What does a curator do? That was what Christina Li wondered when she entered this line of work in her first curatorial role at Para Site, an independent art space in Hong Kong. ‘I didn’t know what a curator was supposed to do; whether it involves painting or writing or translation. I eventually thought about it this way: the word “curator” comes from a root that means “caring for something”—so everything is something I should care for. At the time, there were just three of us in the Para Site team, and we had to do everything, from the cabling to painting walls, for twelve exhibitions a year.’
Li recently returned to Hong Kong after a long stay in the Netherlands. She is currently guest curator for Shirley Tse: Stakeholders, Hong Kong in Venice, in addition to planning for the exhibition to come to Hong Kong in the M+ Pavilion next year. In her characteristic loud, clear voice, Li describes her approach to curation with a Cantonese saying: ‘You eat the food that’s in front of you.’ That is to say, you play the hand you’re dealt.
It Starts with an Invitation
According to Li, ‘Everything starts with an invitation.’ Li never approaches an exhibition with preconceptions. She makes her decisions after looking at the organisation who invited her—their history, scale, and standing. When she was invited to curate at the Venice Biennale, she looked over Hong Kong’s exhibitions at previous Biennales to examine the artists involved. She proposed to feature a female sculptor—the first woman and the first sculptor among Hong Kong’s Venice Biennale artists—who was relatively unknown among younger Hongkongers: Shirley Tse. ‘Her sculptures have form, ideas, and critiques of social and world phenomena,’ says Li.
Li likens herself to an investigative journalist who must figure out the resources and limitations of exhibitions before the actual curation. Ten years ago, she served as assistant curator at the 53rd Venice Biennale. Her team numbered just three people; it was only the fifth time that Hong Kong had participated in the event, so there were few experienced people available. This time, however, she had far more resources and people at hand, enabling her to provide Tse with plenty of creative space and time.
Li invited designers from New York and Belgium to work with herself, based in the Netherlands, and the Los Angeles-based Tse. Between them, they spanned five cities and three time zones. ‘When it was 6am in the Netherlands, it was afternoon in Hong Kong and nighttime in LA, so I had to get out of bed at six in the morning to call Shirley. I had never worked with people in so many different time zones before. Ten years ago, it couldn’t have happened.’ Underpinning all of this is a professional commitment to perfection: ‘I have to understand my exhibitions clearly—I can’t just ask the artists to sort things out themselves. Limitation is not interesting for viewers, and I don’t want to give myself any excuses. I want to make exhibitions that cater to everyone with the resources I have available.’
Knowing Art History Doesn't Make You a Good Curator
For this exhibition, Li talked with Tse every week and shared her creative process. ‘None of us had cooperated so closely with others before. Collaboration depends on whether the artist is willing to share their ideas; this can leave some artists feeling quite naked, or even like they don’t need a curator. Preparing a large exhibition can be very stressful, so I am very glad Shirley and I could communicate so openly.’
Her experience studying curation at De Appel in the Netherlands helped Li realise that a strong knowledge of art history alone doesn’t mean you’re up to being a curator. You have to be able to work with people. Those outside of the art world may think that curators just need to work with artists, but as Li notes, ‘Curators also have to deal with finance departments, visitors, and even security. Just because you’re a curator, that doesn’t mean everyone will understand what you’re talking about. How do you communicate clearly with so many different parties? Curation demands the ability to understand and talk to people, and observe situations carefully.’
In the Netherlands, Li also learned to bring a philosophical approach to her curation, coming to regard exhibitions as reflections on society. She recalls an experience from 2013, when she was invited by the Goethe-Institut Niederlande to curate an art project. This invitation raised an important question for her: why does twenty-first-century Europe need something like the Goethe-Institut? She realised that local cultural institutions are people-oriented, letting artists focus more on thinking and creating rather than on the artworks or the market. ‘They look for ways to nurture people’s actions rather than focusing on getting certain things done.’ These musings led her to invite artist Sara van der Heide to recreate the Goethe-Institut reading room in Pyongyang, North Korea, as an examination of the role such cultural institutions play today.
Her experience abroad has helped Li be more down-to-earth in her return to Hong Kong and to bring her ideas closer to the viewers. ‘You can’t just say, “Well if visitors don’t understand, then they don’t understand.” Art is about communication. If you do something, you do it with an expectation of communicating something to others. So, I always wonder, how can we make the most of this opportunity?’ Li believes that exhibitions should not be one-sided, but rather should adopt a more multifaceted approach to communication. Tse’s exhibition in Venice was preceded by a lecture in Hong Kong, which was unprecedented. Li explains, ‘Shirley had spent so long living abroad that the younger audience in Hong Kong hadn’t had the chance to see her work, and so it was good to have that introduction to her key work before the exhibition.’
Flexibility and Filling In
In addition to being a curator, Li has also played many other roles, such as director, author, and editor. She travels between organisations, artists, spaces, and artistic concepts, constantly ‘filling in’ in a variety of relationships. For her, this is also part of what a curator does: be adaptable and flexible to step into any roles needed to support artistic production. She once accompanied artist Wu Tsang in shooting for the exhibition Duilian, for example, standing in for her assistant director, who was ill. ‘Some people are specialised in particular positions, but I’m more flexible. As a curator, I like to play a number of roles to approach a range of situations.’
Li has been an adaptable and outgoing person since childhood. She started out in television programming after graduation, and previously wanted to be an artist. In university she studied comparative literature in addition to art history, and the variability of that field helped her cultivate a level of mobility. Now, as a curator, she has a finger in every pie. ‘This way, I can ensure that every part of the exhibition is done right, that the space is working well, and that the artists are happy.’
In her eyes, success is being able to use your skills to help artists realise their ideas, and to give audiences something to take away with them. As she understood early on, the word ‘curator’ means ‘to care’—for artworks, but also for the people who make them, and for the audiences who view them. From the earliest part of her career until now, this has been at the heart of Li’s curatorial philosophy.
This article was originally published on M+ Stories on the occasion of the 58th Venice Biennale, where M+ and the Hong Kong Arts Development Council jointly presented Shirley Tse: Stakeholders, Hong Kong in Venice, curated by Christina Li.
Winnie Leung is an Associate Editor at M+.