#ListeAsks Billy Tang, Senior Curator at Rockbund Museum, Shanghai

Billy Tang
Billy Tang

As you won’t be in Basel this June, what are you doing instead?
My only trip this year was to visit Singapore in the beginning of January for Art Week. Since then, I have been in Shanghai city pretty much the entire time. Every country is operating under a different timeline in terms of going between lockdown and easing-up measures. Since this makes international travel all but impossible, it is more important than ever before to keep reaching out to colleagues around the world and to see how we can help one another—no matter how small or big. My family lives in London and I must say the inability to travel does make the physical separation from family and friends feel much starker now. Perhaps in the next months, depending on how stable the situation becomes, I might make more domestic trips to places I have yet to visit or research, because in normal circumstances the art system often takes me elsewhere around the world.

What is something that you never thought would happen but that has now happened as a result of the lockdown?
I think one important outcome of the lockdown has been the condition that has allowed for an unprecedented degree of collective focus on fundamental issues affecting our societies around the world. I think this has sharpened our intolerance and level of scrutiny as to how we are all implicated in a system that can do better and treat everyone more equally. It is a process and a movement, but the first important step is to have this momentum to want change. The rise in social awareness to Black Lives Matter is a beacon of hope for all of us around the world. But at the very minimum, the art world has a responsibility to respond in meaningful ways and this requires a lot of reflection on how we operate. So far, I’ve been inspired by responses from other industries in terms of the very hands-on approach to understanding how the pandemic impacts the daily lives of people. Going beyond the timespan of an exhibition or fiscal year, how are we going to anticipate how to work if the situation worsens, how do we go beyond the impact of a physical show, and how do we better protect ourselves together?

In what ways has the current state of uncertainty and unpredictability changed your attitude or approach towards curating?
My honest answer is that uncertainty and unpredictability have been terrible to cope with. It is mentally difficult when you try to nurture a project only for the rug to be pulled out under you. We have been deferring dates and constantly changing contingency plans and so forth, which is hard when you cannot see where the endpoint is. In this time, I also realized how much I miss exhibition-making, which functions as an essential glue to crystallizing all the different threads of thinking and conversations with artists. Our response has been to seek spaces to work that enable us to continue these activities and exchanges without being too contingent on external factors outside of our control. There has been a dramatic increase in the number of one-on-one conversations and discussions with small groups by making these encounters virtual, which cuts out the travel time in-between. We are all in unknown territory and this requires proactive thinking to bridge the gap and increase the possibility to have more in-depth conversations. So, we have been trying to conceive spaces online—to not just shoehorn material or events that are normally physical into a readymade online format, but to really imagine how this space can offer a new way of gathering and working together. For example, in China, an online structure has a different emphasis when the internet is not just one general homogenous neutral space for content but is rather defined by the situation of being situated inside and outside the firewall.

What kinds of actions do you think are most needed and/or most effective in supporting young artists during the current situation?
Working in an institution with access to the resources that this structure allows, there is a degree of responsibility in terms of our position to help support the art world ecology, and we can be more aware of this. Institutions are often very cumbersome entities that have a lag in their ability to make abrupt sudden changes. But perhaps we only need simple changes to existing processes, which can suffice as an offer of direct pragmatic support during this difficult moment. For example, I am thinking of the decision to re-allocate the Turner Prize money this year and to turn it into a bursary structure that can support more artists than usual. More thinking on this level would really help make the necessary changes to be able to respond more quickly and help more vulnerable people in the current situation—and this includes the question of how to help young artists sustain their practices in this precarious situation.

How can younger and less established galleries that are representing emerging and yet-to-be-discovered artists approach you as a curator in a time of online-only exhibitions, fairs, etc.? 
I would say they shouldn’t feel compelled to change at all if this is about getting attention from a curator. I would encourage them to just keep doing the great work they are already doing. How can we demystify the process of connecting to a vital ecology that helps us to thrive together? I think the onus is more on curators or decision-makers in museums to widen methods of engaging with as many people as possible with the extra time they might have now.

Have you discovered any new artist during the lockdown?
During this time, I have been impressed with people in the art world who have been generous and strongly committed to sharing forms of knowledge, frameworks and proposals to support vital changes needed for social systems to respond to the pandemic crisis. I would like to name-drop Tiffany Sia, an artist, filmmaker and founder of Speculative Place in Hong Kong. Every day, I follow her instagram feed, which she painstakingly puts together to keep her followers informed about the on-the-ground situation in Hong Kong and the US. Another group I encountered for the first time during lockdown is the Indonesian collective Bakudapan. The name means “to snack while meeting” and they describe themselves as a study group focused on ideas of how food can be an instrument for social change. They just invited me to submit some lockdown-era recipes and I will also be participating in a cooking workshop to raise money for a social kitchen delivering free food to those in need during this time.

Can you tell us about one of the very first artists you discovered at Liste? 
I remember encountering Julian Nguyen’s paintings at the fair many years ago. Later on, I was very lucky to have a chance to visit his studio in Los Angeles, where he spoke to me about the influence of the book On Painting by the artist, architect, poet and philosopher Leon Battista Alberti. I was really struck by an unusual spiritual dimension in his work that combines the idea of monumentality and devotion to subjects as wide-ranging as anime and manga, creatures from science fanfiction, religious iconography and figures in renaissance-style drag.

A photo that for Billy Tang represents the current moment: Development area nearby Rockbund Art Museum. The image was taken by artist Peng Ke in May 2020, more than two months after lockdown easing in Shanghai.
A photo that for Billy Tang represents the current moment: Development area nearby Rockbund Art Museum. The image was taken by artist Peng Ke in May 2020, more than two months after lockdown easing in Shanghai.