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Conversation  |  Independent Curator, Critic and Consultant, Hong Kong

William Zhao

In Conversation with
Anna Dickie
Hong Kong, 17 December 2013
William Zhao

The last decade has seen an extraordinary interest in Chinese art, yet Hong Kong artists have been significantly overlooked.

It is timely that artist Ai Weiwei—arguably China's most well-known artist—is curating an exhibition at Duddell's in the heart of Hong Kong, featuring only Hong Kong artists. Titled Framed: Ai Weiwei and Hong Kong Artists, the presentation shows works that the participating artists created in response to Ai Weiwei's frames. As typical of Ai Weiwei, each frame is not ordinary, revealing an outline of the border between China and Hong Kong. It evokes the peripheral nature of Hong Kong's position to the Mainland, while slyly referencing the artist's fraught relationship with his country's government: Ai Weiwei is currently unable to travel to Hong Kong.

The 13 works in the exhibition are by some of Hong Kong's leading artists, including Frog King Kwok, Nadim Abbas and Map Office. Each provide a considered response to Ai Weiwei's curatorial challenge, but they also emphasise how Hong Kong art has every reason to sit not in some artistic island ghetto but at the centre of any global discussion on art.

Framed is organised by Ai Weiwei's longtime friend and curator William Zhao. Zhao was born in China and obtained his MBA in France, where he worked for 11 years in the finance sector. During that time, he became active in curating art exhibitions, advising the French Government Commission in charge of the Joint France-China Years 2001–2002 and the president of the Pompidou Centre, Jeans Jacques Aillagon, on the exhibition Alors, Chine. Following his return to Hong Kong in 2003, Zhao moved full-time into the arts, devoting himself to advising collectors and writing on contemporary Chinese art.

Ai Weiwei, Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (2015). LEGO bricks mounted on aluminium. Edition 2 of 30 + 2 AP. 230 x 192 cm x3 (triptych).

Ai Weiwei, Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (2015). LEGO bricks mounted on aluminium. Edition 2 of 30 + 2 AP. 230 x 192 cm x3 (triptych). Courtesy Tang Contemporary Art.

Zhao's writing regularly appears in publications such as Modern Weekly, Bazaar Art (China edition), and South China Morning Post. Zhou has also served as Vice Chairman-Asia of the Association of Guimet Museum (Paris), a member of the Board of Directors of the Sovereign Art Foundation, Hong Kong, and Guest Creative Director for Bazaar Art. In curatorial capacity, he has curated a number of major exhibitions of Chinese artists, including solo exhibitions for Liu Weijian, Zhang Huan, Zhan Wang, and Sun Xun. In this interview, Zhao discusses the origins and significance of Framed: Ai Weiwei and Hong Kong Artists.

ADHow did you get involved in art?

WZBefore starting, I did my MBA in Paris, and then I did banking for around 10 years. I moved back to Hong Kong about 10 years ago, and I started writing as an art critic. When I was at school, I studied painting.

ADWhat type of painting?

WZOil painting and old Chinese painting. I was interested in taking this to a professional level, and I wanted to continue studying art after I finished school, but my parents stopped me. At that time—and perhaps there is still that thinking today—art was not seen as a very serious subject and I don't think that is only among Chinese families, I think many parents still don't view art as a possible professional career. So when I was 17, I applied to art school and I was accepted, but my parents stopped me and said it was time to do some serious work as it would otherwise be a tough life for me. It was seen as something that should remain a hobby. So I went back to university and studied finance to be a banker and have a traditional life.

Ho Sin Tung, Hills Won't Heal (2012). Ink, pencil, colour pencil on paper. 75 x 130 cm.

Ho Sin Tung, Hills Won't Heal (2012). Ink, pencil, colour pencil on paper. 75 x 130 cm. Courtesy the artist, and Duddell's.

ADBut you kept your passion for art, so you kept looking at and studying art in your own time.

WZYes, I kept on looking and studying. My first job was in investment banking, but I bought artwork with my first salary payment. It was more than a hobby. It really was my passion.

ADCan you remember that first work?

WZYes. It was about twenty years ago that I bought that work. It was a small drawing on paper by Picasso.

ADSo, at what stage did you move from investment banking to art?

WZSo, when I came back to Hong Kong, I stopped investment banking and started writing articles for different newspapers—for Chinese papers and then also for Bazaar Art. I am now the art director for Bazaar Art, and I also write for SCMP.

And after a few years of writing, I started to organise exhibitions. I organised an exhibition for Louis Vuitton. I started with a small show for them and then organised their museum show at the National Museum of Beijing.

Kum Chi-Keung, Amusement Park (2012). Acrylic box, bamboo, feather, stainless steel with stand. 38 x 22 x 22 cm.

Kum Chi-Keung, Amusement Park (2012). Acrylic box, bamboo, feather, stainless steel with stand. 38 x 22 x 22 cm. Courtesy Alisan Fine Arts, Hong Kong.

ADHow did you become involved in this exhibition at Duddell's?

WZDuddell's is a place a few friends wanted to create because we shared a love of art. We wanted to build something in Hong Kong that would support artists. Central has almost no commercial space for art. We wanted to create a small place to share our passion for art. Create a place with an ambience that is different. It is a place where people can go to have lunch or coffee but see something interesting.

ADIt's very much about bringing the art to where the people are, isn't it?

WZYes. This is not a commercial gallery space. Duddell's does not sell the art that is shown here. We wanted to allow art to be shown here to promote it so that we could bring something interesting into the city and people could access and discover it. So the artists we show don't have to be commercially successful. We can and try to support young artists.

