Mikala Tai is a curator, researcher and academic specialising in contemporary Asian art and Australian design. Over the past decade, Mikala has collaborated with local, national and international organisations to strengthen the ties between Australia and Asia. She has worked with the National Gallery of Victoria, Supergraph, Melbourne Fashion Festival, RMIT, Monash University, The University of Melbourne, the Council of Textile and Fashion Industries of Australia, Parasite, Portable Studios and inspire9. Mikala currently sits on the board of BUS Projects and is an Editorial Advisor for UnMagazine. In early 2015 she submitted her PhD at UNSW Art & Design examining the influence of the Global City on China’s local art infrastructure. Mikala is currently the Director of 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art.
Here, Mikala chats with Sophia Cai, an emerging curator, writer and art historian with a particular interest in contemporary Asian art as well as craft-based practices.
Sophia: You are the director of the 4A Centre for Contemporary Art in Sydney, a not-for-profit arts organisation established in 1996 as a critical space to discuss, promote, and exhibit the works of living Asian and Asian-Australian artists. Twenty years later, Asian artists has attracted considerable international interest and visibility, as seen at major biennales, art fairs and exhibitions around the world. What do you make of this dominance, and the idea that the 21st century is an ‘Asian Century’?
Mikala: We are, undoubtedly, in an Asian Century. There has been a large shift within the global economy towards Asia and with that there has been an insatiable need by the wider international community to engage with Asia. Contemporary art has been a means in which to begin this engagement and, as a result, there has been a proliferation of exhibitions featuring artists that explore the idea of Asia and the everyday reality of living and working within Asia. However, I would yet to say that this is a dominance. It is merely a recalibration of focus. For decades – if not centuries – international Art history has predominantly been Euramerican in its focus so this so-called emergence of Asian artists on the international stage is simply a more accurate reflection of what is truly international.
Sophia: One of the key concerns of working with any geographical bounded art, whether that be ‘Australian art’ or ‘Asian art’, is a danger of simplifying differences into a single definition. The multiplicity of identities and the fluidity of the term ‘Asian’ was a key topic discussed during Peril Magazine’s panel at the Immigration Museum in Melbourne (May 1, 2016). What is your perspective on this, and is what is the value of considering an artist’s works in terms of regional identities and contexts?
Mikala: All artists work within a context and milieu that is particular and uniquely their own. I find it quite futile to think of art from a country or region having a single cohesive focus or, worse still, an artistic style that all artists conform to. I am more interested in artists that engage with contemporary concerns that they identify – whether that is shifting ideas of place, personal investigations of identity or explorations of historical underpinnings. These contemporary concerns all emerge from a personal context and may find similarities with others within their immediate locality or region but also may find echoes in the work of others working worlds away.
Sophia: Like myself, you originally studied Art History at University, and most recently completed a PhD in 2015 focused on Chinese contemporary art and the art scenes in different major Chinese cities. You also taught as a lecturer at universities during this time. How did your experience working in academia shape your curatorial practice, and what are your thoughts on working within academia and the legacy of a Western art historical canon? Does a global art history exist?
Mikala: Big question! I love the Western art historical canon that gets taught in first year simply for the fact that in second and third year students can pull it apart. Art, like life, isn’t a clear linear trajectory so these sorts of canons fail not only artists and ideas from outside Euramerica but fail those within it as well. In terms of global art history I feel that it has become a loaded term where, in reality, we should abandon the need to write any definitive history and instead embrace the paradoxical, diverse and tangential enquiry of contemporary art.
Sophia: Since starting as director in 2015, the 4A has continued to forge significant partnerships with other institutions in Australia and internationally, such as new partnerships with Shepparton Art Museum (VIC) and also the Australian War Memorial (ACT). What unique role do you see 4A playing in contributing to a wider dialogue, and what are some of projects you are most excited about working on?
Mikala: One of 4A’s greatest strengths is our partnerships and collaborations. Working with our peers enables the artists and ideas that we work with to be accessible to more Australians and, most importantly, for the discussions we provoke to reach a truly national audience. I personally take great delight in the unexpected creative work that emerges from collaborations. We are about to head to Guangzhou for the opening of our collaboration with Observation Society which sees Guangdong born artist Trevor Yeung working with Sydney’s Lucas Ihein. During part of their fieldwork Lucas sent us back some haiku’s reflecting on their discoveries – that is what I look forward to most about creative collaborations, unexpected creativeness.
Sophia: I have chosen to interview you for this edition of Peril because of your long-standing commitment and contribution to the arts sector, not only at the 4A but also in your previous work at Supergraph, Melbourne Fashion Festival, and your academic career. How have these diverse experiences in the fields of fashion, design and contemporary art shaped your understanding of your current work?
Mikala: Art doesn’t operate in a vacuum. It is part of the ever-change reality of contemporary life and interacts with all aspects of humanity and, as such, I have felt having a breadth of (sometimes random) experience has afforded me an understanding of just how art works within the greater sphere of culture and everyday life. The lines between art, design, fashion and writing are all essentially similar and underpinned by creative curiosity so I feel extremely lucky to have worked within all of these fields.
Sophia: And lastly, who are some artists whose works currently excite you? Some ‘Danger Asians’ for us to watch out for?
Mikala: The people I watch are those that are seeking to rupture accepted truths in society. Creatives tend to know when something is amiss before the rest of society so my hot tip is to follow their lead.