Generally speaking, curating is the art of the possible, finessing curatorial ideas within sundry constraints, be they practical, commercial or institutional. In the Chinese art world, however, hemmed in by state censorship and market forces, not to mention the shifting sands of guanxi networks and the aesthetic conservatism of key stakeholders, being a curator might sometimes seem like the art of the impossible. It’s not for nothing that out of the hundreds of museums built across the country, a mere handful have sustained innovative exhibition programming and curatorial influence. Those who have done so owe much of their success to the efforts of a dozen or so influential curators—among them, Venus Lau, active for years between Hong Kong, Beijing and, currently, Shenzhen.
A native of Hong Kong, Lau is at once an insider and an outsider in the Mainland Chinese art world—a position which echoes Hong Kong’s own liminal identity and affords her a nuanced take on the tired dialectic of both “China” and the “West.” It also grants her a useful distance from the geme’r (“boys will be boys”) networks so prevalent between curators and artists in Beijing, where the scene, despite being somewhat hermetic and provincial, is fascinating precisely for the “ontological challenge” it poses to a purportedly hegemonic Western order.
BOTH INSIDER AND OUTSIDER WITH A NUANCED TAKE ON THE TIRED DIALECTIC OF CHINA AND THE WEST
Lau, together with her husband Robin Peckham (erstwhile editor-in-chief of LEAP magazine), are a bit of a power couple in the Chinese art world, and her cursus honorum epitomizes the frenetic changes and vicissitudes in the country. Working as an arts journalist in Beijing in 2007, she began curating independent projects and sometimes helping Peckham who ran the well-regarded Saamlung Gallery in Hong Kong. Not long after winning a “special mention” as critic from the Chinese Contemporary Art Award, she landed the position of curator at Beijing’s Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA), the foremost contemporary art institution in China. There, she brought some of her ideas into fruition, most notably by initiating the Secret Timezone Trilogy, which presented solo exhibitions by Ming Wong (Singapore/Berlin), Korakrit Arunanondchai (Bangkok/New York) and Haegue Yang (Seoul/Berlin). Korakrit’s gesamtkunstwerk of bodily expressionism on acid-wash denim and affective play on popular culture provoked stark reactions in Beijing, where some had issues with the work’s treatment of celebrity culture and perceived lack of seriousness. Nonplussed, Lau welcomed this opportunity for open debate. Beneath her reserve is a steely resolve, inflected by her interest in object-oriented ontology as well as the utopian possibilities in science fiction.
Lau has since become the artistic director of OCAT Shenzhen, where she has had the refreshing opportunity to work away from a major “art city” and to reflect on the Pearl River Delta, which, encompassing everything between Hong Kong, Shenzhen, and Guan, stands as one of the largest conurbations of industry and humanity in the world. Following the land art exhibition “Digging a Hole in China,” “Summer Triangle: Jon Rafman, Adrian Wong, Lantian Xie” and a Jiang Zhi solo exhibition, Lau is particularly excited about Simon Denny’s new show opening in early in 2017: “It’s a test of how he can make use of Shenzhen as a city of hardware—and of city as hardware.” After a pause, she notes it will also test her skills as a curator.
Venus Lau is a curator and writer based in Beijing and Shenzhen, where she is artistic director of OCT Contemporary Art Terminal. Upcoming projects at OCT Contemporary Art Terminal, Shenzhen, include solo exhibitions of Jiang Zhi in November and Simon Denny in March, as well as a performance program by Li Ran and Tao Hui and a screening program curated by Cao Fei.
Daniel Szehin Ho is editor-in-chief of Ran Dian, a bilingual online and print magazine with independent commentary and opinion on the art scene in China.
Portrait by Timothy Guo