"Like the global artist, I think the global curator has the ability to work on an international stage. That doesn’t mean you necessarily have to go overseas to work, but you do have to be able to make exhibitions at a global level, whether you’re in Korea or abroad. We can talk about people being global curators when they are able to shape the international discourse with the direction and quality of their curating, just as the work of global artists is recognized by the international art community. Instead of just following the global art discourse or knocking off someone’s exhibition, we need to become a fragment that is capable of simultaneously forging an international discourse."
Her passion for contemporary artists and their work, her ongoing research into understanding eras, her keen intellectual interest in forging a contemporary Asian art discourse through her work at Tate, and a sense of humor and optimism that is light-hearted yet also deeply trenchant. These are the reasons Tate wants someone like Lee Sook-kyung, and they are characteristic of the way she looks at the world as a curator. We met with Lee this past May to hear about her curating activities with Tate, her vision, and her hopes for contemporary Korean art.
I studied fine art in Korea and worked for five years as a curator for MMCA(National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea), where I learned the ins and outs of curating. It was during the late 1990s, when yBa was starting to become a major trend in contemporary art, and I went to England to study. I was planning an exhibition on contemporary British art at MMCA, and it brought me in contact with the energy there. I decided I had to go learn more in England. So I traveled there in 1998, and I ended up earning a master’s degree from City University London and a doctoral degree from the University of Essex, with a thesis on 「The Changing Conceptions of the Artist in the Age of Authorial Demise」 After that, I worked for a year or so with an Art Council England curator’s fellowship before joining Tate Liverpool in October 2007
In 2000, when Tate Modern was first established, there was a lot of talk about “globalism” and “internationalism” in contemporary art, and people were really beginning to show an intere2017-06-12st in the contemporary art of China and other Asian countries. The Tate was one of the earliest the pick up on this trend. The Tate Collection has expanded to cover regions like Latin America, the Asia-Pacific region, the Middle East, and North America. And as it began expanding geographically, I ended up becoming chief curator for the collection’s committee for purchasing Asia-Pacific items, and they set up a center based on the perceived need for more academic research into contemporary Asian art. It was founded with support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in the U.S. Now, the fact that a foundation that typically funds research and art in the U.S. was supporting a research center in England shows that they fully trust in the international research taking place at the Tate, but it’s also a gauge of how great their interest in contemporary Asian art is. The center’s establishment testifies to the fact that Asia is one of the core regions in the kind of internationalization that the Tate is pursuing.
The aim of the Tate Research Centre: Asia-Pacific lies in creating a framework through which the studies of contemporary Asian art that are taking place around the world are conducted through the forum of the Tate Gallery. In other words, you have all kinds of academic discussions on contemporary Asian art taking place at academies in Asia, the U.S., Western Europe, and so on, and the Tate’s role is to tie them together and create one unified forum for discussion. So the Tate is less a “producer” of knowledge than a mediator of it. This has been true throughout the history of contemporary Western art: you can only become the mainstream in art history when you’ve established the quantity and quality of academic discourse. We’re at a point now where we have to shape an academic discourse about the exhibitions and works of contemporary Asian artists like Nam June Paik, Ai Weiwei, and Yayoi Kusama. It’s crucially important that Asian artists have their work subjected to an ongoing academic appraisal.
The Liverpool Biennial has an artistic director, but fundamentally it’s a collaboration among different art galleries in Liverpool. I was part of the curating for Tate Liverpool. In 2012, the theme of the Liverpool Biennial was Unexpected Guest, and the central theme was “hospitality.” The basic concept was to expand the ordinary relationship of “host and guest” to all the different power relations and boundary issues that can arise in social and political reality. What I was doing was using the items at the Tate to approach international issues like multiculturalism, tourism, cultural identity, hybridity, migration, globalization, things like that. One of the major achievements of the Tate recently has been the internationalization of its collection, and all the information and research on the Tate’s items I had available as chief curator for the purchasing committee served as a basis for planning the exhibition.
One particularly important project for the Tate Liverpool exhibition was Doug Aitken’s ＜Source＞, which was commissioned by Tate Liverpool specifically for the Biennale. For this, there were ongoing discussions and cooperation among artists, curators, and architects. It was deliberately set up in a space outside the gallery, a pavilion co-designed by Aitken and the British architect David Adjaye. It had six screen projections going on at the same time, day and night, producing a work of architecture that was transparent and open, with all boundaries between “inside” and “outside” collapsed. It used interviews with artists and figures from various fields of art, including architects, artists, musicians, and photographers, in order to pose questions about the creativity that serves as a “source” for all artistic production.
