Season 3: Episode 8
Chinese artist and curator Katze Shaw talks about her work, collecting memories across time.
This season I am talking to artists about their first solo.
I met Katze in 2020 and saw her audio work, Personal Memory in 1989. She had interviewed Chinese people of different ages and backgrounds about their memory of 1989. Her work reminded me of my recent audio work, and the power of the human voice and human memory.
We met up in her publishing house where she and her creative partner create handmade books. There we talked about this project as well as her collaborative curatorial work which also focuses on the themes of freedom and democracy.
Katze’s life and work highlight the human impact of totalitarian policies on memory, family relations, and even one’s freedom to wish.
Right now I feel at home in Berlin. But for me, it was a long term to understand Democracy. Freedom. It was just a word in China. But since I moved to Berlin it turned out to be a feeling, a perception, it’s not about the terms in the law or how this society works, it’s more about how this democracy influences the individuals, their behavior. How they feel. How they think. That’s a lot. It’s a long way to perceive it.
VIDEO & TRANSCRIPT 👇🏽
NEVERLAND BOOK [VIDEO]
Katze unjars her handmade book, NEVERLAND.
Season 3, Episode 8
I work as artist, curator and also project manager, intercultural project manager.
As an artist I worked as an illustrator four years, worked for books but later I stopped it. And I begin to work with media materials. After I move to Berlin I begin this media work and kind of, with this media work I interviewed a lot of people. It’s a way to bring me to others.
It’s at that point I’m not going to see myself anymore. I see others and I present others through me. But in the process no one see me, and I love it.
And also I work as a curator, I had some project. For example, I Wish, China. And this is a project, I interviewed many Chinese about their wishes for China. And I translated these wishes into English and German. And I invited many artists in Berlin, mostly in Berlin but also in Europe, to create some artwork based on these wishes.
And I managed like 3 or 4 exhibitions and workshops, both in China and Berlin.
And for Project Manager, it’s a way how I make money. But also it’s very stressful work but also sometimes very interesting. For example, I made a documentary film along with one of the project, it was many Chinese businessmen. They are private business owners. They visited Hannover Messe.
Chinese businessmen and they were visiting Hannover, Messe which is like a convention center in Hannover.
It’s like the industry technical fair once a year in Hannover. It’s kind of a statement of the leading role of Germany in Smart Industry.
And that documentary presented how the Chinese private business owners, their vision and what they’re looking for with this visiting.
It’s kind of intercultural perspective of both sides. And also I tried to find some insight of this special group. Because the business owners in China, in China people say one thing like ‘In China you only have one way to be free. The way of making money. The way of how to spend money.’
This sounds pretty sad but in another way if you really observe it, the very tiny break people can find a way to feel the freedom.
Also, when they have the chance to start a business, a private business and to find a place to work outside of the state business, it’s very tiny and also very stressful, but still, it’s a way to find some freedom in China.
So I really respect these business owners, even, it’s far away to agree with this perspective. But still, they are trying to find a way to be themself, to create something.
Wow, that’s a beautiful perspective and definitely comes from an artist sense of curiosity.
Yes, of course, you have to, because most of them if I talk about the values in Berlin like, the respect, the great diversity, the freedom of expression of mind, the respect and how people fight for their rights to feeling better, to feel themselves, to have their own way to lead their life. When I explain this to the business owners, they are like seeing totally another world.
It’s beginning to perceive another possibility to build up a life, in the world.
And what they’re talking about for me is sometimes totally, it’s so far away. But I try all my best to drop off myself. To drop off all my values, my thinking, all my feelings as a Berliner. I try to perceive how they find their own way, how they perceive themselves in China.
And, actually, when they come here they are looking for something new. They are looking for some creative ideas. They are looking for another, something they don’t know.
And what I can bring them is to make all I see beauty in Berlin, in Germany, in a way they could understand.
But also I think the way to make them understand this, you have to understand them. So you have to drop yourself and talk to them without yourself. Just try to understand how difficult their surrounding is.
And so you accept them, and when they have the feeling that you understand them, you begin to accept what you are explaining to them.
