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Ocula Conversation

Gregor Muir, Princess Alia Al-Senussi and Abdullah AlTurki in Conversation

Anna Dickie Hong Kong 13 March 2015

Duddell’s, the restaurant and bar which has also become one of Hong Kong’s most important art spaces, recently collaborated with London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) to present the exhibition, Duddell’s Presents: ICA Off-Site: Hong Kongese. The exhibition, which opened earlier this year to coincide with Art Basel in Hong Kong, includes works by both local and international artists, and also one of Hong Kong’s iconic neon signs (a loan from the M+ collection). The works, although diverse, all touch—some blatantly and some subtly—on the idea of a world in flux, evoking considerations of how social change impacts both the individual and the collective consciousness.

The exhibition is co-curated by Gregor Muir, director of the ICA, Princess Alia Al-Senussi and Abdullah AlTurki. Al-Senussi is VIP Relations Middle East for Art Basel and Chair of the Tate Young Patrons, and AlTurki is a founding member of the Saudi Art Council.

Ocula took time to speak to the three co-curators of Hong Kongese about the exhibition.

What are the origins of this collaboration between the ICA and Duddell’s?

Gregor Muir: The whole thing originates from an engagement with Asia that I had even before I joined the ICA. Initially it arose through working closely with an artist in Shanghai called Zhang Enli, and through conversations with him and his gallery, ShangArt and Lorenz Helbing.  This all led to a broader understanding of Asia.

As a result I found myself travelling to Singapore, to Seoul and ultimately to Hong Kong where I participated, as the senior director of Hauser & Wirth, in the art fair, which was at the time, Art HK. I loved Hong Kong at first sight and consequently always wanted to come back and do some thing in my present guise as the director of the ICA. So we come last year to Hong Kong and presented a British artist called James Richards through a talk at the Asia Society and also hosted a vast lunch thanks to our wonderful supporters. It was through this ongoing process of engaging with Hong Kong that the invitation was extended to me from Duddell’s. As soon as the offer of curating a show in Hong Kong at Duddell’s came I jumped at it. I loved the idea, and I immediately wanted to work here with Princess Alia Al-Senussi and Abdullah AlTurki.

Exhibition view, Duddell’s Presents: ICA Off-Site: Hong Kongese, at Duddell's, Hong Kong. 

You have worked with Princess Alia Al-Senussi and Abdullah AlTurki before?

Gregor Muir: I’d already partnered with them on an outdoor cinema project in London and we had such a great time doing it, and I realised we had to evolve a really interesting approach to this environment we have at Duddell’s. It is an exciting place, but it is also a bar and restaurant. It offers a very different set of circumstances from that which I am usually working in. But I felt with Princess Alia Al-Senussi and Abdullah AlTurki, the three of us could rise to the challenge.

I knew that last year Duddell’s had worked with Philip Tinari of the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, and I felt that show was a great success. It was a really interesting show to see. So I’m very glad to be following on from that show: it feels very good.

We’ve had a wonderful time putting the show together. It has been really great fun. I am essentially here curating with people who are friends of the ICA—Princess Alia Al-Senussi and Abdullah AlTurki—but they aren’t necessarily card-carrying curators, although they are in the art world and they are going to art fairs all the time. They know what artists are coming up, and they really have a great interest in contemporary art, which I value highly so it’s this sense of multiple points of re-engagement. 

How did you together select the work in the show?

Gregor Muir: The selection mattered. It was important to us. We decided to work with artists on the basis of one simple criteria: their work in some way reflects a situation in flux. Their work did not need to be about Hong Kong, but it did need to be about a situation where there was a clear element of change. That change didn’t need to be obvious; it could be reflected in some little detail, for instance it might reflect a change in tradition, or reflect things moving from one state to another. Rather than concentrate on a specific local item or identity, we wanted to kind of explode it. We wanted to look at change through different global perspectives—that was really important to us.

I think this ultimately leads to the idea of us trying not to raise a question so much as suggesting a condition. People who come through Duddell’s will come from various parts of the world, and they will be able to look around the space and see their own situations somewhat reflected in the works. It will offer some moments to reflect on where and how things are changing, and also to think on the displacement that may come with that.

If you take for instance the work by Rodel Tapaya, it deals with change in the Philippines and as that change relates to man and nature. The work was made for this space. 

Exhibition view, Duddell’s Presents: ICA Off-Site: Hong Kongese, at Duddell's, Hong Kong. 

[Princess Alia Al-Senussi and Abdullah AlTurki join the Conversation]

You decided not to focus on Hong Kong art or artists, but you nevertheless called the show Hong Kongese

Princess Alia Al-Senussi: I think that today being from a place doesn’t mean you are from an expected ethnicity. Gregor of course is English, but the idea of being a Londoner is very much about a connection to the city, rather than being a Londoner; Hong Kong has a similar feeling.

