Sophia Hao is curator of the Cooper Gallery at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design, University of Dundee. Her practice positions the role of the curatorial as a mode of critical inquiry that engages with culture and the political as an open question. Her recent curatorial work includes CURRENT: Contemporary Art from Scotland, Here Was Elsewhere >>FFWD, Of Other Spaces: Where Does Gesture Become Event? and Urgency and Possibility, a screening programme which featured the works of Laura Mulvey and Peter Woolen. We spoke to Sophia about her practice in relation to the moving image and interdisciplinary art forms.
Jennifer Shearman: Can you tell us how you got into contemporary art curation?
Sophia Hao: I started working in contemporary art as an artist and my practice incorporated a participatory, event-led and institutional critique approach, which resonates with many aspects of curatorial practice and indeed was a pivotal influence in shaping how I approached and utilised curatorial discourse. Part of my development was a recognition that contemporary art practices embody and define an unceasingly cogent field of activity in which urgent questions whether they are social, political or critical are posed and unpacked. It is this specific quality and character of contemporary art practices that provides for me, the fascination of the curatorial as an inherently critical undertaking that is capable of uncovering and producing a constellation of relations, networks and most importantly new and alternative ideas.
JS: What interests you in curating diverse artistic practices?
SH: I think it is useful to say that the notion of medium or genre in contemporary arts practice is a moribund concept. Most artists that I work with are consistently interdisciplinary or post-medium. This diversity and its necessary complexity transcends and traverses formal historical categorisation, for instance sculpture, painting and so forth. The formal difference haunting contemporary art practices, and even singular artworks, breaks open the conventional ways of addressing and reading art as object, process or event. It is this aspect that enables exhibition making, when thought through as a public act, to be a generative space in which ‘other’ ideas, critiques, and ways forward can be formulated and acted upon.
JS: What interests you in particular to the moving image as an artistic medium?
SH: The moving image is the lingua franca of the contemporary world; it is everywhere and it is how this omnipresence of the moving image is tackled by artists that interest me. Of how artists interrupt or interrogate space, time and the mobile gaze, the expectation of narrative, of one thing leading onto another and how artists subvert, deflect or evade these formulaic routines of the moving image. Moreover, by its very familiarity the moving image creates a strange type of relation between the viewer and what is essentially a typology of memory. The moving image always presents something that has already been seen. And it is this nature of the medium to be endlessly re-seen that for me poses particularly pertinent questions on temporality and being.
JS: Do you think filmed works requires a different curatorial technique in comparison to say painterly practices?
SH: Yes and no, it really depends of course on the artist’s work and how the images are seen with or against other works. My current focus is to bring different filmed works into immediate juxtapositions with other works, which are not necessarily by the same artist or from the same historical period. The commonality with painterly practices is a problematic point for me. Painting retains its specificity as an object, as the physical evidence of a gesture still predominantly made by hand. Whilst a camera can still be held by hand so it retains to some degree the trace of a moving body, filmed works by virtue of their medium can be simultaneously in multiple locations, the physical singularity of a painting does not allow that. Moving image works as I touched upon earlier express and embody a profoundly different relation to time than painting does. It is because of this inherent difference that I think filmed works require and ask for a different set of curatorial considerations than painterly practices.
JS: Can you tell us a little about your favourite moving image artists?
SH: I think it’s difficult to engage with questions of favouritism, specifically because I work with so many interesting artists, whose practices are incredibly diverse. Any attempt to make a comparison between them is problematic, so I would prefer to skip this question.
JS: Perhaps I could rephrase this question - instead are there any moving image works that have been particularly influential in regards to your practice?
SH: Whilst it is hard to select specific moving image works that have had a direct impact upon my curatorial practice, there are several which I feel provided a crucial discursive space that informed how I conceptualised my approach to curation.
