Hong Kong - Interviews

Reawakening Hong Kong’s Art Scene: an Interview with Tobias Berger

6 months ago

My Art Guides: Tai Kwun is the biggest restoration project ever undertaken in Hong Kong, with more than 1500 square metres of exhibition space. How has it been since the opening? And how does Tai Kwun position itself in the institutional art field of Hong Kong? What news Tai Kwun will bring to the city’s art scene?

Tobias Berger: I think the most important thing to underline is that Tai Kwun is a revitalisation project rather than a restoration one, which really means that we have to enliven this amazing space. This was an Old Central Police Station, Central Magistracy and Victoria Prison. We have 16 old buildings and 2 new buildings. The Visual Arts part which we call Tai Kwun Contemporary is concentred in two of these buildings.
We opened in May 2018 and the reaction has been super positive from both sides: the visitor numbers are through the roof, Tai Kwun welcomed the first million visitors in October 2018 but more importantly we care about the reaction from the people of Hong Kong as Tai Kwun was specifically made to engage the local community. I mean, we do love tourists and people from all over the world but you know, but 80% of visitors are from Hong Kong. In regards to galleries it’s the same for Tai Kwun, with around 250 thousands visitors. Actually, I don’t know any other art project that has these kind of numbers but again, it’s more important to receive a good reaction from professionals as well as amateurs and artists. We have a really cutting-edge programme which involves several Hong Kong institutions and we mostly feature Hong Kong, Chinese and Asian artists which is wonderful!

My Art Guides: Before undertaking your role as Head of Arts at Tai Kwun you were the executive director of Para Site and curator of the future M+ Museum for Visual Culture. What do these positions mean to you and how do these experiences infiltrate into your new role?

Tobias Berger: Well, for all these places, the general and common idea runs on the concept of how you create a valid art space for that location and how do you develop a valid programme for the local community or for the Hong Kong discourse. Neither M+ nor Tai Kwun Contemporary is there for the global art audience especially in these years. It’s here for Hong Kong art community, the artists and the people. That was the same reasoning we had at M+: it is a Hong Kong Museum, where we look at Hong Kong from the outside and I think this is the only way to give a place a certain identity and connection to where we are.
I’ve worked in Hong Kong for such a long time and you know it’s really hard to establish an institution like that without any knowledge or appreciation of where you are and the environment you live in.

My Art Guides: The artists you have showcased since the opening include Wing Po So, Leung Chi Wo + Sara Wong, Nadim Abbas, Cao Fei… As this is not a permanent collection but rather a sort of Kunsthalle, how do you select the artists?

Tobias Berger: First of all, as you said, we are non-profit, we have no entrance, we do not collect but we also do not exhibit our own exhibitions as we collaborate with other institutions both locally and internationally to basically produce tailor-made exhibitions for Hong Kong. So we are not just a pit stop for travelling exhibitions but we are working with partners together to create something for the city. Our first exhibition, “Dismantling the Scaffold”, was produced with Spring Workshop and curated by Christina Li, and to me it was really important to work both with a local institution and curator. And we had Wing Po So, a Hong Kong artist curated by the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
We are not so much in the business of curating the artists. The selection is by the curators and by the presenting institutions. We basically help them to produce the exhibitions, that’s what is important here. Cao Fei’s exhibition for example was officially curated by UCCA and for this show we had to work a lot here, in Tai Kwun since we know the spaces better. So it’s a cooperation between Tai Kwun and the guests.

My Art Guides: What upcoming exhibitions and programmes are you working on?

Tobias Berger: I can’t tell you that! Of course not (he laughs). What I can say is that we really want to do very contemporary exhibitions and coop exhibitions. We don’t want to become too commercial and too close to galleries. We have two exhibitions during the art fair: one is a an exhibition titled “Far Away, Too Close”, a collaboration with the Wellcome Trust in London which is a contagious city and the other is “Performing Society”, a cooperation with a larger European museum on a new definition of public and space, due to open in February 2019. And then we have other 2 big solo shows.

My Art Guides: You hold around 6 exhibitions a year, which is a lot…

Tobias Berger: Yes, international exhibitions last between 2/3 months; we are not reinventing the real but we are just shifting perspective. You know we neither want to reinvent the Kunsthalle concept. Being in the middle of Hong Kong and having this Hong Kong point of view, we can certainly bring another perspective to it.

