Nullah No la 魚樂無渠 !
(Prince Edward, Hong Kong, 2015)
by Kristian Agustin (Nullah No la! blog)
This activity takes place throughout the phenomenal world, as manifested not only in the appearance of living things (e.g., animals), but also in the appearance of the inanimate (e.g., stones, advertising posters, architecture). (Levin, 2009, p.245)
Organising an art event or exhibition entails many considerations essential to its successful realisation. While curating an exhibition in a typical walled space such as a gallery or museum may be manageable enough for at least one or two curators, managing and putting together an art event outdoors and in an uncontrolled public environment may require a whole curatorial team—such as a curatorship class like our own (VAAA7210: Art Curatorship). For Nullah No la, having nine curators made it possible. Having a curatorial group work together significantly helped us in our understanding of the many roles and responsibilities of an art curator (and perhaps coming close to answer the question: ‘Who is this person known as curator?’, which was posed during the first lesson). Thus, we owe the success of our ‘art day out’ not to each individual teammate but, in fact, to our whole curatorial team. Our first hand experience has reminded us of art’s ‘social function’ (Wolff, 1984), exemplified by our roles as curators—from inviting and assisting artists to inviting and assisting audiences—in organising an art event with a social relevance. Perhaps these are the two most important considerations throughout the project: (1) our collective and individual roles, artists and curators alike, and (2) our (project’s) relevance to our target community and the general public.
(Photo via Nullah No la! blog)
Forming four smaller curatorial units surprisingly made us more efficient in putting together Nullah No la. These smaller groupings in effect served as a systematic way of delegating responsibilities into more manageable tasks. For example, in co-curating ‘Intersection’ with Vivian Fung, I observed how the required work was equally divided and shared between the two of us. While I focused on the theoretical aspect (conceptualising, researching, and writing), she adeptly managed all the practical matters (corresponding with the artists, ensuring their participation and satisfaction, and overseeing the logistics). Thus, our curatorial unit was able to accommodate three artists: Wong Chun Hoi, Gladys Ng (although she had to politely beg off the project nearer the event date for more important matters, which we all understood), and Terry Ng. Perhaps the sharing of curatorial responsibilities between the two of us, Vivian and myself, helped us manage our unit not only very efficiently but also more professionally. Of course, it goes without saying that all the three other groups exemplify different permutations of teamwork, which were all equally effective. The curatorial group that presented ‘Change’, with Aaron Wong, Cathy Ho and Crystal Li, offered an even ‘thicker’ description and history of the community by means of their in-depth interviews with the locals of the Goldfish market, made more perceptible by the visual artworks of Jarvis Luk and Pat Wong (Flying Pig). In conceptualising and conducting ‘Goldfish Yau Yau Yau’, Donna Yuen and Sally Hui demonstrated their familiarity with the area, even reaching a younger audience who seemed to appreciate the ‘childish’ game of collecting and playing with stones that resembled cute little fishes, all whimsically designed by Brandon Chan. Lastly (but not the least, of course), Milky Choi’s and Hailey Tsang’s ‘AlRight to Use’ brought in most of the usable materials—bamboos, crates, planks of wood, (synthetic) grass, and wooden wheels—that enabled visitors to creatively build and play, as envisioned by their invited artist Swing Lam.
In keeping with this so-called ‘egalitarian’ promise, we learned ‘to resist the dictatorship of contemporary taste’ (Groys, 2008, p.22). Our six featured artists (Brandon Chan, Wong Chun Hoi, Swing Lam, Jarvis Luk, Terry Ng, and Pat Wong) also proved their roles crucial to the project’s success. They represented what Sholette called ‘creative dark matter’, or the vast majority of contemporary artistic activity ‘invisible primarily to those who lay claim to the management and interpretation of culture—the critics, art historians, collectors, dealers, museums, curators, and arts administrators’ (2011, p.1). Exposing their works in public and for the public to see, touch, and unravel meant, for us, democratising art practice. Hence our artists brought forth, whether in actuality or only symbolically, the essence of public art. Similar to our role as curators, our artists engaged in a negotiation with the public and the space they will temporarily occupy—as if their role ‘is not to bring in any pre-defined artistic acts’ (Cheung, 2015, p.3) but only to interact with open-mindedness and sincerity in transforming the public space.
By acknowledging this essence of public art, we were likewise able to realise our relevance to our target community, as well as the general public. Groys described the ‘true visitor’ to an art installation the ‘visitor collective’ (2009, p.63), and this is similar to what we expected in Nullah No la—although it was definitely more comprehensive and extensive than an art installation per se. However, our public intervention is only as relevant as the crowds that directly or indirectly experienced it. The mass of visitors actually came from two ‘visitor collectives’, generally speaking: apart from attracting students, professors, and artists/enthusiasts who represent our academic (as well as artistic) relevance, we also welcomed locals, passers-by, pedestrians, and vendors who largely represent our public and social relevance. We often offered the former group (mostly from the academe) an informal ‘walk-through’ especially when their questions dug deeper than the surface value of the works at play or in display; meanwhile, we simply allowed the latter group (typically from the community) to just enjoy the random activities and objects that they could find—with the slightest assumption that they would find these familiar and relatable to their own experience because they, in fact, served as inspiration for the project. Also, by doing so we are also allowing ‘the site’ itself to communicate with the public without ‘covering it over with [our] discourse’ (Levin, 2009, p.248). Hence, we adhered to our understanding of public art and space, which favours ‘self-showing’ over ‘site-specific spectatorship’ (Levin, 2009, p.240-241).
