Exhibitions with No Audience

Every curator loves to see his/her exhibition attracting a lot of audiences. For many, it’s a way to measure the success of an exhibition, and that’s why all the arts administrators take marketing and publicity seriously. However, there are always exceptions. There are times when curators curate exhibitions that would attract only a few audiences, for they have curatorial objectives other than just being popular. In the past, I had occasionally curated exhibitions like that because I felt obligated to organize them, for artistic or ethical reasons.

In the early 1990s, there was a flood of Vietnamese refugees fleeing to Hong Kong. The massive number of refugees, male and female, young and old, got studded in our city because most countries were hesitative to take them. Huge refugee camps were built to house the refugees waiting to move somewhere for a better life. The reluctance of other governments led to a sad situation in which most of them were locked up in the camps for years for the crimes of seeking better lives and freedom. Some kids were born then and grew up in the camps. They had never seen the outside world. As the frustration of the long imprisonment grew, demonstrations and riots broke out. These events frequently led to even more discrimination and hostility toward the refugees among the local public, who regarded them as an unwelcomed social and financial burden. As the hostility grew stronger, I felt the necessity to remind people to take a more humanitarian and sympathetic view of these unfortunate visitors.

With the support of a social service group that was organizing art workshops in the camps, I managed to bring some of the refugees’ art works for an exhibition called <Still Life> at the Hong Kong Arts Centre. The artworks created by refugees of all ages revealed the desire if not desperation to run away from political brutality, the frustration of being forever imprisoned with no known date for release, and the forever longing of a free life. The works were amateurish and were far from being ‘artistic’, but they were powerful in stimulating understanding and empathy of the viewers, if they were willing to take a good look at them. At least that was my wish. Unfortunately, there were only a small number of people coming to see the show. There were some press reports, but not as much as I wished. At those particular moments, I knew the exhibition could only attract visitors who were already sympathetic with the refugees, along with people who just accidentally walked by. However, at a time of discriminative hostility, it was necessary for the Arts Centre, as a socially responsible institution, to present a more humane perspective. It was an ethical responsibility for a public institution to present arts for more than just building the number of audiences.

Untitled by Jose Legaspi

In 1999 I curated another unpopular exhibition called <Nightmare Obsession>. It featured the works of the Filipino artist Jose Lagaspi, who was totally unknown to the Hong Kong audience. In those days, very few people were interested in Filipino art. The only subject they could associate with the Philippines was the domestic helpers. I knew it would not be a popular exhibition. However, I was overwhelmed by the artistic quality of his works, his haunting, somewhat sadistic black and white works revealed disturbing psychological and ethical conflict and struggles. Such an oxymoron that combined terror and beauty was rarely seen in Hong Kong. More importantly, I wanted to break the prejudice that led to the indifference to the art from Southeast Asia. It was such prejudice and ignorance that made us blind in discovering all the good art being done by our neighbors.

Years later the works of Jose Lagaspi caught global attention that went beyond Asia. It drew much attention from many parts of the world, especially in New York. I was proud that I presented his works when hardly anyone came to see his works.


Oscar Ho is Adjunct Associate Professor of Cultural Studies, CUHK. He was formerly the Director of the MA in Cultural Management Programme (2006 – 2020). Visit https://www2.crs.cuhk.edu.hk/faculty-staff/adjunct-professors/ho-hing-kay-oscar