Brian Curtin, on Curating and Writing about Queer Art, Performance Art, Site-specific Art, and on Life in Between.
I am still working out the relationship between curating and writing (and I probably will never work it out entirely). When I am hired as a curator, it is usually because of my writing. This is in spite of the fact that I’ve been working on exhibitions continually since 2007. I instigated the first queer-themed exhibitions in Bangkok in 2011 and 2012 (at Nospace, and at the Art Centre of Chulalongkorn University, which also travelled to DAGC Gallery in Manila). I organized a Southeast Asian-themed show in New York in 2012 (at Tally Beck Contemporary). And I did many more collaborative projects since, linking Thai artists with others. Also, I ran the installation space H Project Space in Bangkok for eight years (2010-2018), with substantial recognition. I guess the interest in my writing is based on the fact that these projects were driven by ideas and a sense of the performative, not exhibition-making per se.
Some of my exhibitions had bigger lives on social media, with relatively few people seeing them in person, for whatever reason, so this interest in my writing makes a certain sense. In view of this, we can draw a firm distinction between writing and curating: on one side you have the quality of the interests driving the project, and on the other, the choreography of how the exhibition is experienced. In my experience, very few independent curators excel at both. And maybe a conversation about that needs to start, or become more prominent.
What drives me most about curating is an interest for why artists do what they do, and questions about why anyone should think this is important. I used to know the American writer Ronald Tavel, in Bangkok, before he passed in 2009, and he would tell me of the times he visited filmmaker Jack Smith in New York in the ’60s. Smith would keep him awake for days, obsessing about what art is.
The argument about the complexity of art is actually a curatorial one. But as artist Liam Gillick once said, contemporary artists are now required to discuss what they do since the traditional gate-keeping figure of the art critic has fallen away. And, as the curator works (ideally) on behalf of the artist, the distinction between artist and curator can blur further. It can explain why curators have risen to such visibility.
Curators’ terrifying authorship over exhibitions. I keep notebooks and write constantly. And so exhibitions are usually the outcome of a certain line of thinking, or an aim to experiment, visually and spatially, with certain ideas. But it’s hardly an exclusive method. For example, the theme of the group exhibition “Time Less Held: Artists Revisiting the Overlooked” at Tadu Contemporary Art in Bangkok in 2018, largely emerged from the works of the photographer Boung Dhanarachwattana. Boung studied as a geographer and his photographs capture new architectural developments on the outskirts of Bangkok, where views of nature and melancholic twilight scenes heighten the artless functionality and impersonal anonymity of the developments. His photographs led me to research and write on how art can expose pernicious aspects of our environment, aspects that can lead to boredom and depression. I then assembled the other artists of the show. But when I walked into the opening night of the exhibition, and noted the very distinct aesthetic that defined the show, I was very bothered by the degree of my authorship. This is the curator-as-auteur.
Curating with site-specific in mind. I set up H Project Space in Bangkok in 2010 with the idea of a certain type of art space that would challenge artists to think in a site-specific way. H Project Space was notable for establishing a firm dialogue between myself and the artists because the space, a 19th century neo-colonial room, posed a problem that we both had to solve. Many artists I worked with, weren’t always used to think site-specifically, so it advanced their practice in some way. Then a later interest emerged in how artists could blur distinctions between art and non-art, because the space wasn’t a conventional white cube. After H Project Space closed, I established Brian Curtin Projects as a simple mantle to manage whatever activities I happen to be involved with. For the first time, since 2008, I don’t work with a physical space so, curatorially, I am very much independent. I am regularly contacted by people seeking some form of support to do work in Thailand. For example, yesterday a student from Duke University asked if I could help with a Fulbright application about queer Thai film. This is important so… Otherwise, any work I do stems from writing and, in spite of what sometimes might seem, there are consistent preoccupations across the range.
How easy is it to write a book? That depends largely on the support you can put in place. A book under contract, with editorial advice, will probably discipline you to work steadfastly towards completion in a way that writing alone is less likely to. Writing a book for publication is shaped by many factors and decisions: what context(s) is your book contributing to? What other publications are you in dialogue with? And who is your ideal readership? Besides talent and knowledge, there is a difference between deciding that you are a writer and deciding that you are a professional writer, and this, of course, will impact how you work.
