Hans Ulrich Obrist: For me as a curator research never stops, there are many different ways of making research, far most, research of course happens in the studios. I make studio visits everyday, art schools, galleries, musuems, kunsthalle, autonomous project spaces, artist run spaces, and of course, art fairs; for me it’s always an important part of my research, because art fairs are very encyclopedic, on the one hand you see new artworks you haven’t seen before, on the other hand you see a lot of works also from the past, particularly here in Hong Kong, it’s interesting for me to see Chinese works from the 70s, 80s and recent past. It’s one part of my very encyclopedic research, so from this angle the answer is yes; it’s definitely an important way and possibility for research.
JCTY: When did you go to your first art fair?
HUO: When I was a teenager I started to go to art shows, I met Peter Fischli and David Weiss, the great Swiss artists who have a retrospective at the Guggenheim in New York now, and they were like my teachers in a way. They said: “You have to go see Art Basel, you will see a lot of art.” I was at the time 16 or 17, it was very important for me as a teenager, particularly for young people when you start, to get introductions and to see many things [at art fairs]. It’s important to be aware of this is only one possibility; there are many other possibilities.
JCTY: Where have you been to in Hong Kong this trip so far?
HUO: I went to Para Site, Spring, Asia Art Archive, K11, studio visits and private galleries.
JCTY: What are art fairs all about beyond commercial aspects?
HUO: In a way, I’m not in the commercial part of the artworld. I’ve never been involved in buying and selling, I work for a public institution, which doesn’t have a collection, and we do temporary exhibitions. In this sense it’s pure research. It’s definitely part of research, not to forget art fairs are visited by many thousands of people. I don’t know the number of people here but in Europe, art fairs can easily attract one to two hundred thousand visitors, so these are very public exhibitions. Most of these people are not buyers. It’s not just about selling art; it’s also about showing art.
JCTY: Do you think the current model of art fairs is sustainable? Are there too many art fairs?
HUO: You can ask the same question about biennales, because there are so many. I think it’s always the question of the global need and the local need. If you think about biennales, it’s something I’m more familiar with; I’ve curated many biennales. When we did the Tirana Biennale, which I’ve curated earlier, people said: “Do we need another biennale?” I suggested of course we need another biennale for Tirana, because people in Tirana have no biennale, it’s locally very important. The question is always about; does it have a local necessity? And does it have a global necessity?
This is why I think we live in a polyphony of centers, which means we have art centers in many different parts of the world. Hong Kong is a very important hub for many parts of Asia, there is a clear necessity as there are many Asia biennials have a clear necessity. It’s wonderful that in Taiwan, Taipei has its own biennale; it’s wonderful that there are biennales in Korea and in China, because they, in a way have a local and global necessity to connect to the local and international discourse.
JCTY: What are your thoughts on the polyphony of centers in relation to Hong Kong?
HUO: I’m very in favor in polyphony of centers, because art history has been too long dominated by the idea of one center. Paris lost the avant-gardes to New York, but that has always been a fiction. We have always had many centers in the world; particularly what it can do is we now discover local histories. The Hong Kong art scene is not a recent phenomenon, I cam here in 1996 for the first time, there are many artists here that have been working for decades, it’s important for the works to be seen, it’s important to dive in more and dig deeper.
JCTY: What would be the future of art fairs? People are buying online, they are buying from their cellphone screens. Do we still need a physical fair in the future in your opinion?
HUO: I think in a way, the idea of gatherings and places where people meet seems to be as important in the digital age as before, maybe even more important now. The question is: Are there experiences of art we can make (which you can’t make) in front of the screen? When I think about the work of Paul Chan, which I’ve just seen, he’s an artist I’ve worked with a lot in the past, here you can see new works, and this is something I need to experience in the space. I’ve seen images before, but I need to experience it in the space. The question is can an art fair render art experience, obviously because you know, the principle of a booth and so on, maybe that leads to a new model. One thing that’s interesting is solo shows happen in fairs so people can see more from the same artist in depth. The emerging artists section is where people can see new emerging artists, it’s interesting because these are all things you cannot experience on the Internet.
Last point is, which I think is very important, especially for international visitors is that it’s a form of urbanism, the entire Hong Kong becomes a kind of exhibition, it’s similar in other cities as well, when a fair or biennale happens, many institutions and smaller spaces make an effort to have exhibitions at the same time. Whilst the fair in Hong Kong is going on, it’s like an archipelago of spaces, I’ve seen about 15 shows already and tomorrow we’ve got to see more. More and more new autonomous spaces are opening; the art fair is also a moment of gathering that people can discover the city, that’s not something you can discover on the Internet.
It’s got something to do with experience, the experience of all the senses, so far what we can experience is a very flat idea on the internet of only visual and audio, you can’t experience the smell, not the tactile dimension, you can’t experience texture among other elements. I don’t think the Internet replaces the actual art experience. I use Instagram a lot, it’s an additional layer but it will never replaces the real art experience. The art experience is more important now than it was ever before. More people visit biennales, museums, gallery shows, and art fairs than ever before. This is a little bit like the same things in music, live concerts have not become less important because you can watch the concert on the Internet. So I don’t think that [physical fairs] will become redundant, it just has to reinvent itself in terms of format, and that is what I think will happen.
Jason Chung Tang Yen