#ListeAsks Tobias Berger, Head of Arts, Tai Kwun, Hong Kong

Tobias Berger, Head of Art, Tai Kwun. Courtesy of Tai Kwun
Tobias Berger, Head of Art, Tai Kwun. Courtesy of Tai Kwun

As you won’t be in Basel this June, what are you doing instead?
I’ll be in Hong Kong, working on Tai Kwun Contemporary’s upcoming exhibitions and public programmes. We reopened the gallery spaces at the end of May and postponed all our planned programming, so we did not have to cancel anything and can now present two group exhibitions: “They Do Not Understand Each Other” and “My Body Holds Its Shape”.

What is something that you never thought would happen but that has now happened as a result of the lockdown?
I could have never imagined that people would stay in Hong Kong for months on end without constantly flying in and out and traveling around the world. In Hong Kong everyone is always on the move and you never know if people are in town. It is so nice to know who is in town for the foreseeable future and who you can meet for a coffee. A lot of friendships have grown so much deeper because people have had more time to meet. 

In what ways has the current state of uncertainty and unpredictability changed your attitude or approach towards curating?
Tai Kwun Contemporary is located in an old prison connected to the former central police station and central magistracy. We therefore have always had quite a lot of exhibition programmes curated around questions of confinement and of social and political power structures – exhibitions like “Dismantling the Scaffold”, “Contagious Cities: Far Away”, “Too Close” and “Performing Society: the Violence of Gender”. Hong Kong has also lived in a state of heightened alert for over a year: We had “social unrest” starting last year and have been on the forefront of the Covid-19 crisis since the beginning of this year. Luckily, the people of Hong Kong have brought the Covid-19 crisis under control, which is also because of Hong Kong’s experience with SARS. We are still facing economic and political challenges both locally and globally, but we have always known that art and curating are about looking forward and managing the unpredictable; this year has proven us right and has validated our previous programmes. 

What kinds of actions do you think are most needed and/or most effective in supporting young artists during the current situation?
For us, the most important actions have been to not cancel any events planned with artists and to find ways to keep our art technicians busy, as they are almost all young artists. We are also planning a lot of workshops during the school holidays this summer. We hope to work with young artists for this, providing them with some income.

How can younger and less established galleries represent emerging and yet-to-be-discovered artists approach you as a curator in a time of online-only exhibitions, fairs, etc.?
Hong Kong and even mainland China have a rather visible art scene, especially when we are talking about emerging artists, so we hope our team is curious enough to see most of what is happening in the various galleries and art spaces. Having two large art fairs at the same time in November in Shanghai also certainly helps. We went and will go to all the fairs and most biennials in Asia, and we all have very active Instagram accounts. I am personally not sure that online-only exhibitions work at all; it is almost impossible to display larger installations or even video in such a realm, and that is a big part of what we are exhibiting. So, in the end, it is about the footwork and the curiosity to sometimes go to rather obscure projects and spaces.

Have you discovered any new artists during the lockdown?
Hong Kong did not really have a total lockdown. The local galleries and art spaces kickstarted things pretty quickly, presenting some really nice younger artists, and we at Tai Kwun have supported the Hong Kong Art Gallery Association as a venue partner for them to organise a local fair called “Unscheduled”. I am looking forward to seeing some new artists there.

Can you tell us about one of the very first artists you discovered at Liste and how they’ve become important to or played a role in your curatorial practice?
I have been going to Liste since the beginning in 1996, so I don’t remember who I discovered at which fair anymore! What I know is that very early on, especially at Liste, I met a lot of artists, gallerists and curators who have become very close friends over the years. The atmosphere at Liste is always more about meeting people and discovering new art and artists than just selling commercial works. This loose atmosphere was important for my generation of curators because it was much more accessible and it displayed a spirit we wanted to take back into our institutions. Even now, Liste is still a benchmark: For example, at Tai Kwun Contemporary, we have a very open Artists’ Book Library and I am sure it is somehow informed through the way some independent institutions have presented themselves at Liste. 

Current Exhibition at Tai Kwun Contemporary: My Body Holds Its Shape, drafted by Xue Tan. Artists: Tap Chan, Thea Djordjadze, Jason Dodge, Eisa Jocson, and Pratchaya Phinthong. Photograph by Kwan Sheung-Chi. Courtesy of Tai Kwun
Current Exhibition at Tai Kwun Contemporary: My Body Holds Its Shape, drafted by Xue Tan. Artists: Tap Chan, Thea Djordjadze, Jason Dodge, Eisa Jocson, and Pratchaya Phinthong. Photograph by Kwan Sheung-Chi. Courtesy of Tai Kwun