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WWED? In Conversation with Emma Ng

WW..D? Is an interview segment where we get to know awesome people that are a part of the creative community in New Zealand.

This week we spoke to Emma Ng. Emma is the Curator/Manager at Enjoy Public Art Gallery in central Wellington. She moved to Enjoy not long after completing the Blumhardt Curatorial Internship at The Dowse and last year was a part of the Asia New Zealand Curators tour to Asia. Read more for what would Emma do?

What kind of art gets you excited?

I’m a sucker for anything speculative, semi-fictional, or stranger than fiction. I went to design school rather than art school, and design schools are stuffed full of optimism. While some naivety has worn away, I like speculative projects because they inherently express a desire for experimentation and change, underscored by a stubborn belief that alternatives to present conditions are possible.

Enjoy Public Art Gallery occupies a fairly unique space within Wellington’s art community and you’ve been the curator/manager there for roughly 2 years now, how have you found it? What have been the challenges or highlights for you curatorially?

Curating is such a public job! Your output is always being examined, judged, and nitpicked, and as a young curator it’s very scary accepting that failure (while a learning experience) is something you inevitably have to do in front of lots of other people – and likely do it over, and over, and over again.

Enjoy occupies a unique space within Wellington in that there are very few artist-run spaces in the city. Given that, along with its age and its progression from artist-run to ‘public art gallery’, Enjoy is a lot of things to a lot of people. Trying to meet everyone’s expectations of Enjoy is a Sisyphean trap; even at 12 shows a year, our time and resources are stretched, and we get many many more proposals than that 12. So one of the biggest personal challenges has been saying no to artists – it’s hard not to take on and be overwhelmed by their disappointment, vulnerability, and frustration.

I’m very proud of an offsite group project we did last year, The levelling of Puke Ahu, which responded to a very specific moment and local site. It was full of so many rich connections, and featured site-specific works by Izzy O’Neill & Elijah Winter, Angela Kilford, and Bronwyn Holloway-Smith. However it was also a project that demonstrated the difficulty of engaging people’s attention in the short window of opportunity you have when they scan an email announcement or Facebook event. It’s very difficult to get people along to projects when the format falls outside of the usual exhibition model.

There’s an interesting hierarchy between the curator fixed to an institution and the roaming curator. Having an institution is luxurious in many ways because of access to space but also incredibly laborious, how have you found 2 years of pumping out a continuous programme, how do you keep it interesting?

It’s definitely a privilege to be given a space to programme but yeah, so much to do to keep the place running and provide a stable base for the raison d’être. We do lots of invisible work like accounting, reporting, cleaning, painting, and directing lost visitors to Peter McLeavey (same floor, just around the stairs).

There’s lots of ways to keep things interesting; last year was all about variety. We ran the numbers for 2015 and realised we’d produced 53 exhibitions/essays/publications/events – a huge output for a staff of one full-timer and one part-timer. Though we’re not publicising it as such, this year the programme is structured into two seasons of related solo projects that have thematic connections, with buffer solo shows dotted in-between.

Speaking of the differences between institutional and roaming curators, I would love it if more freelance curators pitched projects to us during our call for proposals. It would be a win-win – freshening up Enjoy’s programme and allowing us to share the use of our space and resources.

What do you see next for yourself?

I’m discovering how easy it is to slip into being a lazy curator… This is especially true when you’re only able to give a fraction of your time to the conceptual development of a project. For this reason, I’m keen to study again once I finish up at Enjoy, to refresh my sense of intellectual rigour and have the opportunity to focus on depth rather than breadth (unafforded by the catch-your-breath pace of the gallery programme).

You recently wrote a piece for Pantograph Punch called Old Asian, New Asian. Are these conversations surrounding culture and specifically your culture as a New Zealand born Chinese woman important to or informing your curatorial interests?

Absolutely, though I don’t think they necessarily manifest in obvious or intentional ways. For example, I’m extraordinarily proud of the high representation of female artists and artists of colour that I’ve worked with during my time at Enjoy, which wasn’t at all deliberate.

This year I’m hoping to do a project that consciously considers New Zealand’s demography, which is exciting as working towards a gallery outcome has quite different potential from the work that a piece of writing (like Old Asian, New Asian) does. The project will hopefully be much more collaborative, propositional, and forward looking than that essay. As mentioned in my answer to the opening question, I harbour a strong streak of optimism, and want to produce a project that can engage these conversations with constructive outcomes.

There’s a feeling that we are aggressively moving towards framing ourselves and our art practices within this idea of the ‘Asia Pacific’, although this term often feels slightly clumsy and at times even opportunistic. What do you think about this framework?

I think a shift towards conceiving of ourselves as part of an Asia-Pacific perhaps seems aggressive within the arts, but to many New Zealanders it’s still quite a wacky proposition. When it is talked about it’s usually in the context of economic benefit (as with discussions around immigration, diversity, and ‘superdiversity’).

Art practice can play a part in bringing to light historic and genealogical arguments for realigning our cultural identity, as has been done in past projects such as Anna-Marie White’s The Maui Dynasty, and last year’s These stories began before we arrived. I like to think of these projects as part of a family tree that projects that you (Lana) and I might do can descend from, collectively building a nuanced contribution to wider conversation around these issues.

It’s a conversation that plays out in very real ways in the everyday lives of New Zealanders. I think it’s incredibly significant that Statistics New Zealand projects that Māori, Pacific, and Asian peoples will make up 52% of the total population in 2038. I believe there’s strength to be found in the relationships between these minorities, a strength that allows them agency beyond their relationships to a dominant Pākehā society. Unfortunately this isn’t the way things currently are – for example new Asian migrants often have very little understanding of The Treaty, and it’s been reported that while Pākehā attitudes towards migrants are improving, those held by Māori are becoming increasingly negative. We have to be cautious about oversimplifying these issues or using art to absolve guilt, but if there’s any vehicle able to preserve the entanglement and humanity in these conversations, it’s probably art.

Do you notice any gaps within our country’s arts landscape?

I would love to see some more artist-run spaces pop up in Wellington; there seem to be murmurings on this front that might turn into things this year… And like many, I lament our failure to communicate the value of contemporary art in the mainstream press and the dearth of coverage that’s become the status quo.

And lastly, do you have any advice for young curators? 

Something I learned from the amazing team at the Dowse: it’s all about people and building relationships (tending the va!). Sometimes the rewards will come to fruition a long way down the track.

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