HONG KONG CURATOR INTERVIEW
Valerie Doran, Hong Kong-based independent curator, writer, and translator
For a place that has been repeatedly touted as a cultural desert, Hong Kong has managed to attract arts practitioners from many walks of life who are dedicated to working with the challenging realities present within the Chinese city-state. These creative professionals are forging an atmosphere in Asia where the contemporary arts are accessible and alive. Valerie Doran, an independent curator originally from Rhode Island in the United States, embodies the spirit of these determined arts professionals who are striving to transform the parched art landscape of the former British colony.
Her most recent project, Simon Birch’s Hope & Glory: A Conceptual Circus, has been lauded by Art Forum Online as a ‘critic pick’ and praised by numerous media outlets, including the New York Times. However, Doran asserts, the exhibition represents more than a critically acclaimed artistic endeavor, and serves as an ‘intervention’ into the Hong Kong art world, “finding a way to do something in a place where it’s impossible to do it.”
A creative spirit seeking revolution
Valerie Doran is a dichotomy: a gentle creative spirit who harbors an intense attraction to revolutionary ideas. As a Wellesley educated translator and arts scholar who majored in both Chinese and English Literature, she effortlessly exists in both eastern and western cultural worlds. As a Chinese translator and expert in traditional Chinese literature, she can read and speak fluent Mandarin.
Valerie arrived in Hong Kong in the early 1980’s as a Wellesley-Yenching fellowship recipient at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, where she studied Chinese intensively and taught classes in the English department and core curriculum programme. She later studied at the National University of Taiwan while the territory was still under martial law, and became involved in the burgeoning local avant-garde arts scene, which was riddled with political activists. Of the mid-80’s Taiwanese art scene, she says:
“Artists and the dissidents were very linked, and were all kind of loosely affiliated during this interesting time. There was a lot of patronage of artists by corporate people who themselves were quite liberal… Many of these people were early supporters for what became the Democratic Progressive Party.”
Her Path to Curating
Doran’s journey to becoming an independent curator included working for the distinguished Johnson Chang at Hanart TZ Gallery, which has been an instrumental gallery in pioneering contemporary Chinese art. During her 3-year stint at Hanart, Doran first began dabbling in curating contemporary art exhibitions. It was then her interest in curatorial practice was thoroughly peaked, and she enrolled in the Hong Kong Art School’s curatorial studies program, run jointly at the time with New York’s Guggenheim Museum.
In 2008, Doran was one of the first independent curators selected to curate a show for the Hong Kong Museum of Art. Her exhibition, Looking for Antonio Mak, earned wide attention, and was named as the best Hong Kong exhibition of 2008 by Time Out Magazine, as well as being cited as one of the 10 best exhibitions internationally of that year by the China edition of Artforum Online.
Most Recent Project: Hope & Glory with Simon Birch
Her most recent project is Hope & Glory: A Conceptual Circus, inspired by Hong Kong’s British expatriate artist Simon Birch. The show encompasses 20,000 square feet in ArtisTree, a non-profit art space that exists within a sprawling office complex, and is one of the largest multimedia art exhibitions ever created in Hong Kong. The show’s installations utilize video, sculpture, costume and sound design, live performers and 2-dimensional paintings to create a fantastic, interactive environment. Running themes include the journey through life and transformation, the ‘hero’ mythologies of various cultures, and science fiction. The show also maintains a definitive preoccupation with craftsmanship and the process of producing art.
Art Radar’s writer and researcher Erin Wooters met with Valerie Doran to discuss her experience and the challenges of curating Hope & Glory, a mammoth and unprecedented project, with no comparable exhibition ever attempted in Hong Kong. Valerie’s revelations are surprising, and include details of the conceptual performance that didn’t come to fruition in Hope & Glory due to the grave injury of the human ‘artwork’, how exactly the Birch Foundation managed to secure government funding for the show within Hong Kong’s hyper-competitive and chronically under-funded art scene, and what this exhibition means for the future of contemporary art in Hong Kong.
'Heavy is the Head that Wears the Crown', 2010. Hope & Glory installation shot. By Simon Birch in collaboration with Paul Kember. Curated by Valerie Doran.
How did you meet Simon and become involved with this project?
Simon was one of the artists in my ‘Looking for Antonio Mak’ show, so that’s how I met him. What I was looking for [in artists for Antonio Mak] was not a style—I was looking for a level of sensitivity and a voice. There were artists that I liked and I wanted to work with, and I wanted a figurative painter. I had seen a painting of Simon’s, and I didn’t know who he was, but when I saw one of his paintings I was very struck by the texture of the brushwork. So I met him. He had never heard of Antonio, and I showed him Antonio’s catalogue and he was almost in shock because he responded so strongly to the work and the imagery. So he wanted to do it … After that show completed, he asked me if I’d work with him on ‘Hope and Glory’.