If I taught writing, I’d tell students that a book is going to be less than what you want because you will keep on meeting your limits, and one writing project isn’t enough to overcome them. Also, to be published, you can’t overly care about your writing, because then you won’t let it go. But, central to all of this, is knowing how to decide of the value of what you’re doing. If you can’t, the process won’t be “easy” at all. When the first draft of my book Essential Desires: Contemporary Art in Thailand was submitted, the two anonymous reviewers made the same points, but one was critical and the other positive. So, go figure.
How easy is it to curate or write about performance art? I’m about to find out. LOL. A dialogue with Chumpon Apisak is in the offing, as he is interested in how to curate video documentation of his performances, from the past two years or so. Chumpon was one of the first performance artists in Thailand. He founded the Asiatopia festival in the late 1990s, which still runs, and this is just one of his many achievements. Performance art and its theories are a singular, and broad, research field. As I understand, performance artists can fret over the differences between experience and representation, and don’t want the latter confused with the former. They are concerned that images, and other types of documentation, may come to define the knowledge of the performance, instead of the physical experience. This could be a point of departure, how to emphasize that difference?
Bangkok has increasingly become more desirable for foreigners seeking to replicate a familiar middle-class lifestyle, and you tend to move with the flow of that, gradually settling back into the type of routines and relationships you thought you’d run away from. I moved here from Ireland in 2000, to be with my partner, the artist Be Takerng Pattanopas. We met while studying for doctorates in the UK in the 1990s. The fact that Bangkok is a capital city, and I’d never lived in one, cemented the decision. My memory of the queer scenes then seems like ancient history now. Also, there used to be no “good” writing in English about Bangkok beyond, say, Cleo Odzer’s salacious “Patpong Sisters” (an American anthropologist’s description of the sex industry in Bangkok). But the city and its representations seem more complex these days. We can mention the writings of the relatively recent émigré Lawrence Osborne, or my friend Philip Cornwel-Smith, who maps the strange cultural diversity of Bangkok through the legacies of its multiple histories. A friend from India sometimes visits, and says Bangkok is the centre of civilization, which is laughable if you still remember the days before public trains and the preponderance of chichi restaurants. This is a roundabout way of saying I do little of interest here beyond work: but I am wondering if past histories should be retrieved, perhaps in writing. There’s surely a lot to say about how images of the 1976 film Emmanuelle in Bangkok came to dominate a cultural horizon and ask about what has been lost since such were consigned to the past.
Curating an artist who poses as a Thai ‘ladyboy’. I am working with the photographer Ohm Phanphiroj on exhibiting his The Gina Project (2016-on going). Here Ohm poses as a Thai ‘ladyboy’ to solicit the interest of ostensibly straight men on dating and hook-up apps. He orchestrates the selfies they can send him. We are interested in the highly fragile line that exists between public and private in such contexts as digital media, which has facilitated a remarkable currency in the details of everyday lives and bodies. There is also the artlessness in the photographs or the vulgarity of the attempts to embolden desire. And, of course, there is Ohm’s duplicitousness. The project speaks to the nasty aspects of photography as a deceptive fetish for fantasy, the pervasiveness of heteronormativity, stupid reductiveness in perceptions of race, and the crudity of desires that we are usually taught to redeem.
My latest favourite book is “Oral Histories of Older Gay Men in Hong Kong” by Travis S. K. Kong (Hong Kong University Press 2019). There has been a great rise of interest in the mantle of ‘queer’ across many parts of Asia in recent years, and the flurry of activities, between activism and exhibitions, and seminars and publications is exciting to see. Oral Histories is compelling because it raises questions beyond the remit of the book, which is the retrieval of the histories of gay men’s experiences, from a relatively oppressive past. We can ask why the experience of isolation and marginalization among gay men has not gone away in spite of our allegedly more accepting contemporary times. Furthermore, why do men continue to cruise each other in public spaces when this is not a consequence of nowhere else to go? The book, somewhat paradoxically, points to the limits of the domesticated version of gay identity imagined by rights and recognition. Instead, it imagines the ineffable qualities of queer desire and experience. Further work on this would be inevitably theoretical.
I never curate a show without a sense of a broad context. Theoretically, the context should answer questions like “Why do this show now?” or “Why is this show important?” Practically, that context offers a potential resource to extend the interests of the show in other directions, whether through lecture programmes or workshops or publications. Essentially, this is about determining multiple interests for the project, and, ideally, creating ever-new audiences through extending its reach in different formats.
