Q&A: Josef Ng

Ahead of debut show, new SGA director tells us he is full of surprises

Shanghai Gallery of Art’s new director Josef Ng is certainly no wallflower when it comes to making an impact on Asia’s contemporary art scene. Thai-born Ng rocketed to fame in 1994 with Brother Cane, a controversial performance piece in Singapore for which the artist cut off his pubic hair as a protest. As he takes up the reins on The Bund, he tells Lucy Chiswell about his vision for the gallery.

Tell us a bit about your history.
Oh god, you want to go into my history? Maybe I should give you my history from 2000 onwards. I have been involved in art for many years; for decades, actually. I have been living in Bangkok for most of the time since 2000. I was also in Japan for a brief period and since the end of 2007, in Beijing. I started curating seriously in 2002. Curating naturally evolved from doing a lot of writing.

And before 2000? Brother Cane?
You know, in China, artists who work with me, they know about the case, they know about the situation, but we don’t really talk about it. That was 20 years ago. It was a different phase of my life, my career.

Your predecessor, Mathieu Aleksandr Borysevicz, left SGA quite suddenly. Was it a case of picking up the pieces when you arrived?
I don’t think it was necessarily a case of picking up any pieces; it was more trying to resolve certain issues that were left behind. I think it was also to communicate with artists with whom our gallery has worked before about certain changes, and about continuing relationships that the gallery would hope to develop further. I have been in the gallery business with another organisation so it is not that much of a hard obstacle for me to pick up. Considering the identity of SGA as far as the history and the expectations within the art community, I did tell myself maybe it’s time for us to step back; to reflect upon our activities, upon how the gallery has actually worked in tandem with the communities in Shanghai, with the artists in Shanghai and really look at how we are going to define some form of more strict identity for ourselves. For SGA, I think we are entering into a new era, a new phase. There’s going to be quite a bit of a shift in terms of direction, in terms of operations.

Is there a particular change of direction you’re driving at?

Tell us a bit about your opening show.
This actually came about as a little private joke. As I mentioned, I have spent most of my time in China in Beijing. There is something characteristic of Beijing that is rather unlike Shanghai. People are a bit more direct, frank, honest, loud, dense in the way they talk and with their mannerisms, kind of larger than life. When I had to think about the first exhibition to inaugurate the new season, I thought, since I’m coming from there, I should bring a little bit of that flavour into the first show. ‘Hot’ in Chinese literally translates as ‘spicy’ or ‘heavy flavoured’. So Some Like It Hot is a nice way of saying yes, maybe there are people who like things that are a bit light, a bit sweet, but there are others who actually prefer the heavy, denser approach towards their work, their practice. With the artists I have chosen, their practices are somehow in sync with what I imagine the show to be. I’m feeling excited about it.

Is there a particular work of art we should look out for in the show?
I think people are going to like all of them! I always tend to place a lot of unseen mischief in my curatorial approach towards my projects, and people who know me or know my work know think, oh ok, it’s Josef doing a project. It’s this kind of mischief: not giving people the expectations. I think you can suss it out for yourself. I’m not here to provide solutions. I’m here to provide a bit more ambiguity so that you can reflect on this work as well as to reflect by yourself. I can’t sum up which artists you should take a look at because maybe you like some, maybe you don’t like some; some like it hot, some like it not hot.

Some Like It Hot is at Shanghai Gallery of Art until Sunday 5 May.