Aenon Loo is the founding director of Gallery Exit, the leading art space for emerging local artists in Hong Kong. Loo, who holds a PhD in electronic music and composition, divides his time between his two passions, music—helping launch the annual Hell Hot New Music Festival in 2010—and visual art—running a full-time gallery. In late August, Exit officially announced their move from their original space in Central to a warehouse location (dubbed Southsite) on the south of Hong Kong Island. In addition to this bold move, Loo, Art Asia Archive researcher Anthony Yung and Sonja Ng from Sotheby’s have pooled their money to open Hardneck, a self-described “go-on-until-we-can’t-go-on initiative” located in Wan Chai’s Foo Tak Building. Hardneck serves as a space to present first exhibitions by new Hong Kong artists, opening in July with Lam Hoi Sin’s exhibition of repurposed unwanted goods called “The Crap Show” (July 7–August 4). Currently showing at Hardneck are drawings and video installations by Chinese University of Hong Kong graduate, Ko Sin Tung. Loo speaks with ArtAsiaPacific about Gallery Exit’s conception and the gallery’s recent initiatives.
What factors encouraged you to open Gallery Exit in 2008?
In 2007, I met [Hong Kong artist] Tozer Pak in New York. I was studying, and Tozer was there on an Asian Cultural Council grant. Tozer told me that there were a bunch of young artists [in Hong Kong] who were very dedicated. [After completing my PhD] in 2008, I moved to Hong Kong, spent three weeks visiting studios, and thought I could start something small here on contemporary art. Other than Para/Site and Osage, there wasn’t anyone who would do consistent programming to try to nurture young artists and push them to the next level.
We don’t exclusively exhibit Hong Kong artists though. Two thirds of our artists are from Hong Kong, and the rest are from Japan, China, Taiwan; we have one Singaporean artist, Genevieve Chua. If we take on an emerging artist however, he or she must be from Hong Kong.
Were you familiar with visual arts in Hong Kong before then?
Yes, when I was living in Hong Kong in the early 1990s, I was interested in art. I knew of the new ink artists—Hon Chi Fun, Lui Shou-kwan, Wucius Wong, Yeung Tong Lung. That was all one could see then. I used to go to Alisan [Fine Arts], Alice King’s space which focused first on Chinese ink. But there wasn’t any contemporary art [in Hong Kong] that I was aware of. I first encountered Hong Kong contemporary art in 2007, when I saw a Tsang Kin-wah show in New York at Yvon Lambert gallery. Then I met Tozer Pak later that year.
Considering your background in music composition, why did you start a gallery and not, for instance, a music school?
I have a PhD in electronic music and composition, which I finally attained in 2008. It took four years to finish the dissertation because I was working in a gallery for three of those years. I did not want to teach at the university, which is what I was qualified to do. Working at a gallery is more fun, you get to see things and meet new people.
Are these two interests, music and running Gallery Exit, two mutually exclusive endeavors?
There can be crossovers. We [at Gallery Exit] try our best to work with graduating artists and do as much as possible to support them. I find them projects outside the gallery so they can earn [HKD] 10,000 or 15,000 bucks for projects that are art related but not in a gallery setting. I also do a fair amount outside of Exit. For example, I did a piece for the launch of Asia Society in February [Loo refers to the Hong Kong New Music Ensemble performing his composition Hong Kong Epilogue (Here Are the Years That Walk Between) for Asia Society’s “The Rising Stars of Asia” concert]. I got Silas Fong, the video artist, to help me out with the video part of the composition, and paid him well. [For the Hell Hot New Music Festival,] we [the organizers, including myself, William Lane and Samson Young] got ST [audio-visual artist Choi Hai So] to work with a string quartet from London. That was fun. It took place July 30.
What changes do you perceive have been happening in the Hong Kong art scene over the past four years since you’ve been running Exit?
The local scene has been slow [to change]. There are only a few new artists who are continuing their practice after graduate school and coming onto the scene. A few artists are getting more devotion. Some names that come to mind: Kwan Sheung Chi, Kingsley Ng, Au Hoi Lam, Ho Sin Tung, Tang Kwok Hin, Kong Chun Hei and Lee Kit. There are a few here and there. But in terms of local infrastructure, I think it really has to be pushed by the M+ Museum’s offsite programs, during these coming four years, before their museum is built.
