“I stumbled into the art world. I was a hipster and there were lots of music festivals and poets in Beijing,” says Hongkonger Venus Lau, 35, of the years she spent visiting the capital in the noughties. When she moved there full-time in 2007, she began writing for listings magazine The Beijinger—“for the arts section because I knew more painters than anyone in the office.”
She became immersed in the art world, but it wasn’t until she took part in a project with artist Cao Fei, RMB City, in 2009 that she realised she wanted to be a curator. “I thought, I’m not going to be an artist; it might be interesting to be a curator, to actually put content from different contexts together and build a new narrative.” She returned to Hong Kong in 2010 and began working as an independent curator. The following year she won the Jury’s Pick at the Chinese Contemporary Art Awards for a proposal rethinking strategies for institutional critiques.
In 2014 she moved back to Beijing with her husband, art critic Robin Peckham, to take up the position of curator at the Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art. She curated its Secret
Timezones Trilogy, solo projects by Ming Wong, Korakrit Arunanondchai and Haegue Yang. Since September 2015 she has been working as artistic director of OCAT Shenzhen, for which she curated the land art exhibition Digging a Hole in China; Summer Triangle, an exhibition of works by Jon Rafman, Adrian Wong, Lantian Xie; and a Jiang Zhi solo show. Her latest project, in which Berlin-based artist Simon Denny explores the development of technology and Shenzhen’s future, opens this month.
“We are spinning out from a lot of stereotypes of Asian art, and people are more willing to understand each other from different regions,” says Lau, whose experience in Beijing, Hong Kong, Shenzhen and Shanghai (she moved there in January), affords her a broad view. “There are so many new platforms, new museums opening. There are more and more opportunities for young curators and artists.” For her, a curator’s role is not to “set up a theoretical or aesthetic frame and try to fit everything in it, but rather to build a platform. The curator is a starter who pulls artwork together and uses that artwork to expand what already exists. It’s almost like building a cosmos.”
Lau is realistic about the challenges of working in Mainland China: from censorship to shipping difficulties and even sexism. “The art world, and particularly the Chinese art world, is very masculine,” she says. “There aren’t a lot of female curators in China.”