When I was taken on as the first curator of Chinese Arts Centre (the national centre for the promotion of contemporary Chinese art) in 2002, in the lead up to the opening of the new centre, people would say to me 'That's great,' and then follow that with 'But won't you get bored and run out of artists to work with?' It became a common response to what fellow curators saw as the limitations of cultural or ethnic specific curation.
My starting point for devising the artistic policy was to challenge the pre-conception that curating exhibitions by Chinese artists need necessarily be restrictive and to create a programme that was vibrant, engaging and most importantly of relevance to a UK audience. After three years of programming and curating I can answer skeptics with greater certainty than I myself could have preempted. I definitely didn't run out of Chinese artists that I wanted to work with and I may never. I still have a long list of artists that I am waiting for the right occasion to work with and enduring relationships with artists that I will undoubtedly work with again.
A year ago I left the Centre in order to pursue to great opportunity, a fellowship of the Clore Leadership Programme, a scheme designed to develop and nurture a future generation of cultural leaders. Far from marking a departure from contemporary Asian art it has been an opportunity to engage in wider debates across the cultural sector and has subsequently led to an even greater understanding of the broader global cultural context in which Asian art exists.
Over the last 4 years, since I started working at Chinese Arts Centre, the landscape of contemporary Asian art in the UK has changed dramatically. The worldwide fascination with Mainland Chinese art is as prevalent here in the UK as it is elsewhere and is set to continue over the next few months with, for example, China projects by major galleries including Serpentine and Tate Liverpool. This autumn UK will also see the presentation of work by Asian artists and artists from the Asian diasporas including; a solo show by Mariko Mori, a new performance by Lee Mingwei (at Albion Gallery), Asian artists featured in the "Liverpool Biennial", followed early in the new year with a major solo exhibition of Canadian Korean artist Tim Lee and a show about Hong Kong that I am co-curating for Urbis.
This surge in interest in Asian art is of course welcome but what is more important is that it amounts to more than just a passing phase and that the visibility of Asian art in the UK is sustained. A need to position UK-based Asian artists in relation to Asian art and the international artistic discourse as a whole is more pressing now than it has ever been, in order that their work is not simply dismissed as an 'inauthentic' relative to Asian art. It is something that Asia Society has acknowledged by curating its Asian American exhibition, "One Way or Another: Asian American Art Now", and it is the stance from which my co-curators Yuen Fong Ling, Howard Chan, Siu King-Chung and I have curated our show about Hong Kong, which offers multiple perspectives, incorporating those of British Chinese and Hong Kong based artists (and curators).
Several key developments over the next few years have the potential to make a major impact on Asian art in the UK alongside the on-going work of existing spaces such as Chinese Arts Centre, Asia House and organisations like Triangle Arts Trust. They are inIVA (Institute of International Visual Arts), Rich Mix and Asia Triennial Manchester. Under the directorship of Augustus Casely-Hayford, inIVA is going through major development, which will lead to the opening of an exciting new space, Rivington Place, to be shared with Autograph ABP. Scheduled to open to the public in autumn 2007, the new building designed by architect David Adjaye, it looks set to be a landmark building which will not only set the standard for the presentation of culturally diverse and international art in UK but also to be an internationally and nationally significant space. With its ambitious artistic vision it will enable some of the most significant international artists to be shown in London alongside UK's most innovative artists. Another promising enterprise is Rich Mix, which soft opened earlier this year and launched a brilliant project, Car: objects of desire and design. The project, which was led by artist Leepu Awlia and involved local teenagers, epitomises Rich Mix's approach, which is to imbed its work within the ethnically diverse local community in East End. It proves that community engagement and exciting art need not be mutually exclusive.
Earlier this year a surprising move to present "Fukuoka Triennial" in the Northern town of Blackburn meant that UK audiences had the opportunity to see works by many Asian artists that had previously not been shown in the UK. Unfortunately, the presentation of the work across venues of varying quality meant that the Triennial wasn't shown at its best. Presented in a small northern town the audience figures were inevitably lower than they ought to have been for a major show of this calibre. What the presentation of "Fukuoka Triennial" in Blackburn serves to demonstrate is the museum's receptiveness to touring the show internationally and if other Asian art museums follow suit the contemporary Asian art we see here in the UK will become that much more varied.
A home-grown initiative, the first "Asia Triennial Manchester", being planned by Shisha for 2008 looks set to continue the interest in engaging with contemporary Asian art.
Working with visual arts venues across Manchester, Shisha's approach is to act as an umbrella for shows curated by individual venues. The Triennial will be unusual in that Shisha is not assuming overall curatorial control apart from encouraging works to be around the theme of 'Protest'. It is also being initiated in the UK as oppose to in Asia or with Asian art partners. The way in which it will endeavour to connect with the Asian Diasporas and 'celebrate the city's diverse communities' will probably be most successfully be done through site-specific work in Rusholme, Manchester. Having partnered up with Manchester Metropolitan University the scope for critically engaged debates and an exploration of the discourses around contemporary Asian art is perhaps where the Triennial can carve a niche for itself in the wider Asian art scene. As a regularly occurring event, it will be interesting to observe how the Triennial develops over the next instalments and the way in which each new one acts as a barometer for changes in Asian art in the period between triennials.
With these developments happening in the next few years I am genuinely excited by the possibilities they present and in the more immediate future am looking forward to seeing the broad range of projects programmed to take place in the UK. Undoubtedly, those that will prove most successful will be ones that maintain dialogue and the spirit of collaboration at their heart.
- Sun, 1 Oct 2006