Are there unique challenges that Gallery Exit faces or has had to overcome as a gallery that primarily shows Hong Kong artists?
It’s interesting, we now have more people who want to buy art than artists making art, specifically within Hong Kong. It’s not a regional phenomenon. In [mainland] China definitely there are a lot of local artists there making art, but no buyers. The same in Taiwan.
Is that the same as it was in 2008?
No, I think the Hong Kong Art Fair (Art HK) helped a lot to introduce art as a commodity, which is great because if Hong Kong people only get commodities, they don’t get art. For me, I don’t like the hierarchy that says art cannot be commoditized, that art is a sacred profession. Academic or commercial, I don’t see any divides. So for me, everything is commerce. Even in biennials, money has to come from somewhere for artists to fabricate new commissions. Hong Kong as an art market has matured a lot in the past three, four years, in terms of the volume of art trade and the increased number of foreign galleries. But Hong Kong as a local scene—by which I mean its homegrown artists, curators, critics, writers, galleries and institutions—is very slow, only a little better than four years ago.
You are managing so many things: opening this larger space, participating in Art HK, launching Hardneck, involving yourself in organizing music events. How do you keep afloat? Is there much money in Hong Kong art?
No. Our price range in the gallery goes from about HKD 15,000 to 800,000, but we don’t have many pieces that sell above 200,000. We survive. Basically we wake up everyday and think of what to do. With any extra money we make, we do another art fair, we do three more books, we upgrade internally; there’s always ways to use money. We are not at a point where we could pull money out. Everything we make, we invest.
Can you tell me about your Hardneck project and how will Gallery Exit be involved with it?
[The purpose of] Hardneck is actually to fill a void. Because our gallery has expanded to a size where we cannot take on any more baby artists, we can only work with artists who are already stable and producing work full-time. We represent about ten artists. Now, we have a [500-square-meter] space like this [Southsite] and only a few of them have the guts to do a solo here. I’d rather use my resources to support them on a bigger scale than take on too many artists at once. The Hardneck project was meant to really encourage all of those young artists, who’ve just finished their BFA or MFA and have no idea how the real world functions—that’s why I call them baby artists. I still want to teach them how to act professionally and do a show that looks good. The Foo Tak Building studio [where Hardneck operates] is a tiny space that’s about 40-square-meters. There’s two six-meter walls and a window at the back. It’s good enough for a baby artist to do a solo show.
The Foo Tak lease is signed for three years. We’re going to do 24 or 25 shows in that time. The three of us—Anthony Yung, Sonja Ng and myself—will be in charge of developing each show, which involves at least six months of dialogue with the artist until they have an idea that they send us and that is doable. So concurrently there could be 10 or 15 projects in discussion.
From what I’ve asked other people, a lot of galleries do not do this process. They just say “I’ll take this, this is good, it’s interesting or this looks like it’s easily sellable, let’s schedule a show” and then one week before the show ask for whatever the artist produced. We take a much more hands on approach. It’s very time consuming. But one thing that I’ve learned in the past four years is the dialoguing process is the most important part [of developing a show]. Especially when the artists are young this process—meeting them once a month, talking about a project or just where they are heading in general—really helps them to think clearly about what they want to achieve.
Are there any projects that you are currently working on?
I’m producing five group shows at Southsite called “Painting On and On” starting with “Painting On and On: The Repository of Coherent Babbles,” which opened September 15. These will be five artist-driven group shows by Clement Chan, Au Hoi Lam, Lam Tung Pang, Chow Chun Fai and Wilson Sheih. They’re all painters in Hong Kong who’ve been active for more than ten years and they initiated this project over a year ago. Each acts a group leader, and they find and discuss with painters who share similar content in their work. So far, there are over 40 painters who I know are participating [in the exhibition series]. These five shows will be a kind of coming together to try to define a part of what Hong Kong painting is now. The exhibition series will run up until April, right before Art HK.