Art Radar conducts an extensive interview with the influential translator, critic and curator on her 30 years in the Chinese contemporary art scene.
From her early days working alongside Johnson Chang Tsong-zung at Hanart TZ Gallery, Valerie Doran has enjoyed a rich career steeped in the experimental practices of Greater China. As she joins Hanart TZ Gallery once again, Art Radar asks her to reflect on standout moments along her journey.
I’d like to start by asking you about your roots. You received your B.A. in Chinese Studies from Wellesley College in the United States, where you were a student of the distinguished Chinese art historian Anne Clapp, and you were awarded the Wellesley-Yenching Fellowship at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. What inspired your early interest in China?
My earliest memory of encountering any kind of Asian art is when I was a small child. My mother had a lot of art books scattered all over our house—she was Italian and very much a Renaissance woman—and among them there was a wonderful book of Japanese ukiyo-e art that really fascinated me. But generally I was more of a literature person growing up; when I was younger I loved poetry and I first discovered Chinese poems through reading translations (or maybe the better word would be interpretations) of Chinese poetry by American poets like Ezra Pound and Kenneth Rexroth.
Although I concentrated in literature at Wellesley I was lucky enough to study a course in Chinese art history with the phenomenal scholar Anne Clapp, who was an expert on Ming-dynasty painting. She was very much an old-school scholar, very stern, but she opened up a very different world for me, and taught me about looking at painting in a new way. She encouraged me to go to Taiwan and take up an internship at the National Palace Museum because Wellesley had a connection. But in the end I applied for a fellowship at the Chinese University of Hong Kong instead. This was in the early 1980s. I wanted the opportunity to travel to the Mainland as well, which was less possible from Taiwan.
Is that when you first met Johnson Chang Tsong-zung?
Yes, I met him my first year in Hong Kong in fact. At the time, Johnson was running a small version of Hanart Gallery on Hollywood Road together with the artist and connoisseur Harold Wong. They sold primarily traditional ink and brush paintings, Ming and Qing mostly, and some 20th century works. The way I met Johnson was through my friend Keith Wilson, who at the time was at the CUHK on a fellowship from Williams College, Johnson’s alma mater. Keith was very interested in Chinese art – in fact he is now curator for ancient Chinese art at the Freer Gallery in Washington DC – and we used to visit Hanart together, and sometimes meet up with Johnson for drinks.
I was impressed by Johnson’s intense curiosity about things and his mad energy. At the time Johnson was already pushing to do more with contemporary Chinese art, and we used to visit all kinds of artists together, from Luis Chan who had his crazy apartment over a bar in Wanchai, to Antonio Mak and other artists who hung out at the Fringe Club when it was more alive and there were artists’ studios on the top floors.
Over the next couple of years Johnson set up Hanart 2, basically his own gallery to show Chinese contemporary art. This comprised a huge and quite unorthodox space in the basement of an apartment block on Kadoorie Hill in Kowloon Tong, which is a very prestigious address, a lot of movie stars have houses up there, and in fact the only way Johnson could afford it is that he rented the basement from his uncle who owned a flat there. But it was at the very top of this cul de sac, and pretty inaccessible – no one could ever find it the first time around. Johnson actually lived there as well, like a true bohemian. He had a little flat in the back of the basement and the rest was the gallery and storage space. When you walked in you were very likely to trip over visiting artists from from Taiwan or China or the States or wherever (or maybe left over from a party of the night before) who were crashing there and sleeping on the floor. I had moved to Taiwan by that time, so sometimes would visit and end up sleeping on the floor myself.
At the time, a lot was more visibly happening in contemporary art in Taiwan, and Johnson was probably the first gallerist in Hong Kong (or maybe anywhere) to focus on contemporary Taiwan artists as well as showing some Hong Kong contemporary art. This was when he began to work with Ju Ming and younger Taiwan painters like Cheng Tsai-tung and Yu Peng. He also managed to open a fantastic gallery space in Taipei, in Yangmingshan area. It wasn’t far from the Palace Museum and close to where Ju Ming and several other artists lived. The gallery was in a traditional-style house with a courtyard. He did a lot of experimental shows there, installation art and performance as well as paintings and sculpture.
In the mid-1980s I had moved to Taipei to study Chinese literature in the Stanford Programme at National Taiwan University, and got to know a lot of artists and experimental theatre people, many of whom were also political activists. Johnson was there often and we had a lot of friends in common. I sometimes helped out at Hanart (Taipei) Gallery, with translations and editing and the like – and we sometimes went to parties at a house nearby that Ju Ming rented to a group of younger artists, or met up at Wistaria Teahouse, which was a bit of a hangout for artists and dissidents at the time. People used to hang out, drink, talk, that was the kind of scene. I came into it just as it was happening. There wasn’t much in terms of gallery space or formal recognition. People were just doing things.
