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Six up and coming curators shaping art in Hong Kong

From directors of major institutions to independent curators, meet the individuals shaping perceptions of art in Hong Kong

Originating from the Latin word ‘curare’, meaning ‘to take care’, curators are the ones who bring exhibitions to life. Masters of multi-tasking, they are scholars, anthropologists, managers and often artists themselves. Time Out brings together six young curators working in various art spaces, from public institution to artist-run space, to discover how they’re helping shape the local art scene. Art direction by Phoebe Cheng. Photography by Calvin Sit

Chantal Wong – Co-founder, Things That Can Happen

Co-founder of the incredibly refreshing art space Things That Can Happen, Chantal Wong is one to look out for – as if you could miss her with that stylish platinum bob. Chantal launched the space last September with local conceptual artist Lee Kit, who had just represented Hong Kong in the 55th Venice Biennale. Housed in an apartment in Sham Shui Po, Things is not your typical art space, with kitchen sink and 80s style chandeliers still intact. We can’t wait to see what can happen.

Can you tell us a bit about yourself and how you got into curating?

I’ve been working at Asia Art Archive (AAA) since 2006, as head of strategy and special projects. I studied art history in Montreal and received my master’s in cultural studies from Goldsmiths in London.

I should confess that I don’t really see myself a curator. Things That Can Happen works with artists to develop projects. I’d say we’re more like collaborators, producers. I co-curated my first two exhibitions in 2014. The first was Mapping Asia at AAA, which proposed an alternative and evolving way of thinking of Asia, and the second, Ten Million Rooms of Yearning: Sex in Hong Kong, at Para Site explored sexuality and desire in Hong Kong through art. It was after curating these two shows that I realised I don’t feel like a curator. I saw a curator as having particular skills – drawing associations between artworks, an indexical mind, an intuitive sense of space, and so on. Things relies much more on the artists we work with to conceive the projects, as a response to the site. Lee Kit [local conceptual artist who recently represented Hong Kong in last year’s Venice Biennale] and I share thoughts and questions, and sometimes we ask friends, like Yung Ma, for feedback. It’s a collaborative project.

Things That Can Happen is one of the most exciting new spaces we have in Hong Kong. Can you tell us about
its conception?

Things was conceived as a modest space for conversations relating to our socio-political environment enabled by art. The idea started over dinner. Lee Kit and I were chatting about the art landscape, the lack of spaces, the market and the political environment of the time – an increasingly polarised society – and the more we drank the more it seemed like a good idea...

Which exhibitions have been your biggest inspiration?
I think documentary film festivals have been an important inspiration, especially experimental documentaries. They start from reality but can end up surreal, fantastical, horrifying. They can challenge reality as you know it – real life is stranger than fiction.

What’s the most rewarding part of curating for you?
We started in September 2015 during the  post Umbrella Movement with a modest intent to be a space for conversations transpiring from art. The most rewarding part has been getting to know different people – whether artists, activists, neighbours and professionals – with common interests and stakes in the society we live in. It’s touching to receive this kind of support – we are very lucky in Hong Kong to have such a tight-knit and supportive community for our work.

And what’s the toughest part?
The toughest part is probably managing my own expectations. It’s taken lots of internal reflection and debate for Things to become the space it is now, and it continues to adapt. Before it opened, I’d conceived of it as a space packed with experimental programmes, and I remember Lee Kit telling me that we aren’t a programming space but an art space, and we can’t be directed by our own expectations. We need to start by listening to others, and we must stay close to the ground.

What excites you about art?
I experience life through art. Studying art history fundamentally changed who I was – it made me more curious, empathetic, imaginative, concerned and humanist. Being immersed in it now just strengthens these muscles. I don’t know much outside of it.

What we can expect from it for the next few months?

What you can expect are artists’ projects that don’t only take the form of exhibitions, but employ different media and modes to experiment with ideas. Angela Su, for instance, is working on a science-fiction anthology in collaboration with local writers and we’d love for the short stories to be aired on public radio.

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Sham Shui Po

Isaac Leung – Chairman of Videotage

A man of multiple talents, Isaac Leung is an ‘artist, curator and a scholar’. Spending most of his time researching and teaching at the Hong Kong Institute of Education, he is also chairman of Videotage, a space in the historic Cattle Depot Artist Village, one of the most important non-profit art organisations in the city that highlights video and media art.

"I believe a good curator should play the role of a bad guy – by doing the right thing in the wrong place, and the wrong thing in the right place"

How would you describe yourself?
I wear multiple hats – I’m a practicing artist, curator and a scholar. I spend most of my time teaching and researching in university. Apart from that, I am the chairman of Videotage, one of the most historically significant non-profit art organisations in Hong Kong, which happens to be celebrating its 30th anniversary this year.

