Asia? Art? Archive?

Dóra Hegyi in Conversation with Michelle Wong

Asia Art Archive is an international archive and research center based in Hong Kong. Asia Art Archive also produces exhibitions and publications in collaboration. By making unknown art historical materials—connected to artists works and activities, as well as sources about art events—accessible online,  Asia Art Archive connects local knowledges with other Asian and international art histories.

Exhibition view of Excessive Enthusiasm: Ha Bik Chuen and the Archive as Practice, March 11- July 3, 2015. Courtesy of Asia Art Archive.
Exhibition view of Excessive Enthusiasm: Ha Bik Chuen and the Archive as Practice, March 11- July 3, 2015. Courtesy of Asia Art Archive.

Dóra Hegyi (DH): Asia Art Archive was founded in 2000, in response to the need to document and make accessible the multiple recent histories of art in the region. What was the urgency for its establishment? 

Michelle Wong (MW): The urgent need that Asia Art Archive was responding to in its founding was perhaps less a political urgency than an art historical one, more the awareness of the lack of primary materials for research. Our founder and director Claire Hsu was researching on contemporary art in Mainland China at the time, and it was immensely difficult to get access to primary and secondary materials on that subject. It was her idea then to start a public, free resource for those who are interested in researching the field of contemporary art in Asia.

During the 2000s it was also the market boom for contemporary art in Asia, which was driven by forces that did not necessary paid attention to art histories of the region. As we step into our seventeenth year, the field has shifted considerably, with long-existing and new institutions in the region, which are writing and consolidating art histories via collection building and discourse-formation. Certain histories that were not so visible have become prominent case studies globally, which also means that they can be further complicated by other less invisible histories as well.

Asia Art Archive continues to respond to the shifting terrain of the field through our own collection of documents and publications, research projects and public programming. One example would be Asia Art Archive’s China projects, which first started ten years ago as a series of over 100 interviews with artists and practitioners active in 1980s in China. Many individuals who were interviewed also shared their personal archives, which have in turn been digitized and shared online via Asia Art Archive’s website. Many of these materials, such as those on the seminal 1989 exhibitions Magicians de la Terre (Paris) , and China / Avant-Garde (Beijing) are now used not only in university courses in different parts of the world, but they are also being used by curators in exhibitions. The recently opened exhibition Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World at the Guggenheim New York includes an archive section that has been collaboratively developed by Asia Art Archive and the Guggenheim, and draws extensively from our China projects.

DH: What does Asia mean for the organization?

MW: For Asia Art Archive, Asia is a geography as well as an idea that is constantly shifting. Each place in Asia has its own specific context, concerns, and each of our projects tries to address and respond with specificity as well. Indeed, we are often asked: “How do we define Asia? Where does it end? Where does it begin?” In 2014, we did a project titled Mapping Asia, in which we looked into ways of exploring and sharing ideas on and around Asia in a more fluid and non-linear way, to engage with thinking about the region. Central to Mapping Asia, and also the ways Asia Art Archive work, is the idea that history and knowledge are deeply intertwined. What we also want to propose is that working on archives and art histories can be a way to reflect on the social, political, and economic realities of what it means to live in Asia at this moment.

DH: Can you describe Asia Art Archive’s organizational structure?

MW: Asia Art Archive is an independent non-profit organization, where a team of over thirty-five individuals, led by our co-founder and Executive Director Claire Hsu, are responsible for Asia Art Archive’s Collection, research activities, programming, and operations. Asia Art Archive’s Board of Directors, chaired by Jane DeBevoise since 2003, comprises appointed members drawn from the art and business sectors within Hong Kong and beyond. The Board jointly supports the Executive Director and oversees the strategic direction and financial status of the organization. Asia Art Archive is financially supported through diverse channels that includes individuals, corporate, foundations, and the government.

Asia Art Archive’s Advisory Board comprises thirty-eight noted curators and critics from around the world. Advisors provide guidance in developing the potential and possibility of our collection, and assist in promoting the growing research interest in art from Asia. Asia Art Archive in America and Asia Art Archive in India are set up as independent entities with separate Boards of Directors. Within Asia Art Archive the Research, Collections, and Programming teams work very closely with one another to bring in materials to our Library and Research Collections, as well as to activate these materials through programming that are often collaborative in nature.

DH: I am interested in the emphasis in Asia Art Archive’s mission statement on the need to look at complex geographies, which go beyond national borders. Can you elaborate on what this idea means?

