Director, Para Site, Hong Kong
In May this year, Billy Tang took on the role of executive director at Para Site. Founded in 1996, in the shadow of handover, Hong Kong’s oldest non-profit has a reputation for adaptability, experimentation, risk-taking and leadership. Under Tang’s predecessor, Cosmin Costinas, it emerged as an international player, offering an alternative template for progressive art spaces in Asia and beyond, while shifting from an artist-led to a curatorial model. Tang describes it as ‘a kind of monster with many heads– it’s had so many lives, transforming and mutating according to the different challenges it faces.’
Tang’s move to Hong Kong dovetails neatly with his family history. Ethnic Chinese Vietnamese, his parents escaped Vietnam in the late 1970s, living in Tuen Mun refugee camp in Hong Kong for eight months before coming to London. As well as three languages, this diasporic upbringing has given Tang a certain cultural freedom, and a conviction that ‘there are things beyond borders that require fostering solidarity, an ability to go beyond our fixed perspectives’.
His career has been marked by an impressive accumulation of complementary skills. While studying to become an artist at Chelsea College of Art and Design, he detoured to curating, immersing himself in London’s independent art spaces. A longstanding fascination with China led to repeated visits to Beijing, where he discovered ‘a sense of familiarity and strangeness, of traversing differences, of mobility and exchange’. Engaging with an art ecosystem developing at accelerated pace outside of a colonial framework proved inspirational: ‘There’s a particular value in producing structures that haven’t existed before – they can stand for longer, giving space for people to express the neglected or overlooked.’
Tang made the move permanent in 2013, becoming curatorial director at artist-led gallery Magician Space, dealing with rapid exhibition turnover, financial precarity and relative freedom from state control. A move to the Rockbund Art Museum, Shanghai, in 2018 presented a fresh set of parameters – greater operational demands, extended timescales, a responsibility to multiple audiences – but also invigorating opportunities to question notions of institutional space and exhibition-making, resulting in a John Armleder retrospective and the discursive ‘Curtain’ collaboration with Para Site.
Now, just a generation since his parents’ flight from war, Tang is settled in Hong Kong. In that time, the city has transformed into a global cultural centre and, with the opening of M+, one of few locations in the Asia Pacific region with a robust European-style assembly of art spaces. Yet it is also grappling with domestic and international restrictions, frayed economic and political situations, and a departure of talent, making Para Site’s early years acutely relevant: ‘They were extremely brave to forge new paths, suggesting other ways – creative, experimental ways – to navigate pressing questions. And that’s where responsibility comes into play – to take risks, to give direction, rather than hide in a shell. It brings an urgency, an excitement, because there’s a lot at stake. And that’s where meaning comes from.’
Surprisingly, Tang has encountered a groundswell of independent art spaces, offering alternative avenues for expression now the political arena has shrunk. It’s an energy he hopes to support, but not appropriate, acting as an ‘essential bridge’ for the next generation. His current priorities, however, ‘aren’t really sexy’: ‘We’re talking a lot about building organisational and cultural resilience as a team. Paradoxically, to be experimental, we need a sustainable structure giving us the strength to continue.’ He also plans to extend Para Site’s architecture, tweaking its Quarry Bay space, engaging with its industrial surroundings and permeating out into the city: ‘Para Site can be an anomaly, reflecting Hong Kong with its topography of urban flux. By our nature, we can be mutable, providing a model for an institutional structure that is robust, creative, adaptable, agile and unpredictable.’
Early indications of Tang’s desire to reshape exhibitions into sustainable collective platforms can be seen in the ongoing exhibition ‘While We Are Embattled’. The latest iteration of Para Site’s Emerging Curators series, it takes inspiration from Black women artists and feminists such as Audre Lorde, looking to transpose their resilience to the context of Hong Kong. It is accompanied by a peripatetic reading room, conceived by Berlin-based initiative Contemporary And (C&) as a means to facilitate conversations between institutions, revealing and challenging established discourses.
Tang approaches his task with both optimism and a healthy dose of critical thinking. ‘It’s important not to exist in utopian bubbles,’ he tells me. ‘There’s an urgency to the issues we need to address. But I think Para Site has a real role as an engine for thinking and speculating about a better world. Today’s complexities give things an edge, but for some reason I have an endless enthusiasm to keep trying.’
John Jervis is a writer and editor, and was previously managing editor of ArtAsiaPacific in Hong Kong.
For more information about Para Site, Hong Kong, visit www.para-site.art.