Coffee With A Curator: Interview with Celia Ho

Installation view of “Confidential Records: Overwrite” by Vvzela Kook at Para Site, Hong Kong, 2020. Photo by Yi Yi Lily Chan. Image courtesy of the artist and Para Site.
Installation view of “Glitch in the Matrix” by Luke Ching at Para Site, Hong Kong, 2020. Photo by Samson Cheung Choi Sang. Image courtesy of the artist and Para Site.
Installation view of “Noble Rot” (Part One) at Para Site, Hong Kong, 2021. Photo by Jeff Cheng Tsz Fung. Image courtesy of the artist and Para Site.
Celia Ho. Photo by Dor Lau. Image courtesy of Para Site.
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In our series of conversations, Coffee With A Curator, contributing writer Caroline Ha Thuc sits down with curators working at the fore of Hong Kong’s contemporary art scene to deep dive into their careers to date, curatorial vision, and more.

TEXT: Caroline Ha Thuc
IMAGES: Courtesy of various


For our fifth conversation, we sit down with Celia Ho, who has been a curator at Para Site, one of Hong Kong’s most prominent non-profit art spaces, since August 2020.

Your personal journey to curating is original. You studied accounting, not art history, working first as an auditor. You then moved to London and worked there as a finance manager for non-profit organisation Artsadmin, producing various performance art events and programmes. When did you realise that you wanted to involve yourself more in the art field and what has been your journey from accountant to curator?

Celia Ho: I studied business and worked as an auditor for KPMG after graduating. After a few years, I began to have doubts about my career, wondering if it could be a life-long commitment. I did not know so much about art at the time, but I used to visit commercial galleries in Hong Kong. Then I moved to London for work and discovered not only the museums but the underground art scene. Being suddenly exposed to different types of art, I realised how it mattered to me. I saw art as a way to connect people, triggering emotions and opening up the world. My enthusiasm grew and, by chance, I found an internship at Saatchi Gallery and worked as a tour guide on the weekends. This was a turning point for me. Back in Hong Kong, I left my job and worked for 10 Chancery Lane Gallery for a while before deciding to go back to London. I felt I had still so much to learn there! This is how I got hired by Artsadmin.

I was not a curator at the time, still working in the finance department, I was responsible for the budgeting, providing both financial and business support for the artists. Since it is a close-knit organisation, I got to understand how art projects were conceived and produced, as well as how to work with artists. In the meantime, I had attended a few short courses about contemporary art and curating but only to grasp the basics.


Installation view of “Confidential Records: Overwrite” by Vvzela Kook at Para Site, Hong Kong, 2020. Photo by Yi Yi Lily Chan. Image courtesy of the artist and Para Site.


In 2018, you joined Para Site, first as an assistant curator. Is there something particular that motivated this choice?

When I came back to Hong Kong, I knew I wanted to work for a non-profit art organisation. For me, some commercial galleries specialised in working with a specific group of artists, who are very often established rather than emerging and also the way of exhibition-making is very different which sometimes might lead to a form of routine. The commercial scene is definitely changing now but back then I was more interested in Para Site’s type of thematic exhibitions in which the artists would respond to current issues and connect to both local and international phenomena in the society. Para Site’s way of exhibition-making and its diversified programming was perfect for me, and I was drawn to their experimental spirit. The time when I arrived coincided with a performance-based solo exhibition titled “Movements at an Exhibition” by artist and choreographer Manuel Pelmuş. The space was totally empty and the performers were there all the time, unfolding this collection of movements… It was amazing!


What were your duties as an assistant curator?

I was more involved on the production side; we usually discussed and made some curatorial decisions collectively and were all involved in the exhibition-making. For instance, we would discuss which works to select according to the chosen theme and the other featured artworks, so that we could reach a consistency on the whole. This is how I learnt to group artists under similar clusters and create dialogue between the artworks. It is like constructing a mind map that gives the direction for the designers and audience to follow.


Installation view of “Glitch in the Matrix” by Luke Ching at Para Site, Hong Kong, 2020. Photo by Samson Cheung Choi Sang. Image courtesy of the artist and Para Site.


Your first exhibitions, as curator at Para Site, were two solo presentations of artists Luke Ching and Vvzela Kook, pairing “Glitch in the Matrix” and “Confidential Records: Overwrite”. On the one hand a daily observation of life in Hong Kong, on the other hand a science-fiction view of urbanisation. Perhaps two different forms of dystopia. How did you conceive these two parallel exhibitions?

Well, for these two first exhibitions, conversations with Luke Ching to collaborate on a solo exhibition had previously been initiated. I invited Vvzela Kook to have a solo presentation at our booth in Art Basel Hong Kong, but the fair was cancelled due to the pandemic. I see interesting connections between the two artists’ concepts, hence we discussed with both artists if they would agree to share the venue and have the two solo shows happening at the same time. For me it was very consistent because the two practices, although very different, explore the issue of dystopia. However, for Luke, my point of departure was not a theme but his set of artworks and his personal practice.

Very often, we say that curators are the ones who care for and interpret the artworks, from a wider perspective. Art historian Ernst Gombrich said that we should not focus on the artworks, but on the artist and I totally agree. I rather take care of the artist. What I have learnt so far is that all the meaning we wish to deliver always comes from the artist and from the artist’s perspective. That’s my starting point for a show. I feel that curators sometimes focus too much on specific narratives. Then, it is easy to lose track of the artists, especially if one tries to fit their practice into an existing framework.


