Interviews by Corey Andrew Barr
These interviews have been pulled from SFAQ print issue 17.
Far from the air-conditioned, whitewashed, and priced-out central districts of Asia’s super cities, where every square foot is appraised by its shine and sheen, I have come to uncover a different side. It is here, between the abandoned concrete walls and unassuming local storefronts, that the soul of the city resides.
The journey usually begins with convincing a taxi driver through a game of charades, or sometimes a shouting match, to take you there and that it is exactly there that you want to go.
Having left New York for Hong Kong 18 months ago, I’ve encountered overlooked places all over Asia. These discoveries are startling and stunning, captivating and confusing. In the following interviews you will find the heartbeat of three such spaces, two in Hong Kong and one in Shanghai. These are places that make you feel alive and bring modern Asia into perspective.
Cornelia Erdmann, Artist; Vice Chairperson, Fotanian
Fo Tan is an industrial area in the New Territories, about 30 minutes from central Hong Kong, with high-rise warehouses set against a the lush backdrop of Tai Mo Shan (the highest peak in Hong Kong). Fotanian is the name of the organization that has brought together a community of artists who have taken up studios in these buildings. How is it that so many artists came to be working here and how many are there now?
Fo Tan is the closest industrial area to the Chinese University of Hong Kong, which used to be the only major art school in HK. So the art community there began with students from the Chinese University looking for studio spaces. Like you said, it is conveniently situated within Hong Kong and accessible by public transport, so it was a logical setting. This all started in 2000. The first open studio event was in 2001. Today there are about 80 studios, some of which are shared, so we can assume more than 100, maybe about 120 working artists, designers, musicians, and crafters.
I didn’t think about musicians, I guess everyone knows when they’re working?
Luckily the walls are thick. But I like music and the noise is definitely more agreeable than some of the industrial sounds. There is an art and music studio close to mine, but they usually practice at night and I spend most of my time here during the day.
Fotanian is best known for its annual open studios program. What is the history of this event and how has it evolved over the years?
In the beginning it started out as a group of friends. That grew and grew until we finally formalized into an arts organization. Originally it was all on a volunteer basis. Later we applied for grants from the Arts Development Council. Eventually the event became so big we set up an LLC, which allowed us to get funding from the Home Affairs Bureau, a division of the Hong Kong government that executes Art Capacity Funds. That is around the time I joined to set up a board of directors to advise and run the program. The execution is now taken over by a full-time staff.
What is the mission of Fotanian?
Our mission is to expand opportunities for the artists working in Fo Tan: to show their work to a wide audience, encourage exchange via the open studio event, and to engage in supplementary programming like podium discussions, exhibitions, seminars, and workshops. In addition, we want to open our work to the public, to give “normal” people opportunities to see how this creative industry works.
You are an artist working mainly in installation. Tell me about your work and how you came to be the vice chairperson of Fotanian. I’m guessing you have a studio here?
I am originally from Germany and came to Hong Kong eight years ago with my husband who is a professor. Coincidentally, we moved to Fo Tan which was where we were given lodging by the university. That is how I discovered the art community here, and I fell in love in with it. It took me about a year and a half to get a shared studio. Before that I was working at 1a Space, which was a great opportunity for me to meet people and understand the art scene in Hong Kong. After a year I left there in order to focus again on my art. Since 2009 I have had my own studio here. My specialty is in public art and commissions. I work with light in combination with other materials. Right now, I work often with stainless steel, which is abundant and integral in the local architecture.
On my last visit to Fo Tan, Chow Chun Fai gave a tour of one of his studios. From that I understood more about the community aspect of the artists working here. Can you describe the rapport among artists? Is there synergy that comes from working in close proximity?
There is a lot of interaction, actually. In the beginning it was a group of friends and everyone knew everyone else. That idea grew, and today there are still many friends working side by side. And obviously many artists do projects together and collaborate, especially in shared studios.
It [socializing] can be a little bit difficult though. Many artists work other jobs during the day so are here only in the evening. I keep studio hours during the day, so I miss those who come later. A lot of interactions are limited to private connections, and bumping into people at the supply shops outside.
Sometimes I wish there would be more interaction. What we are missing is a communal space, which is something we would like to work towards.
