Competing for Venice
at 5:10pm on 6th September 2016
When the National Arts Council (NAC) of Singapore confirmed in August 2012 that it would not be participating in the 55th Venice Biennale (1 June-24 November 2013), artists there reacted with shock and consternation. In the NAC’s official statement, the decision was said to have been made to ‘critically reassess its long-term participation’ and ‘re-examine the relevance of participating in future Venice Biennales’ (http://www.todayonline.com/blogs/forartssake/no-spore-next-years-venice-biennale ). The NAC nevertheless expressed its commitment to supporting artists invited to participate in the curated sections of the biennale, and using the funds (SGD850,000 (US$680,000) in 2011), to create more opportunities for artists through international residencies and partnerships. This is clearly not how it has been interpreted by the artists, who consider themselves to have been denied an opportunity to show at the oldest and most prestigious contemporary art platform in the world. In September, an open letter to the Minister of Information, Communication and the Arts, Dr Yaacob Ibbrahim against the decision was published online bearing the signatures of over 200 arts practitioners.
Framed as a debate concerning a small number of art-world insiders, controversies surrounding Hong Kong’s participation at Venice in 2013 have similarly deep implications for the momentum and direction of funding for the visual arts and arts administration here.
On the 22 June 2012, the Hong Kong Arts Development Council (ADC) announced that the artist Lee Kit had been selected to represent Hong Kong at the Biennale. The press release was issued jointly by the ADC and M+, the new museum for 20th and 21st century visual culture, part of the West Kowloon Cultural District; it further included the news that M+ executive director Lars Nittve would serve as Lead Curator of the Hong Kong pavilion.
For those familiar with Venice, the announcement appeared unremarkable. The ADC, like arts authorities in many other countries including Germany, the US, Japan and the UK, had appointed a professional arts organization and an experienced curator to act as commissioner of the exhibition. M+ is the visual arts component of one of the most ambitious government-funded cultural districts in the world, and stands to be one of the most exciting institutions of its kind when it is completed (projected for the end of 2019): it will benefit both from new developments in museum practice itself and from emerging ideas about how we deal with national and regional identities and different visual languages.
Nittve joined M+ as the outgoing director of the Moderna Museet in Stockholm; prior to that he also served as director of the Louisiana Museum of Art in Denmark and the Tate Modern. He has been involved professionally with Venice for almost twenty years, acting as curator for the Norwegian, Finnish and Swedish participation in 1993; as Expert Advisor to the director of the Biennale (1997); and as commissioner for Swedish participation four times consecutively from 2003 to 2009. In terms of experience and sustained professional engagement in the unique environment of Venice, there are few in Hong Kong who could claim to be nearly as qualified.
That being said, some sections of the arts community reacted to the announcement with confusion and anger. Hong Kong, like Singapore, has been participating in Venice since 2001, and with the exception of the first year, when it nominated a curator, participation has been by open competition. The announcement in June did not address what has since been widely regarded as an abrupt change from a competition to a nomination model. A concern group was quickly formed, led by independent curator Yeung Yang, and composed of artists, practitioners and writers, including Chow Chun-fai, who ran in the recent Legislative Council elections for the seat in the Arts/ Sport Functional Constituency. Calling itself ‘We Want the Truth’, the group established a Facebook presence and an online petition at gopetition.org calling for better ethical practices in public contemporary art institutions. The petition attracted almost 200 signatures.
After months of agitprop, the concern group held a forum on 3 October at Hong Kong’s Fringe Club. Both the ADC and M+ were invited to account for the change in the participation model. Clara Cheung, co-founder of C&G Artpartment gallery, opened proceedings with questions that had been aggregated through the petition and Facebook page. ADC chairman Wilfred Wong followed with a report on how the change was approved by its highest decision-making body, the ADC Council. Nittve then gave a presentation on Venice, and the factors that he and his team had identified would make for a successful exhibition. Questions from the floor tended towards the belligerent, and the forum concluded with the concern group reiterating its demands for greater transparency in the ADC’s operations.
While appearing to offer equal opportunities to eligible artists, curators and arts administrators, the open-competition model has in reality always favoured the experienced – in particular, those with expertise in curating and project management. Hong Kong’s participation has suffered from underfunding and, given the different stages of the competition – from the initial call for entries, through the judging and selection process, to the eventual announcement – a tight timetable.