So much empathy. It makes me want to ask about your first solo, and I know you’ve moved away because you do want to drop yourself and work with other people, but at that particular time you were living in China and exploring similar practice interviewing people but on the streets of China so can you explain where that project came from and what you think about that now.
I begin this interview, the practice of interview with my project, I Wish, China.
Can I clarify, I Wish China?
I Wish, China. That’s the name of the project. When I lived in China since I was just a little kid, I never feel, I never feel right, in my life. I always felt I was in a, I was in a wrong place.
But what I could see, really limited, for me there could be two possibilities. One is, okay, this is how the whole world was. I was the wrong person came to the world.
And the other possibility is I am just in the wrong place. Probably outside of the place I could perceive there would be something totally different. But I didn’t know what it would be. So that’s why, at the end, I moved out of China.
And right now I feel at home in Berlin. But for me, it was a long term to understand Democracy. Freedom. It was just a word in China. But since I moved to Berlin it turned out to be a feeling, a perception, it’s not about the terms in the law or how this society works, it’s more about how this democracy influences the individuals, their behavior. How they feel. How they think. That’s a lot. It’s a long way to perceive it.
And I know a lot of Chinese, they have critiques. For example, like Ai Wei Wei. He is a well-known Chinese artist in Europe. Also in the US. Made a lot of critiques. Also other Chinese writers, artists.
But for me it’s not, it’s not the whole point. You can say how bad it is, and I understand how bad it is. But I don’t see anything could be better [if] you just talk about how bad it is.
I want to know if you say it is bad, but what could be good.
And I also know if I’m just thinking about what could be good it makes no sense. The points not about what I think about. If more people in China they think about this.
The answer, not the point, the answer is more people begin to think about it, begin to step over the face only just feeling negative and throw their critiques on it, but really think about what you, what do you want. What would you like to have? What would you to work for to make this land [country] better?
So I begin this project to interview people in China. What’s your wish for China?
And I learned a lot through this project because of course, I collected so many interesting wishes. But more interesting is I learned how to talk to people.
Sometimes it’s really, really difficult. When they talk to you, you perceive, like, like the third or the second or the third interview on the street a lady, she talked to me like “ah, I know you are young, why did you care about politics? It’s not your business. You are young. You have a life in front of you. Talking about politics is not a good idea for you. You see I’m older and I experienced much more than you. I can tell you, talking about politics, not a good idea.”
And in her mind, talking about what she wishes for is a political question.
It’s also how it’s interesting. It’s just a wish. She was like “you know, we all know in any society we have some dark things. In China, or in other Western countries, they’re all same, they’re all the same.”
So they’re all the same, they all have darkness.
Yeah, no matter where you go you find the darkness.
“So it won’t make anything good to talk about it. You just look at the bright side, that’s all you have to do.”
That’s an interesting statement but when she talked to me I could perfectly perceive that she didn’t believe what she said.
It’s very complicated at that moment how she reacted to me.
And later I also talk to many other people I met in different occasions. Some of them they really open to me. And some of them they kind of pay attention, and be careful about what they are saying.
But mostly after the conversation they told me, or even after the interview they sent me a message like ‘ah later, I really thought about this, what we should have, I really put much more thought on it.
That’s the point I really love. Because mostly I love their answer but I love most is the moment when I brought up this question. They look at me and I could perceive they begin to think about it. They’re concentrated. It’s something new.
The new part is not the question. The new part is something inside of them came to them. They begin to come to a mind, a question, they begin to think something never really appeared in their mind. But at that moment when they were asked, it appeared to them. That’s the moment I love the most.
That is amazing, the power of a question can shift people’s perception. And such a simple question, in China, what they wish for. I mean it’s something an American child thinks of all the time, probably half the year they’re thinking of what they want for Christmas, right. Which is a different kind of wish than what you are insinuating with your question.
I want to ask you about the video that I saw which was asking about Tiananmen Square, whether, I don’t remember what you framed the title of your piece, but whether the Tiananmen Square massacre happened or not. And when you talked about that after your screening you said, for you the most important thing was the sense. Can you explain that because you are going directly at darkness but the way you perceive it is so different.
Yes, that’s like a project since a couple of years. And I created one exhibition on the 30 years anniversary of Tiananmen Massacre. On that exhibition, I screened that video you watched. Actually it was an audio but I made the, I made the translation on the screen so the people could read. And at the same time they can listen to the voice and the background of the voice.
