Hong Kong M+ visual art curator Pauline J. Yao talks to Art Radar about the museum’s collection.
Art Radar initiates a series of interviews with curators and collectors across Asia talking about the permanent museum collections they have helped to nurture. The series kicks off with a conversation with M+ lead curator of visual art Pauline J. Yao.
The M+ permanent collection
The M+ museum, scheduled to open in 2019, forms part of the museum building boom that has taken place across Asia over the last three decades, with over 3,500 new Chinese museums built since 1978. And yet M+ distinguishes itself from its private colleagues for one important characteristic: a long-term commitment to building a permanent collection using public funds with the intention of creating a collection with international reach. The M+ collection recently received generous donations from Uli Sigg, Alan Lau and Hallam Chow, which acted as a vital vote of confidence for the project from important figures in the regional collecting scene.
The M+ Permanent Collection and Pauline J. Yao
Pauline J. Yao joined M+ in late 2012 as Lead Curator of Visual Art. Prior to joining the museum, Yao served as Assistant Curator of Chinese Art at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco and holds an MA in East Asian Languages and Civilizations from the University of Chicago. In 2006, Yao travelled to China on a Fulbright grant and subsequently co-founded Arrow Factory in Beijing, one of the city’s important alternative art spaces. In 2007, she was the inaugural recipient of the Chinese Contemporary Art Award’s Art Critic Award. She is the author of In Production Mode: Contemporary Art in China (2008), and co-editor of 3 Years: Arrow Factory (2011). She currently overseas the acquisitions of new works in the collection and has a particular focus on South Asian and South East Asian contemporary art.
With the dawn of the age of biennials, art tourism and the proliferation of private museum endeavours, the permanent collection seems to have fallen out of favour. Yet a dedicated selection of curators, institutions and collectors still believe in the role of the permanent collection. Art Radar talks to one such individual, Pauline J. Yao, about her curatorial practice and expanding the M+ collection.
You joined the M+ as curator in 2012. Could you tell us what have been the most successful projects you have worked on so far and what has surprised you most about working at M+?
The M+ “Live Art” exhibition in 2015 stood out for me because it was a really adventurous approach within the context of M+. The show included live performances in the street as well as polished stage productions, large-scale installations and a group exhibition, all spread across multiple venues and districts. Turnout was high and the feedback was overwhelmingly positive. With that project I saw the incredible dedication of our team and Hong Kong audiences. One of the nicest things about working at M+ is that there is a strong collegial atmosphere within each project and across the team generally. Most of the curators I work closest with are people I have known for years before joining M+ and there is a built-in sense of camaraderie that is very rare to find in museums.
How does your background in independent and non-profit initiatives, such as Arrow Factory, inform your practice as a curator now? What do you think larger institutions, such as Asian Art museum of San Francisco where you served as Assistant Curator of Chinese Art, or your current role as curator at M+ Museum, can learn from smaller scale independent art spaces?
Despite being radically different in size and operating budget, doing Arrow Factory and M+ (and doing Asian Art Museum of San Francisco) are actually not as far apart as one would think. At Arrow Factory we were always conscious about the fact that we faced a general public who may or may not have a background in contemporary art, and for M+ and Asian Art Museum it is actually quite similar. Arrow Factory was of course tiny and not publicly funded so it had far more flexibility, but in fact the core mission of wishing to be on the front lines of facilitating interactions between art and audiences remains consistent across both organisations.
You are involved in the expansion of the M+ permanent collection. Could you tell us about how the collection is developing?
I have been involved in acquisitions of visual art since I started at M+ in late 2012 and it’s been an incredible process to be a part of. When I joined there was the M+ Sigg Collection and some assorted pockets of other material from Hong Kong artists and photographers, and virtually nothing in the way of architecture or design. But now the collection has grown to nearly 6000 objects and spans multiple disciplines and geographies ranging from Hong Kong and East Asia to now South and Southeast Asia as well as many international artists and makers. The collection continues to grow but we are also getting more strategic about our decisions and our pace has slowed somewhat as we turn attention towards planning for the opening display.
At M+, one of the key areas you work on relates to South and Southeast Asian Art. Could you tell us about the current collecting scene and specifically how you are building the M+ collection in these areas?
For the last four years I have been actively involved in researching and proposing acquisitions of works by visual artists across Asia and beyond Asia, but in the last two years have been focusing more efforts on areas of South and Southeast Asian art. In addition to travelling to the region more to meet artists, academics and specialists, I have been also facilitating discussions with my colleagues about how we can find ways to incorporate aspects of South and Southeast Asian cultural production into the narratives and themes we have for the M+ collection as a whole.
M+ recently acquired five works from Hong Kong collector Mr Hallam Chow. Could you tell us about how this acquisition came about and what it brings to the collection?
Hallam and I have been friends for some time so he actually reached out to me directly (via wechat no less!) saying that he had a few artworks that he was considering to donate to M+. He was very clear about which works he was looking to gift to M+. Since all of the names were ones I knew and had already been researching for the M+ collection, I was thrilled and responded immediately. We set up a meeting to look at things together and in that process he offered a few more works by additional artists. With the exception of Sopheap Pich, all of the artists are new to the M+ collection. With every donation timing also plays a role – in the last year we have been looking to build up the M+ collection with regard to South and Southeast Asian art, and so his timing was perfect. The donation has given us a much needed boost at a crucial moment in time.