Over the years, the open-competition model has undergone an active process of modification to reflect cumulative experience, as well as confidential reviewer feedback about the exhibition. The most recent of these modifications was the introduction of an arts administration component to the curator-and-artist teams applying. This requirement was introduced to address shortcomings in previous years, especially in budget and project management. In reality, this has made the pool of potential applicants even smaller.
Inevitably, the competition format has over the years given rise to questions about the fairness of the selection process itself. The events preceding the eventual selection of the 2011 entry were widely seen as disastrous: a second competition had to be run after the original selection was voided following a complaint by an unsuccessful candidate. As Venice is an international exhibition, it was expected that applicants would be able to effectively present their curatorial ideas in English to the selection committee, often made up of one or two non-Chinese experts. Translation services were available to applicants who preferred to make their presentations in Cantonese. The complaint was reportedly about being denied the right to use Cantonese in Hong Kong. The chosen artist was therefore the unfortunate victim of a complaint that had more to do with politics than art. Many artists boycotted the second round in protest at the ADC’s decision to reopen applications.
The ADC has defended its decision to experiment with a model of participation that places responsibility for a successful exhibition at Venice in the hands of experienced curators. I applaud this move towards professional participation and away from a structure in which the quality of the art has been made subordinate to the ability to deliver. Nevertheless, it is clear that the ADC’s change in policy shows a lack of judgement as to how different constituencies in the arts community understand the role of public funding of the arts in Hong Kong, and an uncomfortable level of skepticism around the work of M+.
Although the change was passed without incident by the ADC Council, as a funding body that acknowledges expertise in Hong Kong’s participation at Venice, it should also have acknowledged the expertise of its own appointed advisers – members of the arts community – on the model of participation. It may be argued that the decision has come about through considering suggestions made by advisers and reviewers over the years since 2001, but at the forum, Lui Chun-kwong, artist and former faculty member of the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s Fine Arts Department, and himself an adviser to various government bodies on the visual arts, remarked that he and other advisers he talked to were neither informed nor consulted on the change in policy, learning of it – like everyone else – in June 2012.
Although outside the scope of this commentary, the call by certain members of the arts community for greater transparency in the operation and decision-making processes of the ADC casts it as a cypher for an unelected and over-reaching government. Taking place at a time when activism forced the government to suspend the hasty introduction of a system of national and moral education, Hong Kong citizens are in no mood to ignore threats to existing freedoms.
This disquieting episode raises valid questions about how funding for the development of artistic talent in the visual arts should be deployed. Singapore appears to be shifting funding away from participating in the grand spectacle of Venice in favour of other forms of international collaborations targeting non-public-sector arts organizations. But for Hong Kong, it should not be a question of either/or. Governmental support of arts organizations outside of Venice through the ADC and, recently, through the newly-introduced Home Affairs Bureau’s springboard grants, are specifically intended to encourage artistic development, build curatorial capabilities, and increase public literacy in the visual arts (see, for instance, www.hab.gov.hk/en/policy_responsibilities/arts_culture_recreation_and_sport/acdfs.htm)
For Venice in 2013, the ADC’s existing funding of HK$4.5 million (a little less than Singapore’s for 2011) will be supplemented by up to an additional HK$4 million from M+ bringing the total potential budget to HK$8.5 million (almost US$1.1 million,or €861,622 at present exchange rates). Nittve explained the willingness of M+ to commit further funds to the project to upgrade and renovate Hong Kong’s venue in Venice, develop programmes to train emerging curators, and for educational programmes. The exhibition will benefit from a set of soft skills that he and his team will bring to the project, including networks of contacts within the international contemporary art world. The chosen artist, Lee Kit, is already relatively well-known outside Asia, having shown at MoMA and the New Museum in New York and Tate Modern in London, but visitors will be encouraged to draw equivalences between the lead curator, his institution M+, and by extension, the wider Hong Kong art community, with which all are identified.
While some large countries are turning away from national identity in favour of more transnational themes, others will continue to view Venice as an opportunity to showcase their best talents. This year, Germany will be showcasing artists from South Africa and India, as well as the Chinese artist/ activist Ai Weiwei, who is unlikely ever to be featured in the Chinese pavilion.
The ADC will have been duly chastened by the backlash from the arts community, and future models of participation at Venice will be up for discussion after June 2013. Given the reaction to this year’s decision, it may now be hard to implement a stable system of participation like that adopted by other countries. But a move in this direction will benefit the development of professional skills across the board in Hong Kong in the long term. Alternatively, Hong Kong could go the way of Singapore.
A version of this commentary appeared in Orientations Magazine, Vol 44, No. 1, Jan/Feb 2013.