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Hong Kong Venice Biennale Interns on Their Most Memorable Moments

A woman stands behind an abstract sculpture in a courtyard. Her head is hidden behind a round section of the sculpture. She holds her arms straight out by her sides.

Assistant Curator Olivia Chow demonstrating the anthropomorphic form of one of the sculptures, Emulsion Not Solution, in the Playcourt installation. Photo: Apoorva Rajagopal

What’s it like to greet thousands of international visitors to the Hong Kong exhibition at the Venice Biennale?

The Hong Kong exhibition at the 58th Venice Biennale, Shirley Tse: Stakeholders, Hong Kong in Venice, co-presented by M+ and the Hong Kong Arts Development Council, drew thousands of visitors before wrapping up in November 2019. Who spoke to those visitors? Eight interns who each spent six weeks in Venice giving tours and greeting visitors in the gallery.

After the exhibition ended, we asked each intern: What was the most memorable interaction you had at the gallery? What question were you asked the most? Here are their answers.

Sheeta Ng:

What was the most memorable interaction you had at the gallery?

It was a cold and lazy morning, around opening time. After giving a short tour for a group of art history students from London, I was getting ready to take a short break. A tall man came into the gallery and looked around the space. I went up to him and welcomed him to the Hong Kong Pavilion, then began to discuss the Tse exhibition. He interrupted me: ‘Sorry, could you wait a second?’ He went out into the courtyard and returned with his dad, who sat in a wheelchair. The son was mindful to find a good spot in the gallery and made sure his dad was comfortable.

A man with his back to the camera crouches next to an older man in a wheelchair. He has his arm around the older man. They are both looking at an installation artwork in front of them which consists of numerous wooden parts are connected to each other in seemingly haphazard ways through 3D-printed joints.

Heart-warming gallery visit. Photo: Sheeta Ng

Then he gave me a very warm smile and said, ‘Sorry for interrupting you just before; I wanted to let my dad hear the explanation of this artwork as well’. Then he knelt down next to his dad’s wheelchair, listened to my introduction, translated it for his father, and looked at the artwork from the same eye level as him. His dad was so enthusiastic about the exhibition. After my introduction, they stayed for a long time and discussed the details of Negotiated Differences. I was so touched by this heart-warming interaction.

Sonia Fung:

A woman is leaning towards an installation artwork consisting of numerous wooden parts are connected to each other in seemingly haphazard ways through 3D-printed joints. She is touching one of the wooden parts to adjust it. She looks back over her shoulder at something to the left of the camera.

Sonia introducing *Negotiated Differences* to visitors. Photo: Catherine Lau.

What was the question you were asked most often?

‘Is Shirley a man?’ After reading the cover of the brochure, a visitor looked up and asked me.

‘Shirley is a female artist’, I replied with a smile.

The middle-aged woman, who was shocked and a little embarrassed, said, ‘Oh, I’m sorry! I never knew a woman could be such a good carpenter’.

Although I was surprised by the gender stereotypes, this question was not uncommon. There were quite a few visitors who had similar questions. One visitor’s response, after finding out that Shirley is a female artist, sheds light on where this stereotype may have come from:

‘Wow. All the carpenters I’ve known throughout my entire life have been men. I’m amazed. Her work is beautiful!’

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Ice Wong:

What was the most memorable interaction you had at the gallery?

The most unforgettable experience I witnessed was the interaction between an Italian grandfather and his sweet little grandson. It was so fascinating to me when he tried to explain the concept of the artworks to an eighteen-month old baby sitting quietly in a stroller. He rocked the stroller and asked the baby, ‘Do you understand the meaning?’ The baby kept blinking his eyes and putting his tiny fingers in his mouth. In a way, he might have been enthusiastically responding to what his grandfather said.

What was the question you were asked most often?

In the gallery, people always asked the same question: ‘How’s Hong Kong?’ People even said to me, ‘Don’t you think that it’s better for you to stay in Venice rather than return to Hong Kong?’ Being abroad, it’s always good to know what people from around the world think about my home city, especially when it has become one of the most contentious situations in the world. Negotiation is a key point of Shirley’s works. And to some extent, these conversations were an intangible negotiation between us interns and the visitors, which was a really worthwhile experience for me.

Apoorva Rajagopal:

What was the most memorable interaction you had at the gallery?

The most interesting conversation I had was with an American visitor who asked about the anthropomorphic forms in the Playcourt piece. I told him about how they were a part of the Quantum Shirley series and shared my basic insights into the multiverse, all the while not knowing that he had a degree in quantum physics.

A woman stands behind an abstract sculpture in a courtyard. Her head is hidden behind a round section of the sculpture. She holds her arms straight out by her sides.

