Culture / Art Republik

All Out: Interview with Claire Hsu, co-founder of the Asia Art Archive

Claire Hsu talks about growing the Asia Art Archive from strength to strength

Jan 01, 2018 | By Ilyda Chua

Claire Hsu. Image courtesy Dave Choi.

From its humble beginnings as a small, independent archive co-founded by Claire Hsu and Johnson Chang back in 2000, the Asia Art Archive (AAA) is today one of the most comprehensive publicly available collections of research materials in its field. Based in Hong Kong, the non-profit organisation was launched in response to the need to document and make accessible the recent histories of art in the region.

Today, with a team of 40 and one of the most valuable collections of contemporary art materials from within the region, the archive continues to grow through research, residencies, and a regular roster of educational programmes.

 

Asia Art Archive library. Image courtesy Asia Art Archive.

ART REPUBLIK speaks with co-founder and executive director Claire Hsu to find out more about the archive’s journey over the past 17 years, and its plans in the years to come.

You started the Asia Art Archive back in 2000, when you were just 24. What inspired you to start the archive?

The idea of setting up Asia Art Archive was borne from my frustration at locating reference material for my dissertation on contemporary Chinese art while studying at the University of London.

Art history has been written very much from a European and American-centric point of view. Despite the fact that there had been numerous developments in the field, no one really documented them. I felt the urgent need to address the gap in the contemporary art world by launching the archive to collect, share and create knowledge on the histories of recent art in Asia.

Tell us about the journey in setting up the archive. What challenges did you face in the beginning, and what keeps you going till today?

It’s been an incredible journey, and we have learnt so much every step along the way. Some of the challenges we have faced include growing from a very small organisation to a medium-sized one, coming up with guiding principles for what we collect and what we cannot (it’s a huge geography we are working within), and figuring out how to archive in a region with very little history, and in some cases, interest, in the importance of this work. And then there is of course the eternal issue of funding.

View of Independent Archive, Singapore, collaborator of Asia Art Archive in digitising the archive of Lee Wen. Courtesy of Independent Archive.

What has kept me going over the last 17 years is the fact that I have been able to directly witness the impact our work has had on the field, and the incredible support from the community. Asia Art Archive is about sharing knowledge that may have otherwise been lost or remained invisible, and seeing our work take root has been hugely satisfying.

How do you go about your day-to-day? How involved are you in the operation of the archive, and who are the key people that help keep the archive going?

My days are spent meeting with the team as well as artists, professionals in the field, board members and patrons. The team of 40 is the heartbeat of the organisation and all hold key roles within the work we do.

In terms of running the organisation, the research team drives the direction of what we collect, and the collection team processes our collections and is essential in making sure they are accessible.  The programmes, editorial and communication teams socialise our work with our different audiences, and the administrative team makes sure we keep the lights on!

Your annual fundraiser has just ended. Can you tell me more about this edition, and maybe some of the highlights?

The annual fundraiser is an important source of support for us, raising more than half of our annual budget. The support goes directly towards our operations, our programmes, and building our collections and keeping them accessible for all.

This year, we had 70 works of art generously donated by artists, galleries, and collectors, including the works of Hong Kong artists Kwan Sheung Chi, Lee Kit, Joey Leung Ka-Yin, Leung Kui Ting, and Pak Sheung Chuen, as well as Chinese artists Cui Jie, Wang Dongling, Yu Youhan, and Zhang Yirong. Other renowned artists featured in the fundraiser include Nobuyoshi Araki, Shilpa Gupta, Candida Höfer, Arin Dwihartanto Sunaryo, and Clare Woods.

Melih Gorgun, from the Performance Art Archive. Image courtesy Asia Art Archive.

What are your other main sources of funding? Do you get any support from the government, financial or otherwise?

As an independent non-profit, we receive funding from different sources besides the annual fundraiser. About 10% of funding comes from the HKSAR Government, and 15% comes from corporations and individuals. We have also recently launched an adopt-a-book campaign, in which everyone can support our work by adopting a book from our Library Collection in Hong Kong.

You began digitisation in 2010, recently undergoing a website revamp that was completed in May this year, and in a past interview, you called the digitisation initiative ‘essential’. How has the user experience and response been ever since? And are there any plans to further modernise the collection?

Response to the new website has been very positive.  This year, we have also introduced a new online publication, ‘Ideas’, on the website.  It gives AAA a platform to discuss our work, areas of interest and highlight parts of our collection that may be less visible. In the digital collection, we have made it simpler and quicker for users to access the collection. In the future, we will roll out additional functions to allow users to research topics such as exhibition histories.

The collection is constantly expanding with new materials both online and in our physical library. In the digital space, collections are built through our research work related to our content priorities: art writing, complex geographies, exhibition histories, innovation through tradition, pedagogy, performance art, and women in art history. These digitisation projects are being developed across Asia in partnership with local organisations and practitioners. We are also working on some fixed-term projects to digitise small elements of our physical collection that are not easily accessible onsite, including ephemeral material such as invitation cards.

Speaking of your new online publication, ‘Ideas’, what motivated this, and what does the publication hope to achieve?

