KIM : One of the interesting things about 2020 and the COVID-19 lockdowns we have been experiencing is the element of digital connectivity. What really strikes me is that, perhaps with the ascent of Art Basel Miami—which began in 2002—the international art fair circuit has been at the core of the growth of the market, as well as rising interest in contemporary art. Something that really underscores this development has been globalization: not just the increasing interconnectivity of the art world, but the kinds of cross-cultural exchanges that have been happening more and more, particularly in terms of contemporary art.
I am honored and excited to be speaking with Adrian Cheng, who has been a true leader in that regard by bridging these kinds of conversations between East and West. Contemporary art especially has long entrenched its power and exposure in the traditional centers of Europe and America, and it’s been very exciting to expand that conversation to places like China, Korea, Latin America, and now Africa as well. K11 is a project that I have been following for a long time; my first opportunity to visit was during an exhibition opening—I believe it was three or four years ago—at the K11 art museum in Shanghai, for a group show organized in collaboration with PS1. I remember seeing some exciting names that I was already familiar with like Martine Syms and Darren Ba-der alongside great Chinese artists like Cao Fei and Li Ming.
To begin with, I think what has helped K11 stand out from the very beginning are the collaborations, particularly with intrepid overseas institutions like PS1. Since I am based in Los Angeles, I’m also aware that you serve on the board of MOCA. Could you speak about your vision and the thought process driving these sorts of collaborations?
CHENG : K11 Art Foundation was founded in 2010 with the mission of fostering cultural exchange between the Greater China region and the rest of the world. What we aim to do is basically groom emerging artists from around the world, and especially to cross-pollinate them with Chinese artists. We also hope to groom curators through presenting group exhibitions. But most importantly, it’s about grooming audiences, be-cause in Asia I think there is a need for more understanding about the importance of this platform and fostering cultural exchange. I think all the institutions we work with share this vision: to facilitate the development of the contemporary art scene around the world. We don’t really have any boundaries, but we do have a mission to also groom Chinese artists. By partnering with museums and offering artist residencies, we want to create this kind of ecosystem around the world where everyone can share re-sources and take part in giving more opportunities to emerging artists.
KIM : That’s something really struck me as I was looking through your past programs, particularly the artist residency initiatives and different types of studio visits with world-renowned artists from abroad that you’ve been able to bring to China—and vice versa—along with the capability to foster exchange and send Chinese artists to the West. Can you elaborate on the power of those cross-cultural collaborations, and discuss any specific projects that were the most compelling or that you felt most proud of?
CHENG : I’m very proud of all the projects, but I’ll just name a few. We worked with Hans Ulrich Obrist and Amira Gad at Serpentine Gallery in 2016 on a show called 《Hack Space》 that was presented in Shanghai and Hong Kong, which included artists such as Simon Denny, aaajiao, Cao Fei and many others. So curator-wise, we basically cre-ate different types of opportunities to bring Asian curators and international curators together so they can learn from each other. For example, the exhibition you mentioned at MoMA PS1 called 《.com/.cn》 curated by Klaus Biesenbach and Peter Eleey: it was about the new digital front and included artists like Cao Fei and Darren Bader, as well as Chinese artists like[Lin Ke]( Lin Ke) and Mak Ying Tung from Hong Kong.
There are lots of different curatorial directions and themes that connect with social pro-grams, and everyone shares the same vision and mission in telling stories. As for MOCA, we had a very big product collaboration called MOCA Masks, a which included artists like Catherine Opie and Barbara Kruger. The masks were sold in Asia to support the MOCA Fund, and were very well-received in Hong Kong. In fact, we plan to sell some of the masks in Mainland China as well. So our collaborations operate on differ-ent fronts—not just curated shows but products as well—to facilitate the creation of shared value and explore different possibilities by continuously innovating.
KIM : As someone based in Los Angeles it’s interesting to hear that the MOCA Masks project, which also included Alex Israel, was created in collaboration with K11. I would love to hear more about the art programming at K11, in terms of bringing in museum shows and the different museum spaces you operate in the larger sense. One of your colleagues told me that K11 currently has 10 spaces, with plans for more in the future. It seems that you are creating this really powerful network of spaces, bringing the best of the best from the global contemporary art world to various locations in China and engaging with the wider public, not just wealthy people who travel to art fairs and bien-nials. Can you speak about the genesis of K11 and what you want people to see and experience when they step into a K11 building wherever they are?
CHENG : For K11, our vision is curating a journey of imagination. When you enter a K11 building, whether it is a K11 office, K11 residence, K11 retail space or K11 museum, we want you to be immersed in this creative journey within our space. Our core values combine art, design and community-building, with an emphasis on sustainability; this is something that we have strongly embraced since 2008, when I founded the K11 brand. As a brand, K11 is a symbol of new generation: a symbol of the future, like an emblem, that marks a certain time and certain moment of the future.