How did you get into curating?
As a student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, I was very much interested in the behind-the-scenes of the art world and was eager to know how an exhibition came into being. This led me to think about art not only from the perspective of aesthetics, but also about how art institutions operate.

What do you consider the most intriguing thing about art?
That it opens up the possibility for people to transform themselves in what I would call a ‘charismatic-networked game’. Besides the virtuosity of art, I’m interested in the sociological aspect of the art world, like how players survive by breaking, playing by or re-inventing rules.

What is your favourite art museum or gallery?

Wellcome Collection, in London. Their exhibitions are always inspiring, provocative and reflexive. Every visit to the collection has been a learning experience, and the museum encourages me to think how one object can mean many different things and tell many
different stories.

What do you seek to do with your work?
To use the potential in my exhibitions to change something in the minds of people, [to demonstrate] that the so-called truth can be criticised and destroyed. Another aspect I seek to pursue is to change the game rules of the art world by putting my thoughts into practice, and using my projects to challenge other people’s practices. I believe a good curator should play the role of a bad guy – by doing the right thing in the wrong place, and the wrong thing in the right place.

Why do we need curators?
It’s the same question as, “Why do we need artists?” Because we’re the strange people [laughs]. In a professional context, the curator is the mediator between art objects and different stakeholders in art. For me, we need curators because they give new life to objects, they create identities for artists and they challenge audience’s perceptions. In reality, though, curators also guarantee attendance figures, entertain board members’ tastes, and directly or indirectly create the monetary values of objects.

What are some of the difficulties specific to curating media artworks?

The biggest difficulty is the way in which the technologies used to present new media works become obsolete from time to time. The other problem is that many media works cost a fortune to set up.

Conceptually, my biggest concern is that most people like media art because they think it’s flashy, interactive and slick. I try not to include works that are made for the sake of being technologically advanced. It’s hard to curate a good ‘media art show’, because many artists and audiences have preconceptions of what ‘media art’ should be like.

What are the successes and failures of the art scene in Hong Kong?
Hong Kong’s success story lies in its exemplification of laissez faire capitalism – that’s the reason we have top-notch art fairs and commercial galleries. We have also adapted the UK model of public arts funding, which has shaped the long history of our non-profit art scene. But to be a cultural leader, we need to first and foremost improve the quality of art criticism and art education in Hong Kong. We need diverse styles, themes and genres of art. Fran Leibowitz once described New York’s audience as ‘discerning’, implying that an audience with a high level of connoisseurship is as important to culture as the artists themselves. I completely agree, and I think one of the biggest problems in Hong Kong is the public’s reservation to experience anything other than mainstream entertainment.
 
What are you working on right now?
Finding the time to get more sleep! I feel bad that I don’t even have time for a date. Maybe this cover will help me find one? [laughs]

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Kowloon City

Christina Li – Director and curator, Spring Workshop

Spring Workshop is one of the most extreme independent art spaces in Hong Kong. Snuggled into the industrial area of Wong Chuk Hang, the non-conformist space comes with an expiry date – it’s a five year project that will complete in 2017. Who knows what’s going to happen next, so be  sure to head down for a stimulating experience of contemporary art!

You used to work for TVB Pearl, so how did you end up working in the art world?
By accident! I graduated from art history and comparative literature at Hong Kong University and at that time, I wasn’t really aware of curating. Still, I got involved in the Hong Kong gallery world through reviewing a show at the now closed John Batten Gallery as a university student, and slowly built an understanding of the local art scene. After a short stint working at TVB Pearl on the scheduling and programming team, I was introduced to Tobias Berger, who had just arrived at Para Site as its first artistic director and was looking for an assistant curator to join his curatorial team. Under his mentorship I learnt about everything from installing projectors, to painting walls, conducting studio visits and conceptualising shows.

After curating a show at Spring Workshop last March, its founder, Mimi Brown, invited me to direct Spring, and it’s an adventure I’ve been on since last August.

What in particular appealed to you about art?
What’s always drawn me to the art world is the interaction, as well as rapport that I have built with artists, curators and other people who are dedicated to thinking rigorously about the world through art. Sometimes it just takes a good show or even a studio visit to remind myself why I am working as a curator. These encounters can transform how we look at the world around us as well as our experience as human beings.

What do you love about your job?
I adore the conversations I have with the artists I work with. Curating isn’t only about how to put things in a space but also about developing ongoing exchanges with the artists you work with. Another part that I love is installation. I enjoy getting involved with hanging works as well as discussing and sometimes debating with artists about how we envision the works should look in the space. It’s not always smooth sailing, but working as a curator means you should also be able to mitigate differences in opinions and viewpoints.