Ai Weiwei, Law of the Journey (2017). Reinforced PVC1. 640 x 580 x 350 cm.

Ai Weiwei, Law of the Journey (2017). Reinforced PVC1. 640 x 580 x 350 cm. Courtesy Tang Contemporary Art, Hong Kong.

ADThe decision to have Ai Weiwei curate the exhibition then was really about using his success to draw people to look at the lesser-known artists in the exhibition.

WZThat is part of the reason. Ai Weiwei is a close friend, and our friendship goes back many years. People either love Ai Weiwei or they are critical. We really wanted to share the things we love, the things we find interesting. Weiwei supported us from the very beginning. When we first opened the space in May during Art Basel, we asked him to do a show. However, there wasn't enough time, but we kept talking to him. We asked him to curate a show of important European artists who had influenced his work.

However, we eventually decided against this, but we kept on talking. Then we started thinking about how Hong Kong is on the border of China and how Hong Kong artists are also on the periphery of this huge Chinese art market. The Chinese artists receive so much attention, but the Hong Kong artists don't receive it. We wanted to do something to change that. And Ai Weiwei thought a curated show of Hong Kong artists was an excellent idea. But Ai Weiwei didn't know the Hong Kong artists, so we started to show him works and introduce him to artists, and when we travelled to Beijing, we took works and catalogues.

We spent about two or three months choosing the artists with Ai Weiwei that should be in this exhibition.

ADHowever, this exhibition is not just about Ai Weiwei selecting artists to be in a show.

WZNo. After a few months Weiwei told us, 'I can just put the artwork on the wall but I cannot come to Hong Kong for political reasons, it will be a shame because the show will not be that interesting just to have my name to the show. I think it will be so much more interesting if we create an exhibition that involves artworks that have come out of a dialogue between the artists and me.'

And Ai Weiwei came up with the idea of providing a frame for the artists to work with. He created 20 frames of exactly the same dimensions, but what is particularly interesting about these frames is that if you were to cut them and look at the cross-section of the frame, you would see that it follows the topography of the border of China. And I think it is rather a romantic idea and one that the artists then responded to. There is really a lot of soul put into this exhibition.

Ai Weiwei, Fairytale People (2007). C-print100 x 100 cm.

Ai Weiwei, Fairytale People (2007). C-print100 x 100 cm. Courtesy the artist, Leister Foundation, Switzerland, Erlenmeyer Stiftung, Switzerland and Galerie Urs Meile, Beijing-Lucerne.

ADPerhaps we can discuss how some artists responded to Ai Weiwei's frame?

WZIt was very interesting. Some of the artists did not want to play politics with respect to the map of China. There was quite violent dialogue, and when you look at the different works in the exhibition, they very much reflect the differing responses.

The actual works demonstrate the different approaches to Ai Weiwei's frame. Ho Sin Tung, for example, felt that none of her work could be framed by someone else, so she chose to do a portrait of Ai Weiwei and let him frame himself. The work is called Ailiens. It is a very, really small portrait, but it has a story.

Kum Chi-Keung works with birdcages. This is a particularly beautiful work. The artist created tiny birdcages—very evocative of people in Hong Kong and how we live in a confined space—and placed them together. In doing so, they create a map and the appearance of hands opening.

Tsang Kin Wah did a wallpaper work, and as you know, of course, he works with the lotus flower, which is closely associated with Buddhism, but if you look at the works closely, you will see that the flower patterns are created from words associated with pornography. This work takes up the entire wall, and Ai Wei Wei's frame is placed in the middle of it.

Map Office, Ghost Island [Noppharat Thara Beach, Krabi] (2019). Chromogenic print on archival art paper. Edition 1 of 5. 100 x 170 cm. Generously donated by the artist.

Map Office, Ghost Island [Noppharat Thara Beach, Krabi] (2019). Chromogenic print on archival art paper. Edition 1 of 5. 100 x 170 cm. Generously donated by the artist. Courtesy Asia Art Archive, Hong Kong.

ADI was particularly interested in the Map Office work upstairs. Perhaps you can tell me about that work?

WZMap Office has known Ai Weiwei well for a long time. And they have been exploring the concept of an island—which, of course, Hong Kong is— so they made an island using Ai Weiwei's head as the topography of the work.

ADAnd the work by Nadim Abbas?

WZIn the beginning, Nadim wasn't that interested in the exhibition, but after being involved in discussions regarding the work, he started to get more interested, and he wanted to do a work that responded to Ai Weiwei politically. He created a very political work that comments on the relationship between Hong Kong and China.

An earlier version of these photographs was shown in a group exhibition responding to Ai Weiwei's much-publicised incarceration in 2011. He has used photographs from the entrance signage to a local PRC ministry office. From these it was possible to spell out the titles of two well-known exhibitions by Ai Weiwei. Nadim Abbas, however, made some revisions for this exhibition—he blanked out some words—he wanted the work to be more oblique and for the reader to have to fill out the blanks.

ADSo, in terms of the physical placement of works—the decision regarding which works would be hung together and so on—how were these decisions made?

WZThese decisions were made by Ai Weiwei. He sent his team manager here, and they used videos and photos. He really cared about the lighting, for example. We spent much time getting the lighting right with Ai Weiwei on the phone.

ADWhat's the next exhibition?

WZWell, we are working on that at the moment. Every year we will do two or three. This show will be on until February. After that we will start thinking about the show that will be on during May—which is obviously an important time for Hong Kong given Art Basel. —[O]

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