I work also with the industrial people around me, so I am in collaboration with my neighbors; most of my industrial contractors are based in the area. It’s one of the best things about Fo Tan really, especially for me.
In speaking with some artists who have studios in Fo Tan, I understand it can be rather expensive. For those who cannot rely on art making to support them, there is fear that affordable studio space for artists is dwindling. What are your thoughts about this dilemma? Is there a union for working artists in Hong Kong?
Unfortunately there is not a subsidy to support artists’ studios in Hong Kong, where space is so precious. Everything has to be in high-rises, and property values are also high. These industrial areas are really the most reasonable prices you can get. That is why there are so many share studio spaces.
I noticed some pop-up galleries in the warehouses. Is there commercial activity within the industrial complexes? Also, give me your take on the gallery/artist balance in Hong Kong. Too many dealers, too much art?
There are a few galleries within Fo Tan—some of them are more for storage and some are more permanent. A few are annexes for galleries in the central area of Hong Kong and set up shop during the Fotanian Open Studios.
Personally I don’t work with galleries as much as consultants but that is because I do public art and installations. But in general there are many galleries in Hong Kong, which is very special. They go crazy for the young artists, especially at the graduation shows. The galleries will come to these shows to pick works and later hold major exhibitions and group shows. In some way maybe young artists are spoiled. Compared to in Berlin for example, where competition is so high, there are a lot of opportunities here.
Earlier you mentioned having worked at 1a Space (a non-profit gallery located within an old, brick-enclosed cattle slaughterhouse). Tell me a little about that experience. What are some other non-profit and grassroots art developments in Hong Kong?
Yes, at 1a Space I was the gallery manager, so I gained a lot of insight into the Hong Kong arts community. Some other places to check out are Videotage, the Asia Art Archive, and Para/ Site.
Over the past two years, more arts districts have emerged. For example in the area on Hong Kong Island called Chai Wan they have organized a community of artists that includes many photographers. The Jockey Club Creative Arts Centre is another studio space that is in Shek Kip Mei. Also, in Wong Chuk Hang there are many studios now. The growing needs are the base for the Factory Artists Concern Group, which campaigns for the rights of artists with studios in industrially zoned buildings.
There’s a great underground music scene in Kwun Tong. And at the new PMQ (Police Married Quarters) commercial space in SoHo you can find local design.
Wrapping up, back to Fotanian, are there ghosts?
(Laughing) No ghosts, but it is really interesting what you encounter in these buildings. Two floors above me they produce roast duck and pork. So you see the raw ducks and pigs on racks go in and a few hours later the char siu is carted out.
It is still a very industrial and working class neighborhood, which makes it very honest. This time of year all the men are shirtless outside. I love walking around and sometimes I take the stairs in the buildings to make discoveries; you never know what you’ll find. There is sushi right next to swimsuits.
From sushi to swimwear, perfect. I think we’ll end there. It’s been a pleasure Cornelia, thank you.
Liu Dao (Collaborative response given by Liu Dao representatives: Thomas Charvériat (Founder), Jean Le Guyader (Gallery Assistant), Margaret Johnson (Curator), and Daniel Browning (Creative Consultant))
Liu Dao was founded in 2006. How did it begin?
The collective, Liu Dao, is the creative persona, and island6 Arts Center is the machine that powers the art making. The collective was formed as a reactionary move to the boom in the Shanghai art scene. The rapid growth in the city needed an outlet, a creative focus for all that energy, and the collective was established in that context. The idea was to provide a platform for younger artists who were trying to navigate this overnight shift in the local art market. And so Liu Dao was born. One of the strengths of the collective is its fluid and dynamic nature; it can change course and develop along with the eclectic backgrounds of the creative personnel as they join the team. We listen to each other and everyone has a say in how the ideas are incubated, how they grow and the visual form they take. Naturally, what you see on the walls of our spaces reflects that deep collaboration. One of the features of our collaborative way of working is strong cross-cultural dialogue. In 2008 we moved to our current space in the art district M50 and beyond with two other spaces in Shanghai, another in Hong Kong, and most recently in Phuket. Liu Dao continues to evolve as a creative entity and, most significantly, the experimentation and risk-taking continues.
