Alexie Glass-Kantor: Art Basel Hong Kong Curator

Photo: Zan Wimberly

Photo: Zan Wimberly

Interview by Molly O'Brien, Marketing & Communications Specialist, Advance. 

“If you want something done, ask a busy person” is Alexie Glass-Kantor’s MO. She splits her time being the curator for one of the biggest art events in Asia, and one of the most recognised contemporary art spaces in Australia.

Said art event would be Art Basel Hong Kong, where Glass-Kantor is the curator of the Encounters sector, and said art space would be Artspace Sydney, one of Australia’s leading public contemporary art centres – no mean feat.

Throughout her career, Glass-Kantor has curated over one hundred exhibitions across independent spaces, institutions, biennials and festivals, collaborating with artists around the world to develop projects throughout the Asia-Pacific, Europe and North America. Her other roles have included working at the Gertrude Contemporary and the Australian Centre for the Moving Image.

Glass-Kantor carved some time out of her extremely busy schedule to speak to Advance about what these two roles involve, how Art Basel Hong Kong is unique, and her view on Australia’s relationship with Asia.

Can you tell us a little bit about your coming into the role of curator of the Encounters sector for Art Basel’s Hong Kong show in 2015? What does this role entail?

Art Basel is one of the world’s preeminent art fairs for contemporary international art. It was established in 1970 by a group of gallerists in Switzerland, who were interested in creating a platform in the market that could foreground galleries who were supporting avant-garde art practices in the 20th century and present important historical art work. The role of Art Basel is to create a platform for the world’s leading commercial art galleries to meet collectors and institutions, and to expand the vocabulary of art in the marketplace. In the 2000s Art Basel established Art Basel Miami Beach and five years ago they introduced Art Basel Hong Kong. In parallel with the main business of the fairs, from the 1990s Art Basel introduced a series of curated platforms called Unlimited, Parcours, Public, and Encounters.

My role at Art Basel is to curate the Encounters sector in Hong Kong. Traditionally a curator was the person museums that was the custodian and preserver of all objects, however a curator in the 21st century is someone who assembles art works in a range of spaces - both within and outside of galleries. A curator of contemporary art thinks about the implications of what happens when you put objects together in space, and how meaning is construed through social, cultural, and political lenses, and the resonances that can evolve through that. 

All three Art Basel events in Switzerland, Miami Beach, and Hong Kong have distinctive qualities. Art Basel Hong Kong has arguably become a meeting place for the entire Asian region, occurring over five days at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre and seeing upward of 70,000 people come through the doors. The sector that I curate is called Encounters, because the work is visible all throughout the fair – you encounter them at every angle. It includes up to 17 installations – each one is about 100 square meters in scale – they’re huge! These works are necessarily ambitious, my remit is to curate works that are expanded beyond the scale of the booths, and they benchmark a particular level of ambition that can be quite exhilarating in the context of the fair.

Art Basel Hong Kong 2017

Art Basel Hong Kong 2017

How long does it take to install these pieces?

Working collaboratively with the galleries and Art Basel crew we have only 22 hours to install all those works at the fair. To put that in to context; in Basel, they have nearly a month for installation, and in Miami, two weeks. The Hong Kong Convention Centre is the busiest in the world – the entire fair is installed over four days, and my sector within that is a day and a half. It’s humbling to be a part of such an extraordinary effort to realise such a big vision. 

When I was appointed curator in 2015 and delivered for my first presentation with the Encounters sector, it was mind boggling to conceive how it would all come together. I’ve just completed my third iteration, and I still find it a remarkable every year.

Is this one of the most prestigious positions you can be appointed to in the art world?

It’s certainly an honour being the curator for the Encounters sector for Art Basel. It’s not a position that you can actually apply for, there’s no call out or application process. I was invited because Magnus Renfew, who was the then director for Art Basel for Asia, was aware of a series of curatorial projects I’d done across the Asia Pacific, under the banner of The Independence Project, which I had instigated when I was a director at Gertrude Contemporary, Melbourne. He knew that I had a collaborative approach to curatorial practice, and that I was very interested in interregional ways of thinking through how curators can support alternate spaces for encouraging the presentation of work by artists from across the region. I am also extremely interested in the commissioning of new work. Being collaborative is absolutely a prerequisite given the nature of Art Basel Hong Kong.

Does this all happen while you are the director at Artspace?

I’ve been the executive director at Artspace since the end of 2013, which is a government-funded, not-for-profit contemporary art centre, established in 1983 – in Europe we’d be described as a “kunsthalle”. Artspace is a non-collecting institution and our mandate is to foster risk, experimentation and critical thinking in the arena of contemporary art. We support generations of both Australian and international artists to present new work through exhibitions, partnerships, commissions, international touring, publishing, public programs, education and events.

How do you balance these two massive roles?  

If you want to get something done, ask a busy person! I love the challenge of working at different scales of economy. Leading an organisation like Artspace, you have limited resources compared to the state galleries and museums, however, you have a direct relationship to the artists who are pioneering directions in contemporary art and it is those artists that often make their way from space like Artspace to the state galleries and ultimately the history books. Working in an art centre and the independent sector means you can contribute something back to Australian culture through time. I think it’s important to be an advocate for what you do; I believe Australian art is international art, and just because you’re based in Australia doesn’t mean you can’t be mobile and agile or contribute to a global dialogue.

Art Basel Hong Kong 2017

Art Basel Hong Kong 2017

How would you describe the art scene in Australia?

