Ask an M+ Curator: Curating ‘Five Artists: Sites Encountered’
Time to ask a curator! Throughout the exhibition Five Artists: Sites Encountered, curious visitors can ask exhibition curator Pauline J. Yao anything about the exhibition and the works on display. Answers are then posted right here on M+ Stories.
Below are the answers from the first round of questions—the second round will be published after the exhibition’s end. Thank you to everyone who has submitted questions.
How did you select the five artists for the current show?
Pauline: This is a great question, and one of the hardest to answer! The first thing to bear in mind is that the process of selecting artists doesn’t happen in a vacuum; it’s always informed by numerous factors and practical realities. Curators have to not only formulate the idea for the show and select relevant artists but also figure out how, pragmatically, it comes together. Where will the works come from? Can they fit in the space? How should they be arranged and what happens when you place different pieces side by side? What are the budgetary implications? The works should speak to each other on several levels: intellectual, certainly, but formal and material as well.
For this exhibition, I wanted to branch out a little bit beyond the M+ Collections and invite artists whose works responded to the theme in a particularly interesting or unusual way. I also decided early on that I wanted to make it a small group show. We had previously done both big group shows and shows spotlighting just one or two artists. A small group show offers something different—a way to dive a little deeper into each of the artists’ works or practices while also exploring a theme through multiple voices.
In a smaller show like this, featuring just five artists, the threads between the works need to be fairly strong, and yet it’s easy to show diversity. Each artist in this exhibition comes from a different geographical context, was born in a different decade, and works according to different methodologies. Some of the artists, though no longer alive, still fall within the broader spectrum of contemporary art. It’s all about providing different connections, some more readily apparent than others.
Finally, it is an exhibition of women artists. This was, of course, part of the selection process; we wanted to do a show that would highlight the talents and contributions of women artists, across generations and regions. But we are very aware of the fact that, while these artists all happen to be women, gender is not what defines their work. In some cases, you can find those connections, and they are important, but it’s not the main thrust of this show.
How did you go about inviting artists to participate in the exhibition?
Pauline: The process usually starts with reaching out to the individual artists or their representatives. I explain what the exhibition is about, find out more about their work, or—if I have a specific work in mind—ask if they would be interested in participating in the show. In a nutshell, that’s how it works, but in reality this can play out in different ways depending on the artist, the work, and the situation. For this show, each of the artists comes with different circumstances.
May Fung’s work, She Said Why Me (1989), was already in the M+ Collections, so including it in this exhibition was quite straightforward, but I still needed to liaise with the artist, let her know of our plans, learn more about how to best display the piece, and involve her in the programming around the show. For artists like Ana Mendieta and Posenenske, who are no longer alive, I began discussions with their representatives: either a gallery or the artist’s estate. In the case of Lee Bul, I contacted the artist’s studio and gallery because I could foresee that borrowing and displaying the group of maquettes might be a bit more complex.
Because of this show’s focus on the concept of site, we knew that we wanted to commission an artist to respond to our site—be it the M+ construction site, the Pavilion, or the nearby surroundings. I chose to invite Lara Almarcegui, because her practice is built around questions related to site, land, and material. I contacted her directly about her availability and interest in doing something in Hong Kong. Since the work would be a site-specific commission, the first step would necessarily involve a research trip to Hong Kong, so timing was important.
There was another special case: Untitled Sculpture W6-2 (2010) by Lee Bul, which was borrowed from a private collector, rather than from the artist herself. I wanted to show Lee’s work in a more expanded way, beyond the group of maquettes, and realised we could potentially borrow a piece from one of the many collectors of her work in Hong Kong. This is another dimension of the curatorial process that sometimes goes unnoticed—sometimes you have the locations of certain artworks around the world filed away in your head, just waiting for the right opportunity for you to remember them!
Will we be able to see documentation of the reconfiguration of Charlotte Posenenske’s sculptures online?
Pauline: Charlotte Posenenske’s steel-and-cardboard works were first created as modular sculptures in the 1960s. Her unusual approach allows for them to be assembled in various shapes according to the display space and the desires of the owner. To highlight this essential function of the works, as well as the changing relationships they can have with the exhibition space, they are being reconfigured three times over the course of the exhibition by three invited guests.
Once the exhibition is over, there will be a blog post on M+ Stories documenting all of the configurations. Photographs of the configurations will also be made into postcards that are going to be sold in the M+ Shop. Posenenske’s ideas about art combine sameness and variability in a highly unusual way, so showing different configurations of her works allows audiences to see multiple responses to the space. We want to make sure viewers can get the full experience even if they can’t witness each configuration in real time.
What did you enjoy most about putting together this exhibition?
Pauline: As a curator, I always love dialoguing directly with artists about their work and finding ways to help them realise their vision(s). Sharing their work with a wider public and encouraging new perspectives on their work or on contemporary art in general is also exciting. By putting different artists and their works in conversation with one another, I am always hopeful some new reading or understanding may come out of it. The theme of looking at how artists respond to site also feels especially relevant in this time and place, and I am glad I can contribute something to the dialogue around how art intersects with its social and political contexts and can elicit nuanced understandings of our place in the world.
It is also rewarding when I am able to share the work of a particular artist or group of artists with people who have never heard of them, or who haven’t had the chance to see their work in person. For example, Fung didn’t know much, if anything, about Posenenske’s work before this exhibition, and she got to learn more about it through the show. I also had a journalist ask me incredibly detailed questions about Mendieta’s performance pieces, and I asked her, ‘How do you know her work?’ She answered that initially she didn’t, but that she’d googled everything after she saw the photos in our press release. When we spoke at the opening after she’d watched the films, she had some great, detailed questions—it was clear her curiosity had been sparked.
I do find pleasure in being able to open up new worlds or expose people to different ideas and approaches to making art. Even if it’s just a few people who come away from the show having learned something more about art’s relationship to the world, or a particular artist whom they respond to, and are then motivated to find out more and go a little deeper, this can be deeply gratifying.
Questions have been edited for length and clarity.
Image at top of post: Pauline J. Yao giving a curatorial tour of the exhibition. Photo: M+, Hong Kong.