Did the rise in the Chinese contemporary art market around that time impact the early years of Liu Dao, and how?
In certain ways, of course. But more importantly Liu Dao came into being as a reaction to those market trends. The “star system,” which was so prevalent at the time, only really served to inflate the egos of individual artists. Liu Dao was formed in opposition to that—instead we wanted to promote the concept of an open platform that draws on the strength of the collective, rather than the individual.
That said, the rise of the contemporary art market also had a great influence on the way the collective grew in the early years. There was an influx of creative minds over that time: collectors, curators, artists. This of course had a great bearing on Liu Dao in the sense that it deepened the collaboration across international borders and cultures. And our message—of collaboration; of bringing a sense of humor and an idiosyncratic even slightly radical way of working—is the one that we have been disseminating through strong contact with the international arts community and collaborations with artists, curators, and galleries across the globe. Even though we are based in Shanghai, Liu Dao is an international concern.
The translation of Liu Dao is “Island 6.” What does this mean and what is your mission?
Our first home was a disused flourmill in Moganshan Road. The mill was essentially on old structure in the middle of nowhere, quite literally an island in a sea of urban debris. We set up in warehouse number 6—and so, island6 was born. In 2008 the collective moved down the road to the M50 arts district—a community of independent galleries and artist studios situated within a repurposed textile factory. Quite serendipitously, Liu Dao settled on the 2nd floor of building 6, once again allowing for, the 6 in island6.
In one sense the “island” is an interesting metaphor for the way we work. Collaboration is the key here—not in isolation, but working together in a focused, tightly curated way. As a group we try to focus on collective rather than individual values. That said, we are always paying attention to what is going on in other “islands,” other artistic communities, individual and collective. So at some point you have to dispense with the metaphor.
We are not the only collective, but this model is comparatively rare here in China. Some of the great collaborations have informed our practice—think of Warhol’s Factory, where the model was based on the simple beauty of a production line. I hasten to add we are not that, our method is much more about teamwork. Gilbert and George also set a standard in close, even interdependent ways of working. Personal anonymity is another aspect of the Liu Dao methodology. You can see echoes of this in another collective based here in Shanghai. MadeIn Company came into being around the same time as Liu Dao, but their way of working is something quite distinct, a corporate brand dedicated to creativity. The collectivist model is elastic enough that it can be adapted. Another point to stress here is that we are all invisible in sense, but for instance, the credits on an artwork include every member of the team from the writer to the animator, the engineer, the painter . . . the list goes on.
Liu Dao brings together artists from different disciplines and diverse backgrounds who collaborate with one another on a large scale. How do you manage all of this?
The quick answer is, through open, honest, and vigorous communication. At any given point in time the collective might involve up to 30 people from a diverse range of backgrounds—by which I mean cultural, linguistic, professional, and academic. There’s a team of practitioners behind every artwork—painters, sculptors, photographers, filmmakers, digital imaging artists, dancers, performers, writers, engineers, and curators. When you bring all of them together under one roof it can be a little overwhelming—but there’s a vibrant flow of ideas being exchanged within Liu Dao all the time.
Being able to take a step back and see yourself as part of the larger picture, the collective whole, is essential to what we do. There is no way one person could create our artwork alone, which perhaps is simply the nature of new media artwork in general. If the collective feels that a certain skill or trade could have a stronger presence, then we actively seek talents to fill that void.
In terms of managing the dynamics and workload of the collective, we are unique in that we combine our gallery space and our workshop in our headquarters at M50. The five gallery spaces are managed on a daily basis by members of the collective while artwork is being made in the workshop. You can follow the life of an artwork from conception to manufacture and eventually actual display, all without leaving the main gallery. It’s a rare thing.
Given that Liu Dao is an electronic art collective, explain the role of traditional mediums such as painting and photography in your work.