Why is curating important?
I don’t know if curating is necessarily more important that other creative practices. In my mind, the work of a curator should help highlight and give visibility to voices, practices, histories or perspectives that ought to be put to the fore but, for whatever reasons – political, historical, ideological – aren’t. I  think what curating can achieve is to bring forth a situation or a space, be it an exhibition, a talk or a performance, where there would be a moment of encounter, or even action, only made possible by that curated moment.

What do you think the Hong Kong art scene lacks? And how can we fill that gap?
I think there should be more smaller or mid-sized spaces for young artists and curators to develop and present work. Compared to when I was a university student, there are so many more places where one could regularly see amazing work by international artists. Even though I, myself and others working in Hong Kong try to create moments on a varying scale in our programming, I do feel that more space is needed for homegrown talent to gather, discuss and grow together as a scene.

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Kwok Ying – Independent curator

Kwok Ying – Independent curator

One perk of being an independent curator is that you get to travel a lot.  Having had  to commute between Hong Kong and the UK for several years, Kwok Ying has recently settled in the SAR. Not satisfied with just curating, she has also initiated the Art Appraisal Club, which aims to develop local art criticism.

Can you tell us a bit about yourself and how you got into curating?
I graduated from CUHK and did an MA at Chelsea College of Arts in London. In 2006, I became the curator of Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art in Manchester. As the curator of the Centre, I led the artistic direction of the centre by curating its exhibitions and overseeing the artist residency programme.

What do you personally get out of curating?
I’m a practicing artist and have always been interested to curating.  My artwork is quite inward looking so it doesn’t give me much space to have discussions other various issues. Working with different artists and institutions, I feel that I am constantly exposed to new ideas. There’s always something new and exciting.

Were you always interested in the art world?
I always say I am very lucky to be working in art. Art gives me an ‘eye’ to look at things and look into various issues. It’s a way of thinking. It also connects me with many creative talents and they are the inspiration in my life.

Do you prefer expansive or more intimate exhibitions?

Travelling to different cities to see biennials and triennials has become a ritual for me. These exhibitions are large-scale, which means they have a better capacity to unfold their subject matters. I really enjoyed visiting the Istanbul Biennial and the last Documenta in Kassel. The works were given decent time to develop in response to the city. Not restricted in a major exhibition hall, it spread out across the city. The works took me to places that I won’t normally go. It gives new context to the space, which in turn enriches the works.

What do you enjoy most about your work?

I particularly enjoy working on solo exhibitions. The push-and-pull and working intensely with an artist allows me to get an in-depth understanding of his or her practice. A curator usually takes the lead in a group exhibition, but an artist and curator share an equal role in a solo exhibition. The result cannot be pre-set by a single person and it’s the outcome of a collective effort coming from serious discussion and thinking. The hard part is that there’s still a lot we have to do to create a better art environment. Most artists and curators are not properly paid.

How would you describe the purpose of a curator?

Curating is a profession that puts art in context and interprets works from a third person’s perspective, which usually has the purpose of communication in mind. Artworks are a form of expression, therefore interpretation or communication are not always the focus of an artist’s creative process, which explains why people find art hard to understand. One of the roles of a curator is to present it in a comprehensible way, regardless of your knowledge of art. It’s more about how we can relate to it. However, in Hong Kong a curator is most often mistranslated as a fund-raiser, marketer or organiser, which often leaves a big hole in the ultimate goal of creating a context for communicating art to the audience.

Is there anything missing from the local scene?

Fun! We have many art exhibitions in Hong Kong but it’s dominated by commercial gallery exhibitions. I would like to see a more diverse art scene. I’m very glad to see some new independent spaces and pop-up projects in unconventional locations. They have different characters and are addressing different interests, which encourages new intervention. However, the number is rather small and we need more.

Your work in the UK aside, what are you working on in Hong Kong?

I founded Art Appraisal Club with a group of local art professionals here. Since the beginning of 2014, we’ve been doing exhibition reviews on a monthly basis. In order to nurture a cultural audience and widen the audience base, we need to increase the quality and quantity of art writing and criticism.

Our neighbours in Taiwan and China publish dedicated art magazines, some of which are even bilingual with international distribution, but there’s a lack of publishing channels here. We’re planning to self-publish articles.

Find out more about Art Appraisal Club at artappraisalclub.com.

Qinyi Lim – Curator, Para Site

One of the city’s first non-profit artist-run spaces, founded in 1996, Para Site has gone through many changes since its foundation in 1996. Moving from its cosy space on the slopes of Sheung Wan to its current industrial premises, it continues to hold a leading presence amongst art spaces in Asia. Taking over the then-newly created position of curator in 2012 was  Singaporean Qinyi Lim..

