Coffee With A Curator: Interview with Freya Chou

Pak Sheung Chuen, Going Home Projects, 2010. Installation view in the 7th Taipei Biennial at Taipei Fine Arts Museum, Taipei, 7 September – 14 November 2010. Image courtesy of the artist and Taipei Fine Arts Museum.
Installation view, “Chris Evans, Pak Sheung Chuen: Two Exhibitions” at Hong-gah Museum, Taipei, 1 June – 28 July 2019. Image courtesy of the artists and Hong-gah Museum.
Installation view, “Chris Evans, Pak Sheung Chuen: Two Exhibitions” at Hong-gah Museum, Taipei, 1 June – 28 July 2019. Image courtesy of the artists and Hong-gah Museum.
Chris Evans, Cowlick(I-V), 2017. Image courtesy of the artist and Para Site.
Angela Su, The Magnificent Levitation Act of Lauren O (still), 2022, video. Commissioned by M+; part of the artist’s solo presentation for the Hong Kong Pavilion in the 59th Venice Biennale. Photo by Ka Lam. Image courtesy of the artist.
Angela Su, Laden Raven (detail) 2022, hair embroidery on fabric, 290 x 140 cm. Commissioned by M+, Hong Kong. Photo by Lok Cheng. Image courtesy of the artist.
Angela Su, Rorschach Test No.3, 2016, ink on drafting films 155 x 110 x 5 cm. Image courtesy of the artist and Blindspot Gallery.
Freya Chou. Photo by Winnie Yeung/VISUAL VOICES. Image courtesy of M+, Hong Kong.
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CoBo Social Market News

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 take a deep dive into their careers to date, curatorial vision, and more.

TEXT: Caroline Ha Thuc
IMAGES: Courtesy of various

 

For our fourth conversation, we sit down with independent curator Freya Chou, who is currently curating Hong Kong’s Collateral Event for the 59th Venice Biennale. 

How did you enter the art field and why did you decide to work as a curator?

I was born and raised in Taipei, Taiwan. I studied English literature in Soochow University in Taipei and I was planning to pursue a career as a professional interpreter after graduating. However, during my junior year in college, I saw two exhibitions that changed my life. One was a survey exhibition of Archigram at Taipei Fine Arts Museum (TFAM); another was a big solo exhibition of Gary Hill at the Museum of Contemporary Art Taipei. I was so inspired by the way these two exhibitions were presented and so curious about discovering what it is like to work in a museum; the seeds were planted in my mind then.

After graduating, I worked as an editor in a design and architecture magazine called Egg. I didn’t stay long, but I met a lot of interesting people who open the door for me to enter the art and cultural scene in Taiwan. Shortly after, TFAM had an opening for a temporary curatorial position in the exhibition department. I was recommended by a friend to apply for it. I remembered I was so enthusiastic that I was almost aggressive in my application. Because I didn’t have any art related background, I knew that if I wanted to work in a museum, this was my only chance! Luckily, I got the job. And that’s how the rest of the story begins.

The first major exhibition I assisted to produce at TFAM was a retrospective of the Taiwan Pavilion at the Venice Biennale from the years 1995 to 2007. It was a very overwhelming experience. Not only did I need to learn how to produce a large group exhibition through the system of a public institution, but also to educate myself about the history of the Taiwan Pavilion and the history of contemporary art. It was a great starting point. After I left, I continued working with TFAM on some editorial projects. The turning point was perhaps in 2008 when they asked me to join the curatorial team of the 6th Taipei Biennial curated by Manray Hsu and Vasif Kortun.

 

They must have had a strong influence on your early curatorial practice.

Yes, I had to learn everything and working closely with veterans and established curators was a great opportunity. At the time, my understanding of curating was very superficial. It was a learning by doing experience. Visual artists aside, Kortun and Hsu included art activists in this edition, so it broadened my understanding of curating. There were also many newly commissioned works, so artists needed to come to Taipei for research and site visits. Neither of the curators were based in Taipei, so I took on a lot of the responsibility to be the liaison for the artists. This was the most important learning experience for me because I had to engage deeply with them.

 

Pak Sheung Chuen, Going Home Projects, 2010. Installation view in the 7th Taipei Biennial at Taipei Fine Arts Museum, Taipei, 7 September – 14 November 2010. Image courtesy of the artist and Taipei Fine Arts Museum.