My Art Guides: You’ve stated “In Asia people are moving easily from non-profit to commercial and back, and you see artists that become architects, architects that become artists … That’s much more 21st century”. How has the art scene in the Asia- Pacific region evolved since you arrived in 2006?

Tobias Berger: It has changed dramatically. There have never been a change like that in a city in such a short time. The only other city that has changed so much is Shanghai, which in the last 4 years has exploded. Asia changes so fast, we see it even in Korea in Gwangju and Busan.
Every city is very different but when I look closely at Hong Kong…well, it became the hub of international art market also thanks to the increasing number of auction houses and galleries. There’s no place where you have both a very good art scene and also major galleries, it’s like having every big gallery in the world in Milan or Seattle! Commercial galleries are just totally out of proportion.
It’s very good but also challenging for the local galleries since they have to compete with the big boys. There’s an exchange but, I have to say, there should be more. International gallery could work harder to look into the local art scene. The Hong Kong art world from being a normal art centre, became a global centre for the art market and we didn’t expect such a de-centralisation of the market out of New York, London or Berlin. Nowadays everything is of course influenced by fairs, biennales, but there’s no one centre for art anymore. It was so in 1970s for New York or in the 1930s for Paris. People would not look back at the 21st century stating that the art centre was “x” but we have different art centres and I predict that in Asia this will be in Shanghai, Beijing, Hong Kong and Tokyo which are at the moment very promising but you we don’t know how quickly things will change. For example 10 years ago people would have said that Beijing would have become the new art centre of Chinese art and then…ops, something went wrong!
 So when I first arrived here Hong Kong had a very strong non-profit scene and this gave a lot to the art scene in a healthy way, looking at what institutions like Para Site and others did. But then the commercial side took over the scene in the last 5 years and now with the opening of Tai Kwun and M+ the level is balanced. There’s a healthy art ecology because we have magazines, we have art schools, a Kunsthalle art centre and the galleries are also balanced, things become amazing! The next big step is M+ opening: they have a great team, a very good collection and a spectacular building so what can go wrong?

My Art Guides: I’ve learned that you love living in Hong Kong… You’ve worked in eastern Europe, New Zealand, but decided to stay in Asia and more specifically in HK. What do you like the most in the city?

Tobias Berger: I am always interested in various transformations and changing society, politics and so on and Hong Kong is one of these places that is changing dramatically. And it’s not only Hong Kong. It’s 25 minutes from Shenzhen, 45 minutes from Macao…So you don’t have one city but 4 dynamic cities that are training new political systems. We are in one of the fastest growing centres of the world where a lot of artists, gallerists, journalists, curators are coming and I would never say that in any other place. It is one of the most amazing places to be and I feel very privileged to be part of this in last 10 years. I saw Shenzhen growing up from almost nothing and becoming one of the most interesting of cities (not art city) in the world. I am also lucky to see the art scene is growing here, being part of the M+ foundation, having worked as a curator at Para Site and now running Tai Kwun is an amazing privilege. Tai Kwun is an amazing project and I’m very happy to be part of that.

My Art Guides Editorial Team

  • Tobias Berger Head of Arts, Tai Kwun, Courtesy of Tai Kwun Tobias Berger Head of Arts, Tai Kwun, Courtesy of Tai Kwun
  • Cao Fei Prison Architect 2018 Video installation 57’ Installation view of Cao Fei Prison Architect 2018 Video installation 57’ Installation view of "A hollow in a word too full", Tai Kwun Contemporary, September 2018 - January 2019
  • Tang Kwok Hin Every Pandiculate 2018–now Video installation, daily objects Dimensions variable Special thanks to all participants in the Every Pandiculate project Installation view of Tang Kwok Hin Every Pandiculate 2018–now Video installation, daily objects Dimensions variable Special thanks to all participants in the Every Pandiculate project Installation view of "Our Everyday—Our Borders", Tai Kwun Contemporary, September 2018–January 2019
  • Interior of JC Contemporary. Courtesy of Tai Kwun Interior of JC Contemporary. Courtesy of Tai Kwun

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Tai Kwun, Hong Kong. Courtesy: Tai Kwun, Hong Kong

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Tobias Berger Head of Arts, Tai Kwun, Courtesy of Tai Kwun

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