Sook-Kyung Lee on Dissolving Regional Boundaries and Hierarchies

The Tate Modern curator speaks to Marko Gluhaich about the stories she’s bringing to the Hyundai Tate Research Centre: Transnational and the 2023 Gwangju Biennale

BY Marko Gluhaich AND Sook-Kyung Lee in Interviews , Opinion | 06 JUL 22

Marko Gluhaich Since 2019, you’ve been Senior Curator of the Hyundai Tate Research Centre: Transnational (HTRC:T) at the Tate Modern in London. How have you built upon your past experience as a curator and expanded upon your curatorial interests while in this position?

Sook-Kyung Lee Heading a curatorial research initiative that focuses on the notion of ‘transnational’ was a natural progression from my work at Tate, which began at Tate Liverpool as Exhibitions & Displays Curator in 2007 and continued at Tate Modern from 2012. I have curated several exhibitions and collection displays exploring global dimensions of contemporary artistic practice such as ‘Nam June Paik’ (2019–20) and ‘A Year in Art: Australia 1992’ (2021–23), while also leading research and acquisition of modern and contemporary art from the Asia-Pacific region for the Tate Collection. Prior to the founding of the HTRC:T, I led two other research initiatives focusing on Asia-Pacific (2012–15) and Asia more broadly (2016–18), and felt that region-based enquiries could be evolved to inter- or trans-regional contexts to address horizontal connections and exchanges across the globe without privileging Euro-American practices. Imagining a global art history has been Tate’s vision for many decades, and HTRC:T is an enhanced effort in articulating and bringing to the surface what curators have been and are currently researching for our exhibition programme and collection-building that truly reflects decentralised, non-hierarchical artistic narratives across the globe.

Sook-Kyung Lee portrait. Courtesy: Gwangju Biennale Foundation; photograph: Roger Sinek

MG What changes have you seen at the museum since you took on this role?

S-KL We are more aware of the role of art in society and the function of the museum as a civic institution for the public. Reflections on contested histories, the ongoing impacts of colonial legacies, racism and other discriminations, climate change and social justice are questioning the identity and future of this institution on every level. The global pandemic has also made us realize how precarious our modes of operation have been, and how important it is to be rooted in our locality. HTRC:T’s critical thinking on global interconnectedness and decolonial frameworks has been instrumental in considering new ways of engaging with our audiences far and wide. At the same time, we are learning that transnational enquiries always begin with specific localities.  

MG How are you reframing the role of the institution in supporting new work?

S-KL The role of the institution changes as the world changes. In order for the institution to remain relevant to a continuously shifting world, it needs a clear sense of purpose as well as flexibility to adapt, respond and participate. HTRC:T is not a physical space or a fixed group but a sort of meta-structure consisting of all curatorial staff, not only of Tate Modern but also other Tate sites, making its research outcomes visible in all areas of Tate’s work, from discursive public events and curatorial workshops to major exhibitions, performance and film programming. What is new about this approach is how we position the process and content of curatorial research at the heart of the museum’s work and share it with the widest possible audience in accessible ways. This initiative has become an important channel for constructive speculation on subjects like diaspora, indigeneity, decoloniality, and climate justice and their various interrelations, which are subtly shaping our future programme.

‘A Year in Art: Australia 1992’, 2021, exhibition view. Courtesy: Tate Modern, London; photograph: Joe Humphrys

MG What does the future of HTRC:T look like?

S-KL ‘Transnational’ has been a great tool for questioning boundaries and hierarchies, and I would like to see its evolution in breaking different types of boundaries beyond nations and geography, to further explore various disciplines, histories and epistemologies. We have learned a lot about comparative and relational methodologies through this, and it would be great to continue developing different ways of understanding and curating art of our time. How to share these insights and experiences with our audience within and alongside exhibitions and other programmes will also be a key question for us. 

MG Late last year, it was announced that you had been appointed artistic director of the Gwangju Biennale. Congratulations – what a fantastic opportunity. How have you been considering this opportunity and what goals do you have for the Biennale?

S-KL It’s fantastic to be invited to direct a biennale that influenced my curatorial practice at an early stage as a Korean-born curator. The link the Biennale has with democratic development and artistic diversification in the country is significant, and I would like to shed light on the subtle and seemingly intangible power of art focusing on such ideas as softness, porousness and endurance under the title ‘soft and weak like water’. It will again be a sort of accumulation of my curatorial interests to date, with a particular emphasis on Korean and East Asian philosophies and cosmologies that resonate with many other non-European, pre-modern views in art and culture. These views are pertinent in prevailing current crises we are facing on this planet as a species, enabling us to return to the values and ethics suppressed by modernist drives.

Zanele Muholi, portraits from the series ‘Faces and Places’, 2006–ongoing, installation view, Tate Modern, London, 2020. Courtesy: the artist and Tate Modern, London; photograph: Tate Photography

MG Have there been lessons learned in this process that you hope to bring back to the Tate?

S-KL The start of the Biennale’s curatorial narrative is my personal understanding of art and its position in the world, based on my transnational experience and knowledge. It has been useful to consider specific aspects of larger and broader stories and I would like to continue focussing on individual particularities when approaching artistic practice and audiences. Biennales are also a great site for an intense and focused dialogue that responds to rapidly changing social and cultural contexts, and I would like to keep this sense of urgency for my work at Tate so that both timely connectedness and sustained commitments are foregrounded.

Main Image: ‘Nam June Paik’, 2019, exhibition view. Courtesy: Tate Modern, London; photograph: Tate Photography

Marko Gluhaich is associate editor of frieze. He lives in New York, USA.

Sook Kyung-Lee is Senior Curator, International, at Tate, London, UK. She served as Commissioner and Curator of the Korean pavilion at the 56th Venice Biennale, Italy, in 2015.