The Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) is the university art gallery of NYU Shanghai. It is different from other private or public art museums in Shanghai because it is affiliated and supported entirely by NYUSH. That also means ICA’s mission is slightly different. It’s more closely aligned to that of the university, which is research, education, and public service. ICA pursues a particular theme, question, or idea over the course of several years. Since 2021, ICA has invited a new artist every season to explore the question of “What other knowledge is possible?” and “What other ways of knowing the world and understanding ourselves could lend itself to remaking and seeing the world and ourselves in other ways?”

To conclude the past four years of the program, the Institute hosted Christian Nyampeta and his project École du soir, which translates to The Evening School

École du soir uses both floors of the ICA. On the basement level, two movies by Nyampeta are shown on large screens – Words after the World and Sometimes It Was Beautiful. On the first floor, a large structure covering the floor with three screens shows three more films – A Long Trailer For A Film About Lovers In A Dangerous Spacetime, A Flower Garden of All Kinds of Loveliness Without Sorrow, and The Landing Between Us. The large structure, also referred to as a hosting structure, was constructed as a “platform for activities such as film screenings, listening sessions, workshops, rehearsals, conversations, and serious play.” In addition to the films, a section is dedicated to reading and learning, a concept that The Evening School tries to incorporate. 

To get to know more about the new exhibition École du soir, I (Vivian) conducted an interview with Michelle Hyun—the curator of ICA.

This time around, ICA collaborated with a New York–based artist, Christian Nyampeta. Nyampeta is a unique artist in the sense that the work he makes isn’t necessarily sculptures, paintings, or photographs. He is more of an organizer who organizes exhibitions, public programs, discussions, conversations, performances, screenings, and so on. École du soir, a French term that means “evening school,” is the title of this exhibition, focusing on the very fundamental question of “How do we live together?”

In order to pursue this question, Nyampeta worked with many collaborators from Africa, Europe, and North America. At the same time, they convened a working group with local collaborators on the ground here in Shanghai to organize several workshops in which the group will collectively translate text written in other languages into Chinese. Each iteration is slightly different from the previous ones because every pursuit depends on the composition of the individuals involved in it. Their working group chose to take a more experimental interpretation of translation. They’re experimenting with a methodology that they call “embodied translation.” 

Michelle pointed out that as director and curator of the ICA, she doesn’t want to naively diminish or overlook her role and the power of selection in selecting and inviting a particular artist to work together to present, as visibility in contemporary art is everything. There was a lot shared between her and the artist, including affinities such as personal, philosophical, artistical, and ideological, in each of their practices. And the question of how to live together applies to all of us. In particular, it’s something we ask in moments or events of disruption or radical rupture. Those can be something as extreme, sensitive, and profound as a violent genocide. These moments of radical rupture, conflict, and antagonism are produced in their wake. 

Also, they beg the question, how do we live together with conflict and with difference? There are plenty of ideas to help us answer or deal with that question. But what other ways of knowing and what other sources of knowledge are, maybe have we overlooked or actively suppressed to try to figure that question out? This project, in particular, was an interesting way or a good way to close out this multi-year program, because it’s not just about harvesting, research, and knowledge from other traditions. It has far deeper implications than limiting themselves to these particular kinds of maybe seemingly idiosyncratic practices and intellectual histories.

Michelle also mentioned that a curator can develop, conceive, and realize a kind of space and time for projects to happen, which is very essential. ICA puts people, ideas, figures, context, and stories into a kind of conversation with each other, as well as organizing to translate some text into the language needed.

The most challenging part of the exhibition was finding interlocutors, specifically academic interlocutors within China. In China, the study of Africa is a difficult but important task. More specifically attuned to the humanities, African studies as a kind of discipline in local academic institutions. There’s a lot more resources and institutional support for scholars and researchers that are pursuing study of trade relations, finance, geopolitics, anything commercially related, and actually a lot of sociological work studying Chinese immigrant and expert communities in Africa and vice versa. But when it came strictly to say the pure humanities, it was really difficult to find people that we could be in conversation with. Locally, there are certainly plenty of wonderful scholars abroad, but here in Shanghai, more broadly within Mainland China. It was a bit challenging to find someone to put ourselves in conversation.

Being a curator needs you to really look, go and experience. What Michelle enjoys the most is gathering people together in a shared time and place, because she thinks things can happen when you have bodies in proximity to each other with material like physical material, whether it’s text, whether it’s art objects, whether it’s in a design space of some sort. In that way when you can make that happen. So exhibition making is a really fertile kind of medium for that experimentation, for that research, for that presentation, because you can physically put thoughts, ideas, figures, objects, all of these things in conversation to each other in a shared space within a limited period of time.