Interviews

Meet the NYC Art Community: Boon Hui Tan’s “Main Obsession” Is Co-curating Asia Society’s First Triennial

An interview series spotlighting New York’s creative community. Hear directly from artists, curators, and art workers about their current projects and personal quirks.

Curator and museum director Boon Hui Tan (all images courtesy Boon Hui Tan and Asia Society, unless otherwise stated)

As current events cast a dark shadow, it feels important to remember to dream — about hopes, goals, and what the future should look like. These days, curator Boon Hui Tan is doing just that. Together with Michelle Yun, Tan is co-curating Asia Society’s inaugural triennial, We Do Not Dream Alone, a multi-venue exhibition, which will also include interdisciplinary panels, forums, performances, and film screenings. Originally slated to open at venues across the city this summer, the forthcoming triennial will now kick off in two phases starting in October.

For Tan, who serves as Asia Society’s vice president for global artistic programs and director of Asia Society Museum, the triennial will mark a full circle moment of sorts. Together with the institution’s broader team, he’s been contemplating the showcase for over five years now and the final version will include over 40 artists from across the Asian continent and diaspora.

Aside from the triennial, Tan’s work also includes overseeing Asia Society’s acclaimed exhibitions program and museum collection, along with its annual Arts & Museum Summit. Before relocating to New York, Tan served as assistant chief executive for museum & programs at the National Heritage Board (NHB) in Singapore, and in 2015 he served as artistic director for Singapour en France, le Festival, the largest multidisciplinary presentation of contemporary Singaporean and Southeast Asian culture in France. His research and curatorial projects focus on contemporary art and expression from Southeast Asia and the broader continent, and the remaking of traditions among artists. A founding board member of the International Biennial Association, Tan also served as director of the Singapore Art Museum from 2009 to 2013, and as the organizing secretariat for the Singapore Biennale in 2011. He then initiated the more regional focus and collaborative curatorial approach that defined the 2013 Singapore Biennale, If the World Changed, for which he served as a co-curator and project director.

For this eighth edition of Meet the NYC Art Community, Tan and I touched base about his love of New York, his current “main obsession,” and the importance of individual actions in affecting change.

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Installation view of Mina Cheon’s “Eat Choco-Pie Together” (2018), 100,000 Choco·Pies for audiences to eat, donated by Orion Co., Busan Biennale 2018 (photo by Lee Sang Uk and Busan Biennale 2018) | Cheon will be among the artists represented in the inagural Asia Society Triennial.

Where do you consider home?

New York City, where I live and work, and Singapore, where I was born.

What brought you to New York/what has made you stay?

I came to New York for the job at Asia Society. After decades of running art institutions in Singapore and developing international projects in Europe and Asia, the USA was the next green field area that beckoned. Once I got there, the dynamism of New York and how it literally draws the best minds and hearts from all over the world made me want to stay. Not forgetting of course that it is in New York that I had the opportunity to dream up a new Triennial of art from Asia from scratch.

Tell me about your first memory of art.

As a very young child I remember being brought to the National Museum of Singapore, when it still had its natural history collection of animal specimens and bones, alongside ethnography and paintings. It was this strange, odd jumble of things that fascinated and sort of frightened me at the same time.

Htein Lin, “Show of Hands” (2013–present) surgical plaster and multimedia installation, on view in After Darkness: Southeast Asian art in the Wake of History, Asia Society 2017–18, co-curated by Boon Hui Tan and Michelle Yun (photo by Htein Lin, image courtesy of the artist) | “This show in a sense was one of the gestation points for the triennial since it seeds the idea of the relevance of art and the artistic voice in times of social political change. The plastic casts are all hands of political detainees in Myanmar,” Tan explained over email.

How would you describe your practice?

As a curator I am interested in how art is a way of seeing and navigating ambiguity. At one level, my approach is social-political — not so much in direct action but in how art is today one of the most powerful ways to resist the isolation that larger social-political forces and structures push us towards. Before we act, we see and recognize, so art must help us recognize the deeper structures and networks that bind people, ideas, and goods through space and time.

What are you working on currently?

For the last 5 years, my main obsession has been conceiving and organizing the inaugural Asia Society Triennial [co-curated by Michelle Yun]. Many of the over 40 artists in the triennial —visual and performing arts — have not had major presentations in New York, even though their practices have been presently extensively back home in Asia and across Europe. This fact alone says something about how specific our scene here in the USA is, even though the city is diverse in many other ways.

We have also included diasporic, immigrant, and Asian-American artists who straddle both Asia and the West. We have given it the title We Do Not Dream Alone, a reference to an “action” in Yoko Ono’s 1964 book Grapefruit, of artistic projects for daily life. It stems from my belief in the power of micro-actions at the individual level in creating change right now; in contrast, there has been a loss of trust and confidence in larger political structures, and a sense that institutions are no longer fully able to protect those who they were set up to support. I believe that the artistic projects in the triennial are about dreaming, of micro-worlds and the possibility of illuminating the ties that bind us indelibly through time and space.

The 2019 Arts & Museums Summit in New Delhi (image courtesy Asia Society)

Creatively speaking, what keeps you up at night and what makes you get out of bed in the morning?

I am concerned about the art world becoming increasingly disconnected from the pulse of daily life and seen as products that add value to people and places. I find myself thinking more and more about how my exhibitions and programs can have heart and an emotional punch beyond big spectacle and “pretty'” forms of art. I think the artistic response to this commercialization of the art world is to think small, discrete but emotional. Enough with cool art!

What really gets me out of bed is having the opportunity and privilege to talk to artists as part of my job, to see their work develop over time and still be surprised each day by their art.

What are you reading currently?

I am reading the anthology This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, [edited by Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa], in preparation for a virtual book club which Asia Society Museum is hosting in August. I personally think this book should be required reading for anyone who is thinking about our present moment of protest and reformation. It is harrowing at times but so powerful in making us aware of other ways of living and being in the world. It humbles me.

Artist Angie Seah performing during Singapour en France, le Festival, Lyon Museum of Art. (Photo by Boon Hui Tan)

What is your favorite way of experiencing art?

Live, live, live! You need to be in front of art, to smell, hear, and feel it.

Favorite exhibition you’ve seen in the last year?

I loved the small Michael Armitage presentation at MoMA —technically it started last year but I only saw it this January before it closed.

In the creative circles you’re part of, what questions do you want to see more people asking?

Right now, everyone is asking what comes next? How will the art world survive and what kinds of art will there be after the pandemic is over?

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Editor’s note (7/28/2020, 10:41 AM EDT): This interview has been updated to reflect that the exhibition After Darkness: Southeast Asian art in the Wake of History was co-curated by Boon Hui Tan and Michelle Yun. 

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