Ahead of her official appointment as Tai Kwun’s senior curator for heritage & digital, Ying Kwok takes us through a year of exhibitions, highlighting the role of a curator in shaping artists, art and the art world at large.
The prevalence of the term “curated” in contemporary culture has undoubtedly undermined the role of an art curator – these days, the word has devolved into a fancier term for “selected”. But it would be a mistake to assume that curators in an art-world context do no more than choose which paintings hang upon a wall in a show. That part is probably the easiest bit of Ying Kwok’s job.
While the art world was slowed by hampered travel and uncertain social restrictions, the independent curator had a bumper year, with her name attached to almost every format of art happening possible, from solo and group exhibitions to an impromptu art fair and an ideas festival converted into online webinar. As Kwok settles into a new full-time job this month with Tai Kwun as senior curator of heritage and digital – a role notably not within the contemporary art department, as she wishes to bring cross-disciplinary expertise to explore new territories – we look the role of curation in a number of her projects inaugurated since the beginning of the pandemic and, in doing so, elucidate the indelible contribution that curators make in shaping the production of art today.
Five-artist Group Show of Immersive Installation Work
Anonymous Society for Magick At Blindspot Gallery
With a theme such as magic, this exhibition went heavy on installations for their transportive quality, and Kwok worked closely with the artists to commission new work, as well as evolve existing pieces to fit the theme: “Even with existing work, we wanted to create new versions, as well as respond to the space, as Blindspot has such an interesting character,” she says. However, as it was planned prior to the pandemic and executed in those early and uncertain days, many of the ideas that Kwok had for bringing work in from China-based artists were derailed.
Chen Wei, who’s known for photographing scenes that he painstakingly stages, intended to contribute a new staged set to accompany a final print – but as this wasn’t possible, Kwok and Chen worked together to create and install two site-specific works with the artist completely off-site. One integrated a little-used gallery window and a gauzy curtain, and the other a neon sign that capitalised on Hong Kong artisanal craftsmanship: “This brought in another idea of ‘local supporting global’, because we don’t want to compromise, but we had to take into consideration what’s available to us locally, and what’s done well in Hong Kong.”
Spotlight: Opus One, Hao Jingban
Among the difficult-to-ship objects was a simple mattress that Kwok wanted to use to transform artist Hao Jingban’s dual-channel video work into an immersive experience. The piece shows a young Chinese couple executing a faithful, formalist recreation of a 1930s swing-dance performance, using a mattress as a safety net during practice, highlighting an unbreachable gap between the two eras and executions. In suggesting the presence of the mattress as a seating option, another dimension was added, bringing the audience into the work yet further outlining the distance between viewer and performer despite this piece of shared architecture.
Artists-in-residence-instigated Thematic Exhibition Exploring the Relationship
Between Home and Divinity
Four artists sharing studio space by HART, sponsored by H Queen’s, came up with this narrative – Household Gods – before Kwok was brought in to refine and shape the final exhibition, which combined various elements such as sound sessions and Spam sculptures, aimed at confronting that which has no explanation. “The interesting thing is they already had the idea to have the exhibition, Household Gods, because they share a studio, and spend a lot of time sitting next to each other.
Usually in a group show, only the curator knows what’s going on. [However,] even though they think the subject matter suits them all, when you put the work next to the other’s, that might not work well, so I feel like what they wanted to do and what was presented in the exhibition actually changed a lot,” Kwok says. Among Kwok’s ideas was the concept of an artistic publication – “not a catalogue, a public format of exhibition” – to be shared in case an on-site presentation was impossible.
Spotlight: Wu Jiaru
Guangdong-born, Hong Kong-based Wu Jiaru’s art takes myriad formats – in Household Gods alone she presented sculpture, video, installation and paintings. Notably, her sculptures were created from everyday refuse, such as used plastic bottles, forming shapes she saw as archaeological rubble, which were painted with a light-reactive coating used on traffic signs that transform them into rainbow-coloured statues under direct lighting.
Hong Kong Art Gallery Association-initiated Art Fair
With the goal of resetting the format of an art fair, in response to both the pandemic and industry-wide “fairtigue”, Unscheduled was initiated by the local gallery network with under a dozen galleries presenting solo-artist booths and Kwok, along with Sara Wong, tapped to select galleries and curate the final execution – in and of itself a breakthrough, given there’s no curation at typical large fairs. The result was as thoughtful as it was esoteric, with booths grouped by themes relating to the new world paradigm, such as detachment and engagement.
