Aric Chen on M+ exhibition - Shifting Objectives

It may be argued that collectors are not born – they are made. Chinese American Aric Chen, lead curator for architecture and design at M+, can trace his love for architecture and design to his Chicago childhood.

“Chicago is a city that takes pride in its great architecture, and I was always surrounded by it: buildings by (Frank Lloyd) Wright, Mies (van der Rohe), (Eero) Saarinen and Walter Netsch, just in my neighbourhood alone,” Chen recalls.

“I studied architecture at the University of California at Berkeley knowing that I wouldn’t be a practising architect – simply because I loved it. (In school), I soon realised that I was better at thinking about and looking at architecture than making it. I can admit that I am a horrible designer!”

After graduate studies in design and decorative arts history at New York’s Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum, Chen began working as a writer, first for a public relations company, and then as a freelancer specialising in design and architecture. He found that people began to ask him to curate exhibitions, biennales and other projects.

After working on 100% Design Shanghai with the late Tobias Wong, he relocated to Beijing in 2008 to head Beijing Design Week as its creative director.

“Journalism and curating are quite similar,” Chen says.

“You go out and see as much as you can, and you research the background and context. Then you distil, form judgments, craft a story and communicate that to a wider audience. Fundamentally, both are rooted in curiosity; you do your job by being curious.”

While in Beijing, he received a call from M+ – Chen was immediately intrigued by the prospect of a global art and design museum that looked at the world filtered through the eyes of Hong Kong, China and Asia.
“It was a chance to re-evaluate and revisit what much of the world has taken for granted,” he says.

Since he joined M+ in 2012, Chen has been busy putting the museum on the local and international cultural map – despite the fact the Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron-designed building is still a hole in the ground construction site.

After successfully mounting Building M+ at ArtisTree and NEONSIGNS at Mobile M+, the museum’s current show is Shifting Objectives, held at the M+ Pavilion, a permanent building on the West Kowloon site.
With its current collection of 6,000 works, 2,500 pieces are related to design and architecture.

Chen and his team chose 125 of the latter dating from 1937 to the present as a teaser for when M+ is finally completed in 2019.

Shifting Objectives is loosely divided into historical and contemporary sections: classically iconic works such as the 1954 Butterfly Stool by Sori Yanagi are displayed alongside flying saucer-shaped rattan chairs circa 1954 that were found on every Hongkongers’ balcony in the 1960s and 1970s.

“We wanted to open up how people might see or define design,” he explains.

“There are beautiful and functional things for the home. And then there are things that are useless and functionless. Some of the best objects in the show take us out of our comfort zone. I hope that visitors will come away re-evaluating the role of objects in their lives.”

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