Actually, I didn’t ask anything specifically about the massacre. I asked the people about, do you know that? What’s your personal memory during that time? I always ask them if you were there? You have something to explain to me? I’m here to listen.
But if you had no idea about it, and, for example, somebody told me, “ah, my memory, my strongest memory was ‘I didn’t have to go to school. I played alone in our backyard. I could remember the feeling of summer, playing alone as a child.’”
Whew, I love this. I would love this memory to have. And also one, she actually, she is a documentary producer and she made a lot of documentary, about, like the Great Fam in China, Famine. And also something about the Cultural Revolution. But she told me, ‘back at that time, I wasn’t part of it. I had a feeling that something like people, all people being there, and I wasn’t kind of people like in the crowd, being in the center. I always prefer to keep the distance. And I was pregnant. With my pregnancy, I didn’t feel so well so I always took the sunshine at the roof of my mother’s house. And I watched the TV and I had the feeling that’s something far away from me.’
It’s also beautiful. I didn’t need people just came to tell me ‘ah so many people shoot, so many people died.’
Of course, many people told me their trauma, injury, inside of that. But it doesn’t have to be all.
Because for example, my personal memory about that was a small book. Because my parents, I had no memory that I watch the TV or my parents talk about it. I had no memory about the marching. No memory about the protest. I was pretty young, a small kid. I was in primary school but I had the memory I received a small book. And I read this handbook. It’s all about our soldiers.
They fought bravely, in Peking, to the mobs, to the enemy. They sacrificed their own life to fight with the enemies of the country.
I was in primary school and I read this little handbook. And I was like, why?
Okay, every day in our school we had the lecturing like ‘we lived in a great country, in a great peaceful country. And huge.’
And suddenly, you told me in this small handbook we had so many armed enemies with dangerous weapons in Peking, the capital of our great country. And our soldiers had to sacrifice their own lives to fight this.
Where are they from? We are not in war. We are in a great, peaceful country.
It’s so weird, we, it’s just weird. I was in primary school but it was a weird feeling about how they make the propaganda.
I had no idea what it was. But this feeling just so strongly in me. Never. Never go away.
And later I had the chance to check the truth on the internet. I watched the documentary. I begin to understand why I felt so weird. And what that little handbook about.
So for me it’s like, okay. I had no family, no friends that were there. I was too young. I even didn’t have the chance to really experience what happened. But still, something weird in me. And all in my life, the difficult feeling, the feeling of not in the right place. The trauma of all my life as a teenager, all my, all in my early 20s, I begin to realize what that was about. Why I had to suffer from all that’s ridiculous everywhere. Why I had to suffer from this feeling, this feeling everywhere without the sense of human. Because what happened. Even I had no idea what happened, still I suffer from it.
That’s why I pick such a perspective to interview people. What’s your personal memory?
Because the injury not only the blood. Not only the death. Not only the injury. It’s for everyone. Even for the one who told me ‘I know nothing. I don’t care. I know nothing.’
Or even the one who told me, ‘ah, I believe the government, they made the right decision. We need that.’
Even in their tone, their voices, I could perceive the trauma, the injury of it.
With that work I want people to perceive, the injury, not the blood, 30 years ago. The blood would dry, would disappear, as long as we don’t talk about it, we don’t remember the blood anymore. We don’t see it. Me as a person, I have never seen blood of it, never.
But the injury. The blood inside of human, inside of the society, inside the whole population, always there with history. Every day. Every minute. That’s why I picked the perspective, the personal question, what’s your personal memory about it?
It’s so perceptive and I feel when you look at like what’s happening in America now it’s similar, there was so much history that was kind of hidden and not talked about and not it’s erupting. Right. It’s very.
And I’ve been interviewing for Park Project about the Muaer Weg and about the reunification and also seeing how much trauma happened even with something that we perceive as good, of reuniting, but it was done in such a way that it was traumatic. Where people from the East just kind of lost their identity. What I heard one of the people I interviewed say is they have broken biographies. Right. So this is also on a national scale in China. There was a sense of being told you’re a great country and then that idea being shattered in this way.
