Eugene Yiu Nam Cheung, Rachel Be-Yun Wang
Eugene Yiu Nam Cheung, our Curatorial Fellow at Whitechapel Gallery, and Rachel Be-Yun Wang, our Curatorial Research Fellow at Chisenhale Gallery, both began their Fellowships in spring 2023. They relate to each other about their thoughts on research, writing, institutions, and being in London.
Asymmetry: Let's begin the conversation by each introducing your respective practices and exploring the potential intersections between them. For instance, the world of writing and its profound impact in various contexts.
R: I work in curating and artmaking, with a practice that involves exhibition, studio, and written production. My interests revolve around questions of documentation, which has extended into archives and publication, but also in the fields of new media art and environmental art. I’ve most recently been interested in strategies and techniques of posterity, and how those feed into institutional/curatorial identities. Eugene, I know you might have some words to say about the thresholds of language and how they carry the potential to carve our realities…
E: I often return to that well cited proposition from Wittgenstein about how the limits of one’s language signify the limits of one’s world. As a writer and cultural worker, I’m interested in how artists and writers invent, manipulate, and destroy language to offer new ways of engaging with history and social experience. I’m particularly taken by writers like Ingeborg Bachmann, for instance, who took language to its absolute limits: she blew the medium open to identify where it might succeed or fail as a form of representation, and indexed, among other things, how fascism is the condition precedent in all private relations, particularly within the form of the male-female couple. I’m perhaps drawn to language for its velocity, the speed at which it can create or annihilate comprehension and alter the perception of consciousness. I’m curious about your research around those “techniques of posterity” and what you might mean by “institutional/curatorial identities,” here. Would you be able to elaborate on this?
R: Well, I turn to archives because that’s where we usually find the evidence of decisions-made-for-posterity in curatorial spaces. I’m probably projecting from personal experience, but I feel like there are a lot of comparisons to be made with the pedagogical and curatorial gesture, and their administration. In my time with/in/around art schools and its people, the production of creative knowledge was intimately tied to a recognition (and sometimes dismissal) of disciplines, but there’s an awareness of how they are situated in the strata of a (formerly) sedimentary canon. Of course, that’s an old-school way of articulating things but these information ecologies are imbricated in socio-historical explanation, intellectual transference, affective experiences, and probably a lot of other unwieldy stuff. Chisenhale has a unique exhibition model and fascinating commissions programme, so it would almost be remiss of me not to hit the archives.
It’s funny to also compare how our respective work/research unfolds for us given that our fellowship timelines are so different. You draw closer to the end of your six months whereas my eighteen seems to be just starting. How are you finding London?
E: Yes, it seems you’re as tired as I am with doctrinal art history, and even more tired with how many in the curatorial class continue to trade the unwieldy—which is to say, the historically situated, research oriented, and formally challenging—for the didactic and simply entertaining, under the auspices of being “accessible” (which also feels condescending towards audiences, as if the starting position is that a “general public” will simply refuse challenging works, or such works will be wasted on them).
To answer your question about London: it’s a vibrant city, and I have found joy and pleasure aplenty—the same ones I might find in any other major metropolis. The austerity, however, is profoundly jarring. Because although there is levity, there is also a more consistent feeling of deep humiliation; of selling your labour to a museum, an industry, a state, all of which work at every moment to remind you that you ought to be grateful for simply surviving! It is undignified to accept such conditions, and yet material circumstances mean that one must, at least to a certain degree. This art world we’re a part of does not readily instil or offer people a desire to abolish the machinations of bourgeois life (quite the opposite happens, actually), but unless such a spark occurs, I’m afraid we will remain tethered to this teat of austerity—and worse. A challenge, personally, is finding ways of living with these political convictions whilst producing exhibitions and cultural materials which might only, despite one’s best intentions, further galvanise the existing structural conditions. I don’t want to become afflicted with what Walter Benjamin calls “indolence of the heart,” either.
What do you want to get out of your time in London, and what might you want to do that you couldn’t in Beijing?
R: I left Beijing right when things were opening up, but most of my time in China for the past couple years was spent in the on-and-off of pandemic management policies, so there were a lot of pressures there. The Fellowship has granted me the mobility to move here; I never really considered living in Europe prior to this. Being in London feels quite incommensurable in that sense. There’s a very different civic landscape here and the threads that bring together art, creative production, and the public sphere also have their own socialities. I’m still learning how these things are mediated and unfolded, from macro to micro.
E: You’ve reminded me of a passage in Bachmann’s unfinished novel The Book of Franza (1978), which I’ll extract here, as it might encapsulate the present mood: “But only the witnesses feel fear, a maddening fear, for what they could bring to light is even larger than the sun that is measured and gauged and set down in a study. But the sun is not a witness. A probe will land lightly upon it and be easily singed, even on the sun. It will soon be dissected, causing a few flares to shoot out, stirring up the weather a little, though the weather will only manifest itself beneath the atmosphere. Everything I say has to do with the atmosphere.”