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 Tai Kwun
For our 12th conversation, we sit down with Xue Tan, Senior Curator at Tai Kwun Contemporary in Hong Kong.
You did not study curating but wanted to be an artist instead. From Chongqing, China, where you are born, to Shanghai and finally Hong Kong in 2006, what led you to this path?
As a young child, as far as I can remember, I was sitting in art classes or in the gymnastic group after school, labouring still-life pictures is vivid childhood memory. Chongqing was known for its fine art academy, and there was a genuinely nice art school scene around me.
I went through Gaokao like everyone I knew. It is the most competitive and distressing national university entry exam. I followed my father’s advice to go for business school and got accepted by my first-choice university in Shanghai, majoring in economics. University life came with a great sense of relief and freedom. I spent all my time on books, photography, films and online poetry forums, I went to art exhibitions and experimental music concerts whenever I could. By coincidence, I met a group of filmmaker friends from Hong Kong. They introduced me to the MFA programme at the School of Creative Media, where I submitted my portfolios and was accepted. This is where the best part of my life began.
My generation was very influenced by Hong Kong culture, particularly the cinema and music. My classmates would even sing in Cantonese at karaoke! Hong Kong was an ambivalently charismatic place to me. After living here for 15 years, I still feel very charmed by it.
How did you go from artist training to work as a curator?
If I were to give a short answer – it was accidental and spontaneous.
It never occurred to me to work as a full-time artist back then, so I embarked my career as an artist assistant. I first worked with Amy Cheung in 2008. She is a wonder woman and fascinating artist. I was enamoured by her work, also by her warm and witty personality. In the following years, I always had a full-time job, first at a publishing house, then as an art writer and editor, as curator for various projects, as a research associate at the School of Creative Media—mostly organising school exhibitions and art projects under the professor and artist Jeffery Shaw, he was the dean who elevated the school with an ambitious range of art programmes and brought an impressive art faculty to Hong Kong.
I loved my role in curating The Creators Project, an international art festival that took place in Beijing and Shanghai from 2011–2013. There were generous resources for commissioning works from visual arts to film and music. I was very affected by the international energy, the scale, and the willingness to invest in young artists. This made me want to create fair work conditions for artists. During this time, I wrote almost daily on art, design, and architecture, it was a great practice for research and articulate thoughts.
I continued working with artists in various capacities, such as producing commissions for biennales and curating the art and performance installation, Apocalypse Postponed, with Nadim Abbas during Art Basel; I also worked with Living Collection by William Lim, the renowned Hong Kong collector, architect and artist, including curating his retrospective at ArtistTree in 2014; as the exhibition producer at Spring Workshop, etc. Curating went hand-in-hand with my other practices as a writer and organiser, even in fundraising—I was the annual fundraiser manager at ParaSite in 2014. I was eager and curious to take on all kinds of tasks that shapes an institution. I think of myself as a Hong Kong-grown curator, and I am grateful to the art community that I grew up with.
You joined the Tai Kwun team from its opening in July 2015. What was your idea of curating at that time, and how much did it change?
Looking back, the three years prior to the public opening in 2018, was a once in a lifetime experience. It’s a rare opportunity to work on a project with such ambition and complexity from the conception stage, to be among a very passionate international team of professionals and experts.
The idea of Tai Kwun Contemporary was to fill the gap of a medium-size contemporary art centre. In a branding exercise where we place art institutions in a “bar scenario”, Tai Kwun Contemporary would want to be on the dance floor and occasionally fetching drinks and chatting with the crowd at the bar—an active, grounded and approachable person. From the opening, the main mission was to introduce contemporary art to a wider audience at a location that is accessible and free, while keeping it edgy and experimental. We have a focus on young and mid-career artists, and strive for relevance to the Mainland, Hong Kong, and Asian discourse in relation to the international art scene. We are conscious that we are a non-collecting institution, a Kunsthalle, thus working with artists on new creations is at the frontier of our practice.