A key principle behind our work is to represent the spirit of contemporary China, with an eye on the historical past but certainly much more clearly focused on what the future holds. The past is an aesthetic as much as a historical category. In another way, we are not as didactic as that. What we try to do is to draw those tangents together; for instance traditional art forms like paper-cutting and LED technology are brought together in our work. We collaborate regularly with two Shanghainese paper-cut (Jianzhi) artists, which is an art form that was established during the Han dynasty. We also work closely with a classically trained shan shui painter from Shandong province. These Chinese art forms are much more traditional than photography and oil painting. The mixture of the two—traditional and contemporary—is our light-hearted comment on the fabric and make-up of present day China. The shuffling of mah-jongg tiles in quiet laneways while illuminated LED signs hang from colossal, new skyscrapers—this is Shanghai. Ultimately, more than anything, we like for our work to be perceived as light and humorous—wistful, nostalgic even. Think of a Rorschach test; you create the meaning. At a deeper level, beyond the surface, the artwork is not weighed down by the burden of representing the past or the future; it’s a flight of the imagination.
Tell me about your collaborations on the interactive works. How many people did it take to make Baguette Jambon Beurre for example?
Baguette Jambon Beurre was the result of a collaboration between 12 people. Typically, the creative process begins with a curator, who devises the concept. They create a text that is meant to inspire the collective. The overarching concept is then broken down into various facets. For example, the curator explains their vision to the artistic director, who then chooses the model and artists who will work on the project. Baguette Jambon Beurre features one model, two filmmakers, two editing artists, and five assistants. This group—curator, artistic director, model, filmmakers, editing artists, and assistants—all collaborated to realize the curator’s vision.
There are exhibitionistic and voyeuristic vibes in much of Liu Dao’s work. Is this on purpose?
Absolutely! As new media artists we are of course fascinated with new technologies, the Internet, and social media platforms and their power to transform the way we interact. Much of Liu Dao’s work is either influenced or driven by new technologies. Being constantly “on,” wired and connected through all these different platforms, has fostered an expectation for connection. Some of our work teases or plays on this hope. The unending desire for interactivity, or connection through interactivity is a theme of some of our most popular works. We have a broad, cheeky sense of humor. There are exhibitionists and voyeurs in the collective and we don’t shy away from representing that side of our nature. We all have these tendencies but we may feel some residual guilt about expressing them in public. I think that perhaps viewers feel connected with the art of Liu Dao because of this, because we give subtle—sometimes explicit—voice to those buried emotions, the desire for engagement, to be reached.
Your website is very 1997, why so lo-tech?
Our website (island6.org) is over 4000 pages, hosting 974 videos and over 8000 images. It’s an archive and a functional working database, the main purpose of which is to assist the collective. In fact, the first island6 exhibitions were financed by some of our creative team who did freelance web design jobs for other people. Unfortunately, with more than 4000 pages (not counting our blog entries) it needs to resemble Wikipedia or a database structure—it may not look cool in terms of presentation, but it is an effective piece of infrastructure. It’s a vast compendium of our exhibition history, our many collaborations, a visual catalogue of hundreds of artworks, essays, and other documentation, films, and animations, not to mention a working online gallery. Actually, little by little we’ve been removing all the design elements to leave only the rough functional side. Every new show requires hours of surfing through our website and every new commission requires us to search through hundreds of pages, so we need a basic structure. On an even more utilitarian note because we are spread widely over five spaces, we collaborate with 10 galleries across the globe, participate in at least 15 exhibitions and up to 10 art fairs every year. We need to know at any given time where each artwork is located, how much it weighs once crated, and other technical specifications as quickly as possible. The website allows us to do that.
There is an extensive narrative behind every exhibition—from the show title, to the work titles, and accompanying descriptions. What’s the story behind these stories?
After the collective conceives of a new idea for an exhibition, a curator drafts an inspirational text that shapes the overall concept and theme of the show. These texts can take any form that the curator feels inspired by: fable, stream of consciousness, informative, discursive essay, and so on. The curator may or may not title the show; input from all members of the team is considered. We generally try to name the exhibitions with titles that provoke curiosity. After (or even while) artworks that embody the concept are created, our creative writers compose “blurbs” to accompany them in the gallery. Like the exhibition texts, blurbs may take any form that the writers feel fit the work and pushes viewers to think about what they are seeing or experiencing. We have had blurbs that are short stories, narratives from the figures in the work, poems, and researched essays with footnotes. Blurbs are not meant to only inform the viewer, but also to inspire them to create their own meaning. Again, it’s that flight of the imagination principle. The writers also title the individual works, and these are typically associated with the blurb in some way. The whole process is very transparent and is driven by collaboration. Everyone has a voice.
