The grey zone: a conversation with Bruno Zhu on the prison of language, queering space + alternative value systems

, 4 May 2017

Bruno Zhu’s background in fashion design, as well as an increasing interest in surface and style from a critical perspective, has come to define his artistic practice. Our chat starts informally while sitting in a Berlin park field and continues over a skype interview a week later. Timely topics like Trump and Dana Schutz lead us to talk about themes that influence Zhu’s life and work, such as the difficulties of existing linguistically and queerly in a society where language has reached its minimal level of expression, yet entailing maximal effects.

Bruno Zhu, ‘Bugs’ (2017). Installation view. Courtesy the artist + La Plage, Paris. Photo: Aurélien Mole

The Portuguese artist is looking for what he calls ‘grey zones’ and encounters between conceptual and material opposites. This search is part of Zhu’s current solo exhibition Bugs at Paris’ La Plage, which opened March 24 and is running to May 8, is exploring, looking at the way everyday consumables can speak of alternative value systems and how textile product’s materialise. 

We also speak about the ongoing curatorial platform A MAIOR that he runs at his parent’s shop in Viseu, Portugal. The shop sells ‘Made in China’ products; the Zhu family’s country of origin. A MAIOR was triggered by a previous collaboration with Zhu’s mother at the Serralves Museum in Porto, where he notes “it is the environment that my parents are in every day and it could be an interesting place to continue that conversation” while also addressing what he understands as a possibility of queering the space. The project serves as a ground for experimentation, where the usual institutional hierarchies can blur and evolve into what Zhu calls “the curatorial within an environment and its own peculiar infrastructures.” Several group shows such as Veronica (2016-17) or Cilada (2017), based on the local soap operas A Unica Mulher and A Rainha das Flores respectively, have been realised at the shop. The press releases are the TV series’ weekly roundups which “make it accessible for the staff to explain the shows, and invite the audience to build a mental space by borrowing from familiar fiction.”

A MAIOR has collaborated with the art-shop-project LIFE SPORT in their show Universe 2 (2017) at their Berlin location. The project LIFE SPORT was initiated by the founders of Caribic Residency, operating since 2014 at an Athenian location and setting up a second one in Berlin as of January this year. The platform operates mainly as a shop that sells sweatpants, which for them acts as a symbol for resistance. The collective will be participating in an upcoming project at Zhu’s parents’ curatorial project shop at Viseu. This interaction acts as a way of looking for hybrid collaborative peripheral formats, and exploring alternative institutional models. As Zhu points out, “at the end of the day, we are all consuming art in one way or another, but perhaps critical models can exist outside of what we know about how to consume art.”

‘Cilada’ (2016) Courtesy Bruno Zhu + A Maior, Viseu

**You mentioned that existing linguistically is very difficult nowadays, in the context of an anecdote at Hamburger Bahnhof.

Bruno Zhu: I was at Hamburger Bahnhof the other day, and a group of teenage girls passed by me and were making ‘chinese’ sounds. I wanted to say something back, but a lot of thoughts suddenly crossed my mind – they were girls, so I shouldn’t diminish them because feminism… oh… I understand what they mean, but they are not native English speakers so probably their English is limited. I can’t really be complicated but I want to call them ‘bitch,’ but bitch is such a harsh word and they would probably laugh at me because it sounds really gay and I am very gay, so, what could I say? By then the moment was almost gone, since they were just passing by. Finally, all I could say was: ‘cunt!’ The girls looked at one another and said: “he said cunt” and the one who was making sounds at me was doubting, looking confused. I imagined them assuming I was German and then Googling cunt with a ‘k’ (k-u-n-t) back home to then take it as a misspelling of Kunst? This was such a failed moment!  I see language as a prison, but it is a prison that puts order in our world, a logical one…

** Can you talk about the origins of your current project A MAIOR

BZ: In 2015, I had a show at Serralves Museum that my mom curated, and in which my sister was the visual motif. The show arose from my interest in how to understand images, because images are not only two-dimensional entities: they have a surface that can be touched, felt, swiped or erased. To understand an image today is to understand a living, walking and breathing ‘thing.’