In terms of spaces, we actually have 13 existing projects, and we are building not 10, but 25 more projects in the Greater China region. Some are office spaces, some are residential, others are retail and cultural spaces, but they all have a very strong focus on propagating culture, design, artisanship, craft and guild with the general public in mind. We want art and design to be accessible so that everyone can participate and develop an appreciation. We offer a range of courses through K11 Kultural Academy, we have localized programs and we have an artist village in Wuhan where we are in-cubating a lot of emerging artists; so it’s not just hardware that we are building, but software as well. We want the community to be educated and inspired so they can dis-cover what creativity and imagination mean. It’s all very organic. It’s not something that we are imposing on the public; instead, we hope that everyone will be able to enter this journey of imagination and grow from there.
KIM : I grew up in Korea in the 1980s, when Hong Kong was seen as being miles and years ahead of us as a rapidly developing city. But part of the reason for the runaway success of Art Basel Hong Kong was the fact that there hadn't previously been these sorts of opportunities for most people in Hong Kong to see cutting-edge contemporary art at that scale. Of course, the ongoing M+ Museum project will no doubt be a huge anchor for the entire Asian community, but it’s taken quite a long time to build, so K11 will certainly be filling a big role in that regard.
I think public art is a very important component of really reaching out to that wider au-dience, because it’s something that people might just thoughtlessly pass by as they try to get from point A to point B. It’s the kind of thing that can make an impression on people who may not even notice it. I know that there is a sculpture park among your Hong Kong spaces as well; can you introduce K11’s initiatives in public art program-ming and the kinds of projects you are curating? How do you make decisions about the kind of art that you ought to show and create visibility for art in public spaces?
CHENG : With K11, we have always wanted art to be more accessible and approachable, which is why we have a lot of sculpture parks and public sculptures or installations in all our K11 projects across Greater China. We want to showcase museum-quality art-works for local interests and public interests, and really focus the spotlight on Asia. So, for the K11 Museum at Victoria Dockside in Hong Kong, we have a large work by Elmgreen & Dragset, 〈Van Gogh’s Ear〉, which actually toured around the world. This artwork is very well-traveled; it’s like a global citizen, having been exhibited in Rockefeller Plaza in New York and many places in China, and has now returned to the Hong Kong shoreline, where it’s very important piece that captures the public's fasci-nation. There’s also Erwin Wurm, an artist whom we have supported a lot, and his 〈Hot Dog Bus〉, which people can actually go inside. We even sold burgers and hot dogs inside the 〈Hot Dog Bus〉. These kinds of fun art installations somehow con-verge with the public's everyday lives. And the K11 Sculpture Park, situated on top of the K11 Musea in Hong Kong, is a new space that we opened with works by Katharina Grosse, Erwin Wurm and Mary Weatherford, as well as some local Hong Kong artists like Chris Huen Sin-kan, which forms a part of our newly opened K11 Art & Cultural Centre. So there’s a lot happening now.
The reason why Hong Kong has been slow in opening these kinds of spaces is be-cause there's not enough room. Hong Kong is a very small place, so in order to find spaces to open cultural destinations, you need time. For example, K11 Musea at Victo-ria Dockside took us 10 years to build. It’s the same with M+ Museum, the West Kow-loon Cultural District or other spaces: they take a long time. It will a while before we have a scalable space for public exhibitions, but the good thing is that more spaces are on the way in the coming years. Now what we lack is content, so we need to create the best content by picking the best artists that are relevant and connect with the public.
KIM : Can you talk more about that process within K11? It seems like you are doing a fantastic job in picking artists that will really capture the audience’s imagination but are still very relevant in global contemporary art discourse.
CHENG : I should thank my team at K11 Art Foundation for our success thus far in curating shows and selecting public sculptures. I think for the latter in particular it's important to connect with social progress and society at-large, and also with regard to public vision and the ability grow with our people, because public sculptures are capable of achiev-ing heightened relevance and connection with the public. When we pick sculptures, we focus on works that share this vision and have the greatest potential to reach a wide audience.
KIM : I think, interestingly, Korea has been site for growth in contemporary art in recent years. Some of the last shows I was able to see in Korea—when I was still able to travel—were shows by Erwin Wurm and Elmgreen & Dragset. Contemporary art has be-come a lingua franca that we are all passionate about and want to support and, as you said, is something that also makes us think. Something I’ve been thinking about is that, aside from the extraordinary circumstances of 2020 and COVID-19, it feels as if things in recent years had been accelerating more and more; there were times that many of us were traveling probably twice a week to attend art fairs and biennials. Now, however, much of that has come to a crawl, as we have seen all three Art Basel fairs cancelled this year. Can you talk about how K11 has pivoted to online spaces and how you are able to engage with the public during a time when physical interactions have been hampered?
