Boldly blazing its own path

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 14 November, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 14 November, 2010, 12:00am

For its 10th anniversary, the Asia Art Archive has a special logo that reads: 'Beyond Archive'. It says much about how the non-profit art outfit sees and positions itself - that it is more than just a static collection of material.

Indeed, in recent years the archive has acted as adviser to high-profile projects such as the Central Police Station revitalisation and the West Kowloon Cultural District development, prompting critics to ask whether the organisation has stepped outside of its neutral position 'to collect, preserve and make information on contemporary Asian art easily accessible in order to facilitate understanding, research and writing in the field'.

Its more versatile role is still a relatively novel concept that raises questions, acknowledges the archive's founder and executive director, Claire Hsu.

'A lot of people when they come to the archive they say, 'Is this based on a model that exists somewhere else? Is there an institution like this?' I have yet to find one that is like this,' says the 34-year-old art history graduate from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.

'I think it's quite unique in the world and I think it is unique because it addresses a very specific situation in Asia. It addresses a very specific need.'

In Hong Kong, the landscape of the contemporary visual art field is about to undergo some drastic changes, thanks to projects such as the Central Police Station and West Kowloon that promise to provide more space and resources for the arts. The need for expertise in this area is greater than ever and the archive sees it has an important part to play in this development.

'There are so few organisations that have the expertise in the field that ... can actually speak [on] some of the major contemporary art issues, which is slightly unfortunate as you don't want the same voices and people,' says Hsu, a West Kowloon Cultural District Authority committee member.

She believes that if the archive can contribute as part of the arts community then it should. So when the Jockey Club last year asked it to come up with a proposal for its Central Police Station project, the archive grabbed the chance. 'We ... imagined ourselves as an expert in the field recommending what should be done, if it is to be turned into a contemporary art hub, and asking if it would work as a contemporary art hub,' Hsu says.

But now, the archive has stepped away from the project. 'What we recommended is that they ... find a director to put that project into place. It's not us who are controlling it. It's really just to set the vision. Basically the Jockey Club realised it didn't have the expertise to do that. And it's not a bad thing for professionals in the arts field to set that vision,' she says.

'We are here to advise and help them realise this vision. And it is a neutral vision; we don't say who should be there. It's not for the archive but the community to decide,' Hsu says.

The Asia Art Archive was born out of Hsu's frustration. When she struggled to find reference material on Chinese contemporary art while studying for her MA in London she decided the only way to address that problem was to set up an archive herself.

Today, the organisation has a team of 20-plus people and is still growing, with plans to expand its Hollywood Road office to another floor. About 6,000 visitors have dropped in at the archive over the past two years; close to 500,000 have visited its website over the same period of time.

The archive recently completed a four-year archiving project, titled Materials of the Future: Documenting Contemporary Chinese Art from 1980-1990, that promises to offer a deeper understanding of the history of the genre.

Since 2007, it has had an artist-in-residence programme that invites artists to make use of the archive. Hsu explains: 'There is a lack of contemporary art spaces and a lack of opportunities for artists in Hong Kong to produce new works and have that sort of support, so we decided a local residency is very important.'

She says the annual programme offers artists a chance to open up material and encourages them to get out of their comfort zones and be inspired by new ideas that come from the archive. But does the organisation risk losing its neutrality by singling out artists for its residency programme and so, in a way, endorsing their work?

'That is pushing the boundaries of an archive and that's why it's exciting. But then it's making you question: what are the possibilities for an archive?

'Why does it have to be a static collection that's waiting for research students to open the book before it gets activated? Why can't it get activated through other ways? Hsu says.

'Why can't it actually contribute to the production of art as well? It's somewhat radical maybe to more traditional archivists out there in the field, but I think it is a model that addresses the kind of dilemma that we have in Asia - which is that we can build these new spaces, but what do we put into them?'

Looking ahead, apart from ongoing digitalisation projects across the region, the archive will be putting its focus on archiving performance art. Hsu says it is an important medium, especially in Asian countries where there isn't a formal platform or structure for contemporary art and where there is a high degree of censorship.

'All of these materials are so easily lost and we should be doing something here,' she says. The archive recently held a symposium on performing arts practice and documentation in Asia, which included a talk by artist Tehching Hsieh and a series of live performances at the Arts Centre.

'We have a 10-year plan, we've identified individual archives across the region and were speaking to different organisations and individuals, and we are slowly going to bring all these materials together,' she says. 'Internationally there seems to be a lot more interest and attention given to this medium.'

Last year, the Art Review magazine named Hsu as one of the 100 most influential figures in the contemporary art world, a recognition she attributes to the work of the archive, not her own family background.

A stepdaughter of executive councillor Ronald Arculli, Hsu says her connections might have helped her get the archive off the ground 10 years ago - but that's about it.

'There are other examples around the world [where] people with influence have tried to start up something and they do manage to get it off the ground. But are they then able to sustain it? That is a very different matter,' says the mother of two.

She says having a board of directors that is well connected, including cultural critic David Tang Wing-cheung and gallery owner Chang Tsong-zung, may help raise funds for the organisation - its annual fundraising auction this year takes place on November 27 - but it is ultimately the work of the Asia Art Archive that has made it a force to be reckoned with in the global art world.

'It's because the mission makes sense, because we address a real specific need in the region, and because we have an incredible team of people who are extremely dedicated to fulfilling our mission and vision,' says Hsu.

Asia Art Archive Fundraising Auction 2010, preview exhibition Nov 22-26, Sotheby's Hong Kong, 31/F, One Pacific Place, 88 Queensway. Works can also be viewed at Inquiries: 2815 1112