Particular examples are two of Annabel Nicolson's works; Stock Exchange (1983) and Fire Film (1981). Encapsulating a mode of politics that drew upon activism and protest, Nicolson's works resonate with this contemporary moment, in that they capture and delineate an iteration of what Hannah Arendt named as the ‘space of appearance’. Moreover both Stock Exchange and Fire Film foreground the necessity of collectivity in any act that seeks to confront, subvert or challenge a dominant ideology, whether it is nuclear weapons or capitalism. It was this condition, of a few dissonant voices coming to together to make a stand that echoes throughout my curatorial practice. In lieu of staging solo exhibitions which examine either an art historical context or the formal aspect of an artist’s practice, a consistent concern in my approach has been too focus on the often ignored or sidelined collective and thus by definition the political context, from which much creative work emerges.
On a slightly different note, the experimental films made by Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen in the 1970’s and 80’s ( e.g. Penthesilea: Queen of the Amazons (1974), Riddles of the Sphinx (1977), AMY! (1980) and others ), also inspired me. Their work acts as an outstanding example of the vitally important relation between theory and practice and how dominant ideologies are systemically woven into specific media and their critical reception. The consideration of how particular value systems and politicised processes of representation inhabit and occupy forms of visual and creative production is a crucial ingredient when understanding how any artists work operates, both on itself and upon the gaze of the viewer. On a practical curatorial level this understanding is pivotal in thinking about exhibition making as a ‘constellation of events’. Without doing justice to or if you like revealing or deconstructing how forms of representation provoke or deflect ‘other’ ways of seeing or reading an image, an exhibition is failing its critical potential.
JS: Is feminism a part of your practice? And if so how does it influence you?
SH: If by feminism you mean the possibility of ‘Other’ and radical forms of relation between embodied subjectivities, then yes feminism is part of my practice. But I would be wary of saying I am a feminist curator. As a discourse, feminism is a crucial ‘line of flight’ in contemporary critical discourse, but I don’t subscribe to it as a set of immobile principles or as a stridently declarative set of political agendas. Instead I approach it in a more ‘rhizomatic’ fashion, in which discursivity enables a means to think and act otherwise against normative conventions of gender and identity. A crucial aspect inherent to this reading and adoption of feminist thought is the development of different ‘spaces of appearance’, to cite Hannah Arendt. It is through this that my curatorial practice advocates for and acts on behalf of the urgent necessity for self-organisation and alternative politics in culture, society and everyday life.
Image 1: Installation view of >>FFWD: Moving Image from Scotland (Week Four) at Shanghai Minsheng Art Museum, 2016 featuring works (left to right): Lyndsay Mann, An Order of the Outside, 2016, Tom Varley, Violence. Silence., 2013, Corin Sworn, Faktura, 2008 and Adam Lewis Jacob, Can’t See the trees for the wood, 2015. Photo: Shanghai Minsheng Art Museum. Image 2: (T) WLM Demo Remix, 2005, Mary Kelly, (B) Stock Exchange, 1983, Annabel Nicolson . Exhibition structure: A Modular Infrastructure Acting in Concert with Cooper Gallery, 2016, Cullinan Richards. Installation View of Of Other Spaces: Where Does Gesture Become Event?, 2016/17, Cooper Gallery DJCAD. Photo: Sophia Hao
Image 3: The Lesson & The Birth of Sculpture, 2016, Georgina Starr. Installation View of Of Other Spaces: Where Does Gesture Become Event?, 2016/17, Cooper Gallery DJCAD. Photo: Ross Fraser MacLean.
Image 4: Performance Inside 1.58sq metre by He Chengyao at the Closing Event, Of Other Spaces: Where Does Gesture Become Event?, 2016/17, Cooper Gallery DJCAD. In background: (L) WLM Demo Remix, 2005, Mary Kelly, (R) Stock Exchange, 1983, Annabel Nicolson, Exhibition structure: A Modular Infrastructure Acting in Concert with Cooper Gallery, 2016, Cullinan Richards. Photo: Erika Stevenson.
Image 5: Detail view of Virgin/ Mother/ Whore (1983), Feministo Crochet (1976) and Friends Gloves (1979) by Su Richardson; with archival materials relating to the projects Feministo (1975-77/78) and Fenix (1977- 80) and exhibition structure: A Modular Infrastructure Acting in Concert with Cooper Gallery, 2016, Cullinan Richards. Installation View of Of Other Spaces: Where Does Gesture Become Event?, 2016/17, Cooper Gallery DJCAD. Photo: Ross Fraser MacLean.