Aric Chen on The Shifting Objectives of Asian Design

Exhibition View Product design from post-war Japan Courtesy of M+, Hong Kong
Aric Chen, Lead Curator, Design and Architecture, M+
Exhibition View
‘Shifting Objectives: Design from the M+ Collection’ ’Histories’ Section
Courtesy of M+, Hong Kong
Li Naihan
I AM A MONUMENT – CCTV Wardrobe
designed 2012; made 2016
Courtesy of Gallery ALL and Li Naihan © and M+, Hong Kong
Exhibition View
Graphic and product design of Hong Kong from 1950s to 1980s
Courtesy of M+, Hong Kong
Exhibition View
Attributed to Chiang Chen
Watermelon ball
designed circa 1959; made 1970s–80s
Courtesy of M+, Hong Kong
Exhibition View
Postmodernism furniture from Japan
Courtesy of M+, Hong Kong
Exhibition View
‘Shifting Objectives: Design from the M+ Collection’ ‘Design Constellations’ section
Courtesy of M+, Hong Kong
Exhibition View
Product design from post-war Japan
Courtesy of M+, Hong Kong
Exhibition View
‘Shifting Objectives: Design from the M+ Collection’ Courtesy of M+, Hong Kong
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KUKJE GALLERY | ART BASEL HONG KONG 2019

Shifting Objectives: Design from the M+ Collection is maybe Hong Kong’s most important design show this year. It not only demonstrates how M+ has been collecting design so far, it is also the very first attempt to give an institutional narration to Asian design. But where is Asian design coming from and how have the roles and meanings of design shifted across time and place? This is the open-ended question the museum invites all of us to take note of while looking around the exhibition.

CoBo talked to Aric Chen, the Lead Curator for Design and Architecture at M+, to find out more about the inaugural show, the trajectory of the acquisitions and the multi-dimensions of Asian design.

TEXT: Elise Yau
IMAGES: Courtesy of M+, Hong Kong

 

Aric Chen, Lead Curator, Design and Architecture, M+
Aric Chen, Lead Curator, Design and Architecture, M+

 

You have divided Shifting Objectives into two sections: Histories and Constellations. To what extent does this division represent the scope and approaches of the whole M+ design and architectural collection?

That’s a good question. It really gets down to the basic explanation of why we did the show in this way. Our first architecture show was two years ago, called Building M+, and that was a really great opportunity to show a little bit about how we have been collecting architecture. But we’ve also been collecting design works, but we hadn’t had the chance to show any of them yet. In the past four years, we have so far acquired more than 2500 works of design and architecture for the M+ collection, and that’s out of a total of 6000-7000 works. So Design and architecture is a significant part of the collection, and with the pavilion opening, it was a great chance to finally show a few of the design works that we have. We thought, why don’t we just do an exhibition that shows what we’ve been doing and gives people both a sense of the scope of the collection and the approaches we have been using to collect design? Shifting Objectives is not a show that’s meant to tell people what design is. Instead, we present some of the propositions, examples and story lines that we’ve been working on and we hope to illustrate multiple methods of linear design, mostly through the objects. We are not so much focused on interiors or the objects’ environments for this show, which is why we decided to divide the show into these two main sections, Histories and Constellations.

 

“When we talk about design and how it can move forward in Asia, a key thing that we’ve been missing is an understanding of where it has come from.”

 

On the one hand, we are telling, instructing and revisiting the history of design in Asia, from the 20th century until now, in relation to the rest of the world. I think this is a really important thing to do because it hasn’t been done before, not just in Hong Kong, but in the entire region. When we talk about design and how it can move forward in Asia, a key thing that we’ve been missing is an understanding of where it came from. If you look at designers in North America or Europe, for example, where there are many design museums, the history of design is quite well known. Knowing that history benefits contemporary designers in Europe and North America, and I think it’s easy to take for granted how much this is the case because, whether consciously or unconsciously, they are aware of this history building upon it, expanding on it or even reacting against it. This gives them an anchor and a way of placing themselves, and a way for us, as curators, journalists or editors, to place their work. It becomes a driving force for moving design forward. Designers in Asia don’t have that.

