Yung Ma, Former M+ Curator, Talks about What It Means and Takes to Be a Curator
Formerly a curator at Hong Kong’s first public contemporary art collection, he's moving to Paris for a three-year post thanks to a recent collaboration between K11 Art Foundation and the Centre Pompidou.
I started to go to art shows when I was a teenager. I wasn’t in Hong Kong at the time. I’d been moving around a lot in my formative years—in the east and the west. I’ve always liked art. I liked doodles and all that, although I don’t think that had anything to do with my choice afterwards.
I studied fine art in order to become a studio artist, but right before I graduated with my BA I decided I didn’t want to be an artist. I just don’t think I was cut out for it. Being an artist, you need a lot of self-motivation and I just don’t think I had it in me at the time. When I was doing my BA, I was mostly a video person. I decided to do a film directing program, thinking I might go into it. Again, I realized I didn’t want to get into film directing. The work that you do as an artist is quite lonely—You work with yourself. When it comes to film directing you work with too many people.
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Curating is in the middle of that. To be a curator, you have to be curious about things. You have to be organized. A lot of people don’t realize that. People have this image of a curator as an arty, hippie-ish type. I don’t just look at art. For me, film, music, literature, theater, our surroundings—everything is important. Conviction is important.
I started working in Hong Kong in 2005. It’s incredible how it’s changed within a decade. On my first day at uni, I was told that “Only 10 percent of you will stay in the art world afterward,” and that’s true. It’s the reality. But it’s like any other profession. Just because you study something doesn’t mean you’ll be able to work in that field in the future. There are more fine art graduates now than when I first started. There used to be only two university courses [in fine art] and now there are maybe nine. There are opportunities for young artists to present their works in Hong Kong, so I don’t think it’s that awful!
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[On his appointment to the Centre Pompidou] I wanted to try something different. It’s interesting to get to know a different kind of institutional structure. The way the French structure works is quite different compared to English-speaking institutions. The Centre Pompidou is one of the largest [art museums] in the world, so it’s fascinating and challenging.
Most western institutions have realized that art history—or actually, human history—is not just about the west anymore. The Pompidou has incredible collections of video art, of design and architecture objects, of film. So how do we then try to place Chinese contemporary art in terms of the overall collection, in dialogue with the other parts?
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Hong Kong contemporary art is quite different to what they’ve been producing in mainland China, but at the same time, there’s something universal in terms of artistic language. For me, what’s important is whether the work is good or not, rather than the regional understanding of it. Art that is transformative for the viewer: for me that’s good art. If it says something, that’s even better.
I’m not a surgeon, I’m not going to go into work today and say, “Shit, I’m going to fuck up someone’s life forever.” I do the best I can and I let go.
[On leaving M+] The joke is that I’ve lost so much hair, that’s why it’s time! I wanted to learn something different. I don’t know why people are making such a big deal out of it, it’s just changing jobs. Everybody’s done it. I think I’ve done a pretty decent job with M+. I’m loyal to them in that I really like the institution and the people there, but that doesn’t mean I have to stay there until I die. Of course you’re never really done, especially with museums, because you have to plan ahead so much. But I’ve done my bit already. I’m looking forward to seeing what they’re going to do.
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I’m not a surgeon, I’m not going to go into work today and say, “Shit, I’m going to fuck up someone’s life forever.” I do the best I can and I let go. You can’t regret it. Look, ultimately, it’s art: Art is essential to our lives, but it’s not life and death.
Some of the works in M+ will have my name attached in the system forever. The works are going to be there long after I’m gone. So the works are more important than I am. There will always be people looking after them. I don’t want to be remembered. It’s much more important for the artists and the filmmakers and the works to remain. I’m just there to make it happen. And I step down, and I go away.