The Apollo 40 Under 40 Asia-Pacific in the spotlight: Billy Tang

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Director, Para Site, Hong Kong

In May this year, Billy Tang assumed the role of Executive Director of Para Site. Founded in 1996, in the shadow of handover, Hong Kong’s oldest non-profit organization is renowned for its adaptability, experimentation, risk-taking and leadership. Under Tang’s predecessor, Cosmin Costinas, he became an international player, providing an alternative model for progressive arts spaces in Asia and beyond, while shifting from an artist-led to a curatorial model. Tang describes him as “a kind of headless monster – he’s had so many lives so far that he changes and mutates”.

Tang’s move to Hong Kong fits perfectly with his family history. Of Vietnamese Chinese descent, her parents fled Vietnam in the late 1970s, living in the Tuen Mun refugee camp in Hong Kong for eight months before coming to London. In addition to three languages, this diasporic upbringing gave Tang a certain cultural freedom and the conviction that “there are things beyond borders that require fostering solidarity, an ability to go beyond our fixed perspectives”.

Installation view of ‘Minding the G(r)a(s)p’ (2022). Photo: Jeff Cheng Tsz Fung; courtesy of Para Site

His career has been marked by an impressive accumulation of complementary skills. While studying to be an artist at Chelsea College of Art and Design, he turned to curating, immersing himself in London’s independent art spaces. A long-standing fascination with China led him to repeated visits to Beijing, where he discovered “a sense of familiarity and strangeness, of traversing differences, of mobility and exchange”. Engaging with an arts ecosystem growing at an accelerating rate outside of a colonial setting has proven inspiring: “There is particular value in producing structures that did not exist before – they can last longer, giving people the space to express what is overlooked or overlooked”.

Tang made the move permanent in 2013, becoming curator of the artist-run gallery Magician Space, dealing with rapid exhibition turnover, financial insecurity and relative freedom from state control. . A move to Shanghai’s Rockbund Art Museum in 2018 presented a new set of parameters – greater operational demands, extended timelines, accountability to multiple audiences – but also invigorating opportunities to challenge notions of institutional space and of exposure. The John Armleder retrospective and the discursive collaboration ‘Curtain’ with Para Site.

Today, barely a generation after his parents fled the war, Tang is settled in Hong Kong. During this period, the city has transformed into a global cultural hub and, with the opening of M+, one of the few venues in the Asia-Pacific region to boast a strong assemblage of arts spaces from European style. Yet it also grapples with national and international restrictions, frayed economic and political situations and a departure of talent, which makes Para Site’s early years extremely relevant: “They were extremely brave in forging new paths, suggesting other avenues – creative and experimental avenues – to navigate pressing issues. And that’s where accountability comes in – taking risks, giving direction, rather than hiding in a shell. an urgency, an excitement, because there is a lot at stake. And that’s where the meaning comes from.

Surprisingly, Tang encountered a wave of independent artistic spaces, providing alternative avenues of expression now that the political arena has shrunk. It’s an energy he hopes to sustain, but not appropriate, acting as an “essential bridge” for the next generation. His current priorities, however, “are not exactly sexy”: “We talk a lot about building organizational and cultural resilience as a team. Paradoxically, to be experimental, we need a permanent structure giving us the strength to continue. He also plans to expand the architecture of Para Site, tweaking its Quarry Bay space, engaging with its industrial surroundings and infiltrating the city: “Para Site can be an anomaly, mirroring Hong Kong with its urban flow topography. By our nature, we can be mutable, providing a template for a robust, creative, adaptable, agile and unpredictable institutional structure.

The first indications of Tang’s desire to transform exhibitions into enduring collective platforms can be seen in the ongoing exhibition ‘While We Are Embattled’. The latest iteration of Para Site’s Emerging Curators series, she draws inspiration from black female artists and feminists like Audre Lorde, seeking to transpose their resilience to the context of Hong Kong. It is accompanied by a traveling reading room, designed by the Berlin initiative Contemporary And (C&) as a way to facilitate conversations between institutions, revealing and challenging established discourses.

Tang approaches his task with optimism and a healthy dose of cynicism. “It’s important not to exist in utopian bubbles,” he tells me. “There is an urgency to the issues that we need to address. But I think Para Site has a real role as a driving force for reflection and speculation on a better world. Today’s complexities give things an edge, but for some reason I have endless enthusiasm to keep trying.

John Jervis is a writer and editor, and was previously editor of ArtAsiaPacific in Hong Kong.

For more information about Para Site, Hong Kong, visit www.para-site.art.

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