What ideological or financial factors restrict your ability to acquire artworks for the M+ collection? Have you ever made a decision to pursue an artwork that was then not subsequently acquired?
We are extremely fortunate to not have any real restrictions on what we collect, but this doesn’t necessarily make things easier. Even though M+ has a budget for building the collection, our financial resources are actually quite limited when one considers that the funds must stretch across all areas of art, architecture, design and moving image, as well as time period ranging from 1950s to the present. We spend a lot of time discussing how to best use the resources we have. And being that M+ is entirely publicly funded, we are also extremely judicious – every acquisition is carefully discussed and scrutinised before it reaches our committee for approval.
What works or bodies of work are you particularly excited about in the collection? And what artists are absolutely indispensable for a permanent collection, such as that of M+, which intends to be a serious rival to other international permanent collections?
I am rather excited that M+ managed to collect Asian Field, a monumental and highly influential installation piece by British artist Antony Gormley. The work consists of over 100,000 hand-formed clay figurines that were produced by villagers in Guangdong province in 2003 and marks a rare moment of ‘participatory’ art making when such practices were virtually unheard of in China. Key figures such as Yayoi Kusama, Tehching Hsieh and Nam June Paik are indispensable to any art history of the 20th century and therefore have been crucial additions to the M+ collection, not to mention others of equal importance within circles of Asian art too numerous to mention here.
In your 2008 essay Critical Horizons – On art criticism in China, you reflect on the issues facing art criticism in the Asia region, highlighting the lack of academic rigour in art writing and the way in which the work of art critics is often overshadowed by the tastes of collectors and curators. To what extent is the collection a reflection of market dynamics?
Every collection – private or public – is somehow a portrait of the time in which it was produced. This is unavoidable. But there is a difference in being indirectly influenced by market forces and being totally steered by them, and museums, especially public ones such as M+, are built in such a way so as to minimise these effects. Having said that, museums cannot be nor should strive to be totally divorced from the market or fully objective – they are always shaped by individual tastes of the curators, and contain a certain degree of subjectivity, as well as a dose of serendipity.
In the same essay you talk about the need for “discursive density” (citing Lee Weng Choy) when approaching contemporary art in Asia. As a proponent of art historical rigour, could you tell us a bit about how you have contributed to the rigour of the M+ collection’s collecting policy? Do you see the growing collection as making a “discursive” intervention into the collecting practices of the region?
I think a way to interpret this idea of discursive density is to think of it as a kind of inter-relatedness or interconnectedness, in that density can come from a concentrated wealth of ideas or accumulated layering of knowledge. In this sense, what M+ is doing – building a collection that is centred on Asia and explicitly interested in revealing connections between Asian artists and thinkers within Asia – is contributing to that sense of density. The models for publicly funded museums in Asia have, up to now, hewed very closely to a nationalist agenda. But with M+ we embrace the transnational but specifically geared towards building narratives that look at relationships within and amongst Asian cultures as well as how these interface with the rest of the world.
The M+ curatorial endeavour also includes a digital project and an online journal. Could you tell us about your role in these projects and how they are developing?
We have been working on an ambitious digital platform called M+ Digital that will house a broad range of new web-based content – texts, videos, discussions and online exhibitions – and acts as our virtual home in the lead up to the opening of the M+ building. I have been working mostly on TEXT+IDEAS, a fully bilingual, bi-annual online publication that will feature essays and critical writing on visual culture. We have put together a small editorial board here in Hong Kong and are already commissioning texts for the first and second issues.
What exhibitions have been particularly important in the last two years for the regional scene?
Nowadays there are so many biennials around its nearly impossible to see them all! But there are some new ones such as the Kochi-Muziris Biennale that I think have been adding significantly to the scene, and with more museums and spaces generally a many more good quality retrospectives than before such as the Apichatpong Weerasethakul show “The Serenity of Madness” that opened at the new MAIIAM in Chiang Mai or even the David Diao‘s show at UCCA.
What are you reading at the moment? And whose work are you currently particularly excited about?
New Games: Postmodernism After Contemporary Art by Pamela M. Lee (the introduction by Johanna Burton is epic) and Mao’s Golden Mangoes and the Cultural Revolution, edited by Alfreda Murck.
- M+ of West Kowloon Cultural District receives donation of artworks from Hong Kong collector Hallam Chow – October 2016 – Hong Kong collector Hallam Chow donates five artworks to M+ Museum of the West Kowloon Cultural District
- Minneapolis Institute of Art announces new Asian Art Initiative – August 2016 – Mia’s Asian Art Initiative is made possible by a generous bequest from Alfred P. Gale
- Art Basel Hong Kong 2016 outperforms, signalling as yet unrealised potential for Asia – round-up – April 2016 – the Swiss fair’s fourth Hong Kong edition exceeded expectations on all counts amidst bleak economic (and weather) conditions
- Museum acquisitions dominate star-studded Abu Dhabi Art 2015 – round-up – November 2015 – major buyers at the sensational fair include the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, the Louvre Abu Dhabi and the Zayed National Museum
- Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum acquires world class collection of Chinese art – December 2013 – one of the greatest private collections of modern and contemporary Chinese art has been bequeathed to Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum
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