Para Site, Hong Kong’s premier art space, gains a new leader

If the state of Hong Kong inspires gloom – drastic pandemic restrictions, repressive laws imposed by China, an uncompromising new ruler on the horizon – Billy Tang refuses to give in to the mood. Tang, the new director of one of Hong Kong’s oldest independent art spaces, Para Site, thinks we risk overlooking the many acts of “challenge” emanating from Hong Kong’s art world.

“What no one is talking about is that there are more exhibits in Hong Kong than ever before,” he said over lunch in London. “One way or another, the situation has also spurred a new kind of creativity for people to tell their stories through different mediums, or to self-organize to create safe spaces to share their ideas of another way.”

The entrance to the Para Site gallery, 1997

A narrow hallway is lit in a red hue with two luminous figures projected against the wall

‘Ghosts of Ghost’ by Leung Chi Wo for the 1997 exhibition ‘Ghost Encounter’ at Para Site

Para Site has played a fundamental role in promoting artistic expression in Hong Kong. Founded in 1996 by a group of seven Hong Kong artists in the run-up to the city’s handover from the UK to China, its mission was to give direction and hope to artists. “There really wasn’t much to support the artists, and Para Site assumed that,” says Tang, 35.

Over the ensuing quarter century, it has established itself as a guide and beacon for Hong Kong’s artistic community, not only promoting their work and offering professional workshops, but also cultivating an audience committed to through its exhibitions and its program of orders. A highlight was An opera for animals, a 2019 exhibition that brought together 49 artists including Beatriz González, Lawrence Lek and Samson Young to examine the colonial roots of Western musical tradition. Tang says now that the city’s relationship with China is changing, “we need to think creatively to channel that kind of anxiety: we’re arguably at a similar crossroads” to 1996.

The interior of an art gallery exhibit showing large paintings of animals and sea creatures covering the walls
Exhibition ‘An Opera for Animals’ at Para Site, 2019 © eddiecylam@imageartstudio

Born in London to Chinese-Vietnamese parents who came from Hong Kong as refugees, he studied fine art at Chelsea College of Art before coming to Beijing in 2008 on an exchange programme. Compared to London, Tang felt “a stronger sense of purpose in China, where [an art] an ecosystem was emerging, and participating in that made sense”. After a stint in an artists’ collective, he swapped artistic creation for the creation of exhibitions. He jokes that his career choices were the result of “getting an art degree during the economic crisis”.

Tang’s obsession with independent galleries led him to Magician Space, Beijing’s best-known small artist-run gallery, where he became curatorial director. “I never imagined myself working in a gallery,” he says, but says the experience was an “eye-opener” that taught him how to survive without government funding. As private museums flourished in China’s booming economy, Tang joined the nonprofit Rockbund Art Museum in Shanghai in 2018. But he longed for Hong Kong. “I was very envious at times,” he says. “Infrastructure [in Hong Kong] is much more complete, and there is an ease between having a conversation with the outside world and the Chinese-speaking world.

Three panoramic images of the intersection of two busy shopping streets in Hong Kong
‘Sai Yeung Choi Street/Nelson Street (since 2004)’ by Chow Chun Fai for the ongoing exhibition ‘Minding the G(r)a(s)p’ © Courtesy the artist

Hong Kong’s art world continues to thrive, with the recent opening of the Herzog & de Meuron-designed M+ Museum in West Kowloon’s cultural district and a gallery district teeming with outposts of international giants. But Para Site has retained its relevance, Tang argues. “You can see it in his name,” he says. “There are [an] immediacy! He is flexible, reflective and able to adapt. During the pandemic, Para Site has reorganized around the needs of artists, leading a coalition with 17 other nonprofit groups to raise funds. He even offered dental and medical coverage to the artists he commissioned – an unimaginable luxury for most artists dealing with beleaguered institutions. “We need to do more and anticipate what is missing,” says Tang.

In his new role, he wants to be sensitive to the effect on artists of Hong Kong’s heightened political unrest. The national security law has caused concern, with some institutions censoring “critical” works. “Issues of care, community and resilience are very important qualities that I seek to focus more on in the program, so that we can expand the institution to support progressive practices.”

In an art world built on hierarchy, Tang is keen to break out of this system of authority and deepen the collective traditions of Para Site. “Rather than saying, ‘This is going to be written by one curator,’ it will be a curator’s project,” he explains — the research will be group-led and open to debate. “That unpredictability is really important.”

A woman in a black tank top giving a performance to a small crowd of people wearing face masks
Artist Florence Lam during a live performance of her vocal work as part of the ‘Noble Rot’ exhibition at Para Site this year

Did he learn anything from his predecessor Cosmin Costinas, who during his 11-year tenure introduced a pioneering annual series of exhibitions by young curators? “[To] seize this moment and really make it my thing. There was this kind of openness and generosity that Para Site can be reinvented.

Sharing Costinas’ open philosophy, Tang wishes to continue rejecting the “tradition that sees the institution as a singular stage in the city” with exhibitions confined to its physical space.

Its immediate objective is to find “new steps of collaboration”. Initially, Para Site is partnering with London’s Studio Voltaire, which will host an artist from Hong Kong (chosen by Para Site and a consortium of other local institutions) for a residency with a stipend backed by the brand of Loewe luxury. One of the goals of the residency, says Tang, “is to maintain the visibility of the local art scene [alive] in the face of the policies of the moment which can be very isolating”.

With her diasporic mobility, Tang rejects the ‘local vs. international’ binomial and says Para Site can help challenge the idea that the art world is just a series of centers: international and partly local, and to survive on this ambiguity is interesting.

James C. Tibbs