poor installation conditions, lack of exhibition insurance, and also lack of signals from the jury who seemed to have no issues with the exhibition process when they were examining the artists’ works. The staff member proposed that if organizations were to offer artists fees, then the ambiguity of the situation and the roles of the people involved could be clarified by a short-term employment contract. The person also admonished artists to take better care of their logistics, time management, money, and maintain relationships with other artworkers like the exhibition staff. 

More than 160 artists were nominated for the prize by 67 invited nominators, and a preliminary jury of five art professionals then shortlisted the ten artists although in previous editions, 20 artists have been shortlisted. The curator of this year’s exhibition, Liu Tian, claimed in an interview with Harper's Bazaar China that he only found out about the reduced list of artists when the ten finalists were publicly announced. The preliminary selection committee consisted of Qu Chang, along with Li Qi of LEAP magazine; critics and curators Sun Dongdong, Wang Weiwei, and Yang Zi. Qu, in a reflection titled “How to Award and How to Judge?” and circulated by United Motion, revealed that she reviewed 160 artist portfolios but her votes went primarily toward artists whose works she already experienced in person. For her, the problems were that the judges had insufficient knowledge of the artists’ practices, and that the prize lacked norms and standards. 

In other essays circulated by United Motion, artist Cheng Xinhao criticized the traditional idea that artists should be grateful for any exhibition opportunity even if unpaid, calling for artists’ labor to be more clearly defined and remunerated. Meanwhile, shortlisted artist Yao Qingmei wrote about the symbolic as well as real problems of the absence of artist fees, and noted that the organizers lacked both the technical equipment and expertise to install certain works, including Yao’s, which diminishes the function of the prize as a showcase for new artists. Liang Jianhua, project manager of HB Station in Guangzhou, related her desire to see more professionalized institutional structures within arts organizations, and stressed the importance of saying “no” for art workers when faced with demands from both artists and curators when they exceed time and budget limits. 

On January 1, 2020, the Huayu Youth Award Organizing Committee stated in an open letter that the organization believes that “the discussion and concern and rousing thoughts caused by the ‘vacating of the award’ hopefully will be beneficial to the industry and also help the young artists’ creative ecology.” After pledging an internal reform before the 2020 edition, the Committee said that the future edition of the awards will be “more scientific and reasonable and can withstand scrutiny in the award process, organization method, judging line-up, exhibition preparation, and on-site exhibition.”  

HG Masters is the deputy editor and deputy publisher of ArtAsiaPacific; Pamela Wong is assistant editor; Lauren Long is news and web editor.