Three Questions

Zoe Diao

Curatorial Fellow
Whitechapel Gallery

Zoe Diao, our current Curatorial Fellow at Whitechapel Gallery discusses her curatorial practice, introducing us to her main research focus and the works that have inspired her interests.


ASYMMETRY: How do your interests inform your work?

ZOE DIAO: I’m generally interested in environmental humanities and material culture, but I also have a long-time fascination with unofficial historical records such as anecdotes, tales, and folklore. With my current work in contemporary art, I’ve been paying attention to the concept of storytelling. Through curatorial practice and research, I try to examine the role of personal narratives in art-making, curating, and collecting—not only how the stories were told, but also how the narratives evolved and became a virtual component of the artist and the artworks.

During the Museum Anthropology course project at the American Museum of Natural History, New York, 2019. Photo: David Harvey


A: What work has inspired and influenced you?

ZD: There are way too many. Tristes Tropiques (1955) by Claude Lévi-Strauss was the first book I read in anthropology that fundamentally changed my thoughts and life. And most recently, City of Marvel and Transformation (2015) by Linda Rui Feng; Tying the Threads of Eurasia (2014) by Toby C. Wilkinson, and several Peircean semiotic studies have been influential. As for artworks, Deep Fountain (1997-2006) by Cristina Iglesias; Second Hand Reading (2013) by William Kentridge; Drill (2019) by Hito Steyerl and Good Hair (2021) by Hugh Hayden are some that I like to come back to.

Installation view of Drill, Hito Steyerl, Park Avenue Armory, New York, 2019. Photo: Zoe Diao


A: How are the two related projects for this fellowship reflective of your research focus?

ZD: I was overjoyed to learn that I received this fellowship and that the two upcoming exhibitions at Whitechapel Gallery will be on 1960s-80s art dealers and artist studios. Exhibition history and the history of collecting has been one of my main research focuses, and the two exhibitions are also related to my previous research on East Asian artists in New York during the 1950s-60s. While working at Whitechapel Gallery and with my residency at Delfina Foundation, I will also take the opportunity to look into the history of exhibition making and collecting of Asian art in London.

"This is me presenting at Delfina Foundation", London, 2021. Photo: Musquiqui Chihying

Zoe Diao is a researcher, writer and curator based in New York. She is currently interested in environmental humanities, material culture and collecting history with a specialised focus in contemporary East Asian art. She has worked on numerous exhibitions, co-curating William Kentridge: Notes Towards a Model Opera (2015) with Philip Tinari, and curated New Directions: Li Ming (2015-16) both at the UCCA Centre for Contemporary Art, China. She has translated a dozen publications, including Inside a Book a House of Gold: Artist’s Edition for Parkett (2012); Six Drawing Lessons (2015); Peter Doig: Cabins and Canoes, The Unreasonable Silence of the World (2017) and M+ Sigg Collection (2021).

During her Fellowship in London, Zoe will work with Whitechapel Gallery’s exhibitions department on various research and curatorial projects, conducting independent research on early 20th century East Asian artists who lived in the UK.