CHENG : I think COVID-19 hasn’t really changed our long term goals. In fact, in Hong Kong, we are curating much more content and even opening new spaces during the pandemic. So we have found that even during times of crisis there are opportunities to really engage with local communities and local interests. There's no travel bubble, no tourists, which means we can really focus all our resources on grooming the local au-dience. We can develop new partnerships and collaborations because we have time to think. And there are some new models that we are exploring in terms of bringing art and culture to the general public. But the key is that we are able to bring this to Greater China: to Shenzhen and Guangzhou and all the places that we are trying to work with. For example, we are working on different types of collaborations in Shanghai and Guangzhou; we have launched an online virtual art exhibition platform called K11 Go; and we are collaborating with Sotheby’s to curate art content and art courses in order to engage a much wider audience and stay globally connected.
KIM : As a patron and collector yourself, and with these sorts of large events no longer happening, can you speak about how you have personally experienced this slow-down? Are you checking out these OVRs presented by Art Basel and Frieze in lieu of their physical fairs? How are you, as a passionate art lover, connecting with art at this moment?
CHENG : With regard to collecting, I think people are looking virtually. All the art pieces are virtual, which results in a very surreal and strange way of looking at art. Usually you can just go to Art Basel in person, but of course that’s not possible. It’s interesting because even though you can’t see the real thing, online exhibitions and digital catalogues allow you to look at the piece virtually. I think this is a trend that will continue in the future, and the paradigm will shift toward more robust technology for showcasing art online with virtual spaces that offer very high resolution and much more realistic types of technologies for collectors to use, since I’m sure travel will remain very difficult for some time. Everything is moving online and transactions will also be online, so this new way of looking at art is going to be less about actually seeing physical artworks in person—but I’m talking about collecting on an international scale.
As for local audiences, people are still going out and visiting physical spaces; in Hong Kong, people are still walking around the Sculpture Park, around the K11 Art and Cultural Centre. We have a lot of people taking pictures, physically appreciating and partic-ipating in tours to encounter contemporary art. So I think things will become quite po-larized. If you can’t travel, you are forced to see everything virtually and online, but for domestic exhibitions and fairs, local audiences will still attend. I think this will become a new norm.
KIM :Art Busan is one of the few events to be able to put on a physical fair this year, with Shanghai also hosting Art021 and West Bund Art & Design, but it's true that these fairs are very focused on catering to their local audiences. It feels like an odd shift in the art world now, since things were becoming more and more connected and global-ized; now, however, we are at a point where we are sort of entrenched and rooted in the places where we live, in our localities. Forgive my math, but 13 existing projects plus 25 forthcoming projects means there will be 38 in total?
CHENG : Yes, still less than McDonald’s.
KIM : So in many ways, having 38 locations will automatically fulfill a similar purpose by bringing art directly to local people instead of folks having to travel all the time. You have said that the long-term vision for the K11 hasn’t changed at all—what are you most excited about, in terms of plans and new projects that you really believe are going to contribute to what the world can be in the future?
CHENG: With all 25 new spaces, we are pointing ourselves not only toward visual art, but also performance art. We are probably going to cross-pollinate in different fields like music, fashion and even astronomy, by incorporating elements from the fields of art and design. We are going to broaden the entire ecosystem; previously, we were a bit vertically-oriented insofar as looking at only visual art and sculpture, but now we are seeking to expand on that and really engage with local artists in different fields. Sec-ondly, we are going to invest in the educational side much more, both online and of-fline, by expanding the K11 Kultural Academy in line with what I think will be a big trend. Thirdly are considerations about how we curate our spaces: Do we need a really big space? Do we call it a museum space? Can we call it a hybrid cultural centre? What kind of role do we imagine for a “museum space”?
With that in mind, we should also ask: what do “museum” and “muse” actually mean? Muse implies inspiration and creativity. So then, what is the future of cultural spaces and how does that intertwine with our other spaces, such as retail and office spaces? Is it more on the content side? How should we build the space? These are all ques-tions that we want to think about. Collaboration is also key, as is global connection in the face of lockdown ; even though we are not physically able to interact with each other or speak face-to-face, we can go online and use Zoom in order to establish much more long-term and meaningful relationships.
KIM : Something that I think about a lot is the way that various kinds of contemporary art practices are increasingly assuming myriad forms. As you mentioned, perhaps the most exciting kinds of artworks are now emerging in performance and other ephemeral kinds of practices, and even video. Which means that art isn’t necessarily defined by discrete, static objects that are beautifully situated in a space. Being able to support that and providing a platform for that, and not just for artists—what really strikes me is the core mission of K11 to nurture all the different kinds of players in the art world, includ-ing curators. Because I do think that it’s very important to nurture the young minds who will be tasked with contextualizing the best artworks of the future. Allowing for these kinds of cultural exchanges, and for these professional developments more generally, is very exciting and offers an important lesson that can also be applied to the growing Korean art scene.