MW: For Asia Art Archive, complex geographies is a productive way to think through our interest in looking at the movements of ideas, languages, and knowledge across borders, as opposed to only through the lens of the nation. Most commonly, archives are national in focus. What Asia Art Archive offers is not a comprehensive documentation of the history of recent art from Asia, but a set of entry points across sites, where we can read what was happening in parallel and next to one another. This is quite different from an archive with a national focus.

While we cannot escape histories that have emerged within the framework of the nation, our interest is to simultaneously look at how ideas and knowledge are able to seep through borders. Sometimes even within a nation’s border, one can already see different forces at work, and the same place, idea, can have a multitude of meanings even for subjects of one single nation. Our project Bibliography of Modern and Contemporary Art Writing of South Asia initiated in 2011 is a good example. Guided by a common tenet of sharing knowledge and collaborative research, the project has aimed at collating annotated bibliographies of art writing in South Asia across multiple languages. In its first phase, the project began its cataloguing process in India, looking at writing in Assamese, Bengali, English, Gujarati, Hindi, Kannada, Malayalam, Marathi, Odia, Punjabi, Tamil, Telugu, and Urdu. As of the end of 2014, it compiled a bibliography of over 12,000 texts, including books, book chapters, catalogues, entire periodicals, periodical entries, and newspapers. In its second phase in 2015, Asia Art Archive has expanded the scope of this project to explore the rich and resonant histories of art writing across languages and regions in South Asia. The project compiled bibliographies of art writing in Tamil from Jaffna in Sri Lanka, Urdu from Lahore in Pakistan, and Bangla from Dhaka in Bangladesh. By sharing information on publications from libraries, institutions, and personal archives across several cities and languages, the online database aims to enrich understanding of this field and be useful to students, scholars, researchers, artists, writers, and the arts community at large. It must be noted that this bibliography is a work in progress and hopes to grow with user contributions.

Bibliography of Modern and Contemporary Art Writing of South Asia website.
Bibliography of Modern and Contemporary Art Writing of South Asia website.

With the term complex geographies we also intend to consider histories of exchange. A recent example of this is our three-year collaboration with the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art entitled London, Asia, initiated by our former Head of Research Hammad Nasar. The project posits London as an underexplored site of South Asian art history, but also calls for a more inclusive British art history.

There are also other moments of exchange that have become invisible or forgotten until we discover them in the research that we do. For example, through our work in the Hong Kong Art History Research Project and the Ha Bik Chuen Archive Project, we encountered documentation of artists from Hong Kong showing in Manila, the Philippines throughout the 1960s-1980s. This case study is an interesting one as Hong Kong and Manila are not cities that one would assume having a shared exhibition history, because of the demarcation of South East Asia as a region and its surrounding art historical discourse. In 1960s, a number of artists who were highly visible in Hong Kong’s art ecology with modernist, abstract art practices were regularly showing at the now defunct Luz Gallery in Manila. These shows were commercially successful during the authoritarian rule of Ferdinand Marcos, which also challenges what some people believe, that Hong Kong’s art market did not really exist until 2000s, with the start of the art fair Art HK (which was bought up by Art Basel in 2013).

Some of the works by these Hong Kong artists who showed in Manila are in the Ateneo Art Gallery’s collection. They were in fact part of the bequest by Fernando Zóbel (1924-1984), one of the most prominent modernist artists and collectors in the Philippines. Previously invisible connections such as this Hong Kong-Manila one destabilize our existing knowledge and understanding about both cities; they also sensitize us towards how history and narratives are constantly constructed and interpreted.

DH: Asia Art Archive is based in Hong Kong; how would you position it in the local cultural landscape? What does it mean to run an art organization in this context, what is the situation there, twenty years after the Handover to Mainland China? You also had the election of the Chief Executive, a sort of equivalent of a head of state this Spring, where the election process only involved 1200 selected representatives of the society. This electoral system was also one of the reasons that the Umbrella Movement started three years ago. The handover to Mainland China in 1997 brought a politically tightly controlled system close to the inhabitants of Hong Kong. It became also clear in the last 20 years that despite press freedom and independent juridical system restrictions and self-censorship can be experienced. What is the cultural situation and climate like in Hong Kong today?

MW: The larger cultural and political climate in Hong Kong is an energetic one at the moment, as many practitioners in the field, myself included, continue to try to make sense of what it means to be a cultural practitioner in a post-Umbrella Movement Hong Kong. Questions that are asked and discussed both formally and informally include: What are the civil responsibilities of being part of the cultural field? What role of art and art history can have, in ongoing social processes? What is the position of politics and aesthetics within one another?

