Jun 30 2016

Notes From Para Site’s Workshop for Emerging Professionals 2016

by Sylvia Tsai

Hong Kong was a bustling center of art activity last week, when cultural practitioners from around the world came together for Para Site’s fourth International Conference held at Asia Society Hong Kong Center. On Monday, ArtAsiaPacific published a roundup of the three-day symposium, which celebrated the local nonprofit’s 20th anniversary by taking a deeper look at the evolution of artistic ecosystems in Hong Kong and abroad over the past two decades.

A few days before Para Site’s International Conference kicked off, its Workshop for Emerging Professionals pushed into full gear. Organized by Freya Chou, Para Site’s curator of education and public programs, the second edition of the curatorial mentorship program included 12 participants from around the world. The participants came from various backgrounds: some are still attending university, while others are already active in the arts sector, either as practicing curators or arts administrators.

Participants during the first day of Para Site’s Worshop for Emerging Professionals sharing their proposed curatorial project, 2016. All photos by Sylvia Tsai for ArtAsiaPacific

Exhibition walkthrough of “That Has Been, and May Be Again,”  at Para Site, Hong Kong, organized by emerging curators LEO LI CHEN and WU MO.
Exhibition walkthrough of “That Has Been, and May Be Again,” at Para Site, Hong Kong, organized by emerging curators LEO LI CHEN and WU MO.

The participants had a tight schedule over the nine-day program. When I first met the group on the first day, there was a nervous energy in the air as participants settled in. The afternoon began with an introduction and run-down of the coming week, which was followed by an exhibition walkthrough of Para Site’s current show, “That Has Been, and May Be Again,” led by its organizers, emerging Hong Kong-based curators Leo Li Chen and Wu Mo, the latter of whom was also a participant of the emerging professionals workshop. Speaking about the show, which focused primarily on art created in China during the 1990s, the curators also provided detailed descriptions of each work on display. What was perhaps more helpful, in line with the theme of the workshop, was the conversation held after the exhibition tour, where participants asked the two curators about the logistics of the the show: “What was it like working with Para Site in putting up the show?” “After proposing the show, were there some changes to the artist list?” “What were some of the challenges in the installation process?” The majority of the day that followed was spent on each participant’s presentation of their own curatorial proposal, where they shared the concept, artist list and specifics work that they would include in their hypothetical show.

Workshop with ROGER BUERGEL, founding director of Zürich’s Johann Jacobs Museum. 

Throughout the course of the workshop, the participants were mentored by speakers at the International Conference as well as by members of Hong Kong’s art scene, which included Tina Peng and Pauline Yao from the M+ museum, Anthony Yung from Asia Art Archive, Clara Cheung from the artist-run space C&G Artpartment, Colombian artist Lucas Ospina, Museum of Modern Art, Warsaw director Joanna Mytkowska and independent curator Tirdad Zolghadr, among others.

A presentation held for the group by Roger Buergel, founding director of Zürich’s Johann Jacobs Museum and artistic director of Documenta XII in Kassel (2007), included a discussion on some of his projects at the Swiss institution. Addressing the issue of the transnational experience, Buergel posed a question to the group: “How do we represent, within an exhibition, transcultural encounters?” He then proceeded to talk about the practice of two women, American experimental filmmaker Maya Deren (1917–1961) and Italian-born Brazilian architect Lina Bo Bardi (1914–1992). Deren notably made frequent trips to Haiti to document its local dance traditions, and as part of Buergel’s presentation the artist’s images and film stills of Haitian people were shown enlarged, beyond the original intention of the artist. Buergel opined that Deren’s representations make the work look like an ethnographic piece, which in turn causes them to fall into murky moral territory. Additionally, Buergel talked about Bo Bardi’s self-designed Popular Art Museum in Salvador da Bahia, Brazil. As an architect who also curated exhibitions, Bo Bardi had a unique method of organizing shows of bric-a-brac that, similar to displays within ethnographic museums, did not single out specific objects. One workshop participant asked Buergel how a curator can legitimize his or her own appropriation of material for exhibitions, to which he responded, “There is not just one proposition. There are various ways to do something right, and that is something you can carry through by one’s own evolution.”