The planning process starts with the curator submitting a proposed plan for the exhibition. The Tate holds program meetings every three weeks, and the curators talk about their exhibition projects there. If there is an agreement that an exhibition should be held, then the discussions proceed from there. It’s very important for the curator to do personal research. When she presents an exhibition plan, it means that she’s done that much homework. It typically takes two to three years of preparations for a single exhibition, and during that time she’s involved in in-depth research on the exhibition and the work appearing in it.
Now, an exhibition is a place where a curator uses her own research to present her vision on contemporary art, but the ideas behind it have to agree with the Tate’s mission, which is to get the public to enjoy and understand British art and modern and contemporary art from around the world. So you have to do exhibitions that deal with issues in contemporary art, but you’re always having to ask yourself, Why should the Tate present this particular? What kind of exhibitions are best for the Tate’s audience? The ultimate aim of any exhibition planned with the Tate is to help the public enjoy contemporary art, to enrich their lives.
The most important thing when you’re planning an exhibition is always the artist. All exhibitions begin and end with the work of artists. In the end, what you’re showing is art, no more, no less. So you can’t plan an exhibition by setting a theme first and then trying to find the right artists for it. You’re supposed to be using your interpretation to show the public what the artists and their artwork are saying.
You also have to constantly be attentive to what the issues are in contemporary art. For example, there’s been a lot of art the past few years that focuses on political issues, and you have to consider, from various perspectives, just what the fundamental reasons are behind the emergence of this political art. For me, the significance is less about focusing on political art because I’m interested in politics, and more about it being a major phenomenon in art at the present time. The curator’s job is to ponder how to show artwork within the format of an exhibition of politically charged contemporary art.
I’m not really sure what “global curator” means, but I think the important thing is that curators have to improve their capabilities as global artists have done. Like the global artist, I think the global curator has the ability to work on an international stage. That doesn’t mean you necessarily have to go overseas to work, but you do have to be able to make exhibitions at a global level, whether you’re in Korea or abroad. We can talk about people being global curators when they are able to shape the international discourse with the direction and quality of their curating, just as the work of global artists is recognized by the international art community. Instead of just following the global art discourse or knocking off for someone’s exhibition, we need to become a fragment that is capable of simultaneously forging an international discourse. A system to develop global curators would have to offer the optimal conditions for them to develop good exhibitions, the kinds that allow them to produce a discourse with international currency. So it has to afford maximal opportunities and space for building curating abilities.
It would have to be about going beyond the national concept of “Korea” and turning the focus back on the artists, the work of individual creators. In a sense, I think that the focus on the country “Korea” or the nationality of “Korean artists” at overseas art museums is founded in a kind of colonialist perspective. You see it in Western art, too - there’s a mood of introspection about national “brand” exhibitions. Those kinds of exhibitions were already passé in the 1980s and 1990s. The Tate hasn’t done any country-themed exhibitions since the 2000s started. When it looks at contemporary Asian art, it’s not doing it through exhibitions on countries; it’s looking at individual forms through artists like Name June Paik, Yayoi Kusama, Ai Weiwei. The important thing at any exhibition is the work of individual artists. Even yBa was, in the end, about artists like Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin.
I’m one of six curators participating in the Seoul branch’s inaugural 《Connecting_Unfolding》 exhibition. There’s also Richard Flood from the New Museum in New York, Ann Gallagher from Tate Modern in London, Bernhard Serexhe from ZKM Media Museum in Germany, Yuko Hasegawa from the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo, and Pooja Sood from KHOJ in India. Each curator is supposed to pick one artist and curate from a different perspective. So it’s going to be an original exhibition, with a clear point-of-view. What I really hope for from the Seoul branch is that they continue holding solo exhibitions for prominent Korean artists. Those exhibitions are a crucial underpinning for future global activities by contemporary Korean artists. Artists in Korea today have a lot of experience with biennial and triennial projects, but not with solo exhibitions at art museums. The idea of “promoting artists overseas” is a very abstract one. A more practical, realistic approach would be to offer more opportunities for the art world overseas to see the work being done by contemporary Korean artists. So the most crucial method of “promotion” is to organize high-quality solo exhibitions for contemporary Korean artists, with the kind of sophisticated curating that can produce a discourse, and using art gallery networking to bring those exhibitions overseas. Another idea might be to link solo exhibitions at MoCA with an overseas touring program. For that to happen, there has to a broader network of partnerships with overseas art institutions.
Bae Myung-ji is currently senior curator at the Coreana Museum of Art. For several years, she has been planning international exhibitions aimed at using new media to expand the scope of contemporary art through dialogue between artistic genres and related visual arts such as performance, theater, film, and animation. Her major exhibitions include 《Performing Film》 (2013), 《Masquerade》 (2012), 《Featuring Cinema》 (2011), and 《Artist’s Body》(2010). Her exhibition Image Theater, designed as a project with participation from modern artists, performance artists, directors, theater performers, and dancers, received a 2006 Art of the Year award from Arts Council Korea.