Can you describe the process of curating the Hope & Glory show?
We met for over a year, working on this concept, the floor plans, the narrative, and the sub-narrative. There was a lot of discussion. Then, 3 months before the show opened, Robert Peckham from Hong Kong University, who is a history professor who had seen both the ‘Antonio’ show and a smaller show that Simon did during his illness, which was a really powerful show called ‘Out of the Darkness’, got to know Simon and was very interested in this project, so we had discussions with him. There was a lot of in-depth conceptual thought and discussion, which lasted for about a year, that went into this show. The show was very formed in Simon’s mind and he already knew certain things that he wanted to do. However, the show as it is now also has elements that were changed, or gotten rid of.
This is a very unique show. How was curating this exhibition different from your previous experiences?
It was a very different experience from curating a show that I generated the idea. This is a situation in which an artist came to me with a concept for a complex multimedia installation, and asks to have it curated, so what does that really mean? It is a very different role. The closest analogy that I can come up with to describe our relationship is an editor and a novelist. Editors come across novelists with all different levels of formed work. Some may be very sketchy, or have just a few chapters. It depends on what stage you get into the relationship with the writer. So, you must challenge the language, challenge the structure, and challenge the concept.
'Crawling From the Wreckage', 2010. Hope & Glory installation shot, including an interactive viewer. By Simon Birch in collaboration with Douglas Young. Curated by Valerie Doran.
Were there any surprises or unexpected difficulties in the making of ‘Hope & Glory’?
One of the key installations, the living room installation, originally wasn’t like that. It was originally all stage, and a key concept that ended up not being able to happen, was that he hired a guy he knows to transform himself into a super being. To transform himself, an everyday guy, into an iron man athlete over the course of a year. So, the guy started training for about 6 or 7 months, and filmed himself everyday, and that was to be edited into a film about his transformation. And then over the course of the exhibition, over 2 months, the man was to always be sitting in the living room. What happened was that 6 or 7 months into his training, the guy almost broke his neck during training. It was just before Christmas, and he severely injured his neck, almost severed his spine. So obviously that didn’t happen. Simon has him on video on one of the TVs on the floor, but the overall concept had to go. It didn’t happen. We decided then it would be fun to change the living environment into the computer vector cage, and create a cage for humans in the living room space.
When it came time to build the show, it was also so complicated to build that he hired a production company that usually sets up rock concerts. Because, no one knows how to do an art show here, except people who work at the museum. No one knew how to build it. We had to start from scratch with everything. It was hideously difficult.
I also knew I was taking a big risk, as was Simon, who was taking the biggest risk of all, because he’s put everything he has into the show, and he busted his butt for over and year and had to find a way to do something in a place where it’s impossible to do it.
'Spinal Mount Starcracker', 2010. Hope and Glory installation shot, by Simon Birch. Curated by Valerie Doran.
Are you satisfied with the show? Does it achieve your intentions?
I think it fulfills Simon’s vision, and I believe it’s achieved something. I believe we’ve constructed a pretty interesting world for people to enter and take something away. I think it has communicated a lot of personal vision of the artist, and I think it is conceptually multilayered and very interesting in that way. I think in terms of the physical realization of the physical works, that partly due to time limitations and all the other limitations when trying to do this, such as money and space, that certain things weren’t pushed to the limit and there are things we weren’t able to realize.
I think my collaborative experience with Simon was more problematic than expected, but that’s ok. On many levels I feel very amazed by his achievement, and I’ve learned a lot… The fact that we were able to pull together so many interesting people in the forums, and to see the students coming in, it’s awesome.
The show has gotten a lot of attention and a lot of press, and there is a really great article in the International Herald Tribune, and that’s all great, but that’s not the key issue for me.
Were pieces transported into the space or built in ArtisTree?
The large-scale sculpture pieces like the star and the steel ball, and the letters were made in a factory in Guangzhou, according to the technical drawings. The production supervisor would go out there and send photographs back.
The steel frame for the trophy ball was created in Guangzhou, and the trophies were put on by hand, one by one. And engraved one by one. The cage living room (‘Crawling from the Wreckage’) was put up string by string.
What is inscribed on the trophies?
On the ‘Spinal Mount Starcracker’… The name of every artwork Simon’s ever made and every person he’s ever loved or has been a friend to him is on those trophies, so that’s why he calls it ‘my life in a thousand cheap trophies.’
Can you tell the story about how this was funded?
