Hong Kong homecoming for art space curator

Curator Christina Li is looking forward to joining Spring Workshop in Wong Chuk Hang full-time

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 07 March, 2015, 8:31pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 07 March, 2015, 8:31pm

On a hazy morning at Spring Workshop in Wong Chuk Hang, curator Christina Li is taking a break from installing "Days Push Off Into Nights", the latest exhibition at the non-profit art space.

She has been working with artists Moyra Davey, Elmgreen & Dragset, Cevdet Erek, Lee Kit, Job Koelewijn, Jewyo Rhii and Magdalen Wong to realise her vision. The title of the show, which runs until April 26, comes from the first line of an essay by poet and art critic Quinn Latimer, "My Mother, My Other: Or, Some Sort of Influence", which is featured in the book, Stationary, co-edited by Li and Singaporean artist and writer Heman Chong.

The exhibition "starts from the book, even though in the show we don't really talk about the book", says Li, who spent a year working on Stationary, which was inspired by her work with Chong on Spring Workshop's 2013 programme "A Fictional Residency", which brought together artists and writers to create a book in four days.

With Stationary, the idea was to give people the time and resources to write anything they wished - it would serve as a platform for ideas that might have been neglected in favour of more pressing projects or the busyness of life. "Initially, we wanted to launch the book with an event. I thought, why don't we make a show that makes palpable this kind of idea or ethos in a more physical way," Li says.

Li, who lives in Amsterdam, flew to Hong Kong early last month. In August, she will join Spring Workshop full-time as curator and will also take on directorial duties.

I always start with words. Sometimes even an image or a feeling

"We often hear from our partner organisations that Hong Kong needs more support for local talent," says Spring Workshop founder-director Mimi Brown. "We know Christina is a sparkling talent as we have worked with her now on three separate projects. ['Days Push Off Into Nights'] and Stationary are perfect examples of what I love about her vision: she takes a thoughtful position, remains unmoved by trends, and steadily works to draw together the body of works that best reflect that position."

Li elaborates: "I call the way I curate 'informed intuition'. I take references from things I encounter in life, be it a film or a really nice sentence. I always start with words. Sometimes even an image or a feeling … I tend not to illustrate things, but more try to create associations to a theme or an abstract concept I want to put forward. It's a little bit loose and it's not so prescribed … For me, the holes are very interesting for people to get lost in and maybe they find their own associations."

As a high school student in Hong Kong, Li wanted to be a filmmaker. "When I was 16, I bought a digital camera and I was on Livejournal and building websites. I thought film was a good way of mixing text with image … I was quite a lonely child and I was always imagining things. I was interested in writing. I thought film was the best medium to give that experience - I was interested in experience, creating that."

After an interview for film school, she realised it was not the path she wanted to pursue. "I still take a lot of pictures, but it's more a hobby, or it informs the way I see things. It is not something I want to present as work. It's like my notebook."

Li studied comparative literature and art history at the University of Hong Kong; after graduation, she joined TVB Pearl. She worked in programming and scheduling, but her taste was too esoteric for the station's needs. She would submit titles of films she admired and her boss would tell her: "Christina, this is not going to get us any viewers. We have to sell that slot to somebody."

In 2005, curator and art critic John Batten invited her to meet Tobias Berger, who was beginning his tenure as director of Para/Site Art Space. An assistant curator position was open and she got the job - although she had no idea what a curator did; she did not even know such a profession existed.

Berger, now a curator at visual culture museum M+, taught Li how to approach making an exhibition. Her first show featured Hong Kong artists Yuk King Tan, Kwan Sheung-chi, Pak Sheung-chuen and Magdalen Wong. "That was my baby step, starting to make a show and learning how to look at space." She had found her calling.

Berger encouraged Li to attend the curatorial programme at de Appel in Amsterdam and see the art world outside Hong Kong. She was game: she was already spending her vacations at museums, galleries and biennials. "I was hungry to go look at different things."

In 2008, she left Para/Site to matriculate with five other young curators; her last show there was "Terminus", a reflection of what was happening in her own life at the time. From there, she became a freelance curator, taking on projects in Hong Kong and around Europe.

And now, with her appointment at Spring Workshop, she's finally coming home.