The best way to know an artist is to actually decide if a dialogue exists between you. Probably the most fruitful relationship I’ve had over the years is with artist Jakkai Siributr because his works are a challenge to re-think how I’d been trained to think about art. His textiles-based works can be very decorative, and the religious and spiritual references aren’t always ironic. The implications of either frivolity, or sincerely-held beliefs, push against my expectations of art as cool, critical, and detached from any implications of ideology. So a point of conversation between us is how his works can relate to local contexts, and also the changing international idioms of contemporary art. A conversation like that will roll on.
The best advice I ever heard about writing is “write what you can”, which is something of a mantra for me. As I remember, it is the British art critic Adrian Searle who once wrote this. As for an advice about curating: “curating is essentially project management.” My own experience is that the practice has to be collaborative, not just with the artists, but also with the various technical actors involved.
The general conditions for working in the region have changed much in the last fifteen years, in terms of scale and diversity, with a lot more opportunities and platforms, and increased international attention. We are a long way from when, say, Project 304 or About Studio/About Café were the lone cultural hubs in Bangkok in the ’90s. And publication opportunities, as we know, have expanded exponentially. I sometimes think there is a gap between now, and an earlier generation (like mine). I have seen curation as a necessity, rather than a dedicated career choice. But there is now an emergent generation of curators and cultural workers who, I think, more comfortably negotiate increased professional demands (curating and writing criticism, for example), are competent in working across varied institutional contexts (firm or fragile), and are intellectually savvy in managing the challenges of more international attention.
My earliest art memory was watching artists establish studios and workshop spaces, after we graduated from art school. That was in the late ’80s and early ’90s, in Ireland. Such projects were the predominant urgency for the time. In retrospect, it is notable that we weren’t interested in establishing exhibition spaces or a more fluid relationship between the studio and the public(s). We complained that these opportunities didn’t exist but didn’t see it as our job to create them. This is a shame because I remember some great spaces: one was a floor above a cake factory in an industrial part of a city in Cork, where a persistent sweet scent contradicted the grim views; another overlooked a port in a low-income district that has since become a multi-cultural enclave in the city I grew up in, Waterford.
If I were an art collector I would collect art produced by queer milieus over the modern decades: like Pavel Tchelitchew’s drawings of George Platt Lynes; Romaine Brooks’s portraits; or Don Bachardy’s works. You can read so much into the intimacies that emerge from their work. They also have a sense of defiance that I like, they move between sly subversion and in-your-face queerness.
If I wasn’t curating or writing, I would be interested in something to do with fashion. The interest here would be about relations between making and craft, and the significance of culturally under-valued forms.
Brian Curtin is an Irish-born art writer, lecturer, and curator of contemporary art. He holds a Ph.D. in studio art from the University of Bristol and has been based in Bangkok since 2000. Brian’s work explores dialogues between contemporary art, Queer theories and studies in visual and material cultures. His commentary, essays, interviews and reviews have been published in Art Journal, Artforum, Art Asia Pacific, Circa, Craft Research, Flash Art, Frieze, Journal of Curatorial Studies and Parachute, amongst others. Published profiles of artists include Alice Maher, Paul Pfeiffer, Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook, Collier Schorr, Jakkai Siributr, and Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Brian’s monograph Essential Desires: Contemporary Art in Thailand will be published by Reaktion Books in November 2020.
Research work addresses challenges in thinking through hierarchies and antagonisms that limit critical approaches to modern and contemporary art; and published essays in this respect explore the art-historical marginalizing of ‘decoration’ and also problems of national identity as a frame for recent art. Brian has presented at conferences and symposia in Kuala Lumpur, Kyoto, London and Singapore. And has held writer’s residencies in Beijing and Kuala Lumpur.
Curated exhibitions include China, New York, Korea and the UK as well as regionally in Southeast Asia. He managed the experimental venue H Project Space in Bangkok from 2011 to 2018 which now functions under the mantle Brian Curtin Projects. Curatorial work has been been funded by the Arts Council England and Australia Council for the Arts. Brian has been a nominator for the Prix Pictet award in photography, the Sovereign Art Prize, and collaborations with Saatchi Gallery London. He has lectured in art history, visual culture and studio courses at the Faculty of Architecture of Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, since 2006. In 2018 Brian led Uncommon Pursuits: A Temporary School for Emergent Curators in Southeast Asia at Sàn Art, a non-profit in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.