How did you get into curating?
My first job was as an assistant curator at the Singapore Art Museum, but prior to that, ever since my undergraduate days in Australia, I was active as an intern or volunteer in various aspects for many art institutions. I was also once an intern for John Batten when he had his gallery in Peel Street. Nowadays I curate exhibitions, plan residencies and programmes, among many other things.

What do curators bring to art exhibitions and spaces?
There are different modes of exhibitions and curators. Curators look at the bigger picture and ask questions about the audience encounter. Some add to the encounter by extrapolating on the works and the exhibition theme; some discuss in a more rigorous, intellectual manner.

What are you most interested in these days?
Discussions that go beyond the aesthetics or historisation of particular art and its anxieties, and examine the encounter, the types of encounter and the sincerity of the encounter. That and working to achieve the pure adulation and wonder that comes from a child standing in front of an art piece that captures their interest.

Coming from Singapore, how would you compare the art scene there and that of Hong Kong?
Singapore’s development in the art scene mirrors the country’s cultural policy and push towards internationalisation in the 2000s. Having said that, the country relies hugely on state institutions as presentation platforms, which leaves very little space for independent curatorial practice or artistic explorations.  Hong Kong, on the other hand, runs off different audiences and a porosity in private contributions to independent art spaces which in turn allows a diversity of practice, be it artistic or curatorial, to surface and present questions that otherwise would have been repressed under a functional state narrative.

What is the good and the bad of the job?
The good is when you and your work are appreciated and, of course, the reward of seeing the aforementioned adulation. The hardest part is standing for one’s decisions, and being constructive about criticism.

What can we expect to see at Para Site in the near future?
I’m working on the Para Site exhibition Afterwork, which runs until May 29. Afterwork considers the contemporary migrant domestic worker community as Hong Kong’s largest minority group. It sees their stories of migration, labour and displacement as subaltern narratives that run alongside the growing affluence of Hong Kong from the 1970s, reflecting on issues of discrimination, stereotypes, rights of residency, rest and privacy.

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North Point

Yung Ma – Curator of moving image, M+

Everyone knows about M+. The massive museum for visual culture set to open in the West Kowloon Cultural District is undoubtedly one of Hong Kong’s most ambitious cultural endeavours. Yung Ma is one of the people working behind the scenes, with a focus on moving images.

Can you tell us a bit about yourself and how you got into curating?
I did my BA in fine art in England, specifically video art. At that point I was really into the previous generation of Chinese filmmakers who all went to the Beijing Film Academy, so I applied and got in. After I left Beijing, I came to Hong Kong to work, only to return to the UK to study curating at the Royal College of Arts. I realised that I didn’t want to be an artist or a filmmaker. I wanted to be working with artists and curators to realise something. Once I got started I really enjoyed it.

What’s the most interesting thing about curating?
Being able to work with artists and to realise something together. That’s what’s important. Sometimes you develop a friendship, which is nice, if you’re working with someone you really like and admire. I also think it’s really exciting when you see something new… not necessarily different, more like something that’s transformative.

Do you have a favourite exhibition?
An amazing one was the Taipei Biennale in 2008. I like how it’s a really funny, humourous show that tackled serious issues. It was talking about something very serious – globalisation, neo-liberal mentalities and how we survive that – without being overly academic. It’s not something that happens often, to have a show where you talk about something so serious but still manage to be funny. It wasn’t so much about information, but how the artworks were put together. You just understand what the curator is trying to tell you through the works. It all went back to the art.

What are the challenges unique to curating moving image?

When you talk about film, video, animation and sound-based media, those terms are more used in the art context. ‘Moving image’ is more expansive. The conservation of it is extremely challenging. It’s a new form compared to painting and sculpture. Painting has long history behind it, while moving image shifts from film to video and more, and the presentation is never easy. There’s also the issue of conservation, which is connected to the presentation of the works. How do you restage historical pieces? That’s really challenging. It depends on the work. Often when it’s a painting, you are able to present it however you want, because it’s hanging on the wall. But for the moving image, installations have to be extremely precise. They come with a long list of instructions from the artist, and it’s challenging if your space just doesn’t have that kind of set up. So you have to work around it with the artist, which takes a lot of negotiation so that all parties are happy. Creating the spatial experience is really important to curators.

What makes you satisfied in your job?

When something is done properly and everyone’s happy.

What can the Hong Kong scene improve upon?

We always talk about the scene’s lacking, but I don’t think it’s about that. We can’t force it. The local art scene is changing a lot. I think it’s because we’re changing too fast, a lot of things are trying to catch up. So I feel that’s why people think it’s lacking. I always think Hong Kong has amazing artists. It’s just always changing, and I don’t know what will happen so I don’t know the answer

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