"Hong Kong Is a Place With Much More Freedom": Curator Pi Li on Why He Left Mainland China for the New M+ Museum

"Hong Kong Is a Place With Much More Freedom": Curator Pi Li on Why He Left Mainland China for the New M+ Museum
New M+ Senior Curator, Dr. Pi Li
(Courtesy M+)

HONG KONG — The planning for Hong Kong’s contemporary art museum M+ — which is slated to open in the West Kowloon Cultural District in 2017 — took a big step forward recently with the appointment of Dr Pi Li to the position of senior curator. Pi’s hiring follows that of the former head of the Nam June Paik Art Center in Seoul Tobias Berger as curator, and former Tate Modern head Lars Nittve as director. Pi is the first mainland Chinese curator to join the team.

Pi is a leading figure in the Chinese art world, a prolific curator and scholar who currently serves as the head of the art management department at the China Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. He is also the co-founder of Boers-Li Gallery, a critically claimed commercial art space in the capital. But he’ll be putting aside all these positions come July in order to make an exclusive commitment to M+.

Pi’s appointment underlines the importance of Chinese contemporary art for the new museum and the necessity of establishing strong connections between the mainland and Hong Kong art scenes.

ARTINFO Hong Kong talked to Pi about his decision to move to Hong Kong and why he was interested in working at M+.

After years of honing your curatorial practice in mainland China, what are the factors that made you decide to move to Hong Kong?  

The M+ position is a very rare opportunity, if the plans of this contemporary art museum can be fully executed, it will be a great thing to be a part of it. Secondly, in terms of my own life, I have been working as a curator, gallerist, and scholar; it will be interesting to embrace a different experience. The third reason is that Hong Kong is a place with much more freedom in the academic world and in politics. This environment makes the city an ideal place to  execute objective and independent research on Chinese contemporary art. My decision to move was based on these three factors.

In the last two decades, the growth of Chinese contemporary art hasn’t pulled the Hong Kong art scene along with it, nor brought attention to it. What strategies do you think can help to promote Hong Kong art?

I do agree with you that the outside world’s attitude towards Chinese contemporary art as opposed to Hong Kong contemporary art in the past two to three decades has not been the same. The ideology of Hong Kong is close to the West, so the international audience might not have found many specifically “Chinese” elements in it, thus the interest in Hong Kong art has been small. On the other hand, Chinese contemporary art operates under an unfair system, so curiosity from the outside world has created great opportunities as well.

One of the core ideas of M+ is to look at art from the 20th and 21st centuries from a Hong Kong perspective, that is the basic goal of the museum. There are several things that will be done: First, M+ will serve as a platform to present Hong Kong art; the second layer is to promote Hong Kong art on an international level, and promote artistic exchange; third, we should establish a research platform to provide context for Hong Kong contemporary art and its relation to Chinese art, as well as the international art scene.

How will you approach the Hong Kong audience? Do you think it is different from the mainland Chinese audience?

The audience is different in every city. It is a complex process knowing and understanding the Hong Kong public — that’s what makes the job interesting. The museum will not be functional for several years, so I will have enough time to understand and do my research on it. It's crucial for curators to understand their public.

You are shifting from a commercial environment to an institutional one; how do you think you will employ your market experience in the context of M+?

M+ and the gallery are two completely different institutions: One is non-profit, the other is commercial. To avoid any conflicts of interests I have put my share of the gallery into a blind trust. Curators are not art dealers, they are critics and exhibition organizers — there are other layers to this role. My experience as a gallerist reinforces the administrative ability I bring to the institution.

How about the Boers-Li gallery; are you giving any advice to your partner?

Boers-Li is a mature gallery, it has run for six years. It was the first Chinese gallery that applied an exclusive representation system. Its list of artists, collectors, and programs are well-developed, and I think it can continue to grow as it is.

This article originally appeared on ARTINFO Hong Kong.