Every once in a while, I get faced with the daunting task of explaining to a family member on my Dominican side what I actually do for a living. My remedial Spanish being what it is, I often find myself relying heavily on words like conversando (talking) and juntos (together) when explaining my curatorial practice, emphasizing that the way I see it, curating is more of a push-and-pull. This is part of the reason why I wanted to chat with curator Lumi Tan, whose projects at the storied multidisciplinary art space the Kitchen embody the more collaborative spirit often required for working with time-based media.
Tan describes herself as a curator-producer, and her work — which reflects a keen eye for performance — frequently moves between the white cube and the black box. Hybrid endeavors such as a “live immersive screening” of Happy Birthday Marsha! — a collaborative film made by artists Sasha Wortzel and Tourmaline about the pioneering Black trans activist Marsha P. Johnson — showcase Tan’s knack for bringing to life sharp and complex projects that span numerous disciplines.
Over her decade-long tenure at the Kitchen, Tan has also worked extensively in the gallery, organizing numerous acclaimed exhibitions, including Sondra Perry: Resident Evil, You Can Call Me F, and Camae Ayewa/Moor Mother (co-curated with Tim Griffin). More recently, she’s curated exhibitions featuring the work of Gretchen Bender, Meriem Bennani, and Liz Magic Laser, and collaborated with artists such as Kevin Beasley, Lex Brown, Jibade-Khalil Huffman, and Autumn Knight. Before joining the Kitchen’s curatorial team, Tan served as guest curator at the Fonds Régional d’Art Contemporain Nord Pas-de-Calais in France, director at Zach Feuer Gallery, and curatorial assistant at PS 1 Contemporary Art Center (now MoMA PS1). Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, Artforum, and Frieze, among others, and earlier this year she was named the recipient of a 2020 VIA Art Fund Curatorial Fellowship.
These days, Tan has been thinking critically about what it means to work in “live” modes in this moment of isolation, as well as about the ripple effects of amassing and abetting power. For this 12th edition of Meet the NYC Art Community, we also chatted about her latest project with artist Baseera Khan, which captures “how intimacy and care can still be achieved.”
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Where do you consider home?
I’ve been in New York for 17 years now — and I do consider this my home. I grew up surrounded by my large and loving extended family of Vietnamese immigrants in a very homogenous suburb of Boston. But I have no love for Boston.
What brought you to New York/what has made you stay?
Typical teenage fantasy brought me here — my older sister moved here in 1994 and I’d stay at her apartment on the main drag of St. Marks. You can imagine how it romanced me as an outcast kid from the suburbs. I became hyper-focused on moving to New York as soon as I could, to become part of that “downtown” life, which remains a powerful myth and influence over me. I’ve stayed because every year I meet new people that I want to be part of my life forever, and I think that’s exceptionally rare as an adult. And I’ve stayed because the artists, for the most part, have stayed.
Tell me about your first memory of art.
I was obsessed with Keith Haring and Andy Warhol as a child through mass-market products like postcards and calendars, and plastered their images all over my room. My first art-in-a-museum memory was going to the MFA Boston and seeing a Jenny Holzer scrolling LED piece when I was probably 10 or so. The text just chilled me to my bone. I really was petrified by it, but also so intrigued by how a work of art could make me feel that way.
How would you describe your practice?
I’m a curator-producer who works with artists of different generations in all disciplines. I commission projects from artists whose work asks more questions than provides answers, and who have critical responses to any type of concrete representation. I instill the values of performance into exhibitions, and through that, work to shift the established priorities of institutions.
What are you working on currently?
I’m in the midst of a residency with Baseera Khan, who is working on a TV pilot called By Faith that combines approaches of performance, sitcom, experimental film, and documentary. Baseera works in many mediums, but this by far the largest performance project they’ve conceived of. The process is structured so that they first invite their close friends — Vaginal Davis, Lia Gangitano, Rico Gatson, Amy Sillman — onto a set that replicates Baseera’s apartment; the rehearsals then take the shape of how they would usually get together — by taking a walk, drinking a bottle of wine, making dinner, painting. The conversations that take place during rehearsal are then turned into scripts. Each part of the process is shared with audiences online.
The project cannily captures the strangeness of life during Covid, in which we’re isolated in this unprecedented way, but this way of living has brought insight into who really makes up the core of our community, and how intimacy and care can still be achieved. And TV has been an enormous part of our shut-in lives as an escapist outlet, one of our few shared cultural experiences. It’s been incredibly exciting to see Baseera fearlessly center their lived experience — with all the insecurities and joy that come with it — on-camera in this way. And none of it would be possible without our amazing crew. This is my second performance project during Covid, and it’s a highly emotional experience to share space with people in this way after months of being alone — I can’t stress that enough.
Creatively speaking, what keeps you up at night and what makes you get out of bed in the morning?
More often than not, it’s literally the project I’m producing at the moment and all the problem solving that comes along with works that are process–oriented and never predictable. But those generative challenges are what keeps me going. And now the pandemic is the biggest, most generative challenge to working with liveness and bodies in a safe and meaningful way. I’m fortunate to work with artists who are master improvisers, whose voices always feel necessary to share with the world (though particularly in this relentlessly devastating time) and never intended to maintain the status quo anyhow. They are not merely responding and adapting to what the world throws at them, but investing in new imaginaries.
What are you reading currently?
I take female pop icons very seriously, and I’m impatiently waiting for my copies of Janet Jackson’s The Velvet Rope by Ayanna Dozier (part of the 33 1/3 series) and The Meaning of Mariah Carey by Mariah and Michaela Angela Davis to arrive.
What is your favorite way of experiencing art?
Anytime that I feel unhurried, which is sadly quite rare.
Favorite exhibition you’ve seen in the last year?
I was in Taipei in January, and was fortunate to have the opportunity to see the Asian Art Biennial at the National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts in Taichung. It seems like the biennial takes different forms and has varying ambitions each edition, but this year it was curated by the video artists Hsu Chia-Wei and Ho Tzu Nyen. Entitled The Strangers from beyond the Mountain and the Sea, it was an incredibly rich and sensorial exhibition themed in four regions: the mountains, the sea, clouds, and minerals. It examined our relationships to technology, spirituality, and capital to draw out knowledge systems from non-human and geological perspectives.
Closer to home, Meriem Bennani and Orian Barki’s 2 Lizards series drew the NYC art community together with such humor, tenderness, and love for the life that was withdrawn so suddenly, as well as the new one we’re figuring out together.
In the creative circles you’re part of, what questions do you want to see more people asking?
Every curator needs to be reflecting on what choices they’ve made primarily to amass power; who that power enables and elevates; and why we want that power at all. Our role in creating and perpetuating the overwhelming injustices of the art world have caused much harm, and in order for institutions to serve their artists and publics responsibly, we must work to actively undermine these inherent power structures that have served many of us all too well.
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