Larys Frogier talks about Asia’s newest contemporary art prize and explains why the region needs another roving award platform. 

In June 2013 Hugo Boss and the Shanghai-based Rockbund Art Museum announced the first edition of the Hugo Boss Asia Art Award for emerging artists. Nomadic in nature, the biennial prize aims to “activate” alternate areas of Asia by focusing on artists from different regions in each edition. The inaugural award fixes on Greater China.

Rockbund Art Museum Director Larys Frogier announces the new Hugo Boss Asia Art Award in Shanghai. Image courtesy RAM.

Rockbund Art Museum Director Larys Frogier announces the new Hugo Boss Asia Art Award in Shanghai. Image courtesy RAM.

Affiliated with the international Hugo Boss Prize, won by Danh Vo in 2012, the new Hugo Boss Asia Art Award will be held biannually and carries with it prize money of USD 49,000. The Award will incorporate a group show, held at Rockbund Art Museum in Shanghai, as well as an ongoing research platform that will remain active throughout the two year lay period between exhibitions. By focusing on emerging artists and shifting location with every iteration, organisers hope the initiative will challenge traditional notions of Asia and Asian artists.

Artists from Greater China shortlisted for the first award are:

Ahead of the shortlisted artists’ exhibition opening on 12 September 2013 and the October announcement of the first Hugo Boss Asia Art Award winner, Rockbund Art Museum Director Larys Frogier spoke to Art Radar about the new award and the impact of the proliferation of art prizes for contemporary art in Asia.

Birdhead, 'Untitled', 2011, cellulose black and white print. The photographer duo from Shanghai are nominated for the 2013 Hugo Boss Asia Art Award.

Birdhead, ‘Untitled’, 2011, cellulose black and white print. Image courtesy of Paradise Row, copyright Birdhead.

Rockbund Art Museum (RAM) is the executor of the new Hugo Boss Asia Art Award. What does this role entail?

RAM was careful in accepting this proposal coming from Hugo Boss. I was very convinced because autonomy is fully given by Hugo Boss in any of their projects: the Guggenheim, the Venice Biennale or artist exhibitions. The way they deal with sponsorship is really to take care over professionalism and the autonomy they give, so we carefully checked all this before. It was up to the museum to conceive the projects: so from the conception of the project to the exhibition and visibility we are fully part of it.

When the concept of Asia was raised [by Hugo Boss], RAM questioned really deeply what it means to start an Asia award in the context of a global contemporary art scene; the mutations happening here, in China and in Asia. How can we make the award understandable for international people and for Chinese people? What does it mean to start this project?

So the executor role is related to the way we could bring the first content for Hugo Boss Asia Art. It was very exciting and quite a long process to come up with this concept, then we started to talk more pragmatically about the way we could network with the jury members, as well as the question of mapping the members inside Asia and internationally. This is important because we start the first edition with this Greater China context, but we hope the future editions could activate different areas in Asia. So we consider the Hugo Boss Asia Art as moving according to the mutations and innovations in the contemporary art scene, and this is very important. And that’s why we propose the jury members could also have this good balance between people already working in different areas of Asia…

So will those fourteen jury members remain the same during every iteration of the award?

No, from the beginning it was important even working on the Greater China region that we not only have Chinese curators. So we really tried to have full involvement from the Asian and international vision to this first edition. But of course the jury members will change according to future editions.

It’s so interesting to imagine the future for this project. Being the executor we also network with other organisations, curators and projects because we need to be on the forefront of knowing what’s happening in other areas; that’s also why we conceived the research platform. We would like to do it of course during the exhibition, but also between shows: so for us it is an ongoing process, the project connecting and really being in touch with the new art scenes coming up from different places in Asia. This is the most important part and we’re very excited because most of the prizes currently taking place are very focused on the selection and the award, but of course if we want to sensitise the project according to the mutations in Asia, we have really to be in tune with the transformation processes going on through the networks.

Sheung Chi Kwan, 'Yawn', 2011, still from video. Image courtesy the artist.

Sheung Chi Kwan, ‘Yawn’, 2011, still from video. Image courtesy the artist.

Activating new areas in Asia seems really important. So why focus on Greater China in the first year?

Because we’re based in Shanghai and we don’t pretend to know everything that’s happening in Asia. And also because the connection of Hugo Boss with China was important. RAM knows very well the scene in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau and mainland China, but if we were asked to go directly in India, for example, then it would be challenging to have a very professional and high quality project. This means that it requires time to go into different areas, so we decided to start very simply in Greater China.

It is also useful for Hugo Boss to promote their brand in China right now. Will they be as keen to promote the award in areas where people can’t afford to buy luxury goods? Sri Lanka, just as an example.

This I cannot answer. Do you mean if we had this Hugo Boss Award in China would it be possible to make another Hugo Boss prize in Sri Lanka for example?

I mean, if you want to take the Award to an area that’s not a prime commercial market, will Hugo Boss be just as enthusiastic? 

I think we’ll move the project according to the research platform, and not only according to the business demands of the brand.