Gregor Muir: ‘Hong Kongese’ talks about two things: it talks about place and it talks about a kind of style as well. ‘Hong Kongese’, to me at least, conjures this image or picture of a city and conjures an idea of place and people. Yet, and I think this is something that is particularly interesting to me, I see people from Hong Kong dealing with change at every level; yet another layer was added recently with the political protest. There is a sense of Hong Kong trying to balance these incredible economic and political matters. Everyone is aware this is a city that is rapidly changing not just into a modern harbour, but into a global hub.

Princess Alia Al-Senussi: People are so worried about Hong Kong, and the changes it is undergoing: “It is no longer British, it is becoming Chinese”—is this a problem? As we see it, it was never British to become Chinese, and it is never going to be Chinese because it is Hong Kong. It is its own universe, and has its own identity.

Gregor Muir: Hong Kong is somehow many, many things for many different people who use it all the time for so many different reasons. I think it has entered the imagination as a place of change.

I feel the M+ neon sign, which appears in the stairwell at Duddell’s, is essential to this exhibition. Was it?

Gregor Muir: Yes. That was the first piece we chose. It came before anything else; it came before any of the artworks. It is like a mental image of the modern city of Hong Kong—it introduces a touch of nostalgia too.

But it’s also very new, because it comes from M+. And I think that is something really important to us. We didn't explicitly discuss it, but all of us recognised the importance of having some sort of connection to M+ because what Hong Kong is trying to create in M+ is something very special. 

We are kind of teasing M+ a little in the catalogue—there is a question of when M+ will open. We know it will open, and it will absolutely transform the cultural landscape in Hong Kong, and everyone will relate to Hong Kong differently again.

It’s interesting you have bought up M+, which is a museum that doesn’t yet have a building, because increasingly the ICA is working more off-site too; it is less constrained by its building?

Gregor Muir: Well the original ICA was offsite actually.

The ICA between 1946 and 1950 didn’t have a home and did a number of—for want of a better name—‘pop-up’ exhibitions around London, mainly around Oxford Street, and dotted around Mayfair. It found its place in Dover Street from 1950-1968 and became a kind of hub for travelling artists and for people who needed a place to go to be in touch with the new and with contemporary art. Anyone I have spoken to who remembers the earliest incarnation of the ICA will say, “ it was the only place in London where young free thinking people could go and hang out and feel part of a new world”.

The ICA’s message even now really connects to the principle of going out into the world, of bringing our message to other people while at the same time being eager to bring people back to our base at the heart of our space in London. So we have developed an amazing out-reach project, very much in the spirit of collaboration and learning and gaining more knowledge and meeting more artists and taking that all in our grasp and making sure we use it.

Exhibition view, Duddell’s Presents: ICA Off-Site: Hong Kongese, at Duddell's, Hong Kong. 

To what extent is this type of involvement in projects such as this essential to being a collector?

Princess Alia Al-Senussi: It has been a learning process for all of us, definitely for me in terms of what local artists are really passionate about, what their training is, and what they are interested in.

I think doing something that supports the artists: enables connections, provides an opportunity of increased exposure—all of these are good things. The artist generally has a message that needs to be transported to an audience and enabling that is an important role for any collector. 

Gregor Muir: I think the key focus of the ICA is the idea of an interdisciplinary approach. And in a way collecting is a discipline. And also in a bizarre way in our new world, attending contemporary art is a discipline, going to the fairs, going to the exhibitions, going to the openings, it's a practice. Engaging in contemporary art isn't just this facile or meaningless thing. It takes you around the world; it takes you into whole new areas.

Princess Alia Al-Senussi: It takes you into people’s homes, I can’t think of that many industries, or that many ways of being a philanthropist or a business person and being invited into people’s homes— it leads you to being intimately involved in someone’s life.

Gregor Muir: I am meeting collectors and patrons who at their core have a real passion for art.  And so I’m trying to be less heads up about barriers and definitions and boundaries. It is really useful to have this exchange across otherwise rooted boundaries.

What did you each enjoy most about this whole experience?

Princess Alia Al-Senussi: I have enjoyed learning in depth more about the ICA, the ICA’s history and the way that translates into working in Hong Kong. I am a huge fan of Hong Kong, I think Hong Kong is extraordinary and for me it was a very important thing to be able to do something that was really trying to capture the essence of what I love about the city.

I would also say it was about being able to understand how to translate works of art into something very local, yet which had meaning to me, somebody who is half Arab, half American and living in London. I also wanted to make sure we did the ICA proud and made it a show to be proud of.

Abdullah AlTurki: I think that’s probably it, especially that last line.—[O]

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