Johnson began to travel a lot more to the Mainland in the mid-to-late 1980s, exploring the emerging scene there. He did some very important and even seminal shows in the late 1980s – for example the “Stars: Ten Years” show in January 1989 at Hanart 2, bringing together members of the pioneering Stars artists like Wang Keping and Huang Re, who had staged the first public show of avant garde art in Beijing in 1979. He brought the show to Taipei as well, and even engaged the experimental theatre group U Theatre, who were friends of mine, to stage Wang Keping’s play The Retrial of Wei Jingsheng, about the imprisoned political activist. It was at Hanart 2 that I first saw the work of Gu Wenda. Even the Hong Kong performance artist Frog King used the Hanart 2 space for a happening after he came back from New York in the mid-80s. It was an interesting scene.
In 1992, you moved to Hong Kong and got a job as curatorial manager and publications editor for Hanart TZ Gallery in Hong Kong. One of the first projects you worked on was their groundbreaking exhibition “China’s New Art: Post-1989” at the Hong Kong Arts Centre. Johnson Chang Tsong-Zung and Li Xianting were curating the first exhibition of Chinese experimental art outside of the country.
That happened in the first place because in 1992 I had moved back to Hong Kong with the Hong Kong composer and musician Kung Chi Shing (whom I later married). Johnson was in the middle of working with mainland curator Li Xianting to put together the Post-89 show, which was a daunting task, so I came on board to help out.
I wonder if you could speak a bit about this time, and the most striking memories you have of this exhibition. Are there one or two moments in your mind that stand out?
It’s hard to pinpoint just one or two moments, as it was a time of complete chaos and crazy challenges. For one thing, just figuring out how to get the artworks out of China… many of them were highly sensitive and controversial in nature and they couldn’t be officially shipped, so almost everything had to basically be smuggled out in some way – usually by truck with some intrepid drivers – to avoid censorship. We had several heart attacks about that. So one of the key moments was certainly when the physical works began to arrive. And then when some of the artists arrived in Hong Kong as well, people like Wu Shanzhuan, Wang Guangyi, Zhang Peili and many others. My main task, though, was editing the huge catalogue we produced for the show, with essays by an extraordinary group of writers, from Li Xianting and Fei Dawei to Michael Sullivan and Geremie Barme. All the Chinese text out of the Mainland was handwritten and faxed over, you can imagine trying to decipher it. That preparatory stage, there was so much going on.
It was such an iconic, important show historically. At the time was there a feeling of how important it was?
Everyone knew it was a special phenomenon that was happening, but nobody knew quite how to define it. Just the amazing people involved for one thing: Li Xianting, the show’s co-curator, was already an iconic figure, editor of one of the key experimental journals for contemporary art criticism in China, a curator of the seminal China/Avant-garde show in Beijing in 1989, and an activist who had done jail time. His partner, Liao Wen, was a very interesting woman – a writer, researcher and assistant curator on the show. Then getting to know the artists who were from different generations and working across different media in experimental forms – the pioneers from the ’85 New Wave movement and the younger artists who were beginning to emerge in the early 90s, like Feng Mengbo and Qiu Zhijie. Johnson had done “The Stars 10 Years” show, just four years before. It was history, but it was history as it was unfolding.
You then went on to curate several important exhibitions in the city in the following years…
I stayed on at Hanart until 1994, and was happy that I was given freedom at the time to curate my own show, called “Voices from the Edge”, featuring ten women artists from China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, including Cai Jin, Ellen Pau, and Chen Hui-Chiao among others. One of the debates Johnson and I had many times was the importance of being more supportive of Chinese women artists. The main point for me was that they have a chance to meet each other, to dialogue, and Hanart generously made it possible to bring them together for a discussion. The title of the show was inspired by something Liao Wen had written in her essay in the China’s New Art: Post-89 book: she was reminiscing about how exciting it was when she used to sit in the corner and listen to all these great male artists and critics discussing and making plans during the 1980s. And I thought, why is she sitting in the corner?
I’d like to ask you to speak about ‘Looking for Antonio Mak’ at the Hong Kong Museum of Art in 2008 where you gathered together rarely seen works by the late Hong Kong sculptor and you brought a cast of contemporary Hong Kong artists into the institution. Why did you want to organise that exhibition?
I’d always loved Antonio Mak’s work and was fascinated by him as a person. Ironically, the first time I saw an exhibition of his work was actually at the Taipei Art Museum. There is a very special energy about his work – the way he uses a more classical figurative language but embeds so much of himself into it, his spiritual striving and his everyday cynicism and frustration, the physical marks of his hands and even the shape of his own body. His work was so much of the moment but at the same time had so many references across time. And then he died, shockingly, in 1994, when he was only 43. And his work just seemed to disappear from view.