 

Exhibition View ‘Shifting Objectives: Design from the M+ Collection’ ’Histories’ Section Courtesy of M+, Hong Kong
Exhibition View
‘Shifting Objectives: Design from the M+ Collection’ ’Histories’ Section
Courtesy of M+, Hong Kong

 

I think there has been less certainty, not confusion, in design practices here. We hope that in presenting some of these historical narratives (we are showing five mini-narratives), we can at least begin to contribute to a deeper understanding of design that designers can work with.

There is the historical part, which is organised by time and geography, and then there is the Constellations, the contemporary part. We have post-World War II Japan, post-independence India, China under Mao, Hong Kong’s manufacturing heyday and post-modernism. We wanted to tell these stories, as they are important and useful, but we also wanted to break away from the past too.

Constellations is much more open. It is less about a time and a place, and more about ideas. We assembled a number of objects, approximately 40 works, that are fairly contemporary, as they were made in the past few decades. There is a range of them displayed in a looser manner than the historical part, which allows the audience to draw their own connections and interpretations. We want people to look at these things, some of which are beautiful. Some people might think they are strange, ugly, functional or useless, but we want them to ask, “Why is this in the museum?” and make them think about it, and maybe develop their own understanding, as this will help them to see the world around them, which is all design about – seeing the world in a richer way.

 

Li Naihan I AM A MONUMENT – CCTV Wardrobe designed 2012; made 2016 Courtesy of Gallery ALL and Li Naihan © and M+, Hong Kong
Li Naihan
I AM A MONUMENT – CCTV Wardrobe
designed 2012; made 2016
Courtesy of Gallery ALL and Li Naihan © and M+, Hong Kong

 

The objects that are showing in Constellations are really diverse, including the electronics you found in Huaqiangbei, Shenzhen. I wonder if you are trying to redefine design by showing objects that are not typically linked with design?

We are not trying to redefine design; we are trying to show how open design is. What I love about design is it can be anything. Some people find that confusing or even a little bit unsettling, but I find it really exciting. Design is all about possibilities and so anything and everything can be design, it is just a matter of how you look at it. This show is only a tiny little snapshot. It is a big show in a not so big space, but it is still only the tip of the iceberg in terms of what design can be. For me, design is expansive, and by thinking this we can expand our own minds, expand both our own experience and awareness of the world in which we operate, and we have a remit to do that every day.

 

How is Asia positioned in the exhibition?

The exhibition is mostly Asia. Like M+, it is focused on Asia because we are in Hong Kong, China and Asia, but we try to put it within a global context because we believe very strongly in the transnational flow of ideas. These are among the processes that have always enabled cultures to thrive. It is through the exchange of ideas that cultures become richer. We have works from outside this continent that have some resonance with Asia, via interactions with the designers or the exchange of ideas. But we also have some works by non-Asian designers that have nothing to do with Asia, but are important to include because they are amazing works. They represent ideas, processes and techniques that are universally relevant.

If you think of the other large museums that have design collections, like MoMA in New York, it does not just include American design, or even just Western design. It is heavily focused on American and European design, because that’s the perspective that they’re looking from, but they also have works from all over the world. Similarly, Pompidou in Paris is not a museum of French, European or Western design. I think it is that broad perspective that has really helped to strengthen these museums, which also benefits the cities they are located in. I think the designers and the public in New York benefit from the fact that MoMA is bringing these ideas from all over the world for to them to see. That’s what I hope we can do for Hong Kong.

 

Exhibition View Graphic and product design of Hong Kong from 1950s to 1980s Courtesy of M+, Hong Kong
Exhibition View
Graphic and product design of Hong Kong from 1950s to 1980s
Courtesy of M+, Hong Kong

 

“Hong Kong has always been very open and it is that openness that has been its source of greatness. I hope we don’t lose that in the process because of the localism tendency here.”

