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Ask an M+ Curator: On Conversation, Creative Compromise, and More

Four people stand in a row leaning on a metal fence in front of a building. The building has a graphic covering the windows, showing part of the blue and green poster for the ‘In Search of Southeast Asia through the M+ Collections’ exhibition.

Curatorial team of In Search of Southeast Asia through the M+ Collections—(from left) Vera Lam, Pauline J. Yao, Shirley Surya, and William Seung—standing at the M+ Pavilion on the last day of the exhibition

Throughout the exhibition In Search of Southeast Asia through the M+ Collections, M+ opened up for questions. Visitors and online audiences could ask exhibition curators Pauline J. Yao (Lead Curator, Visual Art) and Shirley Surya (Associate Curator, Design & Architecture) anything about the exhibition and the works on display. Below are their questions and our answers.

How many Southeast Asian works have you got in your collections?

There are a few different ways of answering this! First of all, we can say the number of works by artists and makers of Southeast Asian origin. That would be around 153 (as of October 2018).

However, we also have to look at the difference between works in the M+ Collection and the M+ Collection Archives. Archives consist of many, many items and materials, which aren’t finished works. Including these would bring the numbers up much more: four archival fonds made up of 338 items means that the M+ Collections currently holds 482 items relating to Southeast Asia.

Images of three works side by side. The image on the far left shows a small round table. It’s viewed from underneath, showing that it’s composed of multiple colourful blobs. The image in the middle shows a colour slide depicting a white, industrial-looking tower rising up from the roof of a white building. Although the tower is cylindrical, the top is flanked by two angular flaps in the same white material. The image on the far right is a photograph of an empty abandoned building. The building is completely missing all of its walls and roof. The building is completely missing all of its walls and roof. Dozens of white strands of construction tape hang down from the ceilings.

An example of a work by a Southeast Asian maker, a Southeast Asian archival item, and a work about Southeast Asia from a non-Southeast Asian artist in the M+ Collections. From left to right: Hans Tan's epoxy resin sculpture Pour (2015); a colour slide showing the Jurong Town Hall by Architects Team 3 (1973–1974); and anothermountainman (Stanley Wong)'s inkjet archival print Lanwei 43 / The Ghost House / Siem Reap (2008)

But we can also look at how many works we have that relate to Southeast Asia geographically, but don’t necessarily come from Southeast Asian makers per se. For example, in the exhibition, we included works by artists anothermountainman (Stanley Wong) and Wilson Shieh, who come from Hong Kong, architect Geoffrey Bawa, who is Sri Lankan, and American architect Paul Rudolph. While they’re not of Southeast Asian origin, they’ve engaged with and had influence on the region. It’s much harder to quantify the number of works in this category.

So as you can see, there’s a few different ways of answering this question—it all depends on how you define ‘Southeast Asian’, and, like we communicated in the exhibition, we want to complicate what this term actually means and show that it can mean many different things.

Did you ever disagree on how to curate the exhibition? How did you reach a compromise?

Two women standing in a gallery space look at each other. The woman on the left is holding a small microphone and speaking into it.

Curators Shirley Surya and Pauline J. Yao giving an introduction for a curator-led tour of the exhibition

This question, of course, comes from the fact that this was the first M+ exhibition with two co-curators—it was co-curated through an interdisciplinary framework, with both visual arts and design & architecture materials more-or-less equally represented.

We did have some differing views along the way—which was only expected because each of us is used to displaying works of different medium and discipline in very particular ways. But we were able to resolve these differences by keeping in mind the bigger picture that we’d like the show to communicate.

We agreed that the goal was to present the multiplicity of the region of Southeast Asia through the various works that are already in the collection. So we began our discussion by extracting the issues that resulted from how works from visual art were in dialogue with those from design architecture. These eventually led to the three sections that framed the exhibition—Conditions of Place, States and Powers, and Transnational Flows.

Being a co-curator starts with the position of knowing that you can’t tell the story on your own, and that we need to be sensitive to each other’s perspectives, and try to see how those views could connect as much as possible. It also helps that each of us is convinced that works from different disciplines could contribute another layer of understanding to a place or an issue. We therefore made the effort to ensure a more balanced representation of works from both disciplines.

What subject would you want to curate for your dream exhibition?

It’s a surprisingly complex question to answer. Since curating is a context-specific practice, one’s ‘dream’ exhibition is likely to shift according to the institution or setting in which one is working. It would be hard to presume that any one ‘dream exhibition’ would universally apply to any context. As a public institution, M+ is deeply attuned to its audiences, and so the ideas and subjects of our exhibitions have to take into consideration how to reach out to and connect with our public.

Three screenshots of an Instagram Stories post in a row. The first shows a woman sitting in front of a bookcase. The text ‘What’s one of the most fun parts of being a curator?’ is imposed underneath her. The middle screenshot shows a different woman in front of the same bookcase and the words ‘Shirley Surya’ next to her. The words ‘It’s all about the arrangement to create conversation or dialogue’ are imposed underneath her. The last screenshot shows the same woman with the words ‘I also enjoy very much acquiring objects, from photographs to slides to drawings to models’ imposed underneath her.

Screenshots for one of the ‘Ask an M+ Curator’ Instagram Stories posted on the @mplusmuseum Instagram account

In response to Shirley's quote in the above Instagram Story: What do you mean by 'conversation' here?

What I meant by 'conversation' or ‘dialogue’ here is about how the placement of one object in relation to another could highlight thematic affinities or differences, so as to shed a particular view on an issue.

How will the M+ museum space challenge future exhibitions? Did you give recommendations to the M+ architects, Herzog & de Meuron, for the gallery spaces?

In crafting the competition brief for designing the museum space, it was important for us to emphasise that the museum is not designed as just a shell or a kunsthalle which stages different traveling exhibitions, but as a space that would also respect the nature of works that are already in the collection. Among the diverse types of galleries that we required, we specifically asked for spaces that have an ‘industrial’ nature. This was in response to the nature of the massive art installations from China that were created in the context of warehouses and the like. We also asked for the standard ‘black boxes’ or ‘white cubes’ because we knew that they have to be versatile or reconfigurable enough to show works related to design and architecture and moving image.

But, of course, the genius of an architect’s design scheme lies in its ability to meet this primary requirement to accommodate the collection, yet at the same time characteristic enough to incite or challenge artists or designers to respond uniquely to the space, especially when it comes to creating in-situ works.

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

Image at centre: © Hans Tan; M+, Hong Kong. Gift of Hans Tan, 2017 / © Architects Team 3 Pte Ltd, Singapore; M+, Hong Kong / © anothermountainman (Stanley Wong); M+, Hong Kong. All other images: © M+, Hong Kong

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

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