DH: Just to refer to the situation in Hungary in 2013: there were many smaller resistance circles, which supported each other, also in the field of culture, as many positions in the cultural field—directors of museums, theaters—were chosen according to political and not professional considerations. There was a struggle and hope that the government would not be re-elected in 2014, but after they won the elections again, the movements slowed down. I found it interesting that the Umbrella Movement started, so to say, in time, three years before the elections. At the same time the practice showed that this is a system, which cannot be changed by the will of civilians only.

MW: After the Umbrella Movement a number of younger politicians have been elected to office, some of them very closely aligned to the arts and literature circles. Among these young politicians, some were eventually disqualified from office due to certain gestures they performed during the swearing-in. While this event has been in some cases interpreted as a clamping down on freedom of expression, it also arguably opened up spaces for discussion on performativity in political and legal spaces. It is also an opportunity to ask questions like, what did artists and practitioners from the earlier generations do in times of political instability? How can we approach documentation of these past events and find creative responses now from our contemporary position?

One of our projects at Asia Art Archive is on the archive of the late Hong Kong based sculptor and printmaker Ha Bik Chuen (1925-2009). Ha documented exhibitions from 1960s till the end of his life, many of them in Hong Kong; these documentations were kept in his archive and studio in an old part of Hong Kong. We started working on this archive in 2014 at Ha’s studio upon the family’s request, and from 2016 until 2019, this archive is relocated to a project space that Asia Art Archive runs as part of a project to process, digitize, share, and activate materials from the Ha archive.

As a response to the 20th anniversary of the Handover, we focused our recent research on two sets of exhibitions that reflected on the 1997 event. By looking at these exhibitions—one of them took place in 1998 and the other in 2007—we hope to raise questions on how we may understand and study historical moments through art or art documentation. And how through this exercise of looking into exhibition history, we may better make sense of our present.

The first exhibition we looked at happened in 1998. Titled Hong Kong Reincarnated: New Lo Ting Archaeological Find, it was curated by artist-curator Oscar Ho, who at that time was the exhibition director at the Hong Kong Arts Centre. The exhibition was staged as an archaeological site, where a fictional historical narrative unfolded of how Hong Kong people were descendants of a now extinct, then marginalized community of mermaids called Lo Ting. Hong Kong Reincarnated tried to restage this fictional narrative by inviting artists to create artworks that were imagined as objects left behind by the Lo Tings. The Lo Ting origin myth has been a recurrent subject of discussion in the cultural field since the Umbrella Movement, and through this case study we want to explore how we may extend the reading of it into the current context.

Installation view of Hong Kong Reincarnated: New Lo Ting Archaeological Find, Hong Kong Arts Centre, 1998. Courtesy of the Ha Bik Chuen Family and Asia Art Archive.
Installation view of Hong Kong Reincarnated: New Lo Ting Archaeological Find, Hong Kong Arts Centre, 1998. Courtesy of the Ha Bik Chuen Family and Asia Art Archive.

In the other exhibition we looked at from 2007, where a group of artists engaged in critical and creative dialogues about the cultural and artistic ecology in Hong Kong ten years after the Handover. This research project turned into an exhibition titled Talkover/Handover and an accompanying publication was produced. Tt was also documented by Ha via photography. In 2017 at the twentieth anniversary of the Handover, there is a second iteration of Talkover/Handover, which  is now an independent project exploring how artistic practices in Hong Kong have evolved in the past ten years. For us, it is fascinating to look back at an exhibition from ten years ago while a new incarnation of it is taking place.

Indeed, the research around Lo Ting and Talkover/Handover started as an internal presentation a small team of us did earlier in May, and was published on Asia Art Archive’s online publication IDEAS.  We have then been able to develop this research into an exhibition currently on at Asia Art Archive’s library, titled Seeing Things, Being There, which explores the relationship between the documentation and the construction of narratives.

Superimposed image of Talkover/Handover (2007), documentation originally taken by Asia Art Archive researchers and the late Ha Bik Chuen, 2017. Original images courtesy of Asia Art Archive and the Ha Bik Chuen Family. Courtesy of Alan Chan.
Superimposed image of Talkover/Handover (2007), documentation originally taken by Asia Art Archive researchers and the late Ha Bik Chuen, 2017. Original images courtesy of Asia Art Archive and the Ha Bik Chuen Family. Courtesy of Alan Chan.

DH: Is the relationship between Hong Kong and Mainland China a field of research to Asia Art Archive? How does the research you described above reflect the obviously significant issue of the Handover?

