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Ask an M+ Curator: Biggest Collection Object, Colonialism, and More

Two women stand in front of a bookcase and a large window, smiling slightly at the camera.

Shirley Surya (left) and Pauline J. Yao (right). Photo: M+, Hong Kong

Time to ask a curator! Throughout the exhibition In Search of Southeast Asia through the M+ Collections, curious visitors can ask exhibition curators Pauline J. Yao and Shirley Surya anything about the exhibition and the works on display. Answers will then be posted right here.

What is the biggest exhibition piece in your collection?

In this exhibition, the largest piece is Compound by Sopheap Pich. In the M+ Collections as a whole, though, the work Asian Field by Antony Gormley probably requires the largest footprint, consisting of approximately 180,000 individual, hand-sized clay figurines, while the Kiyotomo sushi bar by Shiro Kuramata is considered to be the largest 'object' we've acquired.

Two monochrome photographs side by side. The left photo shows a vine of leaves made out of book paper, integrated into the vines of a tree in a wooded area. The right photo is a close-up of a palm tree, with the rings in the trunk lined with paper taken from books and texts.

Sopheap Pich's bamboo and rattan structure Compound (2011) in the exhibition space. © Sopheap Pich; M+, Hong Kong

How does colonialism come into play in this collection and how did you consider the impact of outside forces who intended to violently, whether through physical violence or cultural violence, erase the identity of many places in the region? Or is there another narrative that arises here?

The subject of colonialism surfaces in the M+ Collections in a variety of ways. In the area of visual art, artists tend to refer to colonial powers or colonial histories indirectly via personal experience or explorations of identity, such as in the Forest series by Simryn Gill.

Two monochrome photographs side by side. The left photo shows a vine of leaves made out of book paper, integrated into the vines of a tree in a wooded area. The right photo is a close-up of a palm tree, with the rings in the trunk lined with paper taken from books and texts.

Simryn Gill’s Forest #16 (left) and Forest #4 (right) are extreme close-ups of tropical plants that show a measure of human intervention: the artist has grafted pages from books by colonialist authors onto the living foliage, which over time revert to the raw fibrous material from which books are made. © Simryn Gill; M+, Hong Kong

When it comes to design and architecture, the works we have collected demonstrate multiple effects of colonialism and sometimes it is a bit of a double-edged sword. Works such as the colonial travel posters in the exhibition reveal exploitation of resources and exotic imagery with regards to French Indo–China or the Dutch East Indies; but in other cases, such as the archive of Booty, Edwards & Partners, the materials demonstrate how colonialism played a key role in the development of architecture as a profession, and how British architects contributed to technological and formal experimentation in former British Malaya and Borneo in ways that helped to underscore the identities of place.

When looking at the architecture in the exhibition section Conditions of Place, I was struck by similarities between the elevated walkways of the WOHA design and those used in modern Hong Kong residential high-rises—such as Double Cove in Wu Kai Sha. Did you uncover similar connections as you put together the collection?

It's great that you noticed the similarities. Elevated walkways are common features in high-rise housing today. But they also figured in architectural proposals in the early 1950s, such as those by British architects Alison and Peter Smithson in the form of 'streets in the sky'.

Digital print depicting an extremely tall high rise building complex next to a blue body of water. The building complex is completely covered in rich, bright green vegetation. Multiple tiers in the building complex are covered in fields and forests, and multiple wind turbines can also be seen.

WOHA Architects. Permeable Lattice City, 2011. Digital print on paper. M+, Hong Kong. Gift of WOHA Architects, 2014. © WOHA Architects

WOHA Architects, however, doubted in the potential of a purely 'elevated walkway' in high-rise housing, as these had often become 'dead space', not used by residents as the architects intended. WOHA's 'elevated walkways'—or what they called 'city conduits' or 'public sky parks' connecting various blocks as multiple ground levels—function as gardens where residents gather; at the same time, their use of planting and 'vertical green screens' generate cooling upwards through the building.

There is quite a diverse range of materials and mediums in the show, e.g. archives, models, moving image, and painting. Can you share with us the approaches in displaying them in the Pavilion?

It was challenging! We decided early on to place the two different types of works—visual artworks and archival materials—in close proximity so as to allow them to be in dialogue with each other and to bring out the shared thematic connections. However, in doing so we also had practical matters to contend with: framed photos and drawings, architecture and design objects that require enclosures, sculptures that are intended to be out in the open, videos that require a darkened room, and so on. These are also very different viewing experiences, so within each section we tended to cluster things of a similar nature together.

Moving image still of three small wooden boats floating in a row on a sea under a blue sky. A person can be seen standing on the first boat. A landscape can be seen against the horizon.

Zai Kuning. RIAU, 2003. Digital video. M+, Hong Kong. © Zai Kuning

For example, in the section 'Conditions of Place', you might notice that most of the framed architecture archival materials and drawings are in alcoves on one side of the room, with video works and sculptures sitting opposite. This is largely due to how works on paper can only be exposed to lower lighting. But still we tried to put them in the same space with the artworks so as to communicate the idea of how artists, architects and designers address the specificities of where they are.

Generally, we've chosen a narrative-based approach so as to allow for multiple readings of a particular place or issue. A moving image work such as Riau by Zai Kuning, for example, was deliberately placed in the beginning of ‘Conditions of Place’ because it could speak to both the subjective nature of visual art works while at the same time setting the topographical and climatic context of Southeast Asia, i.e. the tropics, which is a crucial part of how architects approach their design.

Questions have been edited for length and clarity. You can find part two of Yao and Surya’s answers here. Thanks to everyone who submitted their questions! This article was originally published on M+ Stories.

Pauline J. Yao is Lead Curator, Visual Art at M+. Shirley Surya is Curator, Design and Architecture at M+.

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