Simon is an outsider in the art scene. He’s a Westerner. This is a very personal show for him, and he’s taking risks and exposing himself to a very unsympathetic, hermetic contemporary art scene. The show has done a lot of amazing things in a lot of ways, but people are suspicious, asking, why is there government funding? Why did the tourism board give money for the show? We find this criticism quite hilarious, because Simon was working on the show for two years, with me for one year, and was maxing out all his credit cards and scrounging for sponsorship.
We heard about a mega-event fund, through somebody over at the NGO art organizer. They said, there’s this crazy fund you should try for, because they’re supposed to fund entertainment, sports, and cultural events, and they’ve got a ton of money. The main criterion is that you have to guarantee that at least 10,000 people will come to your event. The second thing is that you have to show that it will attract tourism, and that it will help benefit the image of Hong Kong. So Simon was like, let’s go for this. I’m thinking, are you crazy, they’re never going to give this to a visual artist. But why not try it, what have we got to lose, right? So, I asked a friend of mine who worked with me on the ‘Antonio’ show, who used to be a government accountant and is now an emerging curator, to come look at these forms and help us understand them. Simon also did a lot of research online about how to fill out these forms.
We filled out the forms, submitted them, and Simon was really surprised when he got short listed and called back for an interview. Then, we made the second cut, which meant that we were one of nine proposals asked to submit a seven minute PowerPoint presentation to their selection committee. That amazed us. This was all in February—we didn’t even know we had any government funding until March. All these artists are accusing- oh, they could only do this because they got government funding—which is wrong.
We had KC Wong with us for the presentation, who is a friend of Simon’s and a really great artist. He was originally going to do a piece in the show but it didn’t work out. The 3 of us went to meet 20 people in business suits at the Tourism Bureau and Leisure and Cultural Services Department, and there was a question and answer session and it wasn’t hostile. I was so surprised they were actually interested in knowing more. I never expected they’d give us money.
We were really shocked when around February we were told they were going to give us a matching grant for up to 2 million [HK] dollars for production costs. That means that we have to spend 4 million [HKD] on production and they’ll give us 2 million. However, the overall value of the show is over 15 million Hong Kong dollars [approximately 2 million USD] . That includes the sponsorship, venue (which we didn’t have to pay for), the graphic design, and the banners. This is all sponsored. For our education program, we got $50,000 HKD from Louis Vuitton to do our forums, which we are also using to pay for buses to bus in students from less advantaged areas.We were able to invite the Symbiotic Dance Troupe, a community-based group incorporating physically handicapped dancers, to perform at our first forum, and they did an interactive work inside the installation, which was absolutely beautiful. So we’re using the money very wisely and producing an educational pamphlet for students.
All the actors in the films, the designers, the film directors, and the musicians—they’ve all done this for nothing or for very little. So the main cost is the production but the value of the show is on the scale of the Tate Modern.
So does this mark a first for artists trying for this government fund?
Well, it is a relatively new fund and most artists would never even consider it. They all go running to the arts development council, where artists usually get money… Yet, here is something interesting, because it’s supposed to raise Hong Kong’s international image. Hong Kong is trying to strengthen its creative industries and make itself the creative capital of Asia, but still does not include the fine arts or visual arts within their definition of a creative industry. So, the fact that we are able to get this money actually for a visual arts project from this unlikely source, and they are willing to take a risk and fund us, is a very good thing.
'Twilight Shadows of the Bright Face', 2010. Hope & Glory installation shot. By Simon Birch in collaboration with Prodip and LucyAndBart. Curated by Valerie Doran.
How do you feel about the critics who call Hong Kong a cultural desert?
The way I look at it is this: Hong Kong is not a cultural desert, and there are a lot of talented people that are doing excellent work whether in the performing arts, music, visual arts, or theatre. The ‘desert’ is the lack of platform for them. The desert is in the cultural policy of the Hong Kong government. It’s a conceptual desert, not a real desert.
So, what is the definition of a desert? It is a place where things don’t get watered. There are plants, water them! If not, they have to move elsewhere to survive. Except for the performing arts, which has more of a platform and is better known, everything else has to move to the periphery to find ‘water’. They have to water themselves. That’s the desert.
Of course art can never be government generated, but, in the West you have a mixture. You have the Guggenheim, a private museum created by a collector, you have PS1, and there are artist-generated spaces. But here, space is at a premium—it’s valuable, it’s money. The government also doesn’t know what to do, because they don’t trust the artists. Even the ADC [Hong Kong Arts Development Council] —if you apply for $120,000 [HKD], they give you $50,000 [HKD] because they assume you are exaggerating funding needs. Everybody is always under funded.
What do you think the show means for Hong Kong?
I don’t know. I just think it’s this weird entity that happened. One thing it means for sure is that more people have been exposed to a serious multimedia installation by an artist, and been exposed to an artist’s vision. That’s amazing. That’s what you want.