Assistant Curator Olivia Chow demonstrating the anthropomorphic form of one of the sculptures, *Emulsion Not Solution*, in the *Playcourt* installation. Photo: Apoorva Rajagopal

This coincidental meeting of theories led to a discussion about alternative universes, how we all live in different universes even now, and how the negotiation of our separate views was itself a performance of Shirley’s intended interaction with the works. Ultimately that conversation ended with a recommendation of a great gelato place, so I’d say it was an excellent outcome!

Vanessa Lai:

What was the most memorable interaction you had at the gallery?

My most memorable encounter would be an hour-long conversation I had with a grandmother of five from Australia. We started talking while she was taking a very close look at a banksia seed pod, which was part of the installation Negotiated Differences. She was surprised to see this Australian plant in Venice. When she learned that the connectors of the work were produced using 3D printing, she was excited because she also had such a printer at home—she used it for some small components of her jewellery. I showed her a video of 3D printing of wood and she told me stories of each component she saw and how the whole artwork reminded her of time spent playing with her grandchildren. It was a heart-warming conversation, as I always love listening to stories told by strangers, and I could feel her deep connection with her family. All of this was spontaneously initiated by the magical work.

Annie Lye:

Four people stand in a group with their arms around each other’s shoulders. They smile for the camera. They are standing in front of a sign which contains the exhibition title ‘Shirley Tse: Stakeholders, Hong Kong in Venice’ and the dates ‘11 May–24 Nov 2019’ in both English and traditional Chinese.

Befriending the ambassadors of the UAE Pavilion was one of the many unforgettable highlights of my experience. Basil (far left) ventured into our pavilion one afternoon and we spent the next hour(s) in ceaseless conversation—covering topics from materiality, to architecture and art, to cultural identity! This photograph was taken on the final day of our internship (left to right: Basil Al-Taher, Annie Lye, Yousef Abbas, and Daniele Paolini). Photo: Annie Lye

What was the most memorable interaction you had at the gallery?

When prompted with this question, I hesitate to choose only one. Over the course of six weeks, we received more than 30,000 visitors and had our fair share of the good and the bad—the latter eventually became episodes to laugh about with my colleagues Sai Wing and Francesco Bozza.

There was a minor incident when a teenage student interacted with one of the free-suspending 3D plastic connectors. We were lucky that Shirley Tse was in Venice that week, visiting with a group of her students from CalArts. She advised us on how to best ‘negotiate’ with the warped formation of her installation. Later in the week, Tse returned to the pavilion before leaving Venice. The three of us, including Sai Wing, sat chatting around the reception desk. It was a moment of tranquillity. We chuckled together about various visitor encounters over cups of espresso pulled by Samuel from the coffee bar Hosteria and mouthfuls of apple torte baked by our neighbour living above the pavilion.

Lau Sai Wing:

A group students sit in a row on a bench next to a wall. They sit in a courtyard containing an installation artwork, which consists of multiple abstract sculptures constructed out of a variety of different materials.

A group of student visitors waiting in the courtyard for tickets to the Biennale. Courtesy of Lau Sai Wing

What was the most memorable interaction you had at the gallery?

‘Buongiorno’, I greeted a visitor while I was writing a report at the reception.

Zou san’; I heard the words from the lady and was shocked.

Zou san? Did you just say good morning in Cantonese?’ I stood up, as I was afraid my reaction was impolite.

The American woman replied, ‘Yes. Zou san.’

She told me she had been a tour guide in Hong Kong before 1997. After that, she had never returned. She asked if I could help her find the contact information for her former colleague and friend from the 1990s, as she had been out of touch for too long. Her friend’s name was May Kwan, she could speak German, and was about fifty years old. I searched on Facebook and Google. The surname and family name were both very common in Hong Kong, so many May Kwans showed up in the results. Since it would take a long time to narrow the search, I told the lady to visit the Biennale and come back later that day. After a while, I found a couple of May Kwans who could write German, but that information was not enough. The lady did come back, but I was out to lunch, and she did not leave her name or contact information. In the end, I not only never found Mary Kwan but also lost contact with May Kwan’s American friend.

Mary Lee:

A line of people stand in a row against a white wall in a gallery space. They stand in front of an installation artwork which consists of numerous wooden parts are connected to each other in seemingly haphazard ways through 3D-printed joints. A person in the far end of the room is standing next to the work and talking to the group.

Art students from Hong Kong. Photo: Mary Lee

What was the question you were asked most often?

‘Is this the Biennale?’

This seemingly simple question was actually not that easy to answer. If I said ‘yes, the Hong Kong exhibition in the Biennale’, people would be confused. Naturally, people who were new to the Biennale would think that it consisted of just one show in one main venue, the Arsenale. If I said ‘no’, that would not have been correct either. It didn’t help much if I pointed at the Biennale logo printed on our brochure to show I was not lying. You have no idea how many people would come in thinking this was the entrance to the Arsenale, despite the enormous banners right across the street.

This article was originally published on M+ Stories.

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