In our current socio-political context, we are all consumers and producers of images so, imagining a reassessment of our relationship with the image’s materiality, I asked the museum staff to hug the sculptures – which were depicting images of my sister’s face. I also wanted to explore the roles of curator and decorator, because I think they are very similar. My mom became then the curator of an art institution, but she was – and is – also the curator of a household, and of her two children and their lives.

** How does A MAIOR’s infrastructure work?

BZ:  I truly feel like a technician of the space or an assistant curator, maybe it’s me fantasising too much but there is no top-level person, no head curator. My dad is like a background figure who helps me out with some technical stuff, whereas my mom has a visual component to it. Regarding myself, I am doing work for it, rather than it being my work. All of the shop workers – including my parents – are different agents that have a critical say. One staff member told me, “hey, you should print the floor plans in colour because it’s more attractive,” and I thought, ‘sure, let’s do that.’

Eloísa Ejarque and Tiago de Sá, Poly. Courtesy A Maior, Viseu.

The shop has become a place people return to, we have clients coming to tell their personal stories, daily musings and cry. This network of people who keep returning have created bonds despite the trauma, discrimination and the social differences.

** What about the show Bugs at Parisian space La Plage?

BZ: Bugs is comprised of a series of opera gloves made of tailored men trousers and a series of containers made out of canvas. The project, which brings me to a fashion vocabulary, ties my interest in consumption, user’s history and fashion as signifier of power and class.

The gloves follow the design of female leather gloves, highlighted by the way they are constructed, whereas the trousers are tailored and made for men. The gloves speak for the feel of elegance whereas the trousers speak to a white collar workforce. The relationship between female-male and delicate-rough meet in the show to rethink notions of high class and aspirations, in a mutated form.

On the floor, there are containers of consumables like shower gels, hand wash and jam jars made of canvas. In order for such products to be consumed, they have to be spread on the skin like bread or a cracker. I was interested in the potential of spreading oneself into different classes. I saw a parallel in the gesture of tearing apart and reconfiguring a pair of tailored trousers with the blurring between higher and lower classes. **

Bruno Zhu, ‘Bugs’ (2017). Installation view. Courtesy the artist + La Plage, Paris. Photo: Aurélien Mole

** In our first encounter at the park, you mentioned that through your work you aim to ‘queer’ the space.

BZ: Queer linked to political movement is just one side of the story. The term has a much older origin tied to a mood and a sense of extreme elation: a psychic and uncanny state. When I talk about ‘queering’ the space, I am thinking of that: without brushing away the political aspect, I want to step back and be generous with the term.

Seeing oneself as a victim within a power relation can result in a binary, preventing it from navigating a middle zone. I wonder if the notion of queer could help navigate and become more liminal, instead of remaining subjugated and disempowered!

Applied to space, I feel it allows me to talk about space being emotional or affect-driven, something soft, that can collapse anytime and see that collapse as a potentiality: new modes of being in a way…

** How would you imagine that in a more formal level?

BZ: I feel that to manifest those thoughts in a formal level shouldn’t be the first question, hoping they wouldn’t need to have a specific form. Such a manifestation should shift without friction and it should have whatever form is wished at any moment.

I am currently working within the genre of soft sculpture, for instance textile works, and I am trying to find this grey zone, where the soft and the hard can coalesce without political friction. Although I think friction is interesting, a politicised friction could be problematic.

The other day we spoke about this guy warning me to not steal “queer” from “us”, but, who is this us? In a way, what I understood is that in his view, queer is a territory to be possessed. “Do not take it away from us”: as if the queer is a territory to be conquered. I think it is contradictory to existing queerly being able to navigate through different forms and outside the norm fluidly.

We reached the point in capitalism where our identities are based on individual positions and we defend ourselves from one another. I think, although the sentiment to defend one’s place is beautiful, to feel the queer as a territory that has been gained feels counterproductive and it creates hierarchies rather than subverting them.**

Bruno Zhu’s solo exhibition Bugs at Paris’ La Plage opened March 24 and is running to May 8, 2017.

image: Festiv Town at Oosterpark, Amsterdam