As part of our bi-monthly interview series, Art Curator, Cultural Producer & Founder of Opalnest, Helen Homan Wu talks collaboration, Marina Abramovic, and the role she sees herself play creating a dialogue in the arts.
Helen Homan Wu
The way you talk about what you do, sounds like what you’re doing is your own performance art.
I don't think anyone has ever said that to me, but I do see my curatorial practice as a kind of storytelling. To me, what's exciting about producing artist projects and curating events and exhibitions is the process. We’re realizing a vision together as a collaboration, similar to how the director makes a movie. It's about the audience and it's about thinking in a relational way. I'm interested in spectacle and the spectator. In a sense, all art is spectacle - it is up to the spectator to decide what she or he is experiencing. Which is why most of my projects have been involved with site-specific works, performances—ephemeral experiences. Though as all things evolve, I am now representing artists (through Opalnest) and working on producing projects with a longer term vision. It's still a collaboration, but working closely with an artist really allows us to grow together.
Do you ever have difficulties approaching people you don’t know for projects?
I don’t. It's part of the process; it's a dialogue. When people come to me, they expect something different. They already know my work, and they're also excited about creating something together. I see each interaction as an exciting opportunity.
You have a degree in Art & Advertising and Communication Design -- how did you decide to go from the design world to the contemporary art world?
I took a semester abroad at the Chelsea School of Art in London and that completely changed my way of thinking. I studied Visual Theory, the focus was on critique and process rather than the end result. I was so inspired and fascinated to be able to learn in a way that was fluid and expansive, unlike the system we have in New York.
We were self-motivated and during class we pinned up our notes and sketches for critique. I was always the curious one raising my hand. After I started working in the design industry, it became somewhat superficial to me, and then it became just a job. A professor told me I wasn’t a very good designer, but I was great at seeing what others could not see in their work. After graduating, I stumbled upon an ad in the Village Voice to work at a gallery in downtown New York. That was my first step into the contemporary art world.
What about the art world draws you in?
The artists. It’s all about good work that inspires me to be the one presenting their work. It's also about the dynamic and the ever-evolving Art eco-system. Everyone is looking for "good" artists, but that statement is simplistic. I often have long conversations with other gallerists about this topic.
Did you ever contemplate strictly going into the business world?
At that time, no, however, now I am in the art business. I founded the agency Opalnest, that functions as a gallery, art consultancy, and curatorial platform simultaneously. I represent artists by developing their careers in specific markets, which is everything from exhibition-making to sales and collaborations. It's a challenging role and requires a lot of patience. On the other hand, I’m interested in the process of artistic production, which is why creating site-specific commissioned projects is one of Opalnest’s key strengths. I’m really grateful to the artists whom I’ve had long conversations and continue to collaborate with in the future.
Do you feel artists work the system or take advantage of the system in their own way?
Of course! Artists are intelligent people who work at making their own way. Art is a profession just like any other. I once met Marina Abramovic in her studio in New York, to make a short video interview of her. Before we met, I had an entirely different impression of her simply by knowing her work. She is a really strong person, so I thought she must be really serious as well. To the contrary, she was very personable, and says what she thinks, almost childlike. I remember her saying, “I worked so hard for more than 40 years, and finally I am getting some recognition.” Artists can work the system, but I don’t believe in short-cuts. Finally, it’s about the work.
How was interviewing Marina?
It was short, but we had a good conversation. She can really go straight to the point and tell good stories. She’s actually quite funny and I immediately felt comfortable talking to her. She showed me what she’s working on recently, which seemed all very research based. I was surprised that her studio looked more like a designer’s office than the studio of a performance artist. Matthew Akers, who was director of the film “The Artist is Present” was kind enough to also shoot our interview.
How do you manage stress when you pour so much of yourself into a project?
I feel productive when stressed. I tend to push myself over the limit. I’m surrounded by others who do the same. It’s teamwork; it’s discipline. So far, I’ve just been lucky to be working with good people. When you’re in the ‘zone’ working towards a goal with an artist or a client, things will click, and all the mundane things just don’t matter.
You’ve done some very interesting projects all around the world -- what are some upcoming projects you are working on?
The upcoming festival called Around Sound Art Festival 2015, which I am co-curating with Aki Onda. It's been in the works for two years. It's definitely the longest project I have done and this allowed us to see things take shape over a period of time. Aki and I have both been involved in the developing scene in Asia (we're both based in NY), so it was wonderful to be working together as well as be in the same (mental) space.