For her portion of the workshop, Beijing-based curator Carol Yinghua Lu expressed the importance of the exhibition-making process. She uses the metaphor of the exhibition being a stage and everything prior to its completion as the “backstage.” Lu adds: “Most of the time we are really generalizing conditions, but what we are ultimately doing is something that happens behind closed doors. There are a number of things that happen before that performance hits the stage.” She broke down this idea further by explaining and advising the group that when creating an exhibition, one should “give equal consideration to every component of the exhibition. There should be no hierarchy since each element has the potential to be an outlet for expression.” Lu supported these ideas with a presentation on her own curatorial practice, including the project “Little Movements: Self-Practice in Contemporary Art” (2011/2013) at Shanghai’s OCAT Contemporary Art Terminal, which presented 17 curators, artist collectives, art historians and institutions—including Libreria Borges Institute of Art (Guangzhou), HomeShop (Beijing), Polit-Sheer-Form and Copenhagen Free University—that were selected based on the “intensity and quality” of their works. As an aside, Lu mentioned that she prefers to be called a “practitioner” rather than a “curator,” expressing that it is more productive for her to consider herself as a participant of the art system. “One’s role and relevance should be evaluated on the basis of the practice and not on the basis of the definition of your role,” she added.

To allow for the participants to get a better sense of the various art spaces in Hong Kong, some of the workshop sessions were held off site. On one afternoon, the group made their way to Sham Shui Po, on Kowloon side, which is considered to be one the lowest income neighborhoods in Hong Kong. Today, many art-run spaces are popping up there, including 100 Ft. Park, which was opened in 2012 by three local artists including photographer South Ho. Here, workshop participants were introduced to the site by Ho himself, who provided a glimpse of the space’s evolution, which, having first established itself in a second-hand bookshop in Sheung Wan, moved to Prince Edward in 2014 as part of the creative-hub building Wontonmeen, and finally to its current location in Sham Shui Po in 2015, where it co-habitates with the architectural firm Daydream Design. Changing venues three times within four years, the relocation of 100 Ft. Park is indicative of the financial and spatial challenges that independent art spaces encounter in Hong Kong. The ongoing perseverance of 100 Ft. Park has proved itself to be an invaluable asset to the local arts infrastructure, and helps them to continue providig a platform for young artists to show their works and increase both their experience and exposure.

Tutorial with Beijing-based curator CAROL YINGHUA LU.

CAROL YINGHUA LU discussing her exhibition-making process. 

Hong Kong photographer SOUTH HO sharing the evolution of 100 Ft. Park, an independent art space that he co-founded in Sham Shui Po, Kowloon. 

On the street where 100 Ft. Park is located are market stalls that sell electronic parts, lights and second-hand objects. Walking through the bustling market, on the other side of the main thoroughfare are residential buildings, including one where the nearly one-year-old initiative Things That Can Happen has set up their project space. In the apartment-turned-art space, co-founder and artist Lee Kit talked to workshop participants about how he got involved with Things, some of their programming, and what’s in store for them in the future. Funding and sponsorship of Things was a topic that came up several times. Lee expressed particular disdain for the Hong Kong government, which has resulted in him and Thing’s other founder, curator Chantal Wong, to seek private financial support. Lee further explained that their programming is based on an invite-only residency approach, where the artists live and exhibit within the space. Their criteria for selecting artists is constantly changing, but what Lee emphasizes is that he and Wong both dislike “political art,” where often times the political message is lost and is unable to induce any particular change. He believes, instead, in creating art politically. At Things, they have also organized programs for the community, which Lee also avoids labeling as “community art.” “There is a hierarchy in the notion of categorizing," he said. "With ‘political art’ it comes across as ‘I know more than you,’ and with ‘community art’ its ‘I can help you.’ We are not a charity. We are just a platform that redistributes some resources.” A particularly interesting part of Things is that it is a temporary space, a platform that, in its current state, is only to exist for two years. Lee already knows that he will not be a part of Things after that time, adding, “As a founder, I will have to leave; otherwise the art space will not grow up.”

After meeting practitioners from Hong Kong and abroad, and experiencing different types of local art spaces, the 12 workshop participants each revisited their own original curatorial project on the program’s last day, with feedback from Para Site director Cosmin Costinas, Frey Chou and Tirdad Zolghadr. Throughout the course of the program, it was interesting to hear reflections from some of the participants who started to wonder whether or not curatorship was the career path for them. One mentioned that in today’s world, “Everyone wants to be a curator, but don’t necessarily know what that means [or] what other positions in the arts are out there. I’m starting to question if this is the right role for me.” With this in mind, I’m curious to see how their careers would unfold and who I’ll bump into at the next art opening.

Para Site’s Workshop for Emerging Professionals was held in various locations around Hong Kong from June 18–26, 2016. 

Sylvia Tsai is associate editor at ArtAsiaPacific.