The fair’s floor plan was also highly considered, down to which works might be viewed across diagonal perspectives, “We thought about the artists and the subject matter and the way the artists make work – how physically engaged the artist is, adapting to the current [pandemic] situation. I remember we have Irene Chou from Hanart TZ next to Frog King at 10 Chancery Lane. These two artists have very vibrant language. But what you see closest from each booth is Chou Yu-cheng of Eduoard Malingue, a minimalist, which [we put there because it] doesn’t clash with other booths. [Ultimately,] the message was strong for other art fairs, saying: can art fairs be curated? Fairs like Unscheduled can do that,” Kwok feels.
Spotlight: Mak Ying Ting 2
Represented by de Sarthe, Mak Ying Tung 2 is a conceptual artist whose work incorporates both new technology and humour, working across different media in a colourful and accessible manner that belies the works’ sardonic undertones. Case in point: for her Home Sweet Home series, Mak 2 commissioned Taobao replica artists to draw scenes from video game The Sims, exploring themes around the fantasy aspect of these digital utopias as well copycat culture and artist authorship.
Ideas Festival Fostering Creative Cultural Exchange Between the Uk and Hong Kong Art Communities
Peer to Peer UK/HK Festival
As festival director, Kwok’s first move was to streamline the artist exchange programme to prevent sensory overload from meeting too many galleries and institution representatives in a day – rinse and repeat. “I suggested we do it very focussed, as we know who’s joining from the UK, and we give them a wishlist to narrow down their priorities.”
Giving them multiple meetings with certain individuals would foster true relationship-building, which instead took place via public and closed-door webinars, with peer nominations driving new commissions and “social-media residencies” (aka artist IG takeovers) with the goal of bringing international recognition to deserving local talent. This also acted as a lifeline for some artists who saw funding cut due to the pandemic – for example, asking nominee organisations to match sponsorship amounts granted by the partner organisation to create new commissions for the festival’s online exhibition.
Spotlight: Lee Kai Chung
Nominated by CHAT Curator Wang Weiwei to produce a new commission for the festival exhibition, Lee Kai Chung is an artist whose practice is highly research focused, whether it’s the act of doing research – with his findings becoming an integral part of the artistic output – or investigations into the nature of public and official archives. His single-channel video work, Theatre Exile, forms part of an ongoing exploration of incidents relating to displacement and diaspora.
Solo Artist Show at Galerie Du Monde
Exposé by Wu Chi-tsung
Conceived just a half-year before the exhibition date, Wu Chi-Tsung’s exhibition represented a tight timeline that Kwok wouldn’t have accepted were he not an artist whose processes she’d known for a decade, having met him during his residency at the Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art (though she left the institution before his work showed in 2012).
“I still remember so clearly his work in 2006 at the Shanghai Biennial – he was projecting light on the wall, highlighting the dust in the air. You just see dust bouncing in the air, and it’s particularly vibrant because it’s so dusty in China. But it made a strong impression on me – so sensitive, so simple. When du Monde invited me to curate the show, I said I’d been waiting for the opportunity for 10 years.
“A lot of people think he’s an ink painter, but it’s photography [techniques], and it’s a sculpture of time and light, presented as a painting or as photography,” Ying Kwok says. Hanging the show represented a challenge for Kwok, who wanted to create experiences that allowed the viewer to almost enter mountainous paths, or to enjoy the work three dimensionally.
In a solo show such as this, the role of the curator may seem minimal, yet it’s an essential position to refine and act as sounding board. “If you just need a curator to pick work and write an article, I might not be the best person. Has it ever happened this way?” she muses, before shaking her head. “It never quite happens.”
The 5th Audemars Piguet Art Commission by Phoebe Hui Shown at Tai Kwun
The Moon Is Leaving Us by Phoebe Hui
Two years before the project was shown, Kwok created the shortlist of potential artists who visited the watch brand’s headquarters in Le Brassus to create proposals for consideration – it was a happy coincidence that the selection committee ended up choosing Kwok’s favourite, Phoebe Hui, an artist whose practice marries science and poetry in fascinating juxtapositions. Although the final execution is miles from the proposal, the concept – that the moon is slowly spinning further from the earth – remains constant.
“At the beginning it was quite sculptural, to create a space to experience the mysteries of the moon, and the science,” Kwok says. “But because the show was postponed due to the pandemic, we had extra time, and she transformed that feeling [around the fact that the moving further away] into machine learning – into a new creation, through coding. [The end results showcases] how scientific instruments have an impact on how we see the world, because we see the world through different lenses, and these lenses are designed by scientists.”
(Hero Image: Ying Kwok)