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Tobias Berger Wants to Make Tai Kwun One of the "Most Inspiring Art Spaces in Asia"

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Tobias Berger Wants to Make Tai Kwun One of the "Most Inspiring Art Spaces in Asia"
Image courtesy of Tobias Berger

The Artling speaks to Tobias Berger, the Head of Arts at Tai Kwun, which opened earlier in 2018. Originally the former Central Police Station in Hong Kong, Tai Kwun now stands as a new art and heritage revitalization project, aiming to expand the appreciation of contemporary art, performing arts, and history in the country. Compromised of three monuments, the former Central Police station, Central Magistracy and Victoria Prison, highest standards of heritage conservation have been applied so as to bring these buildings back to life. Tobias Berger sheds light on the speed at which Hong Kong has developed its platform for contemporary art, the two opening exhibitions at Tai Kwun, and the challenges faced in running a Hong-Kong-centric institution in a globalized art landscape.

Congratulations on the inaugural of Tai Kwun, how has it been since the opening?

Great! At the end of May we successfully opened Tai Kwun. The Central Police Station compound comprises of three declared monuments, namely the former Central Police Station, Central Magistracy and Victoria Prison.  The compound is now revitalized and transformed into a Centre for Heritage and Arts.

Tai Kwun Contemporary is the contemporary art programming arm of Tai Kwun dedicated to presenting contemporary art exhibitions and programmes for continually expanding cultural discourse in Hong Kong. With 1500 square meters of “Kunsthalle” type, museum-standard galleries located in the new gallery building designed by Herzog & de Meuron and the upper floor of the historic F Hall, Tai Kwun Contemporary is an integral part of the compound. The two opening exhibitions, “Dismantling the Scaffold” (presented by Hong Kong’s Spring Workshop) and a young Hong Kong artist Wing Po So’s first solo exhibition “Six-Part Practice” (presented by the Chinese University Hong Kong) received overwhelmingly positive responses. The two inaugural exhibitions not only attracted huge number of visitors but also reaffirms our commitment to local and international artists—one is a bigger, rather conceptual exhibition bringing together an international group show with artists from Hong Kong, Mainland and other parts of Asia, as well as a Hong Kong artist’s completely new production which showcases what we can do for local artists, especially the ones that do not usually have the support of the commercial sector.

SUPERFLEX and Jens Haaning. Number of Visitors (2005) Sculpture. 
Installation view of 'Dismantling the Scaffold', Tai Kwun Contemporary, June - August 2018Image courtesy of the artist and Tai Kwun

You have been based in Asia for a while now. Could you briefly describe your time here? How has the art scene changed in the region then and now?

No place I know of has ever developed its contemporary art scene at such a rapid speed. When I arrived in Hong Kong in 2005, there was some high-quality art production in Hong Kong but the institutional art scene was rather small, the international commercial scene barely existed and everything revolved around a few small non-profit places, like 1A Space, Para Site Art Space, Videotage and certainly the Asia Art Archive. With the arrival of the Hong Kong Art Fair (Art Hong Kong) in 2008, later acquired by Art Basel, and an increasing focus of the international auction houses in Hong Kong, all changed the art scene dramatically. Today Hong Kong is one of the main centres of the commercial art world. Academically speaking, Hong Kong grew from one major art academy to having five great institutions where one can study art; and now with the recent opening of Tai Kwun Contemporary, the re-opening of the Hong Kong Museum of Art next year and later M+ in the West Kowloon Cultural District, there will be great public institutions to match this growing art scene. Hong Kong will become one of the main centres of contemporary art in Asia, and since the time of monolithic centres is over, that is a great position to be in for a rather small city with a 7 million population.

PolyLester, Nucleus (2018) Installation, Dimensions variable
Installation view of 'Dismantling the Scaffold', Tai Kwun Contemporary, June - August 2018
Image courtesy of the artist and Tai Kwun 

Where do you see Tai Kwun Contemporary within that arts landscape and how does it emerge as a non-profit?

We are in a very unique position due to our collaborative presenting model, in which we invite other local and international non-for-profit art organizations and art groups to present tailor-made exhibitions in our spaces. It allows us to work with great talents from all over the world and bring new exciting curatorial concepts and exceptional artworks to Hong Kong.

We are exclusively funded by the Hong Kong Jockey Club Charities Trust which provides us with the wherewithal which enables us to operate rather independently. Our target is to host 6 to 8 exhibitions  of different sizes a year. We aspire to become one of the most inspiring public contemporary art spaces in Asia. For us as a team, the biggest joy is if, together with our partners, we can support young and mid-career artist from the region and to commission large new artworks and exhibitions.

Wing Po So, Part One: Connection (2017-2018) 
Installation view of ' Six-Part Practice: Wing Po So Solo Exhibition'
Tai Kwun Contemporary, June - August 2018 
Image courtesy of the artist and Tai Kwun 

Tai Kwun is known for its monumental building. How do you juggle the rich history that comes attached while bringing in contemporary exhibitions and programmes, without compromising the two?

