The curatorial purview of Robin Peckham spans borders both real and virtual. Based in Hong Kong, the first physical setting for the curator and writer’s productions was a gallery located in a six-story office building in the city’s notoriously pricy Central district. Saamlung, during its two-year run, featured an eclectic mix of local and international artists responding to the space’s hyperreal surroundings. While the gallery’s operations have now ceased, Peckham has taken this opportunity to immerse himself in a number of new projects examining the changing reception of images.
In September, at Edouard Malingue gallery, he staged “Sneakerotics: Further Materials for a Theory of the Young-Girl” which centered around the “parallel life of the California dream in Hong Kong.” Viewers sweated it out on the opening night with a live workout performance that took place on the gallery floor. In addition to exploring themes of fitness and health, works on display also addressed the manner in which such ideals circulate—predominantly as images on the Internet. Internet art, which has been steadily gaining recognition in the West, could be seen as being of particular relevance for people in Hong Kong who live in a highly commercial and image-saturated society. Though this sentiment may be lost on some of his audience, Peckham remains optimistic that the works will be able to communicate on multiple levels and spoke to ArtAsiaPacific about the nature of desire in an image-based economy and what shifting modes of production and consumption entails for artists working in China.
Your “Sneakerotics” exhibition last month featured some Internet artists who are gaining a reputation in the West but haven’t really caught on here in Hong Kong. It was the first time I’d seen some of these artists exhibited in such a posh gallery setting. It’s unique to see this bridging of the two artworlds in Hong Kong. What has the reception been like?
I think in Hong Kong you have to span a range of communities, and in terms of Internet art, there isn’t really a homegrown scene so I’ve been trying to bring that into being by mixing it with other things. It’s always hard in a gallery, especially in Hong Kong, because here the numbers simply don’t add up—there’s little incentive to show this kind of thing. A gallery such as Edouard Malingue is paying incredibly high rent every month and Petra Cortright’s silkscreens may sell for a couple of thousand dollars. So whenever we undertake a project like this, it’s always with the understanding that we’re doing it to support the artists, to support the community.
Can you define Internet art, or more specifically “post-Internet art,” for readers who may not be acquainted with the genre?
Well, it’s definitely a point of contention. Basically it’s the creation of art with a consciousness of the ubiquity of the Internet and the network. It generally toys with ideas of circulation and transmission, without necessarily being on the Internet. So it’s not net art, but rather art that definitely has an interest in reference and quotation, spatiality, sculpture—all of the architectural qualities that the Internet has. I think it’s important that we’re bringing it to Asia, and recognizing China and Hong Kong’s contribution to that discourse because of the role that new media art has always played here. There have been a lot of conversations questioning how we can reconcile new media art of the 1990s and contemporary art. I think that post-Internet art will be the one viable answer to that and hopefully it will be able to shift some of the conversation happening in China.
But are people receptive to the works?
Well, people don’t get it. They don’t know where it’s coming from and have no context to place it in. This can be nice as a curator because there’s a certain freedom that comes with it. Because the audience doesn’t have all the American references, a lot of the confusion also drops away and you’re able to confront the works for what they are—with a background of what’s happening in Hong Kong or what’s happening at the particular gallery in which you are showing.
As Internet artworks can be largely immaterial, how do you convince galleries of their relevance?
If you’re a gallery now, doing the art fair circuit, you realize that most of your collectors are looking at the artworks online, on their iPad. So you’re thinking about what it means for objects to become images and to be transmitted in different ways. So, when an artist pops up who’s dealing with exactly that question in their practice, and it actually informs the way that they make objects, of course it is interesting. That’s why the conversation is so important right now, because it provides those answers.
The artists’ work is shifting as well. Galleries are finding new ways to install it and this can be good and bad. It loses the idea of circulation that’s so much a part of how the work came into being.
You cited Tiqqun’s “theory of the young-girl” (1999) to ground “Sneakerotics,” can you explain how this relates to Internet art?
In the “theory of the young-girl,” the whole idea is to form an archeology of pop culture, to isolate who the subject is that the media is talking to. A lot of the lines are actually taken from fashion and gossip magazines and Tiqqun is trying to say it’s not about identity, it’s not about the subject—we’re post all of that stuff now. The young-girl is generic, and not a gendered concept. The main idea is that our entire image economy is circulating around this selling of a sexual vision that’s not actually about sex or flesh. A lot of the work that in the show was related to this idea. Petra, for example, is really interested in flattening herself—using the computer, the webcam, clipart and graphics to turn herself into an image. This can do a lot of things: it can circulate in a way that a person can’t, it loses a lot of depth. Of course this idea lives especially in the Internet world, because that’s where these ideas are circulating, that’s where such an economy really comes from—looking for porn, or paying for live a girl cam kind of thing. But it also exists kind of anywhere the media pops up. In Jeremy Everett’s porn-magazine sculpture, you don’t know what you’re looking at initially. But when you read the caption, and go back to it, you see some more flesh-colored areas. Jeremy’s work addresses the idea that there’s no real desire there—no possibility of fulfillment—but purely the presentation of a thing that circulates as an object beyond anything that we might actually want to do with it.
Can you tell me about your now-defunct gallery, Saamlung?
Saamlung was really just a question of finding a space that would work. It was the right shape, and happened to be right next to a lawyer’s office. I liked these shifting contexts. Hong Kong is all about elevators. When you plan your commute between two places, if you neglect to include your elevator ride in your plan, your commute can be off by five to ten minutes. So it matters. It’s somehow a very cinematic feeling: enter one space, close your eyes and you’re in a different space. Coming out of the elevator, you’re in a bright, white, tall art space. The building had a really broken down, sci-fi kind of atmosphere, so all of our shows ended up having that kind of feeling.
What was your programming like?
There’s a lot of art in Hong Kong that’s really identity art. It’s very ‘90s and it’s not interesting on a theoretical level. Some of the work can be read backward, in a different time, and it becomes more interesting, but it’s never going to transcend that to become a more individualist, more fully formed position. If you look at what happened with relational or identity artists from the ‘90s, they all basically just go all over the world now reproducing the same art in different places. It’s kind of sad in a way, and there are Hong Kong artists who also tend to repeat the same sort of visual culture tropes over and over again.
The idea was to bring art to Hong Kong that needed to be here. We showed Adrian Wong, John Powers, Matt Hope, Tsang Tsou, Jon Rafman and Nadim Abbas, among others. In retrospect, it should’ve been more of an artist’s space because what we were doing was really about what other people should see. It wasn’t about trying to locate artists who would be the most successful in Hong Kong but about taking what was already existing and finding artists who could offer something else, on a visual and conceptual level.
Robin Peckham is a Hong Kong-based writer and curator.
Ming Lin is assistant editor at ArtAsiaPacific.