Apart from social relevance, Nullah No la also offered the public a varied yet collective aesthetic experience, which can be seen within the framework of Rancière’s four main forms of ‘aesthetic dialectics’, namely (1) the joke, (2) the collection, (3) the invitation, and (4) the mystery (2009, pp.46-47). Swing Lam’s interactive and movable installations and materials were reminiscent of what Rancière described as a game, a power-play that unfolds like a ‘joke’ that can be taken lightly or seriously. The same was also seen in Brandon Chan’s treasure-hunting for stone-fishes, which also served as objects for collecting.Brandon Chan’s ‘collection’ of stones however offered a more tactile experience as compared to Terry Ng’s ‘collection’ of interviews and memories using his old and new maps. Together with Wong Chun Hoi, who made use of portable radio transistors, they presented an ‘invitation’ for the public to participate. This ‘invitation’ extended to the ‘mystery’ that Jarvis Luk’s pair of gilt sculptures and Pat Wong’s (as Flying Pig) colourful illustration both metaphorically convey about Nullah Road and Tung Choi Street.
Despite this obvious diversity of art forms, altogether the artists and their works were linked together by the mystery offered by the same metaphor (Rancière, 2009, p.47)—in reference to Jean-Luc Godard’s ‘fraternity of metaphors’ (1988, cited in Rancière, 2009, p.47). This metaphorical linkage is the nullah itself, a stream, real or imaginary, visible or hidden from sight, that blends, joins, and nourishes each artwork and each curatorial group with one another.
At this point I would like to acknowledge and thank my colleagues from the HKBU School of Communication (PhD students Valerie Cooper and Angela Wang Dan, and researcher Darren Tsz-Hin Fung) who came and happily took part in our public art event, as well as Professor Colin Sparks, Chair of the School of Communication Research Postgraduate Committee, whose presence (along with his gracious wife, Mrs. Sparks)—and interest in what our exhibition/intervention has to offer—lent significance to Nullah No la. Lastly, while some of my colleagues from the Academy of Film were not able to make it on the day itself (due to some conflicts in schedule), I also acknowledge their enthusiasm in and regard of this surely worthwhile project. On behalf of our whole curatorial team, and as project manager, I thank you all very much.
More importantly, I thank all our artists, Brandon Chan, Wong Chun Hoi, Swing Lam, Jarvis Luk, Terry Ng, and Pat Wong, for the energy and time they invested in this project (despite our lack of funds). Without them, Nullah No la would certainly be ‘No la!’, as in the vernacular of Hong Kong locals. I also thank our art instructor—and perhaps a lead curator at that—Clara Cheung (C & G Artpartment), who patiently mentored us for three months. Her way of posing questions, from the easy to the critical and difficult, actually helped us improve our understanding of our way of thinking about art, curatorship, and society. Thank you very much, Clara.
While Nullah No la served primarily as a curatorial exercise, it also offered us an alternative experience of art and the art world, which is synonymous to the ‘ecological network’ envisioned by Levin: ‘a meeting place for humans, nonhumans, and actors of disparate social experiences’ (2009, p.246). This realisation came to me in retrospect—while writing this essay—as I contemplated on our shared role and relevance as critically informed curators. By curating an exhibition in the public sphere, perhaps we came closer to answering the challenge posed by Kapur in Cautionary Tales: Critical Curating:
‘The question, then is how critic-curators can present contemporary art so as to redeem the hidden, the contextual, and also the reflexively extrapolated meanings on behalf of the artwork that is always situated, but also always liminal to the established order of things’ (2007, pp.65-66).
In a bigger picture (or a larger sense), Nullah No la paved the way for our better understanding of art curatorship, management, and production. Despite the limited amount of time, through our concerted effort, we learned that what we do is not a merely solitary activity for art’s sake.
Cheung, C. (2015) Introduction. In: In Search of the Peachland: Art Exchange Project Between Kam Tin (H.K.) and Busan (Korea). Hong Kong: C & G Artpartment, pp.1-3.
Grosz, E. (1992) ‘Bodies-Cities’. In: Sexuality and Space. Colomina, B. & Bloomer, J. eds. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, pp.241-253.
Groys, B. (2008) Art Power: Logic of Equal Aesthetic Rights. Boston: MIT Press, pp.13-22.
Groys, B. (2009) ‘From Medium to Message. The Art Exhibition as Model of a New World Order’. In: Open 16: The Art Biennial as a Global Phenomenon – Strategies in Neo-political Times. Seijdel, J., Melis, L. & Gielen, P. Rotterdam, Netherlands: NAi Publishers, pp.56-65.
Kapur, G. (2007) ‘Curating in The Public Sphere’. In: Cautionary Tales: Critical Curating. Rand, S. & Kouris, H. eds. New York: Apexart, pp.56-67.
Levin, L. (2009) ‘Can the City Speak? Site-Specific Art After Poststructuralism’. In: Performance and the City. Hopkins, D.J., Orr, S. & Solga, K. eds. Performance Interventions. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, pp.240-257
Rancière, J. (2009) ‘Contemporary Art and the Politics of Aesthetics’. In: Communities of Sense: Rethinking Aesthetics and Politics. Hinderliter, B., et al. eds. Durham & London: Duke University Press, pp.31-50
Sholette, G. (2011) Dark Matter: Art and Politics in the Age of Enterprise Culture. London: Pluto Press.
Wolff, J. (1984) The Social Production of Art. New York: New York University Press.