MW: This is a great question. I mentioned earlier that one of the most long-standing and important projects Asia Art Archive has been working on is on the emergence of contemporary art in Mainland China in 1980s. This project also includes a documentary film that focused on the development of art and culture in Southern China, which is titled From Jean-Paul Sartre to Teresa Teng: Cantonese Contemporary Art in the 1980s. The Guangdong province in Southern China shares a border with Hong Kong, and indeed many Hong Kongers hail from that province, and have extended family ties there even now. Before Mainland China opened doors in 1980s, materials of popular culture from Hong Kong, such as pop songs and TV programs were already circulating in Guangdong. Hong Kong is after all a migrant city, and this part of its history cannot be easily disregarded.

Archival materials collected as part of the project Materials of the Future: Documenting Contemporary Chinese Art from 1980-1990. Courtesy of Asia Art Archive.
Archival materials collected as part of the project Materials of the Future: Documenting Contemporary Chinese Art from 1980-1990. Courtesy of Asia Art Archive.

As part of the research around Lo Ting and Talkover/Handover and leading up to Seeing Things, Being There, we added an extra case study to bring out this arc of migration by looking into Ha Bik Chuen’s tourist photography in Mainland China in 1982. Many Hong Kong based artists were born in Mainland China, but fled during the Cultural Revolution and came of age in Hong Kong. Quite a number of them returned to Mainland China as tourists when doors reopened, and Ha was one of them. The tourist photography of his trip to Shanghai, Hangzhou, and Huangshan provides a fascinating entry point to consider their displacement and subsequent return to the Mainland as tourists, and how we may read them as quests for and stories of belonging.

Ha Bik Chuen and three friends in Hangzhou, 1982. Courtesy of the Ha Bik Chuen family and Asia Art Archive.
Ha Bik Chuen and three friends in Hangzhou, 1982. Courtesy of the Ha Bik Chuen family and Asia Art Archive.

DH: You mentioned a number of collaborative projects above. How do your partnerships work? What role does translation play in Asia Art Archive’s work?

MW: Apart from the collaborative projects that I mentioned when we discussed complex geographies as well as Asia Art Archive’s projects on Mainland China and Hong Kong, we have also collaborated with other institutions and individuals. This mode of working collaboratively is key to Asia Art Archive’s work because the organization does not acquire archives but always works in collaboration to share archives and documents. Some of the individuals we have worked together with in the past include Geeta Kapur and Vivan Sudaram for their archive which formed the project Another Life: The Digitised Personal Archive of Geeta Kapur and Vivan Sundaram and Natasha (Natalia) Kraevskaia, the cofounder of the artist run space Salon Natasha in Vietnam. Institutions we have collaborated with include the Hong Kong Museum of Art, M+, Tate, Guggenheim as mentioned earlier, amongst others.

One of our collaborative projects addressed the issue of translation head on was a project with Indonesia Visual Art Archive that focused on the exhibition history of Indonesia from the 1980s-1990s. During this period, many artist groups in Indonesia actively engaged with social issues, interdisciplinary connections, and unconventional frameworks. Working with IVAA, we translated from Bahasa into English 30 texts from five key exhibitions that illuminate how the histories of art exhibitions circulate and establish institutional structures.

DH:  At the end I have a more general question. Does the state of art change today, do in your experience art and activism influence each other?

MW: During the Umbrella Movement a group of artists and urbanists created a projection propelled by a digital platform where people could type in words of encouragement and support from different parts of the world. These words were then projected onto one of the main wall surfaces at the Admiralty protest site. Some people called it a work of art, others saw it as a mode of communication. Some may even say that during the Umbrella Movement those who participated were first and foremost citizens, whether one was an artist or not was perhaps not of primary concern. What is undeniable is that in politicized times as these, one gains a renewed understanding on what art and culture can be within a civil society. Working on history and art history can also take on a different meaning as we seek to make visible histories that were not so before, and ask questions about how they might have become invisible.



Michelle Wong is a researcher based in Hong Kong. She is Researcher at Asia Art Archive, where she has led various research initiatives such as the Hong Kong Art History Research Project with the Hong Kong Museum of Art, the Ha Bik Chuen Archive Project, and the undergraduate course developed in collaboration with Fine Arts Department, The University of Hong Kong. Wong is part of “Ambitious Alignments: New Histories of Southeast Asian Art,” a research program funded through the Getty Foundation’s Connecting Art Histories initiative. She was  Assistant Curator for the 11th edition Gwangju Biennale, South Korea (2016).






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