 

Under the localism tendency in Hong Kong right now, does that approach make your work more difficult?

Yes, of course, it adds more difficulty to our work. We are very good at making things more complicated for ourselves.

I hope in my case, after four years, there is a little bit of trust in what we’ve been doing as a design and architecture team. It is sometimes difficult to explain things or convince people. On the flip side, if our job wasn’t difficult, we wouldn’t be doing it correctly. Our job is to push, open people’s minds and introduce other ways of thinking. Of course, that always takes time and effort. People can be very stubborn, but that’s part of the territory. That is our challenge, but also our opportunity, because by confronting and overcoming that challenge, we will know we’ve made a difference. It is really easy to pander to what is already out there, test the wind of public opinion and just go along with that. I don’t think that’s always healthy in terms of Hong Kong and the tendency towards localism here. On the one hand, I think it’s good that people here are paying attention to Hong Kong and they feel more rooted here. They care about it more and appreciate what makes Hong Kong what it is, and that is a really beautiful and wonderful thing. But it can become dangerous if Hong Kong is all you think about, and results in myopia and a tunnel vision that makes you lose sight of the bigger picture.

One of the great things about Hong Kong that we should appreciate is the fact it has always been very open, and that openness has been the source of its greatness. I hope we don’t lose that in the process because of the localism tendency here.

 

Exhibition View Attributed to Chiang Chen Watermelon ball designed circa 1959; made 1970s–80s Courtesy of M+, Hong Kong
Exhibition View
Attributed to Chiang Chen
Watermelon ball
designed circa 1959; made 1970s–80s
Courtesy of M+, Hong Kong

 

What interpretation of Hong Kong will we see in the Shifting Objectives exhibition?

In the histories part, we focus on Hong Kong’s manufacturing heyday. This was mostly in the 60s and 70s, but we started in the 50s. I think there are a lot of things that some people will find familiar. Going back to what you said earlier, it would be very easy to show these things purely from a nostalgic point of view. That’s not difficult to do, but we also want to look at it from a design point of view. There are these classic rattan chairs from the 50s that were used in a lot of photo studios. A lot of people in your grandparents’ generation had their baby pictures in this type of chair. Some of the rattan is coated in plastic, and in order to do this they adopted the technology usually used to make electrical cords. This allowed them to use more colours and patterns, but it was also considered more hygienic because it’s easier to clean. It is fantastic that there is a really clever innovation, not a major one, which was introduced by using a very traditional material.

The watermelon ball, which has been iconic around the world, is attributed to an industrialist who was inspired by the confluence of the Yangtze River and its tributaries. The colours of the water stayed separate, even when the two rivers joined, so he developed a plastic blow moulding process that allows you to combine two colours of plastic to create the patterns. We have a lot of Red A plastics as well. Many people know that we have been collecting neon signs in Hong Kong. We don’t have enough space to show the actual neon signs, so we display some beautiful drawings and sketches that show the design process behind the designing of these signs. Neon signs are things that we always take for granted, and so don’t pay so much attention to them, but they were designed and are beautiful examples of calligraphy, composition, graphics, crafts, and so on.

In the contemporary section, we think that Hong Kong has a place in the world, so we include designers that are mostly from Asia, but also some from all over the world in an international section, including Hong Kong. We think that Hong Kong designers are strong enough to be shown in an international context and not just a local one. We have some work by Stanley Wong, including one of his red, white and blue vases and a beautiful book that he did, entitled A Family Letter. We have a young designer, Elaine Ng, who works with thermochromatic textiles and wood veneer to create a beautiful leafy installation that expands and curls in response to both temperature and humidity. We also have the Hong Kong-based ceramicists, Julie Progin and Jesse McLin, who create incredible vases in Jingdezhen by using broken moulds that decay and bring out the beauty in imperfection.

Hong Kong has a very strong graphic design scene, but this show is focused on objects. We were very fortunate that Kan Tai-keung and Alan Chan agreed to do an interview for a video that accompanies the show, and they talk about what design is. We have tried to bring the whole community together.