Can you explain the process of nominating and selecting the seven shortlisted artists? It seems quite democratic.

Yes, it was a full exchange. Each of the jury nominated three artists, and then after we took out double-ups we were left with 25. We talked and this became seven. At first some of the jury members didn’t know about the artists they had to support, so it was a full exchange about how they can envision emerging artists: what did it mean for them? So it was really not fixed on very static [selection] criteria, but really we said, “we don’t have to think about age alone, practice or medium, but how the artists today can bring something fresh and new into the Asian and the international art scene.”

So then the process of talking democratically about the artists was really how they can bring strong statements as artists to social topics, or topics related to the practice of contemporary art today. Some of them use a lot of performance as you can see. So there was this question related to the young generation in China using more and more conceptual art and installation and less and less painting. But then painting was a big topic. And then we have also the issue of gender, it was very interesting to see that the first selection was mainly male artists.

Li Liao, 'Consumption', 2013, performance and installation. Photo by Dora Tang. Image courtesy of UCCA.

Li Liao, ‘Consumption’, 2013, performance and installation. Photo by Dora Tang. Image courtesy of UCCA.

Yes, what happened there? There is only one woman on the shortlist, Li Wei. Is this an argument for positive discrimination in judging panels and will you introduce this in the future?

This is a reflection of the scene now. We tried really hard to bring female artists because there are more and more emerging ones in Chinese contemporary art, but still they are not visible enough. So this is a way we can make them more visible, but still we did not succeed this time in having this balance between male and female.

I think we maybe have to come to this [positive discrimination] soon, and this was a point of debate. But in the criteria we stated no difference between the genders, and then checking the long list there were far fewer females than we expected. So the positive discrimination could come in the future.

Lee Kit is on the shortlist, and he’s had a tremendously successful year: solo shows in Europe and Asia, group shows at New York’s MoMA and the New Museum, as well as representing Hong Kong at the 55th Venice Biennale? Why does he have such international appeal?

The way he deals with the practice of painting through environment is very open. Even the way he’s dealing with daily life in Hong Kong and socio-political situations is very important, because when you look at his work he’s really questioning the situation of people confronting the global economy each and every day and the way people could reconnect with something else. Also the consumerism we’re dealing with as a society. So I think these issues are really connecting with international concerns, but in contexts related to the economic crisis and also the art scene. I think the practice of Lee Kit is very connected to the tradition of painting, but also installation. This echoes the challenges happening in different parts of the world. So I think his world is from the beginning very local in its questioning, but the way it makes this visible is very international. That’s why i think he attracts a lot of attention.

Lee Kit, 'Nivea-Night Pack', 2011, acrylic, emulsion paint, enamel paint, inkjet ink and tape on cardboard, 109 x 103 cm. Image courtesy Osage Gallery

Lee Kit, ‘Nivea-Night Pack’, 2011, acrylic, emulsion paint, enamel paint, inkjet ink and tape on cardboard, 109 x 103 cm. Image courtesy Osage Gallery.

The Multitude Prize was recently inaugurated in Beijing, and will also roam around Asia year upon year. Can you tell me how the Hugo Boss Asia Award differs?

The way we want to achieve this project is rooted in our concern that we build this network not only based in nomadism, because I believe that this concept of moving from one edition to another, geographically, is very seductive. I think we now have to take care of what’s happening in the future and also in what I prefer to call this “post-global era”, the process of going from the global context and thinking how we can really question the international challenges we all confront. I think the specificity of the Hugo Boss Asia Art Award is to dig in deeper from the position of one institution and consider the connection with the Asian challenges, rather than moving from one organisation to another, because when you move only from one to another you operate the project but do not fully contribute to the concept and the process for activating the criticality of the project. So as Director of the museum this is my main concern: how can you keep the tension between the mutations, but also how can you deeply analyse the situation in different areas of Asian art?

On a more general note, do art prizes encourage or discourage innovative and experimental art?

It depends how the prizes are operated. Many prizes here in China really promote the connection between art and brands as more of a showcase or something to achieve success in the market; it’s the way it is now. But for the Rockbund Art Museum and the Hugo Boss Award I do believe this is not the first challenge; it’s more about how the prize can make the new vision for contemporary art more visible in China. Not only how you can give the prize to one artist who will be important, but how you can contribute to a better understanding of what’s happening here and what challenges artists are confronting. And in this way I think Hugo Boss Asia Art will be a major project, not only as an award but as a support to the art scene here. It’s time now in Asia to go a step beyond the vision we have about Chinese and Asian contemporary art.

Cassandra Naji

Related Topics: Chinese artists, Hong Kong artists, Taiwanese artists, interviews, art awards 

Related Posts:

Subscribe to Art Radar for more on art prizes across Asia

By Brittney

Brittney is a writer, curator and contemporary art gallerist. Born in Singapore and based in New York City, Brittney maintains a deep interest in the contemporary art landscape of Southeast Asia. This is combined with an equally strong interest in contemporary art from the Asian diasporas, alongside the issues of identity, transmigration and global relations.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *