Interview with Lance Fung

Date June 4, 2008 at 10:00 PM

Publication THE magazine

Categories Performing Arts


Lucky Number Seven-the 2008 SITE Santa Fe Biennial-will consist of site-specific works by twenty-five artists from seventeen countries installed in SITE's exhibition space and around Santa Fe.

The parameters of the exhibition-curated by Lance Fung-is that all of the artists are emerging artists, all will be making new commissions, all the work will be site-specific, and all of the works will be temporary. 

Included in the Biennial are three artists from New Mexico: Rose B. Simpson, Eliza Naranjo-Morse, and Nora Naranjo-Morse. The exhibition is scheduled to run from June 22 to October 26, 2008. THE magazine met with Lance Fung in January to talk about the exhibition, and Fung's take on the art world.

THE magazine: What are the three major centers for contemporary art today? And do you see that changing in the next decade?

Lance Fung: New York City, London, and Beijing are the three most important centers. London is a magnet for people all around the world-whether in the Middle East, India, or Asia. I think it will change because London, although powerful and very wealthy, is still pretty tiny. It is an important scene with auctions and the collectors, but the quantity of galleries in London is nothing when compared to New York City. I think that the power and lure of Beijing will diminish, which could reduce the allure of Beijing. There's a huge buzz about Beijing right now, but ninety percent of the art collectors haven't been to Beijing-they just know it's important.

TM: What are the ingredients that go into making a city a real art center?

LF: Artists. Artists first, and then their art-which means a sense of community.

TM: Let's talk about you for a moment. You're based in New York?

LF: Yes.

TM: What kind of a place do you live in? A loft, an apartment, a brownstone?

LF: I live in a loft in SoHo that was previously occupied by Barbara Rose and Frank Stella. I bought it, gutted it, and have been renovating it for decades. It's a really unique space because most lofts in New York only have window access on the two short ends, but my building sits in the middle of three blocks, so I have exposure all the way around, and on two sides are courtyards.

TM: What kind of art would we find in your loft?

LF: Walk up my stairwell and you'd see a Sol Lewitt. My front door is Lawrence Weiner. There's a Robert Barry in my library, a Gordon Matta-Clark in my entryway, a wonderful Nam June Paik in my dining room, and a favorite painting done by my father.

TM: What is the difference between putting together a show at a gallery and mounting a show as an independent curator?

LF: There's a huge difference in the process of curating a show for a gallery versus curating for an institution. First of all, I don't think a gallery show is really curated, because what's the object of a gallery show? To sell something. So how can one curate an exhibition without any kind of influence and make a show based purely on an aesthetic and a philosophic and intellectual approach when you have to worry about selling the work? When I see exhibitions curated for galleries, I look at them with a grain of salt. I wonder: did they get the best work from each artist or did they get the easiest work? Or the most available work? Or the work that might derive the greatest profit? So, a well-curated show at a gallery is rare. Of course, many galleries are upping the ante, and some of the bigger galleries-Gagosian and Pace, for example-do have properly curated shows, although they still have an agenda-which is, sales.

TM: Was that true when you were the director at Holly Solomon Gallery, in New York?

LF: The nice thing at Holly's was, I took the position of curating one show a year that was not commercially based. It was a great training ground for me, because Holly allowed me to just play in her space, explore different ideas, and have no burden of money. It was more liberating than curating for a museum because we didn't care if we got a big review. We weren't selling tickets or catalogues or T-shirts or pencils or baseball caps. After I left Holly I opened my exhibition space and did really interesting shows that were not based on sales. It was like being Mother Hubbard, because people couldn't figure out how I stayed in business because there was so little to be purchased.

TM: How did you stay in business?

LF: I had enough money, and by developing a great sense of community and a support structure, which ultimately became the foundation for Lucky Number Seven at SITE.

TM: How big is the world of independent curators?

LF: I don't know, because it has been really recently that I've called myself a curator. I first started calling myself that only under the umbrella of SITE Santa Fe because Laura Heon kept saying, "I can't just call you someone who's doing a show."€

TM: What two or three curators of your generation excite you the most?

LF: Ferran Barrenblit, director and curator of Centre d'Art Santa Mònica, in Barcelona. He not only curates interesting shows, but he is visionary in how he's approaching his institution.

TM: What's his approach?

LF: A lot of his programs are about complicity. I think we also share many views. For instance, he has a curatorial team like any other institution, but his curatorial team is rotating. Nobody is fixed, so there is always fresh energy and approaches. Even when you're rotated out, you're still part of the fold. He understands the value of developing a sense of community and allowing the people who work with you and under you to grow so that they can go out into the world and achieve and come back and bring more. Then there's Alexie Glass, from Gertrude Contemporary Art Spaces in Melbourne, who not only has an exhibition space, but also has an incredible artist residency program and a curatorial residency program. Melbourne has a wonderful history of many artist-run spaces. Then there's a young curator named Colin Chinnery, whose actual curatorial work has yet to be seen. He's one of the main curators at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing, which has just opened. We will now get to judge his work as a curator in the shows that he does, but his approach, outlook, and assessment of the Chinese contemporary art scene are so right on the mark-both for a local and for a foreigner, which typically have diverging opinions.

TM: The late Walter Hopps was known in the art world as a "gonzo museum curator-elusive, unpredictable, and outlandish."€ It has been said about Hopps that "No one idea controlled him."€ Does that relate to you?

LF: That's flattering-I love being related to art-historical icons like Hopps. I think part of what you just said is my philosophy. I'm not driven by a space, a budget, or materials-so part of that quote relates to me in the sense that there's not one linear approach. Other people have said elements of me remind them of Harold Szeemann, which, believe me, is not coming from me-that would be such an overblown statement. I am a curator who wants to allow the staff and the artists to really shine, which is what Harry Szeemann did-he put you in a situation and let you do the work. And I think that Lucky Number Seven is my "ripping off of"€ (or learning from) Harry, whom I met long ago when I worked for Holly Solomon. I'm also one of the few curators whose main audience is the general public, and not the art world. Yet my shows meet the same standards that any other curator would have for the art public. Curating for a general audience is a different approach, but I think you come to the same answers. So I don't know where I fit yet, because I'm just wrapping my brain around the fact that I'm calling myself a curator.

TM: I read and looked at the Snow Show catalogue. In it you wrote that the project represented a "process of exploration that flows from collaboration."€ You seem to like to collaborate with artists, yet you seem not to need to know really what they're doing. You seem to be doing a similar thing with the SITE biennial, and by doing this you are leaving a lot to chance, or to luck.

LF: Yes, I think that's how I've presented myself. It's a way for people to get a glimpse into a unique way of curating, because as we know, the traditional approach to curating is selecting an artist, selecting the work, shipping it, installing it, and creating your show.
I know exactly what I'm doing. Every sentence and every thought is premeditated. I am an interactive curator-a collaborative curator-guided, encouraged, informed, and led by the artists. Each artist in this biennial knows they were invited here for a reason. And they all ask me what that reason is.

TM: And you tell them?

LF: They were brought here because they're great artists, and because they can take on the challenge, work with other artists, and because they will be inspired. And now that process with each artist has begun.

TM: In China, the number 8 is the lucky number-not the number 7.

LF: I know. I wanted to change the show title to Lucky Number Eight, because eight is my lucky number-it's a good number for Asians. But it happened to be the seventh biennial at SITE. The one thing I didn't want to do was to put an inappropriate, misleading, or arbitrary intellectual overlay as a title. Everybody has a nice, big, fancy title. Usually it starts with the title, then the curatorial statement, and typically almost any work of art can fall under the name of any other biennial. I bothered with different titles and this and that because we needed a name, but I felt that I was very lucky to be doing the seventh biennial. It was as simple and naïve as that. So Lucky Number Seven isn't about luck, as in the sense of a roll of the dice. The title is self-referential, referring back to SITE Santa Fe's seventh biennial. It's a simple, catchy title, really much more about luck in the sense of the good fortune I believe Lucky Number Seven will leave. The legacy of the show won't be monumental works of art that move out into the art world or the art market, because the projects are intrinsically ephemeral or temporary.

TM: What is the legacy?

LF: The legacy is about welcoming people to this community of contemporary art in Santa Fe and outside of Santa Fe, and increasing the educational aspect. I think the "good fortune"€ is about re-engaging and re-inspiring the art world.

TM: Every job has perks. What are the perks of being a curator?