A few years later, I heard that the curator Gao Minglu was putting together a survey exhibition of Chinese contemporary art from ‘the Greater China region’ (Mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan) for the Asia Society in New York. This was the “Inside/Out” show, and it featured contemporary art from the late 70s to the late 90s. I had been asked by Orientations magazine to review the show in New York, and I thought the Hong Kong segment was the weakest, not necessarily because the art was weak, but because I felt the understanding of the Hong Kong arts scene/art history seemed shallow. I was particularly surprised, maybe even a bit outraged, that no work by Antonio Mak was included.
That’s when I decided I wanted to move more into independent curatorship. In 2004 I was fortunate to be part of the special one-year programme in curatorship which was run collaboratively by the Hong Kong Art School and the Guggenheim Museum. The Guggenheim would send over their key professionals to hold workshops with us. At the workshop with Lisa Dennison, the Guggenheim’s chief curator at that time, she put out the question: if you had the opportunity to curate any show you wanted to, what would it be? And I immediately answered: I would do a show about Antonio Mak.
When the Hong Kong Museum of Art did that rare, and I think unique until now, open call to curators – the Open Dialogue Programme – in 2007, I worked very hard at putting together a proposal for an exhibition whose core question was: Where is Antonio Mak? I was posing that question on multiple layers: in terms of collective memory, in terms of actual presence or absence of his works, in terms of his history within Hong Kong art history, in terms of how the community of Hong Kong remembered and/ responded to him. And then there was also a subtext: What would the answers to these questions tell us about how Hong Kong has treated its own artists?
You recently rejoined Hanart TZ Gallery again – how did this come about?
In 2014 Hanart had its major 30th-anniversary exhibition, “Hanart 100: Idiosyncrasies”, which also involved a symposium of distinguished scholars from around the globe. Johnson wanted to publish a significant book on both and asked me to work with him and the Hangzhou-based scholar and curator Gao Shiming (director of the Institute of Inter-Media Art at the China Academy of Art), as the book’s editorial director.
The curatorial strategy of the exhibition was based around a theoretical framework, groundbreaking to some degree, called the ‘three parallel artworlds’ developed by Johnson and Gao Shiming, together with the young post-Marxist philosopher Johan Hartle from the University of Amsterdam, who like Johnson is an adjunct professor at CAA. The book was meant to be not only an exhibition catalogue but an extension of the discourse, and a new platform for ideas.
So the book chronicles the exhibition, “Hanart 100: Idiosyncrasies”, which comprises 100 artworks from the early 20th century to the early 2000s. Johnson wrote these wonderful short ‘biographies’ for each of the artworks – sometimes they’re very personal and idiosyncratic, as well as critical or art historical. It also includes a selection of essays by a very diverse group of scholars, from the Taiwan activist Huang Sun Quan, to Harvard scholar Eugene Wang, to German art historian Boris Groys, and conceptual artist Qiu Zhijie, among others. There is also a documentary section at the back, which chronicles eight Hanart projects from 1989 to the present, that reverberate with and are informed by this theoretical framework, without necessarily a conscious knowing.
In any case, while working on this project, Johnson several times broached the possibility of coming on board at Hanart to work with the team both curatorially and on publications, which have always been a key area for him. I’ve worked as an independent curator on select projects over a number of years – some of my more recent projects have included the inter-disciplinary event Stigmatics with artist Angela Su and musician Ah Kok Wong and cultural historian Sander Gilman, and recent solo exhibitions with Leung Mee Ping and Frog King – and for me the process has always been equally important to the exhibition itself. So I thought it would be interesting to apply this approach to working at Hanart, a commercial gallery which is ‘problematized’ in a sense by its unusual history, the many projects that radiate out from it, and its central ‘space’ which exists on both a physical and, yes, metaphysical or at least psychological level.
Like most independent arts workers in Hong Kong, I’m used to working with minimal resources and having to invent ways of navigating to enact processes and projects with as little compromise as possible. I thought it would be interesting to transpose that experience and approach to working at Hanart, on an experimental basis, you could say. Shake up the paradigm a bit, with the advantage of this great location, some resources and a strong team who don’t seem to mind to move out of their comfort zone. And the opportunity to become involved in some of the other amazing and provocative projects being created within the larger network of thinkers, artists and curators on a pan-Asian level.
I wonder if you could explain what Johnson is doing with India right now and the “West Heavens” project – it sounds fascinating.
