In a bid to promote the region, Hong Kong's arts archive is taking the unusual step of setting up shop at an international arts festival, writes Kevin Kwong
AT THIS WEEK'S Art Basel show in Switzerland, the executive director of Asia Art Archive (AAA), Claire Hsu, and her colleagues from around the region will be doing what archivists seldom do: promoting the art they collect and document.
The four-year-old body, which receives an annual grant of $700,000 from the Hong Kong Arts Development Council, was invited by the so-called Olympics of the art world to attend its non-commercial section called Art Unlimited.
Unlike most archives that statically collect, catalogue and preserve information and material, the AAA also plays a role in what its mission statement describes as 'the active generating of knowledge and awareness'.
'We believe that in an age of the museum, where exhibitions and events are often spectacular, and anything short of this will not attract an audience, archives must also change their strategy to draw attention and make use of their collections,' it says.
'For a 'contemporary' archive to exist, dynamism is vital, and it's for this reason that our activities are accompanied by programmes and events. The traditional purpose of the archive, originating in ancient Greece, as paper foundations that form the administrative basis of democracy, is no longer relevant.'
According to Hsu - who founded AAA after realising there was a lack of documentation on modern or contemporary Asian art while researching her masters dissertation in London on contemporary Chinese art - the invitation to this European art market is a clear indication that the work is being recognised.
This Saturday, she'll sit on a panel - alongside Chang Yungho, principal architect of Atelier FCJZ; Wang Huangsheng, director of Guangdong Museum of Art; Paris-based curator Hou Hanru; and collectors Uli Sigg and Guan Yi - to discuss the Future of the Museum: Profile China. Hans Ulrich Obrist, curator at the Musee d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, will preside over the exchange.
It's a topic Hsu feels strongly about. In her 10-minute talk, she'll present the pros and cons of local museums and the controversial West Kowloon Cultural District.
'I need to present [my topic] within the Asian context,' she says. 'This whole mad race and rush among cities like Bangkok, Hong Kong and Singapore towards being Asia's first cultural gateway and capital. And the whole line the government is taking towards building cultural facilities. I don't think it will, or should, go through as it is.'
In its invitation for proposals to develop West Kowloon, the government said that the core facilities should include 'a cluster of four museums at least 75,000 square metres in size'.
'I don't believe Hong Kong is a cultural desert,' Hsu says. 'But everyone seems to believe it. But I don't believe that the solution to turning the desert into an oasis is to build masses of buildings without thinking about the content.
'The content is so important. I think a small museum with incredible curatorial focus and collection makes a bigger splash than four empty Bilbaos. They're just too big.'
She says it's ridiculous that the proposed four museums are three or four times bigger than Bilbao Guggenheim, 'which takes a good five to six hours to go through'. She doesn't think much of putting all the cultural venues together, either. 'It becomes a theme park or Disneyland.' However, Hsu says it's good that the government wants to build museums because Hong Kong needs them - especially one for contemporary art.
In April, the AAA presented its first workshop in Asia, bringing together art professionals from around the world to examine issues of archiving, documentation, preservation and knowledge management. A series of talks was open to the public.
Next month, it will publish its first extensive research projection: a bilingual monograph on the work of Chinese artist Wu Shanzhuan. Before then, the AAA will be busy attending and documenting the 51st Venice Biennale and Art Basel.
Six short documentary-style videos will be shown at the AAA booth throughout this week, providing visitors with information about Asian art through interviews with artists, commentators and academics in Beijing, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Bangkok and Tokyo.
One features Hong Kong artist Ho Siu-kee, who is artist-in-residence at the Taipei International Artist Village, and Japanese artist Suzuki Takahiko talking about the art scene in Taiwan.
Hsu says her organisation is small and it's not possible for it to present a full picture of the contemporary art scene in Asia to the western world - it has never intended to do that anyway.
'We are showing a glimpse into the Asian contemporary art and that's it,' Hsu says. 'But it's a first step. That's why we're at Art Basel. An archive usually wouldn't attend an art fair.'
'We want to be extremely practical in our approach and work.'