It is not uncommon to hear about artists who are marginalized by political authorities in China. Have you dealt with censorship, interference, or other suppression?
We have never had any problems related to censorship. The goal of Liu Dao has never been to comment on sensitive or political issues, we leave that to other more outspoken artists. We may take inspiration from, for instance, demographic changes in contemporary China, but our take is always humorous and light-hearted. We don’t have an agenda, nor do we strive to be political artists. That’s simply not what we are about. Most of all we want our viewers to reach their own conclusions, independently. If art dictates, it ceases to be art.
Liu Dao is a collection of international artists working in Asia. To what extent do you identify your work with Asian art, if at all?
As an international collective our philosophy is global. Our members hail from across China, Hong Kong, France, North America, South America, the UK, Poland, and Australia, and our philosophy is based on the individual cultural experiences of all our members. But of course since we are all living in China, we draw a great amount of inspiration from our daily life here. It centers and locates our practice in space and time, but we try to find a universality of human experience in our artwork.
We try to shy away from being tagged as “Chinese art.” We feel that once you put a certain country in front of the word “art,” it has the potential to become kitsch and to be relegated to the status of souvenir. Most people wouldn’t travel to New York, looking to find “New York Art.” The link to China in our art is strong, but it is more about our collective personal experiences. The goal of all artists should be to simply create artwork. Liu Dao believes that nationality does not factor in to the equation, you either make art or you do not—the rest shouldn’t matter.
Commercially speaking, video art and collaboration works rarely garner as much attention as traditional mediums and solo work. Is this an obstacle? How do you address the sales-sustainability model?
We’ve never viewed the type of artwork that we create as an obstacle. But it does take more time to be recognized as something “bankable” when you are working within a collective setting, especially in producing time-based video art. At this point we have been working within these mediums for over eight years now and have opened five Liu Dao specific galleries. Having these years and numbers under our belt perhaps allows for collectors to trust us more. As we keep growing and expanding and adding new talents into the mix, we are allowed the opportunity to create unique artworks. We find that as we take risks, so do our buyers and collectors.
In 2012 you made the announcement “Following the 5 Year Plan for world domination, the Liu Dao electronic art collective has sailed across the straits to set up a mini-island6 in the glamorous heart of Hong Kong.” That was two years ago, your Hong Kong space is now a thriving gallery and you just opened an outpost on the island of Phuket. What’s next?
We hope to always keep growing and expanding. With three spaces in Shanghai (flagship location at M50, ShGarden, and the Bund), island6 HK, and our newest location in Phuket, island6 Marina, we plan on continuing to bring the Liu Dao vision and artwork to the world. We are currently looking into a new space in Istanbul, which has been a city that is very receptive to our artwork as their own contemporary art scene matures and gathers international respect. As a city firmly planted in both Europe and Asia, we feel it encapsulates the international crossroads reflected in the collective.
In addition to our own spaces, we also have representatives in various countries and work with independent galleries on art direction. So far we have representatives in Beijing, Hong Kong, Bangkok, London, Dubai, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, New York, Paris, and Germany. We are always looking to expand to new cities.
When it comes down to it, our hope is more for the welfare of the future of the art world. The collective was formed for a very specific reason, so we really want to continue representing a platform in which collaboration and innovation can provide a new formula for artists to follow.
Mimi Brown, Founder and Director, Spring Workshop
How did you arrive at the name Spring Workshop, what does it mean?
The name Spring comes from a beloved Sufi poem, and refers to the season, the leap, the coil, and the fresh water that surges from the earth. And Workshop means that this is a place for experimenting and getting messy.
What is your mission?
Spring’s mission is to experiment with the way that art is created, enjoyed, and supported. We partner with other local and international not-for-profit organizations to offer space and scope to their programs. Our aim is to work with artists and audiences in a bespoke way, trying to find a unique thread for each event that will give both the creators and those of us who enjoy their creations new insights into the artistic process.