The goal of the “West Heavens” project is to create dialogue and connections between artists and scholars in India and in China, a platform of exchange outside of the East-West binary. This project came out of the 2008 Shanghai Biennale, when Johnson worked together with the Taiwan-based scholar Chen Kuan-hsing to put together a forum or summit of important Indian social thinkers including Partha Chatterjee, Homi Bhabha, and Deepesh Chakrabarty, which was accompanied by an exhibition curated by Chaitanya Sambrani involving both Chinese and Indian artists. The “West Heavens” project developed directly from that. There is a headquarters for the “West Heavens” project in Shanghai, headed up by a very brilliant young scholar and curator named Chen Yun, who is a graduate of CAA and a former student of Gao Shiming. Another initiative with Johnson and other scholars is the Inter-Asia School which seeks to create a discussion and publishing platform and also holds a summer school programme for students. These two projects are related and these are independent of Hanart gallery. (The gallery, you could say, is one of Johnson’s projects.)
There has always been a connection between China and India, starting at least with the Silk Road. The Monkey King legend is based on the historical, seventh century monk Tripitika’s journey to pick up the holy scrolls of Buddhism and bring them back to China. The “West Heavens” project is built on the idea that China and India are two of the oldest cultures in the world who maintained a kind of relationship up through the early 20th century, when the great Indian poet Tagore visited China at the invitation of young scholars and captivated his audience throughout his travels. I’ve seen photographs of Tagore with the great modern poet Xu Zhimo and the scholars Lin Huiyin and Liang Sicheng, people of the centre of the coterie of young intellectuals of the May 4th movement and beyond. But the connection with India was broken off in the wake of wars and revolutions. The “West Heavens” Project seeks to re-establish that. It’s quite amazing to see the intellectual reach and the networks that are being created.
As we conclude, I wonder if you could speak a bit about your current show at Hanart and what you see as the most exciting and interesting elements about Hong Kong art today?
The gallery has just wrapped up a very interesting show, a duo solo exhibition of two younger artists, Ho Sin Tung from Hong Kong and Agi Chen Yi-Chieh from Taiwan. Their art on the surface seems diametrically opposed; Ho Sin Tung’s is intensively worked pencil drawings, paintings and installation on rather dark, complex themes, while Agi Chen creates paintings using a kind of bright, post-Pop, encoded imagery – but there are some interesting, subtle links between them.
As regards Hong Kong art today, one thing I see that has evolved is a very distinctive, creative energy that generates ways of developing articulations of a very of-the-moment Hong Kong narrative. Hong Kong contemporary art has been long identified as having a strong conceptual orientation, but there is also a kind of ‘hand-made’, time-intensive, painterly quality (even if paint is not necessarily involved). A lot of these articulations have to do with referencing, copying, reinterpreting information – what in critical-theory terms these days is referred to as intertextuality.
In Ho Sing Tung’s work, for example, drawing and the writing hand is very important: her work in this sense is intensively ‘hands-on’. This hands-on quality is reflected also in the reading and research she does for each of her projects, much of it based around Hong Kong textual narratives, whether from pop culture or literature or what have you. Similar qualities, expressed in uniquely different ways, can be seen in the work of Chow Chun Fai, who will be opening a solo show at Hanart on 20 August.
I recently went to a show at Gallery EXIT featuring a very young artist, a painter called Chris Huen Sin Kan whose work is very delicate and sparse: it’s about looking at the life of things in the small spaces of our private worlds. It may be a local landscape scene or an interior view, a person, a dog, a potted plant. He looks at what surrounds him, and pays attention, and asks, ‘What are the messages?’ Hong Kong artists often seem to me to be asking this question of the things of the everyday world, and they will listen to the message and reinterpret it or appropriate or fantasise about it. But they will not overlook it.
- William Lim: Collecting Hong Kong – Artshare video – February 2015 – architect, artist and collector talks about his passion for collecting Hong Kong art, while sharing his views about his home city’s place in the global art scene
- Ivy Ma manipulates history in Hong Kong – in pictures – January 2015 – Ivy Ma continues her exploration of the interpretation of history and the nature of historical knowledge in a solo show featuring some past and ‘never-to-be-seen’ new works
- Hong Kong-born artist Paul Chan wins 10th Hugo Boss Prize – November 2014 – Hong Kong-born, US-based Paul Chan’s “singular artistic voice” and versatile practice wins him Guggenheim’s 10th Hugo Boss Prize
- More than a museum: Doryun Chong on Hong Kong’s M+ – interview – November 2013 – the future M+ Museum’s Chief Curator talks about his curatorial vision and aim to turn the 2018-slated building into a global museum located in Hong Kong
- Uli Sigg donates “most comprehensive” Chinese contemporary art collection to M+ – June 2012 – Uli Sigg has donated his large collection of contemporary Chinese art from the 1970s to the present to the M+ Museum in Hong Kong
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