Offering critical insight into the wide array of professions in the industry of contemporary culture, the Producers series presents thinkers and practitioners who stand out and leave a mark. In this issue, Carson Chan meets M+ curator Aric Chen.
You’re currently curator of architecture and design at M+ in Hong Kong (now under construction), but you were previously a journalist. In the past, you’ve compared curating to writing, citing both as ways of communicating research to a wide audience. But how differently do you address the audience in the two media?
Of course, whether for text or exhibitions, it’s never just one audience. There are different audiences for different types of exhibitions. At M+, beyond translating research ideas into exhibitions, there are museological concerns such as building and maintaining a collection. Curating a museum exhibition is different than curating a biennial, for example, which is different than organizing a design week—as different as writing a magazine article and an academic paper. At M+, we’re charged with carrying out the broad and complicated mandate of presenting global visual culture—itself a fuzzy concept—through the various vantage points of being in Hong Kong, China, Asia and so on. In building up a historical collection, I’d like to narrate many of the design and architecture stories both within the region and in relation to rest of the world. Many of those stories have not been told before in any wide-reaching way, so the process could be integral to design practices in the region going forward.
Until now, large public art museums have not played a big role in Hong Kong’s cultural life. The idea of the art museum as a place of education and knowledge, and the collection being an important figure in cultural heritage, is still largely a foreign idea. Though galleries and independent art initiatives have developed in recent years, and contemporary art has gained more visibility with the introduction of Art Basel in 2013, what are some of the challenges of engaging the region’s various populations who, until now, have had little use for art museums and architecture exhibitions?
Building an audience is a huge question for us. People are often shocked when they hear that we’re opening in 2019, as we’ve been working for some years now. But one of the benefits of having a staff of curators secured years before the museum’s opening is that we can begin to build audiences and encourage public awareness and engagement. We’ve been organizing off-site exhibitions, talks, workshops and summer camps for teenagers in the run-up to our opening. All this will continue once the building opens, but unlike many other museums, where the educational spaces are relegated to the basement, our substantial learning center will be occupying prime real estate on the main floor of the building, welcoming people next to the front entrance and facing the harbor.
Though M+ is conceived as a new kind of art institution, do you see it playing a role in regional identity-making, or instilling a sense of regional cultural coherence—a role that many of Europe’s great museums were initially built to perform? Museums are still placed where people can collectively inscribe meaning to the artifacts of their culture. What identities would M+ foster in today’s globalized context?
The question of identity is an incredibly tricky one—as important as it is, it’s also problematic. I think we are addressing it boldly and delicately at the same time. To explain what I mean by that: Hong Kong isn’t a country, and we would never call ourselves a national museum, since we don’t see ourselves as an institution with a political agenda for nation-building or identity-building. Some of the new museums in Singapore are very much concerned with shaping a Southeast Asian identity to buttress this notion of Singaporean-ness; some of the big museums in Japan and China are very explicitly national museums. M+ insists on a transnational, global perspective—something appropriate to Hong Kong, given its history and status as a global hub. That being said, this is a very complicated time in Hong Kong. The political tensions between Hong Kong and mainland China has created a growing nativism and awareness of local identity in the city. But if we were to take a broader application as a 21st-century museum, perhaps we should be concerned with the shift from the center/periphery model in order to deal with an increasingly multi-polar world where there are many centers and many peripheries. It’s surprising that my colleagues in traditional cultural centers find it hard to accept other, non-Western ways of understanding received narratives like modernity—and, at the same time, how colleagues in this part of the world find it hard to grasp the idea of a global Asian museum. I hope we can bridge the two.
Audience-building is a huge question for us.
M+’s online project about Hong Kong’s neon signs points to this concern. Neon signs are so much part of Hong Kong’s visual identity, and crowdsourcing images of them to make an archive allows for both immediate engagement and an opportunity to understand these quintessential Hong Kong objects beyond the cliché.
That project was really about framing: How do we look at old things in new ways? Beyond nostalgia or notions of collective memory, how can we examine Hong Kong’s neon signs through visual culture? Until the ʼ80s or ʼ90s, neon signs were Hong Kong’s omnipresent light source at night. They remain integral parts of the urban landscape, representing a marriage between craft, industry, design and typography. They’ve also had a huge cinematic presence. Even though you actually see very few neon signs in Wong Kar Wai’s films, for instance, they’ve infused atmosphere in so many of them.
Right. Plus, in presenting online, you’re still able to engage with your audience without a physical building. Perhaps one of the most important things architecture exhibitions can do is to calibrate the public’s eyes towards both the city’s details and organizing structure, training them how to engage with the city intellectually. Of course, aside from neon signs, Hong Kong has some other well-known architectural features: bamboo scaffolding, powerful air-conditioning, the harbor, the skyline, the outdoor mountainside escalators…
Of course. As urban architecture goes, Hong Kong has been an incredible laboratory. The combination of commerce, geography, land scarcity and population density has created fantastical typologies and urban morphologies unique to the city. While we’re trying to collect these phenomena, they also allow us to expand the conversation. The idea of a networked city brings us to the work of Archigram; Buckminster Fuller and Le Corbusier have also had huge influences on Hong Kong’s modern architecture.
One of M+’s most elaborate acquisitions thus far has been Shiro Kuromata’s Kiyotomo sushi bar (1988) in Tokyo. You had a team of conservators dismantling and crating the interior over three months. Collecting Kuromata, whose work often endures only in photographs, would seem to confirm that things in our daily lives can also be objects of aesthetic and intellectual scrutiny.
When we first proposed acquiring the sushi bar, there was a comment made that to take an interior out of its context and install it into a museum is stripping it of much of its meaning. But by virtue of taking it out of its context, you’re actually inviting people to look at things differently. I still look back to Philip Johnson’s “Machine Art” exhibition (1934) at MoMA. Though we now see it as a stroke of genius, when Johnson had the nerve to display airplane propellers, ball bearings, pots and pans in the museum as if they were works of art, it created an uproar. But by recontextualizing them, you’re actually allowing for more layers of meaning to emerge. It doesn’t necessarily have to be artificial. It’s accentuating what’s already there.
When you take a design object—including interiors—out of context, its use-value becomes historic-value and aesthetic-value.
Right. Eating in the sushi bar, the food and the company is what people are focused on. But as you said, once installed in the museum, we’re given the opportunity to see it as a composition within the historical context of Japanese postmodern design.
Paola Antonelli, MoMA’s senior curator of architecture and design, has said she wants to acquire a Boeing 747 for MoMA’s design collection because it’s such a great design object.
Paola’s longtime dream of collecting a 747 is actually the inverse of what I’m talking about. Her plan has always been to include in the collection a plane that is in operation; it would still be used by whatever carrier owned it, but it would feature a MoMA acquisition number on its tail. Instead of bringing everyday objects into the museum, it’s bringing the idea of the museum out into the world. That’s a really interesting idea in and of itself.
Aric Chen is a curator and writer specializing in design and architecture. Formerly the creative director of Beijing Design Week, he currently serves as Curator of Design and Architecture at M+, the new museum for visual culture in Hong Kong’s West Kowloon Cultural District.
Photo credit: Luke Casey