Yes, I also talked, I also spent a lot of time to find out how people feel with reunion because for us the Mauer Fall is like a symbolic moment of freedom. But freedom brings also trauma. Because freedom is like the light, but the light never exist alone. The light always exist with the shadow. So the freedom also always being their with the cages inside of us. The feeling of being in a cage. And it’s always together. How we look for the freedom and how we feel the fear. Fear and the freedom, always the same, together.
I talked to, I have a friend, she is a German, and she born in former GDR. She told me her grandmother worked in a factory, to produce a comb. And she was so good. And she always had her picture somewhere in the factory because she was, she worked so well. But after the reunion, no one need that kind of comb. And she had no idea what to do.
I believe it happens to so many people from GDR.
I also talked with many people from GRD, they fought for their way to find their new identity. But I believe that must be difficult. The feeling of fight for their inner freedom. Their confidence. Of being free. It’s a long journey.
The moment they had the Mauer Fall so many people, we saw, right now we see the photos, how people being happy there, to have this moment.
But after that moment, everyone back to the individual. Everyone had to work along, by themself, to find a new identity. To understand and live with the freedom and make any personal decision for themself. And take the responsibility.
This difficult but this also beautiful.
And for those listening I apologize, the Mauer Fall is the fall of the Berlin wall. I guess I’ve been here so long I hear Mauer and I automatically think of that but people outside of Germany might not know that.
Yeah, beautiful. It’s very complex, you know, all of this.
I want to ask you about two more things, one is your curatorial work, I’m curious about that, if you could share, I know you’ve done a lot so maybe share your work around vision, and then what you’re doing with books.
Okay, I can make one example to explain one exhibition I created. What we just talk about, the 30 years anniversary.
The name of that exhibition was, Thirty Years. It means I didn’t want to just talk about what happened 30 years ago, but what happened in the last thirty years at that moment.
I invited the Chinese artist. Also artists from Hong Kong, from Germany. And that was one week and every day we had something different. And we enjoyed the whole week because people just came there, it’s like in one week we kind of turned to be a family because every day we had something new to do together. We had some new topic to talk about. Not only about Chinese. Not only about Tiananmen. Also about Germany, America. Today, what we work with our dilemmas.
And also what happened in all the political movements in East Europe in the last 30 years. And people from, it’s a very multiple culture background.
We gathered and we exchange every day.
For example, we had one artist, one German artist, she make art on the falling paper. And I talked about all the stories. And I also explain her about Tiananmen Mother. They are like a group the wives and the husbands and the mothers and fathers of the victims of the Tiananmen Massacre. And they were, they’re so brave and they worked so much to interview people, to collect the victims about how people killed there. They collected more than 200 names and stories about how they were killed, how their bodies were found, and how they died.
And I translated some of them into German/English and she cut the name, the Chinese name on the paper and she hung this paper so when you stand on the other side you will see the light went through the cut, the names.
So she actually cut out the names and when it was up to the window you could see..
But not only her. Also, we invited people [who] walked by to cut the names. I explained the story, the meaning of each name, and how they died.
And it was such a hot day. Such a hot day in the beginning of June. And everyone like dog [show panting]. But when I explain them the meaning of each name, because the Chinese name they always have a very beautiful meaning in it. I explain the name of them, what’s the meaning of it and also how the person died, how the person killed there 30 years ago, the same hot summer.
You can feel each one came here, listen to the story, and something inside of them, some part of them, just chilled down and they concentrated to cut the name on it. Like a meditation. Like a moment. To be there with the victims, with the lost spirit. With the soul there.
Another Chinese artist, he made a tent. He made a tent, like installation, outside the exhibition. And Hungh made the signatures. And Hungh wrote something on the tent. And later we carried this huge tent, and we made a march. We marched from, from Chinese Embassy in Berlin to Berlin Dom, Lust Garden.
Which is on Museum Island.
And on the way was so crowded and we carried so many people just no one could find a way. The cars and the people, the bicycles they can’t find a space to pass by and we carried such a big thing and people was like, ‘what are you doing? You make the situation much worse.’