Recently, you curated “trust & confusion”, a five-episode, eight-month long exhibition characterised by its long duration and concept of live art. There were different chapters and the show featured mainly live performances. How did you conceive such an “ever-changing” or time-based exhibition, which is relatively new for the local audience?
“trust & confusion” was born out of the belief of the transformative power of personal and ephemeral experience with art. Being non-object oriented, it repurposes the white cube gallery into a social space. We wanted to bring non-binary discussions within our communities, and to encourage social engagement and conversations after 2019 with the on-going pandemic.
The project was conceived as a series of solo exhibitions of live art including new commissions by leading artists in this sphere; live art is a new genre for Hong Kong audience, it often requires participation or interaction, as it situates the exhibition as an active entity rather than a static display. The exhibition took the form of an “ever-changing” format as a result of the unpredictable pandemic restrictions and social distancing rules. This is the magic of working with artists: the intelligence in creating works amidst challenging circumstances, and the collective will of making works happen when art exhibitions cease to go on.
What you describe implies a lot of improvisation and uncertainties. Do you think that taking risks is part of your job?
I would say it’s about resilience, and holding onto the vision, and paving the way for the future. Ultimately, we want to keep the “platforms” and “bridges” for conversations.
With Tino Sehgal’s works, you were working with 170 dancers and interpreters. How challenging was that, and what could be your takeaways from such an experience?
It was challenging as the amount of work involved, live art requires daily attention and care, it is physically and emotionally demanding. When working on an object-based exhibition, curators could move on to the next exhibition after the public arrives, then these artworks would travel to other locations, it’s a management of circulation. Whereas for live works, it is a new dynamic and situation every single day, unpredictability comes into play: the weather, the mood, or a peculiar visitor. The work organically unfolds and responds to the moment.
The majority of Tino’s interpreters were non-professionals, spanning across three generations, aged from 16 to 79, the most fascinating part is that many of them have not been in a contemporary art exhibition. The works are contextualised with real-life stories and experiences of the inhabitants of the city. The generosity of Hong Kong people stuns me. The works initiated so many new relationships, forming new communities beyond the exhibition. It reminds me again that good art is rooted in lived experiences.
As a curator dealing with people, your job looks also like a theatre director in the sense that you need to take care of the performers, during their rehearsal but also after the performance. How does this change the role of the curator?
Curators wear many hats always- the researcher, the writer, the interpreter, the conservator and so on. In the case of curating live art, it demands an intense role of organiser, negotiator and carer. I wouldn’t say the curator is the agent of the artist or performer. Let’s not forget that many of these artists are charismatic people and great collaborators, they are very capable of communicating with people who are the medium of their work.
In your past exhibitions, from “My Body Holds Its Shape” to “Rehearsal” and “trust & confusion”, you have invited several artists working around human interactions: Xavier Le Roy and Scarlett Yu, Eisa Jocson, Mette Edvardsen, and Pan Daijing, to name a few. How further do you think this type of encounters with the audience can be developed?
Live art entered the contemporary art arena from the early 2000s and became a prominent part of the discourse for the past decade. A project like “trust & confusion“ was possible in Hong Kong after some groundwork in the previous years. I have experimented with ephemeral live art element and the presence of the body in my exhibitions in Tai Kwun since 2018.
In the future, I would like to see how live art can be curated in a museum collection, where this new voice moves across mediums and disciplines. The new MoMA display in 2019 took this re-imaginative spirit, it juxtaposed live art with the modern and the contemporary, not categorised by chronology. I would like to see more of the “bridging” across time and space.
Do you feel that art should favour the building of communities or human connections, especially with the rise of online exhibitions and the digitalisation of the art experience?
Art is about understanding the others, the unknown unknowns of our world and society. I believe in the personal experience of art—material, ephemeral or intangible. I am wary not to be consumed by social media, which is driven by the attention economy. I think online exhibitions are the temporary remedy for pandemic time (almost three years for us in Hong Kong). Now we need to get on-site.