 

Exhibition View Postmodernism furniture from Japan Courtesy of M+, Hong Kong
Exhibition View
Postmodernism furniture from Japan
Courtesy of M+, Hong Kong

 

Many iconic design objects from Hong Kong, like the ratten chair and the watermelon ball, might not have been made by trained designers and lack the proper documentation. How is M+ going to fill that gap?

This is a very tricky area because a lot of these things are not so well documented and so we don’t know in many cases. The watermelon ball is definitely credited to Chiang Chen, who was an engineer and became an industrialist before founding a company that made these and other plastic products. In the case of the rattan chair, it is usually attributed to a company called Kowloon Rattan Ware Company, but to be honest, we need to do more research.

Red A has been doing more research and we have as well, and we are trying to sort things out. In the past, a lot of companies didn’t keep many records and it is sometimes not so easy to access public records In Hong Kong, so it is going to take some time. There are some local experts and we have consulted them as much as we can. We also hope that by showing these things people who do know might say, “Oh, I can tell you more about that.” We’d be really open to that because we don’t claim to know everything. This is more about presenting propositions and engaging with other people, and we are looking forward to receiving feedback.

We are doing as much as we can in terms of archiving and documentation, and have done a lot of that so far, but it is still not nearly enough. In many cases, we have collected a fair amount of archival materials that we will make available to researchers once the museum opens. To build a full on archive takes enormous resources, more than anyone realises, so we do the best that we can. We definitely can’t do it alone and there is a limit to what we can do. In terms of research, we have been doing a lot of our own. We have organised a number of workshops that bring together other scholars from around the region and the world to discuss and present their work as part of our M+ Matters workshop series. Then, with the kind generosity of the Design Trust, we have an annual research fellowship. This year will be our third year doing it and each year we invite one or two young but experienced, well established researchers to come to Hong Kong, spend some time with us and research a topic that relates to design and architecture in the PRD, and to the PRD’s relationship with the rest of the world as well.

 

Exhibition View ‘Shifting Objectives: Design from the M+ Collection’ ‘Design Constellations’ section Courtesy of M+, Hong Kong
Exhibition View
‘Shifting Objectives: Design from the M+ Collection’ ‘Design Constellations’ section
Courtesy of M+, Hong Kong

 

Can you give some updates of your new acquisitions?

There are really a lot. I’ll mention the Japanese designer, Shigeru Uchida, because he just passed away three days ago. He was a contemporary of Shiro Kuramata. We were working with him and were really fortunate to acquire a substantial body of his work, including many of his drawings, products, objects and furniture. You will see some of them in Shifting Objectives. That has been really wonderful. I have also been excited because we have delved further into India’s design and architecture. You will see some designs from Chandigarh by Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret in the exhibition, but that’s just a very small start. We have gone a little bit deeper and collected some incredible architectural models and drawings by Raj Rewal, an architect that I only really started looking further into recently. It is just an incredible body of work. Since we spoke, Stanley Wong, who has created so much amazing material, has given us an amazing donation of his work. He gave us a lot, but we still want more, so hopefully there will be more exciting updates on that front soon. We also received a donation of more than 700 posters from the post-war period by the iconic Japanese designers, Ikko Tanaka, Shigeo Fukuda and Kazumasa Nagai. These are really iconic works, all donated by Dai Nippon Press, which is the printing house that holds the estates of these legendary graphic designers. There is a lot of stuff coming up that we are working on and, hopefully, we will continue to have more big news soon.

 

It has been four years since you came to M+. How has Asian design changed from your perspective?