I think there’s this idea for Australians that are working abroad, that it’s an either-or situation. You either have to be there, or have to be here, you can’t be both. I don’t think it is an either-or situation at all. You just have to be lateral in the ways that you think about how we can be viable, and how our organisations and institutions can find ways to create new partnership models – that gives us the opportunity to be working dynamically locally and internationally.

What I love about Australia is that we are an island the size of North America. We have a population of 23 million, which comparable to the population of New York state, or Shanghai, or Karachi. So really, we could be one large city across this giant island state. If we really were one city, and every one of our state galleries, private museums, the not-for-profit and artist-run spaces, all the commercial activity, the festivals, the biennials, the research, and the universities were in one city – we would have the most amazing cultural city in the world. We shouldn’t underestimate the cultural infrastructure that exists in Australia or our creative output. 

Over the ten years that I’ve been the director of contemporary art centres, I’ve invited over 70 curators to Australia, from different countries around the world for research. I work to find funding to bring people here, not for research for particular outcomes, but to come to Australia and spend 2-3 weeks here, just meeting people that have a different point of view.

What’s the biggest obstacle that Australia faces?

The thing that Australia has as a huge challenge is distance – it’s still a big obstacle for contemporary art – how do we get the work of our artists off the island, and how do we get people here? The feedback from every single visit from those curators, without exception, has been that they saw a breadth of work here that they didn’t expect to see. The expect to see a lot of identity art and a lot of landscape, and perhaps expect it to be quite derivative.

But they actually experience a remarkable breadth and depth of diversity, and I love that about Australian art. I’m always delighted when my colleagues look at me and say “there’s more here than I expected to see”! And, most end up including Australian artists in exhibitions abroad as would be expected and as it should be. 

What’s something that’s specific to the art industry in Hong Kong? Does it have its own identity?

There’s been a lot of non-for-profit activity in Hong Kong over the past 25 years. One of the most established independent art centres in Asia, Para Site, was established in Hong Kong and it’s been incredibly influential – supporting generations of artists. Another space that emerged from Hong Kong in the 1990s was Art Asia Archive, which is an archive for publishing and research around contemporary art across the Asia Pacific. Hong Kong has always had great commercial galleries from within the region – they have a strong commercial representation from very dynamic local galleries, and also galleries from mainland China and elsewhere. It’s had a strong precedent for studio practice and has always had well-respected art schools. It’s not an accident that Art Basel is in Hong Kong. Art Basel was looking at a way of establishing itself in Asia. It’s a fast-moving, dynamic hub – an ideal place for an experience like this.

During Art Basel Hong Kong, the organisers ensure that 50% of the exhibitionists are from Asia. In the Encounters sector I make sure that there are artists that are both emerging and very established. I also make sure to include regions that aren’t frequently represented in these contexts. There’s already a strong, critical infrastructure in Hong Kong, and that infrastructure is only getting stronger with things like Art Basel.

Work aside, what’s your favourite thing about going to Hong Kong?

I love the fecundity of Hong Kong and the way that nature is always so present there – the mountains and the landscape and the harbour. I love the simple things – the way it smells, hotpots, going for walks or taking a boat to the islands, going to markets. To me, Hong Kong is like a Bruegel painting, there’s always so much happening and I find that energising.

Your time working with artists across the Asia Pacific, is that something that cemented your love affair with art in Asia?

From the beginning of my career, I’ve always been passionate about believing that Australia is a part of Asia. I think Australia had a bit of an identity crisis in the later part of the 20th century and has always had a bit of a fraught relationship deciding whether or not we’re part of Asia. I often wonder what would have happened if Sydney was established where Darwin is? How different would Australia look?

What I’ve tried to do throughout my career when working with collaborations in Asia, is think about the fact that we should never default to stereotypes, and we should always think about cultural exchange and collaboration. I often try to debunk cultural assumptions rather than affirm them through my curatorial practice. And key for me is working with a sense of reciprocity and generosity commensurate with being part of Asia – it’s the Asia century after all.

How often do you get to go over to the region?

About 12 times a year. I try to travel in longer trips and go to more places, rather than shorter trips and fewer places. Work-life balance is important to me. 

What are you currently working on at the moment at Artspace?

A project that I’m currently working on at Artspace is called 52 Artists, 52 Actions, which is a year-long, online curated project, where every week for a year, we’re inviting artists from all over the Asian region to take over our online and social media platforms, and highlight a social or political issue in their community. We’re foregrounding art across our online contexts to influence ways of thinking about how local art practices can speak to broader, global contexts. We’re doing a crowd-funder for the project, and we’ve hit our target two weeks early – which is terrific! We’re going to be commissioning artist projects all the way from Turkey through to Pakistan, through to Hong Kong to Sri Lanka, to Indonesia, to Cambodia to Samoa, to New Zealand. It’s a very broad offering and we want to map and explore the region through the eyes of artists.

One of the things we want to get out of this project is looking at Australia’s relationship with the region, and bringing the audience on a year-long journey. It’s a great example of how Australia can work differently in the region – you don’t have to just tour shows. You can work in an international way and think laterally. Instagram has come on board to support the project, and we’ll be building the platform soon. We’ll be making a book with Thames & Hudson at the completion of the project, which will be an encyclopedic anthology of the actions, and we’ll have information of each countries contexts. 

And that’s just one thing we’re doing at the moment! Anyone that wants to get involved, we’d encourage them to join our website and get updates.