Aric Chen is a heavyweight within Asia's design scene—he's currently the curator of Design & Architecture for M+ and previously the creative director of Beijing Design Week. He's also a regular curator for multiple museum exhibitions and biennales and a contributor for major publications such as The New York Times, Wallpaper* and Harvard Design Magazine.
This year, Chen won the inaugural Design Curator and Design Critic award in Milan, Italy. Having just curated his first design show for M+, Shifting Objectives: Design from the M+ Collection, we speak to him about the vision for the collection and where the major challenges for design in Asia lies.
First, could you share a little bit about M+?
M+ is a museum that looks at 20th and 21st century visual culture, including art, design and architecture, and moving image. We do so from our vantage point in Hong Kong, China, Asia—and the world at large. As such, we try not to box ourselves in by discipline, genre, or geography, and I think the collection reflects this.
We've acquired everything from contemporary Chinese art and post-World War II Japanese design to Hong Kong neon signs, post-Independence Indian architecture, Korean Dansaekhwa art, and Southeast Asian moving image--often in dialogue with each other and with work from the rest of the world, up until the present day.
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M+ is one of the first museums in Asia to focus so heavily on design. Why is that?
You're spot-on: since there aren't many museums focusing on design in Asia, we wanted to test some of the approaches we're taking.
So we laid some historical stakes, whether by re-centering the modernist canon via Japan or framing 1970s Hong Kong plastics through the lens of design—from masterpieces to mass, if you will—while spotlighting contemporary practices ranging from digital fabrication and reappropriations of craft to copying (which we don't see as necessarily a bad thing).
It was a big show for a not-so-big space, but we wanted to give a sense of design's vastness and intricacies.
What is the landscape of the architecture and design scene in Asia like right now?
I'll answer your question with another question that people always ask us: How do you define Asia? The design and architecture landscape in Asia is as diverse as Asia itself, with everyone having their own challenges and possibilities. That being said, we're living in a time and place of incredible dynamism, and that applies to design and architecture, too.
What are some of the biggest challenges design in Asia faces at the moment, and how can they be overcome?
Outside of the state, institutions in Asia tend to be weak. In design and architecture, this means that we don't have enough strong, independent voices—whether coming from schools, media, or, yes, museums—to formulate, support, and guide the discussions that design and architecture usually need to develop and thrive.
Of course, the authority and power of institutions is eroding around the world. In this sense, Asia, without strong institutions to begin with, might somehow be ahead of the game.
Is there any one Asian designer or architect that really inspires you and why?
I give credit to any designer who believes in what he or she does, and has the skills and tenacity to carry it through. It's not easy.
What's next on the calendar for M+?
At the M+ Pavilion, we're currently showing "Canton Express," which restages a groundbreaking installation that in 2003 brought contemporary art from the Pearl River Delta to the international stage. That will be followed by an exhibition that examines the expanding and evolving field of ink art.
For design and architecture, we're contributing to "REORIENT," a cross-disciplinary symposium on South and Southeast Asia later this year, and organizing a two-part symposium, with Harvard and the University of Hong Kong, on IM Pei. He just turned 100 this year.
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This article first appeared on The Artling.