 

Two years later, you worked with Hongjohn Lin and Tirdad Zolghadr for the 7th Taipei Biennial. How did this new experience shape your own curatorial style?

My learning process expanded to the 2010 edition and, indeed, led me to better formulate my understanding of curatorial practice. In 2008, the exhibition featured more than 40 artists and was thematically driven while the 2010 edition featured only 24 artists and was built around the discussion of institutional critique. The two editions were thus very distinct yet one of the ideas of the 2010 edition was to piggyback some components from 2008: we invited the curators and some artists to revisit their curatorial decisions and artworks retrospectively. It was a benefit for me to be part of these two editions, because most of the time when we wrap up a project, we seldom have the chance to reflect on it and to put things into perspective.

I think that, overall, I am trying to combine and pick up the best parts of all the various curatorial styles I have been exposed to. I like the self-reflexive approach, and how one is continuously questioning the process of art itself.

 

Leaving aside large-format exhibitions, you decided to join Para Site in Hong Kong. What did you have in mind and what was your drive?

When Cosmin Costinas offered me the job at Para Site, the institution was in transition. I joined the organisation when it had just moved into Quarry Bay. It was an expansion of the space, and of the team physically and structurally. There are several reasons for my move to Hong Kong and work at Para Site. Para Site has such a prestigious reputation; it was an exciting idea to be part of this legacy and to witness what the new era would be like. Additionally, my new position encompassed Education and Public Programmes, which was a new realm for me. I was mostly trained as an exhibition maker for the previous decade, and I was feeling the fatigue of constantly producing shows. The Para Site job seemed a good opportunity to tap into a more discursive program and to experiment with something new.

 

Installation view, “Chris Evans, Pak Sheung Chuen: Two Exhibitions” at Hong-gah Museum, Taipei, 1 June – 28 July 2019. Image courtesy of the artists and Hong-gah Museum.
Installation view, “Chris Evans, Pak Sheung Chuen: Two Exhibitions” at Hong-gah Museum, Taipei, 1 June – 28 July 2019. Image courtesy of the artists and Hong-gah Museum.

 

In 2017, you curated a duo show featuring Chris Evans and Pak Sheung Chuen. These two juxtaposed exhibitions were questioning the place of individuals in the society and the power relations at work. Both artists, in their own ways, have developed original art practices, based on situations or on interactions with people. How did you come up with the idea of initiating this dialogue?

Pak is the first Hong Kong artist I met. We worked together at the 7th Taipei Biennial, then again for the 10th Shanghai Biennale in 2014. I have been following his work ever since, and, when I moved to Hong Kong, I knew he had stopped doing institution or gallery shows, but that he had nevertheless been quietly working on his “Nightmare Wallpaper” project. I wanted to convince him to present it at Para Site. When it happened, I immediately thought about Chris Evans, who I also worked with in Taipei Biennial 2010. There’s an instinct that told me that these two artists’ practices could dance well with each other. They both engage with social issues by creating a participatory scenario, almost in a performative way, with a pinch of a sense of humour. On top of that, I’ve always had great conversations with both of them, which is an important starting point for me, since how I work with artist relies on openness and trust.  The main question I proposed in the show was: what can art do in the time of frustration? It was an open question, and the presentation of Pak and Evans showed that you could look at things in a macro and a micro way.

 

Chris Evans, Cowlick(I-V), 2017. Image courtesy of the artist and Para Site.

 

How did you work with them? Did you consider the show as a whole, connecting the two artists together?

Working with Evans was quite organic because his way of thinking is abstract on the surface but precise in the execution. You must let it grow with time. While working with Pak was more condensed because he was dealing with a topical issue. It was not an easy journey for him. I felt that my role was not just to be a curator but also to support him emotionally, to provide a comfortable place to talk it through. During the whole preparation for the show, Evans and Pak met just once, yet I kept both of them informed about what each other was doing. Later on, the exhibitions toured to Taipei at Hong-gah Museum, and we felt we were like a music band on tour. There was no hierarchy among us, and this is really how I feel a relationship between an artist and a curator should be like.

 

You did not give any title to these two shows, why is that?

We talked about it and explored several options but, in the end, I wanted to emphasise the two contrasting views of the artists’ perspectives on the power structure of society. They have a lot in common, but I liked this idea of proposing two poles. I also wanted to give the audience more freedom. Without any specific titles, people had to make up their own interpretation. We made the decision together.

