Q: How would you say the inaugural shows at Tai Kwun Contemporary fit the kunsthalle model as opposed to a regular art gallery or a contemporary museum?
A : A kunsthalle is more or less like an art center. Unlike commercial art galleries we have absolutely no interest in the commercial success or salability of the art we exhibit. Unlike a museum we do not collect and so Tai Kwun Contemporary is not used for storage or conservation of art. Also if you're collecting you have to perennially look back on your collection and re-evaluate what you have done. Because we do not collect we can remain fresh, young and experimental in what we showcase.
Wing Po-so's Six-Part Practice (one of the two inaugural shows at Tai Kwun Contemporary) is a very good example of what we're trying to do. She is inspired by Chinese medicine and works with material that will not last. So there's no question of collecting her work. She's a very young artist who has put together a big exhibition. It's not the kind of show a museum would normally host as they prefer to work with well-established artists.
We do not curate exhibitions ourselves. We invite other organizations to create exhibitions tailor-made for Hong Kong. For Dismantling the Scaffold we worked with Spring Workshop. Christina Li, the curator, has invited artists from Hong Kong, the Chinese Mainland and elsewhere in Asia to participate in the show. About two-thirds of the 40 pieces on show are installations, including site-specific ones. We commissioned seven new works, encouraging artists to create things they wouldn't be able to put together anywhere else. Most of the participants are young and mid-career artists.
Q: Why choose the kunsthalle model for Tai Kwun Contemporary?
A : From the very beginning, when the stakeholders had their first meeting, it was felt that Hong Kong needed a non-commercial art space, bigger and more established than the other independent art spaces in the city. Tai Kwun Contemporary is in the middle of the city and covers 1,500 square meters. This building was built to fill the missing part of the art eco-system here in Hong Kong. And from the beginning it was decided this was going to be a non-collecting, non-commercial institution.
Q: Choosing someone as young as Wing Po-so to create the opening exhibition, and that too in such an enormous scale, is a bold step to take
A : We want to be bold as an institution, we want to have the freedom to experiment, and we want to take chances. Where else would you take chances, if it were not in an art space? Yes, choosing a very young artist for the opening show entailed a certain risk but I think it has paid off wonderfully.
Q: Do you feel vested with the responsibility of identifying new art?
A : Yes. That's part of the joy of the job we have here, to identify art, artists and organizations that we think can bring something to Hong Kong or use the space we have here in a way that's better than anybody else. One of our main criteria is that the exhibition has to be meaningful for Hong Kong in the moment that it is showing. Sometimes we'll get artists from across the region, even curators from overseas. They are selected because we believe they can add something to the Hong Kong discourse, and the city's art scene.
Q: It seems from the inaugural shows that you are pushing young artists to go the whole hog, as it were, and produce something maybe even a bit wild
A : Yes, we're encouraging them to take chances. At the end of the day art has nothing to do with money, it's about ideas and creativity.
Q: In an ideal world, that is
A : Yes, but we can create that ideal world here. We'd never get into the business of selling art. Here we can have artists create exceptional, new work, the sort that gives people ideas, get them talking about possibilities. Making possibilities possible is my main job.
Q: Were there certain aspects of Tai Kwun history and local culture that you wanted to resonate with the opening shows?
A : Tai Kwun used to be a police station, a court house and a prison. You can see this reflected in the exhibitions. Dismantling the Scaffold is at least partly about the idea of a prison. For example, there is Tiffany Chung reflecting on the flight of the Vietnamese boat people (since the end of Vietnam War in 1975, many Vietnamese have arrived in Hong Kong by sea, seeking asylum). Victoria Prison was a detention center and also an administration building for handling these cases. It's wonderful to have artists look back and research that history.
Wing Po-so grew up next door, in Staunton Street. So there is that connection between the location we are in and the art we host. It doesn't have to be this way with every exhibition but it certainly plays a role in our programing.
Q: Dismantling the Scaffold is also about intervening into and manipulating regulated space. Luke Ching's installations of the feathery remains of birds hurling themselves against the window pane are an obvious example. Leung Chi-wo's images of the Hong Kong sky, fractured by the skyscrapers shooting up, are another. The audience gets to sample cookies baked in the shape of the truncated Hong Kong skies - the same shapes as seen through Leung's lens
A : The baking performance by Sara Wong is from 10 years ago. For us it was important to get to re-stage it because we're dealing with a completely new generation, both in terms of the artists and the audience.
Q: You have been associated with non-profit art spaces in Hong Kong for over a decade now. What would you say is the most visible change of the coming of age of these spaces in the city?
A : I think we are at a crossroad with the opening of Tai Kwun, The Mills and M+ (expected to open in 2019). All of these are about art not being a commodity but something owned by the public. And that's a good shift. In the last 10 years, with the exception of Para Site, art in Hong Kong was very much about the commercial scene and now in these two years (2018-19) we are finally getting to the stage in which art is where it should be in a major art city of the world.
We had nearly 30,000 people visit Tai Kwun Contemporary in the last 3 weeks. This openness in the people, looking forward to contemporary art, accepting contemporary art as part of their lives, is extraordinary.
The notion that Hong Kong people are not interested in art always seemed a bit strange to me. I never believed it. Luckily, neither did the local government nor the Jockey Club (who funded the re-vitalization of Tai Kwun). I am glad that people have proved the naysayers wrong.