For example, Berlin-based Singaporean artist Ming Wong recently completed a two-month research residency (December 2013 to February 2014) at Spring as one of our projects in partnership with Para/Site Art Space. Ming was researching Cantonese operatic cinema, and we organized numerous meetings and meals for him so that he could engage meaningfully with the people and resources of Hong Kong. One day at lunch at Spring, he broke into a smile and said “Eureka!” after a conversation with his lunchtime companion gave a new direction to his project. At the end of the residency, Ming shared his research process with an audience of 140, followed by a rambling evening of drinks and dinner at Spring in which he asked for our feedback on his presentation. He will now go on to create a new work in our fall exhibition and a performance that will premier in Hong Kong during the 2015 New Year holiday.
The unique and exciting part of this project from our vantage point is that so many of us will have been involved with understanding and contributing to the development of this artwork from the start straight through to the finished work.
You are located in Wong Chuk Hang, an industrial neighborhood of car repair shops and warehouses. Does the environment play a role in experiencing Spring Workshop?
Absolutely. I had been in Hong Kong for many years hoping to find a neighborhood like this when one day I finally walked into this industrial building in Wong Chuk Hang. Cupid must have shot an arrow because I instantly fell in love with the neighborhood and the building (where Spring is currently housed)! Beyond car repair shops and warehouses, the neighborhood carries vestiges of old Hong Kong, like sprawling high-ceilinged manufacturing spaces, now used more for storage or offices, as well as the Nam Long Shan Cooked Food Market which serves impeccable Thai food and perfect nai cha (milk tea) and the Tai Wong Yeh Temple featuring those enormous, slow-burning incense coils that scent the entire quarter, along with the cinnamon scents from the Po Chai building and candle factories just across the street. In addition to these old-fashioned elements, Wong Chuk Hang also has a dynamic modern edge, with an MTR station due to open across the street from us in 2015, designers, artists, writers, and architects with offices ensconced in many of the warehouse buildings, and new shops, cafes, and galleries springing up every month. To help you find all the hidden gems in our neighborhood, Spring publishes the winning map of our annual Wong Chuk Hang map competition in which young Hong Kong artists are invited to render the area in their own styles.
To me the rough-and-romantic nature of the neighborhood is crucial for Spring. This is an industrial, dynamic place where people are free to make things, construct things, create things.
The first time I visited the space, it felt like I had snuck into someone’s house and was having a look around. Then a woman popped out from behind a wall and asked me if I wanted to see what she was working on, which was a total surprise (it was an artist in residence). Is it part of your mission to disarm visitors like that? How does the architecture of your space facilitate dialogues between artist, audience, and community?
What a perfect visit. Yes, we do hope to do exactly that: to disarm our artists and audience into interacting in unexpected ways! Since the audience and those who are interested in culture in general are a key element of our mission, the layout was carefully thought through in order to avoid the near-total anonymity of some residencies and to create public areas that are sunny and welcoming. Spring is a place of gentle engagement for both artists and audiences. And even when our residents are a bit reluctant to engage or are busy working, they still usually pop out to join us on weekdays at the communal table, disarmed by the fresh food served for lunch.
Our flexible architecture is an intentional part of our mission to produce new experiences for our visitors each time they come to Spring. Qiu Zhijie’s The Universe of Naming installation took over the entire space; then we held workshops and talks for adults and children throughout the installation. We have used our biggest artist studio, Winter Studio, for public talks, dinners/lunches, a mini concert, and even a theatre performance. On June 14, we held an outdoor concert of Indian protest songs, Singing Resistance: A Musical Performance with Sumangala Damodaran in collaboration with Asia Art Archive, welcoming our audience of over 150 people to get comfortable on cushions, carpets, and beanbags across the gently lit terrace. When we host meals and events people disperse into corners of the space and find their own spots to connect and reflect. It is clear from each event that varying the spatial relationships between the creators and their audiences is a useful tool for keeping the energy dynamic for everyone.
I understand there’s no expectation for artists in residence to produce work. This must be liberating for them. What has been the outcome of this philosophy?
Yes, our “secret residencies” where no one even has to know that the artist/curator/writer is here have been popular indeed. One artist arrived for a month-long summer residency following a string of commitments and told us that this was the first time in two years she had no immediate production deadline. After three days here, she burst out of her studio and told us with a smile that due to the lack of pressure, she was suffering from a profusion of fresh ideas. This is an ideal outcome.