But we carry that one and we explain what it’s about. And when people heard this story immediately they change the situation. When they realized what we were doing they were like ‘you’re really doing well, you should do it. We’ll just get away as much as possible to make the space for you to pass by.’
And at the end we displayed the tent in front of the church and people came here and talked to us. And we talked a lot. Also, some people from Iraq. They also talked with us, talked with me about how we feel about the dictatorship in their, in their own country, and the control from another nation. We also talked about this. We exchanged the experiences and the opinion.
It’s not only about China. It’s like an exchange with so many different perspectives.
It’s beautiful that you made that opportunity for people to come together. I find, it’s funny when I was living in San Francisco I primarily moved in the documentary scene so I was not exposed to kind of installation art and this form of art and this form of interaction. And it’s something I came to experience first, basically in Berlin and I love how much opportunity there is and the fact that these other people in Berlin respect your story because there is this common ground of fighting for freedom. So that’s lovely. That and the Iraqis, too, which is another complicated story.
Yes in Berlin we have many great small exhibitions. Probably we won’t have so many people around but we are there. This is an idea, not to draw massive attention. Not an exhibition to get a lot of reputation or money. This could be just an exhibition and all the participants they just contribute a special idea.
I love it because I feel the same. I don’t want to be the one in the spotlight. I don’t care. But I want something unique. I want something true. I want something even only one person there I want something new in your heart, in your mind, in your spirit. Something just sparking as a new birth.
For me being in Berlin is more like, I don’t want to be a star here. I want to be a drop of water in the ocean. I want to be with all the other drops of water in the ocean, to make the ocean have the spirit of freedom.
I want to be there, be myself.
I enjoyed but that’s not the point. Because I could be myself anywhere. I could be myself in China, too.
But, what make me feel different is how the other feels. I enjoy being here and feeling people around me, they are also themselves. And they don’t feel any stress to be themselves. This is the beauty of Berlin.
The freedom to be ourselves. It’s such a unique point in time that’s shifting a bit. And I love that you talk about sharing your work not for a big audience but to have this connection and create this spark.
I wish more people felt that amount of freedom that they could do that and not have to seek a following, right, that they could just come and share their ideas.
I want to ask you now about your current book projects because this is another really unique project that I’m looking at right in front of my, especially maybe you can explain the jar book. And it’s something that I feel like I’m so excited to join you to make my own book now.
Yes, I’m running a publisher now with a friend.
We make handmade books and also online ebooks, multimedia ebooks.
For me handmade books, they’re like a book as an art object. Every book is unique. For example, I just show you the book in jar, in this bottle, it’s a very old one.
Actually, I remember, when I was in kindergarten, in China the kindergarten keep the kids always seated like this.
Sitting with your hands behind your back.
Yes, hands behind the back.
And we have very few time that we could run freely in the garden.
But I really like to cut some small package paper of candy, and also some pieces of colored paper. I even had no idea what they were. And also some small pieces of colored glass. I had no idea what they were, just a small piece of it. Also some wildflower. I make them together. And I bury them in the yard, in earth.
So when I was in the kindergarten sitting like this with my hands behind my back, everything covered under the dirt, no one will see it. But when I’m allowed to play freely in the garden, I would go to my secret point and I pushed the dirt away so I will see colored glass and underneath I see the colored candy paper and flower there. It’s like a secret. It’s like a treasure.
It’s like I think for every child when we were little we collected, just, different objects. Even trash, garbage. But we saw the beauty of it. They mean something, they mean something for us and we collected them.
And this is the feeling, the connection between you and the meaning, your perception and some object. And this is why I created a book in jam.
This book is about Peter Pan because Peter Pan is for my like, it’s like the first love.
Peter Pan was your first love, did you say.
Yes, it was said. It’s in that way.
For me Peter Pan is like a metaphor. It’s a metaphor of when Wendy grown up she would never see Peter Pan again.
It’s like a decision, when you would decide to grow up, when you grow up you have to give up something. You have to leave something behind. You may never have them again in your life.
But we could still do something, it’s like, I made this book. I collected all the special sentences, I just, I used all this different paper. Paper from from magazine, from old books, paper from advertisement paper. And also the old newspaper and also the packages. I just find all the paper and I died them, I cooked them, I sewed them, I colored them.