What is the biggest challenge for advancing the arts in Hong Kong?
Space is a huge issue in Hong Kong—space for the visual art, where is it? The museum? No.
1A Space is great but it’s way out there. Artists have to invent their own spaces here in Hong Kong. They are amazing in that way. But the problem is that they’re not accessible to most people so there tends to be this kind of interiority or privacy, a self-contained, almost clubbish atmosphere here in the contemporary art scene. If you’re not a member of the club, it’s a problem. When it’s like that in art, it’s not a good thing.
There are a lot of new laws, like the ‘80% law’, which I find to be criminal. For instance, if developers are able to convince 80% of tenants to sell their properties to them, then you would be forced to sell your flat. People talk about post-colonialism, but I don’t believe there’s any such thing. There is just always a new colonizer, and right now the colonizer is the developers, and the government allows it. Together, they are colonizing Hong Kong space. That has to stop, and needs to be more rational.
Which Hong Kong arts organisations do you appreciate?
In terms of an organisation that has made a new contribution in the past five to ten years, definitely Asia Art Archive. I think Asia Art Archive is a very important organisation.
1A Space is good, and has been struggling to stay open. They are artists in a government owned space; that’s really tough.
There are some important grass roots initiative projects run by artists. The Kai Tak River Project is run by artists and architects who are trying to preserve the Kai Tak River Area as a cultural space, and this involves a whole lot of other issues.
The musicians and theatre performers in the San Po Kong district who moved into factory areas to have rehearsal and performance space have also formed an organization. The government has a new initiative to develop the San Po Kong area, so they are trying to throw everyone out. But, where are they supposed to go? They have formed their own group to try to change things. [The San Po Kong Creative and Cultural Industry Concern Group]
'Tannhauser', 2010. Hope & Glory installation shot. By Simon Birch in collaboration with Gary Gunn. Curated by Valerie Doran.
Are there any particular galleries you value in Hong Kong?
When it comes to commercial galleries I prefer not to answer that question, but in terms of non-commercial galleries, I can say that it’s really great there are some new locally run galleries showing more conceptual works with a less commercial and more experimental style. Like the YY9 Gallery, and the Exit Gallery. These put on small and interestingly conceived shows that are less commercial, which I think is really great.
Do you attend biennales?
Not really. Frankly I don’t have a lot of time to travel because I’m very busy. I have a child and I teach. I get to some things here and there, but biennales are not a compelling interest of mine.
How do you stay informed about the art world? What do you read?
I think I read very much at random. I’ll read some of the Western art news, like Art Forum, Art News, and The Art Newspaper. I actually find a lot of interesting stuff in the Financial Times; they have a great Arts and Culture section. Occasionally the Wall Street Journal. I’ll also look at Yishu, which is a contemporary Chinese arts journal published out of Canada. And Orientations Magazine, because I am also interested in traditional art, and I have a background in traditional Chinese painting.
However, I do research a lot of particular topics that I’m teaching. For instance, I may read about Indian art or the contemporary scene in miniatures from Pakistan. I’m not the kind of person who regularly reads a whole range of things; I’m very much driven by my personal interests.
What literature and writers have influenced your thinking?
There is a very intriguing text by the 17th century ‘eccentric’ painter Shi Tao, called in English ‘Enlightening Remarks on Painting‘. It is quite a radical and conceptual text in its way, and I have re-read it and drawn from it many times since I first read it more than twenty years ago.
Another book is ‘Ways of Seeing’ by the British humanist and critic John Berger. In fact, the text of Hope & Glory’s educational pamphlet, which we designed for students, (conceived by myself and Robert Peckham of HKU, with text by Robert) was inspired by Berger’s approach.
What projects are you looking forward to next?
[Laughs] Sleeping! Actually, I am involved in another project but we have not gotten to realize it yet, partly because of Hong Kong’s weird ‘creative industries’ definition. The project is ‘In Dragon Garden‘, which is a beautiful private garden in Tsuen Wan, and the granddaughter of the founder has managed to preserve it from developers. With her aunt and uncle, who now own it, they want to create a public cultural and artistic environment and garden. However, getting the support to do that is very difficult. So I’ve been working on a prototype art project with that, and so far we have not been able to realize it because of funding issues.
I would like to do another show that breaks the mold of how things are usually done here. I would like to work with a single Hong Kong artist and just do a major show in a major space, because no one does that. Like in New York. I just want to do that to change the paradigm. It’s great to have art in these private intimate spaces, and that’s why Hong Kong art has developed the way it has, in a very interesting way. But we need to break out of that and think about projection.
The other thing I’d like to do is create a different kind of space. And I’d love to be a curator and get paid for it. That would be exciting. [laughs]
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