In the catalogue of the exhibition, there is a long text written by Ching, and only a short statement by you. Does this reflect your positioning with the artists?

Yes, his response was the most important to hear and I did not wish to start with my own viewpoint. What I am searching for is how to keep the artist’s voice audible while exploring various ways to interpret their work. Yet I do not wish to guide the audience from the beginning in any specific direction.

I often feel that the identity of the curator, or even this “job title” is too heavy for me. I did not know Luke before working with him, yet we had many in-depth discussions during the process as to how he would show earlier works coherently together with newly commissioned works. For this exhibition, I wanted to guide visitors through the exhibition experience to grasp his entire practice and not to focus on each specific artwork individually. I decided not to include any captions on the wall so that it might appear as one whole creation.


Do you mean that you wanted to guide the audience through your spatial arrangement then?

I care about space and about the ability of the spacial arrangement to speak for the exhibition itself. I try not to use too much text. You know, people now tend to spend more time reading captions than looking at the artwork itself.

The exhibition opened with a vending machine, something you usually find outdoors, just like the posters on the wall. From the start, we wanted to question the position of the visitor: inside or outside? Further, there was this telephone booth from which you could pick up the phone and make a call following the instructions. We wanted to guide the visitors to imagine themselves visiting a detainee in a detention centre and to have a conversation. Same question: on which side are you? Will you call as a free man or as a detainee? In the end, visitors had to physically engage in order to enter the last room where a dead body was lying on the floor. The videos were showing how Luke documented and restaged a previous showcase related to industrial safety at the Hong Kong Science Museum, showing a worker falling to their death because they did not wear a safety belt and you constantly hear the sound of a man falling inside the room. Again, the outside and inside were combined and visitors were both voyeurs and somehow accomplices of the crime. Overall, some might feel confused but then they could refer to the catalogue, knowing more about the creation process behind each work and their connections. What was most important for me was that they first experienced the exhibition as a whole, navigating physically in-between, connecting every piece of work in their own way before delving more into Luke’s practice from a more intellectual perspective.


Space design is a paramount element of your curatorial approach.

Yes, yet everything should stem from long conversations with the artists. For Vvzela Kook, the space was, for instance, divided into different sections. When you entered, you were plunged into the dark, as if you were going into a cave. It was a way to introduce the background of story constructed by the artist—the idea of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and also the underground of Kowloon Walled City, conceived by the artist as the last bastion of humanity. Progressively, the audience was to lie down on a platform after they entered into the second section (an isolated dark room). A video played from above and implied that the audience was on the side of human beings. They were forced to undergo a brainwashing process via a conveyor belt which transported them to the final room. In the end, the lighting was all pink, hinting at cyberpunk aesthetics, with slogans that were creating an authoritarian atmosphere. Visitors were encouraged to follow the guidance of numerous clues throughout the spatial design, wandering into a new futuristic urban landscape, transformed and dominated by AI technology. We added some arrows on the floor and some crime scene number plates to guide visitors through this journey.


After the exhibition period, do you dedicate time to connect with the artists and to follow up on their works?

I do! I am always trying to follow up and continue my conversations with the artists I have been working with plus those I have not got a chance to collaborate with yet. It is more important than just picking up one artwork in order to fit a pre-conceived theme. Only that way can we reflect on their concerns, areas of interest, and research.


Installation view of “Noble Rot” (Part One) at Para Site, Hong Kong, 2021. Photo by Jeff Cheng Tsz Fung. Image courtesy of the artist and Para Site.


With the exhibition “Noble Rot”, you have given space to young Hong Kong artists. Do you feel they still lack visibility and need some support?

For me, this type of exhibition is important, and part of my role as a curator is to provide space for young artists to express themselves in the way they wish, and to support their creative process. After graduation, most young artists are left alone and this period of time is often difficult for them. Our role is also to nurture them, to support them by favoring platforms where they can meet and build networks. This is not a top-down approach, more an organic and collective mode of thinking.

This exhibition is the outcome of such a collaboration. If you noticed there is no mention of any curator in the exhibition space. We did not ask the artists to respond to any given theme but, on the contrary, we let them develop their personal ideas.

I only proposed the idea of fermentation, just to see what would happen, and the exhibition title, “Noble Rot”, functions as a guidance to the visitors to be open-minded to see the transformation presented by each artist. A total of 18 artists are to exhibit over two periods, and we will publish a catalogue which will include essays from guest critics on their observation during the process. Supporting the local art scene is one of my priorities, not only considering the artists, but including other art professionals such as writers, critics and educators.


Celia Ho. Photo by Dor Lau. Image courtesy of Para Site.


Are there any curators who influenced your vision?

A curator who influenced me might be Germano Celant when I saw his re-enactment of Harald Szeemann’s exhibition “When Attitudes Become Form” at Fondazione Prada in Venice in 2013. The original exhibition happened in 1969. It was one of the early explorations into how artists from different backgrounds could create works on-site communally and show how the works could intervene with each other radically. The re-enactment not only tried its best to re-stage the original works, concepts and architectural setting, but also illustrated the other perspectives by utilising various archival materials and photographs for a full picture of the context.



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