LF: I guess it's always how you look at it, right? Some people say the amount of travel I do and where I get to go is a perk. But it's not a perk because of the sheer amount of travel that I do. It's not fun packing your clothes and having your clothes not arrive, it's not fun rushing from an airport when you've flown twenty-four-hours to go to Australia and then go straight to studio visits. So I don't see travel as a perk. That also means I no longer derive pleasure from travel for the holidays. My holiday wish, which typically involves travel, is just to be at home. People think going to fancy restaurants is a perk. Can't stand it! Too much salt, don't have what I want to eat, and I have to dress up and engage in conversations that might be tiring. I know it's a perk to many, but not to me anymore. We certainly know that salary is not a perk for a curator. The main perk of being a curator is not even the art, but rather the people that you exchange with. All of the collectors and board members that I've met in Santa Fe are phenomenal people in what they do, and we have common interests and amazing conversations-they're down-to-earth people.
The staff at SITE is phenomenal because they really believe in this project-we have a common goal. Of course, access to artists is great. So perks are really about the people.

TM: Is there a project you've conceived of that you really think is wonderful, that either was rejected or never happened?

LF: I'm working on two projects-one that was surprisingly approved by the government of China to be the first exhibition in the history of China allowing public art. It is slated to take place during the Olympic Games in Beijing in July and August, and throughout the city of Beijing. I've been working on this for maybe a year longer than Lucky Number Seven, and the amount of access and support I have is something that no one could ever believe. The thing I can't believe is there's absolutely no funding for the project. People thought it would be easy get support from the Chinese government. It's been the opposite and so I will most likely have to cancel that show. The other project that I'm really excited about has been postponed two times, and hopefully this third time is a charm. This is an exhibition that will take place in Bali in 2009, or most assuredly in 2010. It'll be an exhibition that explores environmental issues as its theme. Artists will be working-unlike the Snow Show-on a one-on-one level, and unlike Lucky Number Seven, in a group format. In this case, artists will work with scientists, marine biologists, environmentalists, and conservationists on a support level-which is more like the traditional collaboration-in developing eighteen site-specific projects dealing with the environment. The one way to engage the viewers and to allow them to have a cathartic experience-and to move away from the familiar white cube, which I never curated in anyway-and also to get as close to nature as one can, is to dump them in water and have the viewer see the show via snorkeling or scuba diving. As you view, you are at one with nature.

TM: Your ideas for shows-where do they come from?

LF: I think I'm similar to almost any other creative person. My ideas come from life. The most inane thing can spark something. The Snow Show came from hearing about those kitschy snow castles, and then it was elevated into an interesting discourse about art and architecture. However, the core values of my exhibitions come from my mom and my dad and being raised in my particular family unit with my brother. It's always about community, about sharing, about social responsibility, about giving back, and about education. So I'm half social worker working in the art world, and I'm half art person doing social work.

TM: Want to do some one-liners on art people? I'll just throw a name out and you toss back a one-liner on them.

LF: I'll try.

TM: Let's start with Eli Broad.

LF: Nice guy. Always supportive whenever I would see him at different big events. He remembers me via the Snow Show.

TM: Dave Hickey.

LF: Eccentric. Very supportive of the biennial. His biennial influenced Lucky Number Seven a great deal. The most frequent comment I've heard from Santa Fe people was that Dave Hickey's biennial was memorable because experientially when they walked into the space they practically forgot they were in SITE Santa Fe.

TM: Jerry Saltz.

LF: I don't know-I've lost touch with so many people. I have to preface this, too-I've become an ascetic. It's not my older nature, but it's becoming more who I am. Not a hermit, but much less out there than I was in the old days when I was all over the place. I look like a super-social person, which I am, but really I'm just gravitating to the areas of what I need to know for what I do. So, Jerry Saltz? He was always a gentleman, always supportive, and nice. He frequently came to my gallery.

TM: Matthew Barney. Talk about the person or the art.

LF: His work is really challenging and visually beautiful. I've always responded to it viscerally. But I have not given the work the time it deserves. I say that with full regret, because I know everyone else understands it and relates to it, but it's a miss for me because I've not had any time with it.

TM: Damien Hirst.

LF: I think he would be really perfect for my underwater show.

TM: Do you have any mottos in life that you go by?

LF: No, I have no motto. But I had a really lovely compliment from Nick Mangan, one of the artists in the Biennial from Australia. He said over lunch, when we were all exhausted and I was sick, "You are the most upbeat, optimistic person I've ever met. Nothing gets you down."€ I don't have a motto, but hopefully that's sort of the way I live.

TM: My first impression of you was, "Lance Fung-Fun, Fun, Fun!"€

LF: I have been saying that throughout this biennial. Now, this is not a motto, but maybe it's become one for me: "There are no problems."€ I really don't see anything as a problem, ever.

Interview by Guy Cross, co-publisher of THE magazine.