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Diplomatic World_nummer 56.

INTERVIEW WITH HANS

INTERVIEW WITH HANS MARIA DE WOLF, CULTURAL NOMAD CONNECTING PEOPLE, CHANGING MINDS If you have met Hans De Wolf before, you can never forget him. If you have worked with him, the taste for intellectual adventure stays with you. If you don’t know him yet, it is not easy to find him on the internet. It is through his project portfolio that you can trace him most easily. 108 Hans Maria De Wolf (1961) is an art historian who focuses on modern and contemporary art, philosophy and aesthetics. He studied at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB) and Columbia University in New York. His PhD degree concerned one of Marcel Duchamp’s major works, “La mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires, même”. He conceived and organized various exhibitions in the Neue Nationalgalerie im Hamburger Bahnhof, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Berlin. He has been giving theoretical art seminars at the Kunsthochschule Berlin-Weissensee since 2002. In 2004 he joined VUB as a professor of Art History and Aesthetics and became a senior consultant at BOZAR — the Centre for Fine Arts in Brussels. In 2005 he was mandated to create a platform for the implementation of artistic research (known as the “Brussels model”). He then launched a whole series of prestigious research projects involving some of Belgium’s most famous artists, bringing them to cities such as Beijing, Hangzhou, Seoul, Gwangju, Chengdu. Over the years, he developed a unique methodology for Cultural Diplomacy. The research work and impressive worldwide project portfolio of Hans De Wolf is rooted in an original interpretation of the concept “cultural diplomacy”. All of his projects are wake-up calls for the local economic, academic and cultural communities that are intensively involved with their realization. In doing so, these communities acquire insights into completely new creative methods and approaches. To reach this goal, Hans De Wolf and his team have developed a specific and original methodology using a participatory grass-roots approach. The preparation of each project starts very carefully with the development of a human network in each city, connecting local artists, curators, universities and business people, who are ready to question the feasibility of the initial plans. “This methodology intertwines cultural and academic diplomacy and ensures that the opening of an exhibition is also the celebration of a first constructive phase of an emerging relationship and not, as often happens, a first encounter with a new public.” I was lucky to be Vice-Rector for International Policy at VUB when Hans De Wolf was refining his cultural diplomacy concept, so I was able to incorporate it into the central university’s overall policy as an important vehicle for establishing sustainable international partnerships. Hans De Wolf, we started working together on a project for cultural diplomacy almost eight years ago. As Vice-Rector for International Policy of VUB, I saw the value of supporting your activities and incorporating them into the university-wide policy agenda — and you were the creative content provider and organiser. We both had the feeling that we knew what we meant by “cultural diplomacy”, but I’m still not sure that we have the same understanding when it comes to a detailed definition. So, please tell me what does cultural diplomacy mean to you? We’ve been calling our project the intertwining of academic reflection, arts and diplomacy. To be honest, I must say that over the last few months I’m moving away from the terminology cultural diplomacy. I’ll try to explain why. We called it cultural diplomacy because our projects were mostly for local governments such as the Brussels

© The Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA), Beijing regional government, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and for institutions that have an international agenda. And so, on that basis, we’re advocating the idea that Brussels is a major hub for the visual arts. Nobody ever thought of creating a tool to bring this idea to other countries. Brussels is one of the most interesting cities in terms of visual arts, but nobody knows it. Internationally nobody knows except for a few people with special interests, and what is even worse, also at home nobody knows. Therefore, we started an initiative that began in 2009 on the invitation of Minister Jean-Luc Van Raes who sent us to Shanghai to set up an exhibition in 2010. I must say that we’ve been very lucky because, from the first exercise onwards, we were able to develop the right methodology. What is the right methodology? Especially in China, it is one that is based on interest, respect and equality. Here I must explain a few things. What I did, from the first moment I set foot in Shanghai, was to take more than 40 taxis to meet with as many people as possible: academics, critics, artists, gallerists, really all the people who were dealing with the idea of culture. Very rapidly, I understood that I was touching upon a reality that was fundamentally different from the art world in Brussels and I experienced this as an interesting tension. So, what we’ve done from Shanghai onwards, is to shape each exhibition that we organise to fit the characteristics of the place where it takes place. In other words, we never make an exhibition in Beijing that is identical to an exhibition in Shanghai. The exhibition we organised in Beijing, the capital with which every Chinese citizen can identify him- or herself, was based on a completely different mindset from the one we organised in Shanghai, a city of commerce open to the world, a city of ambition, a city with a huge historical past that we also wanted to capture. That is the basis of our approach. We always work from the grassroots upwards and outwards: for every location we try to find out who the key players on the ground are, and what is at stake. Let me give you a little example: the case of Seoul. In Seoul, we found a city that wasn’t at all comparable with Chinese cities. We always do research on the cities we go to — and that constitutes a complementary academic research component in our exercises. What we found out about Seoul was that it might well be the most traumatised city in the world. Koreans fall completely in between two major identities: the Chinese and the Japanese. What they want to prove every day is that they exist, … that they are not Chinese, that they are not Japanese. Their whole history is marked by this traumatic situation, this dramatic geographic situation. On top of that, they have had that incredible disaster, the Korean war, that completely destroyed the country and ended up in the most incredible situation: with a split up country, with the most archaic communist country in the north and a hardcore capitalistic society in the south. So, it was starting from that knowledge, that we made our project. The project we did in Seoul was about Wanderlust. Why Wanderlust? Because that’s the only thing Koreans will never experience, will never have, will never do. Wanderlust is about leaving your village, going to the hilltop, experiencing what the other side of the hill is all about. It’s about walking away, about taking distance. But, it‘s also about other new and challenging conventions and that’s 109