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19 Oct 2017 / by M+ Team

A Chat Between the Curator and Interns Behind ‘Songs for Disaster Relief’

Artist Samson Young and Guest Curator Ying Kwok kneel on the floor as they paste the title of the exhibition ’Songs for Disaster Relief’ onto the poster.

Samson Young (left) and guest curator Ying Kwok (right) preparing a poster to be hung outside the Hong Kong Pavilion in the 57th Venice Biennale. Photo: Jing C.Y. Chong

For the 57th edition of the Venice Biennale in 2017, M+ partnered with the Hong Kong Arts Development Council to co-present Hong Kong’s entry, Samson Young: Songs for Disaster Relief. In the exhibition, Samson Young, a multidisciplinary Hong Kong artist, reframes the popularisation of charity singles like 'We Are The World' and 'Do They Know it’s Christmas?', creating a series of works and installations that unpack the ideologies behind these singles through deliberately misreading and repurposing them.

We invited guest curator Ying Kwok and two exhibition interns from the 57th Venice Biennale Internship Programme—Joyce Wong and Jing Chong, who spent six weeks tending the exhibition—to interview each other about their experience. The resulting conversation focused on curatorship, how to bridge the distance between an artist and the audience, and the nature of art itself.

A neon sign on a brick wall says, in a handwritten font, ’The world is yours, but also ours, but basically yours’. A huge stage-like raised platform on the ground is decorated with alternating red, blue and yellow geometric shapes.

Risers (2017), an outdoor installation in Samson Young: Songs for Disaster Relief. The quote on the brick wall, which reads ‘The world is yours, but also ours, but basically yours’, is from a speech delivered by Mao Zedong at Moscow State University in 1957. Photo: Courtesy of the artist

The Interns Ask the Curator

Jing Chong: Ying, you've known Samson for years. Do you think working with artists you know personally helps with your curation?

Ying Kwok: It's hard to generalise about that, actually. I think the curator and the artist have to learn from one another. For instance, Samson has not had much experience in the Venice Biennale before, while I’ve visited lots of times. I could give him advice drawing on my experience. Right from the beginning, for example, I suggested doing the exhibition without starting specifically from the perspective of a representative of Hong Kong, since the work itself will naturally reveal the Hong Kong context.

When there was a difference of opinion, I would usually go with what Samson wanted. After all, this exhibition is a milestone in his career, and the works belong to him. I think the artist should take a leading role in the entire exhibition production more often, and especially in creating the works. It’s also vital to communicate when working together; to learn each other's boundaries and to assign tasks effectively.

Joyce Wong: As a bridge between the artist and the audience, the curator has to understand and digest the artist’s complicated concepts and present them in an understandable way. Samson’s exhibition this time is quite complex. What difficulties have you encountered when trying to present his ideas to the audience?

Kwok: Samson works with sound art. When he conceived the exhibition, he thought as a musician and producer would. So when we worked together, we would discuss if an idea is actually feasible, instead of just giving free rein to our imagination. When I tried to interpret his ideas, I would ask him about their origins and the meanings behind his works. After learning about his ideas, however, we wouldn’t make them too obvious in the artworks, so that the audience would be able to associate freely.

Two people with their backs towards the camera are sitting on the steps of a small entryway in a stone building. Inside the entryway, a video is being projected onto a brick wall. The people are watching the video with their headphones on.

Two visitors sitting on stone steps listening to Lullaby (World Music) with headphones. Photo: Jing C.Y. Chong

Wong: When you conceived the works and the curatorial approach, did you have the international audience of the Venice Biennale in mind? When you restage the exhibition in Hong Kong, will it be adjusted for the Hong Kong audience?

Kwok: We’ve been thinking about this right from the beginning. Since most of the audience members at the Venice Biennale are experienced in visiting exhibitions, it’s not a problem for the work to be expressed in a relatively obscure way. The theme ‘songs for disaster relief’ is actually a quite clever one. Regardless of their background in art, audience members will have their own way of reading it. As for the restaging of the show in Hong Kong next February, we are still trying hard to figure out how to use the space in the M+ Pavilion to create the same emotional experience for the local audience. Wait and see!

Three people are standing in a row in front of a canal filled with gondolas in Venice.)

Exhibition Interns Joyce Wong (left) and Jing Chong (right) with Samson Young’s assistant Vvzela Kook (centre) in front of the canal. Photo: Courtesy of Jing C.Y. Chong

The Curator Asks the Interns

Kwok: Why did you participate in this internship programme? How does this experience help your work in your art institution?

Chong: I've always wanted to visit the Venice Biennale! When I learned that Samson would be representing Hong Kong, I didn't want to miss it. Besides, I wanted to know more about how art institutions work. In Venice, I learned how M+ organised and publicised this exhibition. I also saw how the museum performed alongside its top international counterparts.

Wong: I took part in this internship programme because I like Samson's works and I wanted to visit an arts biennale at least once. Organising a biennale is no simple task; apart from coordinating artworks coming in from all over the world, the organiser also has to group these works under one theme. I’m curious about how far we can go in terms of idea and production with this platform.

Kwok: What have you gained from participating in the internship programme? What can we do more to enrich the programme?

Wong: Having this internship opportunity itself has been the greatest reward. Only this opportunity could have allowed us to spend six weeks exploring Venice. This trip was an eye opener that exposed me to diverse curatorial approaches. What I've seen and learned in Venice will enrich my work.

Chong: Absolutely. Different institutions have different focuses. For instance, M+ showcases a lot of visual art, avant-garde art, and rather experimental works. I also want to introduce some of the new elements I've seen to the Hong Kong Arts Centre, the institution I work at.

A video showing a person wearing headphones with his back to the viewer is projected onto a brick wall. A person is watching the video with her back to the camera while wearing headphones.

Before exhibition launch, Chong tests the headphones for Lullaby (World Music). Photo: Vvzela Kook; Courtesy of Jing C.Y. Chong

Kwok: Many people have doubts about the power of art can in turbulent times. What do you think about that?

Wong: Although art might not bring about practical changes, what’s valuable about it is that it inspires the audience. The development of Hong Kong’s contemporary art scene has been closely related to politics and social movements. While many artists choose to respond to social issues directly, Samson’s works have shown me that there is more than one way to create something that has a resonance for the people whom you try to engage. Even when you intend to associate the exhibition with what is currently happening, your works don’t have to be directly related to the issues.

Chong: Like Joyce says, sometimes you feel like there isn’t much you can do in the face of social problems, but one of the functions of art is that of education. When a work is created by an artist, it is the responsibility of curators, art administrators, and art educators to let audiences know what’s going on around them and to try to strike a chord in them.

The above interview has been edited for clarity. All images: M+, Hong Kong (unless otherwise indicated). This article was originally published on M+ Stories.

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