 

Angela Su, The Magnificent Levitation Act of Lauren O (still), 2022, video. Commissioned by M+; part of the artist’s solo presentation for the Hong Kong Pavilion in the 59th Venice Biennale. Photo by Ka Lam. Image courtesy of the artist.
Angela Su, Laden Raven (detail) 2022, hair embroidery on fabric, 290 x 140 cm. Commissioned by M+, Hong Kong. Photo by Lok Cheng. Image courtesy of the artist.
Angela Su, Rorschach Test No.3, 2016, ink on drafting films 155 x 110 x 5 cm. Image courtesy of the artist and Blindspot Gallery.

 

Currently, you are curating Hong Kong’s Collateral Event at the upcoming Venice Biennale featuring a solo presentation of Angela Su. What is working together like and how did you come up with the theme of levitation?

Venice is a very different setup that doesn’t really allow the artist and curator to tango much. It’s challenging in many aspects, and we are dealing with various restrictions and obstacles in the time of the pandemic. When I accepted the invitation, I knew very well that my role is to help the artist put on one of the most important shows in his/her career.

I had to dive into Angela’s artistic world immediately even though I was sufficiently familiar with her work. Angela was very open and generous; she’d tell me subjects she has been researching and books she was reading. We were both not in Hong Kong in the early stage of preparing the presentation. It was a nice period to give us space and time to think and develop.

We met frequently on Zoom and exchanged messages or emails, it allowed us to quickly come up with the concept and themes of the show. Then, the rest of the journey is how to navigate through the system and put our visions into practice. The show is an introduction as well as a presentation of an immersive world that she has built over the course of her career.

To curate a Collateral Event in Venice is of course a dream for every curator. I am deeply flattered to be considered and chosen by M+ and Hong Kong Arts Development Council, and from a city where I have worked in for years, which is extra meaningful.

 

In Venice, the space is very challenging, both outdoor and indoor. The context of the Biennale is also very specific, since you represent the territory in the eyes of the international public. How did you approach these challenges?

I’ve always felt that if the venue itself has a very strong character, the best solution, instead of competing with the space itself, is to co-exist with it and treat it as part of the presentation. In Taiwan, we’ve done a lot of art exhibitions in alternative spaces which always have distinguished aesthetics rather than white cube spaces, so it’s quite a common practice.

As for the context of being a representative at the Venice Biennale, Angela took an interesting approach by creating a fictional world that brings back the time of the 60s and 70s. The intention is to look at the context beyond the contraints, and I think that’s the most important message that this biennial wants to deliver.

 

What’s it like being an independent curator? What are the biggest challenges you are facing?

I am a Gemini, so I function pretty well as an independent curator, or working in a small organisation. I enjoy the flexibility and freedom to plan my daily schedule. Though there’s constant anxiety of the need to book yourself a project, to perform and feel FOMO, but it also gets better with age. I am less anxious of missing something and have learned to enjoy working better. I’ve been extremely lucky throughout the years, offered many interesting projects. The most challenging part for me is how to regain faith after feeling defeated, because it’s so easy to give up when being independent. There’s no organisational liability which also means there’s no structural support.

 

Freya Chou. Photo by Winnie Yeung/VISUAL VOICES. Image courtesy of M+, Hong Kong.

 

Your upcoming project, the 58th Carnegie International, will open in September in the US. This time you work collectively among a curatorial council. What does it mean?

Carnegie International is the second oldest international exhibition after Venice Biennale, so it’s very interesting that I am doing two of the oldest international shows at the same time. I was invited by Sohrab Mohebbi and he put together a group of people as the curatorial council. It has been a really rich and fulfilling experience working with the team. We have monthly virtual meetings as most people have done in the past two years, but it’s novel for all of us to work on such a condition while at the same time experimenting with a new way to put together a large-format exhibition.

 

Collective curating seems to be on the rise. Would it also be your personal direction? How would you define your role as a curator?

We go back to your earlier discussion about how we can improve the interactions between the artwork, the space and the audience. I do not have ideas, but I have a lot of questions. Research is an important point: today, if you search and Google artists from a country you’ve never been to or don’t speak the local language, what you can find has been filtered or “edited” to the language that you can access. I am extra aware of this situation since the pandemic hit, because we are not able to travel easily, and this accessibility comes with a limitation. I am curious about the question of an interlocker as a gatekeeper. 

 

What would be your advice for young curators?

Remember the spine-tingling moment when you felt inspired for the first time.

 

 

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