One of the important exhibitions that you curated was Francis Alys’ “Wet feet __ dry feet: borders and games”. How did you work with space? I remember that we could either enter from the right and be immersed in this amazing video room featuring children at play, or enter to the left and face the installation with all the boats made by the children with their flip flop.
Most of the time I think of the trajectory of a visitor in the exhibition space, in this case we gave the option of entering the exhibition from either side as a playful gesture. The two spaces worked like a pair of wings. Taking one child on each side who are siblings!
The Gibraltar project and Children’s Games (on view at the Belgium pavilion of Venice Biennale this year) are great manifestations of the two recurring themes in Francis’ oeuvre: borders and games. These two projects are interconnected and very important for his practice in the past decade—the children have taken over as the protagonist in his work, the artist is moving behind the camera.
In most of your exhibitions, you seem to be especially attentive to the entrance, as a way to prepare the audience. From there, you mentioned that a choreography should not unveil everything from the start…a strip tease?!
Absolutely, the choreography of the exhibition starts from the moment of arriving at the venue. So many details to consider from the reception, positioning of staff, the architectural design, the vocabulary, and so on. About the entrance, I think cinemas had a good impact on me for thinking of the tonality of an exhibition.
Would you conceive art exhibitions more like a spectacle (not with its pejorative Debord’s connotation)? I am also thinking of the pluri-disciplinary dimension of some of your exhibitions, especially with the importance of music. Do you aim at expanding our conception of art?
Not really as spectacles, more as destinations, a physical or metaphorical place for people to be together beyond differences, to be sensible and connected. Similar to that togetherness of strangers in a good party or concert. Let’s face it, the art world can be self-centred, I want to dismantle “enclosure” from the work process, through collaborations of practitioners from different disciplines. It’s not easy, for example, film industry people can hardly understand visual artists, vice versa. It can be so challenging but I want to keep on trying.
Are there any curators who influenced you?
Many people have inspired me the way curators do—artists, musicians, and theatre directors who I’ve worked with. To mention a few curators whom I admire, most recently I worked with curator Raimundas Malašauskas, he is an artist who is never thinking inside the box, curating is his medium. I’ve learned a great deal from Susanne Peffeer, her sharp critical thinking and deep dedication to artists and art are unparalleled; also Uddo Kettleman, the interplay of process and display, cross-disciplinary collaboration in his curatorial work. I look up to historical figures like Harald Szeemann and Achille Bonito Oliva, who were so ahead of their time, they did revolutionary work that would be the equivalent of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. The last and most important one is Tobias Berger, a mentor to me in “masterplanning”, envisioning institution diversity and cultural landscape.
The white cube paradigm keeps being challenged: what’s for tomorrow’s exhibitions and sense of art? You told me you loved your experience at the Casa Wabi Foundation: Would you like to see more art in the public space and in nature?
I liked the responsible economy around art and preserved ecology at Casa Wabi, so much more than art in nature – sculpture park. The white cube space came out of the post-war aspiration of going beyond the frame, the object; in recent years many curators are challenging this by working off the walls and sites. I love the situation of art created in-situ in nature, and everything related to it is environmentally respectful. Places like Casa Wabi in Puerto Escondido, Mirrored Gardens in Guangzhou, and Enoura Observatory in Odawara, to name a few places where I had unforgettable experiences. Yes, I would love to see more projects connect nature and art, with respect and ecological awareness.
For you, what would be the urgency for art now? What are the exhibitions that would need to be organised?
Art offers perspectives that we don’t see otherwise. At this time of social media news takeover, post-truth, data mining, and global surveillance, we achieve so much with technology in a day than any other time in human history. It is scary!
I think it’s urgent to think our planetary future while retaining the linkage to the present, the modern, and anthropological context. I am interested in political ecology, equality, women’s labour, and sustainability in institutional and everyday life.
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