Asian design is very broad. Since I moved to China in 2008, the country has progressed very quickly, as it has in so many other areas. When I first moved to Beijing, people still used design and art interchangeably. It was basically just about making things prettier. Since then, the sophistication of Chinese design has just skyrocketed. It is still early days and I wouldn’t say that China is a major design powerhouse yet, but I think the change has been really remarkable. I have only been In Hong Kong for four years and that’s not so long, but I definitely see people talking more about design now and that’s a really good thing. I do wonder though if the localist tendency is sometimes holding the design scene back a little bit here. I hope it’s not, but I do get a sense that it is a little bit. For me, I think it is very easy to see the benefits of focusing on Hong Kong and the local issues here. There is no question that there are benefits to that, but like I said before, there is also a danger of being too focused on that. I would like to propose the approach that getting out there, seeing what is going on in the world and being exposed to new ideas would benefit Hong Kong. It is important to be part of a global discussion and bring that back to Hong Kong. I think that’s another way of supporting Hong Kong and contributing to the city.

 

Exhibition View Product design from post-war Japan Courtesy of M+, Hong Kong
Exhibition View
Product design from post-war Japan
Courtesy of M+, Hong Kong

 

One last big question, how would you define Asian design? Is it about the audience, the geography or the mentality?

There is a great quote from Sori Yanagi, that loosely goes like this: “Don’t worry if something is Japanese design or not. If it is made by the Japanese, made for the Japanese or made in a Japanese way for Japanese society, it is Japanese.” The essence of what he is saying is that Asian is how you define it. It is not up to any of us to define what Asian is. I think there are some western things that become Asian, as are seen or interpreted by people in Asia. There are some things that are consciously Asian and some things that are not. There are also some things that may have an Asian sensibility, however you define that. And there are some things that might be made to look Asian, but in fact, have nothing to do with Asia in the end. Asians are all over the world. There are non-Asians in Asia. Therefore, what is Asian? What is Chinese? Buddhism came from India. Blue and white ceramics came from Turkey. “Don’t worry about it,” I guess is my point. Asian is whatever the people who identify themselves as being Asian define it and make it.

We have this great, beautiful work in Shifting Objectives, Korean Composition:18_22_34_43_56_80. It’s a series of six small quilted fabrics made by a Korean designer named Jung Boyoung. She used a traditional Korean quilting technique, where you take scraps of leftover fabric and make new fabric out of it with new patterns, sewn by hand. Traditionally, they are scraps of fabric. So it’s very geometric, with squares and triangles of fabric all put together. She used that technique to create floor plans of typical Korean apartments in modern high-rise buildings. If you go to Korea, everyone lives in these very cookie cutter modern high-rises, like in Hong Kong. They have been criticised for not being Korean, or for being dehumanising, alienating or anonymous and banal. In creating these floor plans, she used a traditional Korean technique of colour coding the different rooms by using traditional Korean colours. Blue is associated with renewal and birth, so she made the bedrooms blue. The living room is yellow. She also draws comparisons between the layout of these buildings and the ways in which Koreans use traditional houses. The point is, these modern high-rises have become Korean. They may not look Korean in the old-fashioned sense, but they are in the way they respond to the way that Koreans use them and the way they live in them. I think that’s a really powerful way of looking at identity in the 21st century.

 

That’s a very good footnote to our discussion. Thank you.

 

Exhibition View ‘Shifting Objectives: Design from the M+ Collection’ Courtesy of M+, Hong Kong
Exhibition View
‘Shifting Objectives: Design from the M+ Collection’ Courtesy of M+, Hong Kong

 

Shifting Objectives: Design from the M+ Collection
30 Nov 2016 – 5 Feb 2017
11 am – 6 pm
Wed to Sun and public holidays (except 25 Dec 2016, 1 Jan, 28 & 29 Jan 2017)
M+ Pavilion, WKCD

 

 


Elise YAU (Editor of CoBo)
Elise YAU is an editor and journalist specialises in design, lifestyle and luxury topics. She has written extensively for Ming Pao Weekly, City Magazine and HK01, and she is the author of book projects regarding design, architecture and Hong Kong culture. Currently based in Hong Kong, Elise is immersing the art world after joining CoBo, the first Asia community platform for collectors.

eliseyau@cobosocial.com

 

 
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