As part of our mission to create and share knowledge on Asian contemporary art, we wanted to ensure that our rich collection is accessible to a wide audience. We saw that an online publication was one way to achieve this goal, allowing us to reach anyone with a device, an Internet connection, and an interest in these digital materials.

In addition to posts that act as curated journeys through our collection and research notes that give insight into our current lines of inquiry, we will be publishing more essays by researchers in the field over the coming months. Above all, we want to delve deep into the current narratives concerning art in the region. 

Asia Art Archive collections. Image courtesy Asia Art Archive.

Could you talk about  your upcoming symposium, ‘It Begins with a Story: Artists, Writers and Periodicals in Asia’? What inspired the initiative, and what themes does it explore?

The symposium focuses on periodicals in Asia and will run from 11 to 13 January 2018. We will also be organising exhibitions and programmes in December 2017 as a prelude leading up to the symposium.

Organised by AAA in collaboration with The University of Hong Kong, this symposium explores how periodicals have fostered conversations around art and emergent forms of visuality in twentieth-century Asia. Periodicals are more than just platforms or sites for artistic experimentation and exhibition; they have themselves shaped and staged them. In doing so, periodicals have played a defining role in forming diverse publics for art in Asia.

The materials presented in the symposium explore periodicals in relation to emerging practices that cut across genres, new nomenclatures and aesthetic propositions, verbal and visual manifestos, the production of alternative publics and communities for art, and other topics. Keynote speakers include Charles Esche, Director of Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, and co-founder of Afterall journal, as well as Li Xianting, Beijing-based independent critic and curator. You can find the full list of panelists on our website.

As a prelude to the symposium, we have invited artist Verina Gfader to take up residency. She will be speaking at a public talk on 5 December about the Italian avant-garde magazine movement of the 1960s to 1970s, the fictions around the sci-fi fanzine Cheap Truth, and the transmission of knowledge through the archive and paper-making.

We also have three exhibitions that explore art periodicals in Asia as tools for criticism, historical research, travel writing, and fiction, opening on 5 December 2017 at AAA. Each of these presentations are initiated by members of the team, with works by artists Karthik K. G. and Au Sow-Yee.

Publicity image for symposium, ‘Selling Beijing Youth Daily on the Street’, 1992. Image courtesy Wang Youshen.

Today, AAA has a collection of over 69,000 materials from countries all over Asia, including some notable collections such as the Ha Bik Chuen Archive and your work in India. Are there any parts of Asia you are hoping to explore further, and are there any programmes or initiatives we can look forward to in the near future?

We have been engaging in research projects across the region. We’ve also been working on a project about Singaporean performance artist Lee Wen. In collaboration with the NTU Centre for Contemporary Art in Singapore, AAA is working on an Independent Archive to make digitally available material on Lee’s projects and performance art festivals. The first group of material includes Lee’s work as a solo artist, art collective member, writer, and exhibition organiser. We are compiling an exhibition history and bibliography of his writings. The second group of material covers festivals that he and other people have documented. This project will expand AAA’s collections in Southeast Asia and performance art.

We are working on archiving performance art from India, a rich topic that deserves closer consideration. It is being developed in three phases through research, programmes, and events. Phase one is being undertaken in collaboration with the Foundation for Indian Contemporary Art. Led by artist Samudra Kajal Saikia, it launches online in 2017, covering a selection of artworks that present the ways in which the body has been deployed in performance art between 1989 and 2010. The second and third phases will be carried out beyond 2017. Our team in India is co-organising an international performance art exhibition in Goa titled ‘The Ground Beneath My Feet’, to be inaugurated at the Serendipity Arts Festival 2017 (15 – 22 December 2017) and is one of the major highlights at the Festival this year.

We have also published the first of three dossiers in India. The dossiers are part of an ongoing project to map, compile, translate, and publish important texts on contemporary Indian art from the late nineteenth century to the present. They are part of ‘Writing Art’, an AAA publications project, which examines the history of art writing in different languages. The three dossiers to be published in 2017 consider the figure of the artist in fiction, artist travelogues, and art manifestos from the South Asia region.

Are there any challenges you envision for the archive in the near future, and how do you plan on overcoming them?

We have just launched our revamped website and digital infrastructure. It’s an ongoing task to continually review and refine the way we can ensure that our collection is easily accessible to our users while keeping up with changing technologies. We are working on another phase of website development to introduce tools and functionality that makes the browsing experience more intuitive and flexible. We have also launched the website in two languages: English and traditional Chinese. It is our hope that this major undertaking makes our collections available to a larger audience, providing greater access to our vast China holdings.

Asia Art Archive digitisation station. Image courtesy Asia Art Archive.

What are the long-term goals for AAA?

Asia Art Archive is a project that will go on beyond my lifetime. The collection will continue to grow, and there is always so much more that we can and would like to do.

We realise the importance of networks, collaboration, and partnerships in this process. AAA is not growing in isolation but as part of a wider network. Our collection is not about possession but about sharing knowledge. In the long run, we hope to collaborate with like-minded institutions in Hong Kong and beyond, in order to activate our content and share our resources with the widest possible public. We hope to offer a service that supports the overall art ecology.

More information at aaa.org.hk/en.

ilyda chua

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