And you can see also I used the
Is that a leaf or a flower petal?
Yes, it’s part of it. I just had some, I had them here. And some small sketching.
It’s lovely. I’ll put pictures on the website so people can look at it.
And some texture there. They mean something. And just like for every child the meaning of his or her treasure only known by her or him.
Every piece of it, probably I’m the only one knowing, know the meaning of it.
But I think everyone who check it they will begin to think about, okay, what’s the meaning of it. What’s the value of it? What’s the dream of it? What’s the thing left behind in one’s childhood? This is a undiscovered box. An unbook to open. But even we open it, only one person, only the person who created it would know the true meaning.
It doesn’t matter. Everyone could visit it, could read it, could share the dream, an unknown dream, left behind.
It’s like I told you, only two sentences I wrote in this book.
The first sentence is, Peter, I promise you I will come back.
And the last sentence, at the end is, I promise you I will come back to rescue you from adulthood.
That’s lovely. I think that’s a good place to end. I did want to ask you what’s your next big project, or if you have one since we’re still in a pandemic kind of lockdown situation.
I’m in break right now but I think I will continue again. It’s about my grandfather.
You know Cultural Revolution?
You know the intellectuals were put in jail and my grandfather, father of my mother, he was like the first generation in my hometown to work for theater.
He was like a very traditional grandfather. He loved us but he never talked to us, never. We never had a conversation about our family, just, about nothing. We never really had a conversation.
But after he passed away, but, I stole many of his books. I read a lot of his books. And, after he passed by, couple years after [he] passed by, when I visited China I found a box, in that box was [confession] materials he wrote to the party during the Cultural Revolution. In that I found the whole story of the family.
So right now I was thinking to, to make a multimedia book including many animations and short films about my grandfather, and about how I meet my grandfather. Because it was like the first time I talked to my grandfather after he passed by.
I begin to understand his, his life and his personality and everything he dreamed for and after the Cultural Revolution, everything he give up.
It was like, our hometown was like a migration city. My grandfather, when he was young I realize my, in my hometown’s atmosphere very similar to the atmosphere we have right now in Berlin. Many people they went there for freedom, for dreams, for survival.
And my grandfather just hung out with friend, create the theater and he acted and he wrote the dramas and he made up the stage and a lot of crazy and naïve things and he also create publishing house and made his magazines, same what I do right now.
And he really dreamed a renew, a reborn of the country after CCP made the new land.
CCP meaning, China, Chinese Communist Party.
Yes, that’s it. But after the Cultural Revolution, he realized, it’s not a land he dreamed.
Because when he was young he was really, people told him like a free mouth. Blablablabla all the time, just whatever he felt, he thought. But after that he shut up. He shut up. He received a lot of respect. He still worked his whole life in theater. Still what he loved. Still a career what he loved. And he paid pretty well. And he was able to take care of the family, the children.
But it wasn’t a creation with a free spirit.
And I had the feeling like the first time I meet and talk to my grandfather. I came to Berlin because I want an inner survival. And here I meet people who [are] looking for something similar as what I do here. Seem like my grandfather I had the friends. I could spend time together. I could make the creation together.
We could understand the value and doing crazy things together like how my grandfather spent his young time. It’s like a continue of the family.
And even, my grandfather he passed by when I was in Paris. Because he left in bed for many years and he didn’t have any serious disease like cancer, no, nothing. Just he stayed in bed for more than ten years. So when I left I didn’t see what would happen. But my mother took a video the last time I visited my grandparents.
When I watched the video I realized my grandfather, his eyes followed me all the time. Never left me, his eyes never left me no matter what we do. He was, he was lying there and he followed me all the time.
And so one month after I left my cousin also left. By that time we [were] both in Paris. But the last time my cousin visited my grandfather he looked nowhere. And when we were in Paris we had the news that my grandfather passed by.
After so many years only when I found his confession, when I begin to work with this project to explain like the first conversation with my grandfather I realized I was the child in the family he loved the most. Because in so many years he didn’t talk to us, he never talked to us. But he knew I was the only child in the family really similar to him.
I begin this project but in between I made the break because I want to reorganize, to make the reflection what’s the best way to put it.