The entire site, with its 16 historic and two new buildings, is based on the idea of “connectivity”, with the highest standards of heritage conservation applied. To connect the surrounding community with a formally closed law enforcement site, to connect the three formally independent entities inside the site, and most importantly to connect Heritage and Contemporary: all this gives the public the chance to appreciate the contrasting architectural features while enjoying an array of contemporary art offerings.

For example, none of the new Herzog de Meuron–designed buildings are just plonked onto the site but they are connected with the old fabric through bridges and walkways. Tai Kwun Contemporary is in a three-storey-high new gallery building but is seamlessly connected to the first floor of historic F-Hall, a space last used as the female prison; the design of the façade was also inspired by the stone and brick walls of the site so they stand in harmonious contrast with the heritage buildings Also in the heritage re-vitalization we left the old fabric and conserved it to the best possible standard but each new structure is visibly contemporary. The site as well as the public sculpture around the Prison Yard therefore fits perfectly into the concept of displaying the highest quality of heritage revitalization and contemporary art. Revitalisation means that we are respecting the heritage but adapting it for the contemporary times. The charm of the site is exactly this combination.

The carefully planned exhibitions integrate seamlessly into the best of both worlds. In addition to the exhibits inside the galleries, we also display public sculptures around the Prison Yard which sit perfectly in the heritage site and contemporary art spaces.

Installation view of 'Six Part Practice: Wing Po So Solo Exhibition', Tai Kwun Contemporary, June - August 2018
Image courtesy of the artist and Tai Kwun 

So Wing-po, who had her first solo show, Six-Part Practice, at Tai Kwun, also grew up there (in the neighbourhood). While this reflects the push in working closely with local artists, could you also describe the interaction and relationship with international artists and institutions?

When we invited Wing Po So we were actually not aware that she grew up in the neighborhood. We invited her because of her unique ability to produce very conceptual and beautiful sculptures inspired by her upbringing in a Chinese Medicine shop. It was important to show an artistic practice that would have a very difficult time in a commercial gallery and to give a young local artist the chance to create a major installation. We also produced a new Artists’ Book with her and connected her for that with one of Hong Kong’s most celebrated writers, Dung Kai Cheung. This exhibition demonstrates how a not-for-profit gallery like us can do for local artists. For international artists or exhibitions, we see it is important that they are relevant to the local discourse where they can contribute something that is significant in a way for Hong Kong now—for the artists, for the general audience or for the students.

Installation view of 'Six Part Practice: Wing Po So Solo Exhibition', Tai Kwun Contemporary, June - August 2018
Image courtesy of the artist and Tai Kwun 

What are some of the pressing challenges in having a Hong-Kong-centric institution in a globalised art landscape?

I like the idea of Hong Kong-centric because it describes exactly who we are. Hong Kong is currently at a very interesting point; in terms of its art scene it is gaining traction in recent years and its increasingly importance as a cultural centre in Asia. Privileged by its prime location, alongside neighbouring locations such as Macau, Shenzhen and Guangzhou in the Pearl River Delta, it gives certainly a very different perspective then say, working in New York or London. Once every year in March, Hong Kong becomes the centre of the nomadic art world for a week, when a lot of visitors  come in for Art Basel. Working and living in Hong Kong, especially in Central, Hong Kong, where Tai Kwun Contemporary is located, one is permanently reminded of the benefits but also the huge challenges of a vastly changing (art) world and it’s a perfect place to have a contemporary art space.

 

While hosting vibrant and contemporary exhibitions, as frequent as six to eight annually, what is the central value you hope that these programmes would bring to its new audience?

Our audience is fairly unique. In most art spaces and museums, the visitors are coming especially to see art. Most of our visitors have very little or even no experience with contemporary art. They visit Tai Kwun Contemporary as part of their greater Tai Kwun visit. Admission to Tai Kwun Contemporary is free; the art galleries attracted a large number of visitors in the first month alone.  We have the opportunity to reach out to a totally new kind of art visitors. This is a great chance for us to broaden the appreciation of arts through our education programmes.

Installation view of 'Dismantling the Scaffold', Tai Kwun Contemporary, June - August 2018
Image courtesy of the artist and Tai Kwun 

With the motif of ‘scaffold’, the artworks at the inaugural exhibition 'Dismantling the Scaffolding', explores “the potential of art as the means to illuminate and unpack our relationship with society at large”. What kind of impact do you wish Tai Kwun has within its community in the next five to ten years?

Tai Kwun Contemporary aims to become an integral part of Hong Kong’s life. With the large number of audiences we certainly hope to inspire a lot of new audiences to appreciate contemporary art for what it is, something that inspires them think differently, opens possibilities and is relevant to their lives in a very special way. By making arts easily accessible, we aim to promote the exploration and appreciation of arts which will help foster the growth of the artistic community.   

 

Dismantling the Scaffold and Six-Part Practice are both on show at Tai Kwun until 19 August 2018 
For more information, click here.


Any views or opinions in the post are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the company or contributors.



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