Tell me more about Moderation(s)—where did the idea come from and what have you learned?
A few years ago when Defne Ayas (now the director of the Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art) still lived in Shanghai, I used to visit her there and we would sit in our pajamas for hours over a pot of tea, dreaming up projects. Moderation(s) is one result of those pajama sessions. Once we had Heman Chong on board as the “moderator,” the project unfolded in an ideal, stately way, as a set of programs that created time and space for different people to interact and create, never in a rush, side by side in two cities (HK and Rotterdam), and as part of a longer project that circled back on itself while still moving forward.
This project enabled Spring to make good on its mission to create a platform for exchange. Over the course of the two-year project, we engaged more than 50 local and international artists, curators, and writers in various programs, which engendered a conference, three exhibitions, three residencies, and a book of short stories. We learned from this project the pleasure of working with an open concept and a purposefully slower timeline than usual. We learned to savor process.
Last year I saw the exhibition The Social Contract. I was asked to sign a legal document, which legally prohibited me from speaking about it for a while afterwards. Thinking back, there were some live eels in a fish tank, and other curated miscellanea scattered around the walls and floor. It reminded me of a basement I used to hang out in when I was 16. Due to the secrecy element, there was also no literature about the content of the show. Can you help me connect the content with the concept?
The contract has indeed expired, meaning that we now have permission to discuss what we saw. But given that a crucial part of The Social Contract was to eliminate discussions about what we see and to locate us in the realm of our own impressions, I would be going a bit against the project’s ethos by mapping out the story of the artwork displayed inside. Instead, perhaps the ultimate experience for you as the participant is to revel, even post-contract, in whatever sixteen-year-old basement memories the piece evoked for you in the moment.
I missed Qiu Zhijie’s The Universe of Naming, which I think was something really big, figuratively and literally. How major was the installation and how did people respond to it?
The installation was indeed physically enormous: Qiu’s highly detailed maps on the walls and floors and his collection of 256 engraved wood, glass, and steel spheres took over the whole space at Spring, turning it into a giant universe of diagrams. The audience was encouraged to roll the spheres over the maps as they wished, thus becoming co-creators of the meanings within the installation. Then, in addition to his own work, he managed to fold in the results of a workshop he conducted with 50 Hong Kong students from six different universities who worked with him to create next-iteration maps of this city using debris from the streets. So it was quite a massive artwork.
The exhibition was major because it allowed us key access points to his talent as an iconic artist who draws upon numerous traditions and concepts to create his encyclopedic artworks. He is also an extraordinary teacher and thinker who is working to revolutionize the way that art is taught in China. And the cherry on top to this rare insight was that every sort of viewer could relate to his work. It was truly universal.
International press about art in Hong Kong has been dominated by two major commercial activities: auctions and Art Basel. How do you feel about this?
I imagine that someone who reads about these major art activities in Hong Kong will infer that there are other dynamic players in the art environment that also nourish the city’s cultural scene. And if they are curious, as I was on arriving in Hong Kong a decade ago, they will scratch the surface and find an entire deeper layer of arts engagement and activity. I am encouraged by anything that fuels interest in what is happening here.
The opening of M+ and the greater West Kowloon Cultural District in a few years may be an undisputed need for a city like Hong Kong, but do you think it will detract from the work of small venues that have filled the niche for curatorial projects and non-profit arts organizations for so many years?
Hong Kong’s arts landscape not only has plenty of room for all of these players, it needs all these players. An arts landscape is an ecosystem, and the smaller, subtler non-profit layer is a key underpinning to the more visible layer inhabited by the larger players.
You lived in California before moving to Hong Kong. Have there been any dialogues between these two places?
Although there has not been a structured dialogue, we have had the pleasure of working with a few Californians and California-based talents such as Chris Fitzpatrick, Betti-Sue Hertz, Xiaoyu Weng, and Anthony Marcellini. I suspect that California has played a part in Spring’s casual, flip-flop-wearing nature.
I understand Spring Workshop has a self-imposed five-year lifespan. How hard will it be to pull the plug and are there any plans for the afterlife?
There are so many plans for the afterlife that pulling the plug will just be a step into the next.