Interview with Hiram TO

the ephemera interviews

In this series of interviews artists directly involved in ARIs and artist-run culture 1980- 2000 speak about the social context for their art making and provide insights into the ephemera they produced or collaborated on during this period. Artist ephemera includes artworks, photocopies, photographs, videos, films, audio, mail art, posters, exhibition invites, flyers, buttons and badges, exhibition catalogues, didactics, room sheets, artist publications, analogue to digital resources and artist files.

PHOTOGRAPHER: Unknown, Artist Hiram TO, 1986 John Mills National, Artist-run, Brisbane

BIO

Hiram TO (杜子卿)
Visual artist, curator, writer, educator, media relations professional

Hiram To (杜子卿) is an artist who works in conceptual-based installations. He is also a writer in the visual arts, popular culture, film and fashion.Born in Hong Kong to Chinese parents, Hiram To lived in Scotland and Australia. He has widely exhibited in Australian public galleries and internationally, with works acquired by institutions such as the National Gallery of Australia, Powerhouse Museum and the Queensland Art Gallery. Hiram was invited by Londons Camden Arts Centre to exhibit a one-person exhibition in 1994. The invitation was the first Chinese artist solo show at a British contemporary art museum. The Winnipeg Art Gallery, the State Gallery of Manitoba in Canada also presented a selected projects survey of the artist in 2002.He was one of three artists representing Hong Kong at the 52nd Venice Biennale in 2007. As a curator, he has collaborated with Institute of Modern Art Brisbane, Artspace Sydney, Ipswich Art Gallery and Next Wave Festival in Australia, and Hong Kongs Goethe-Institut. Since 1995, he has resided in Hong Kong and worked in communications and journalism. His writings have appeared in South China Morning Post, Harpers Bazaar Hong Kong, C for Culture, City Magazine, The Standard and many other English and Chinese language publications.

 

Hiram To’s work tackles the nature of changing identity and its relationships with the mass media and personal / public interface.Taking reference from a wide variety of sources such as literature, film, art and popular culture, he creates multi-layered installations that embrace and challenge the way that identity is constructed or fragmented.

 

You can find out more information through his book: Hiram To- Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood


 

PA: 

Hiram Hi and thanks, why does a public archive mapping artist testimonies and artist histories about the ephemeral nature of the vibrant Queensland 1980-1990 artist-run scene matter to you?

 


 

HT:

I was actively involved in the Brisbane art scene between 1986 and 1995 and participated in artist-runs including QAA, Axix Art Projects, John Mills National, John Mills Annexe, Bureau and the early days of helping set up Eyeline Magazine.

 

I believe that the remix project is a fantastic contribution to the archiving of Queensand’s changing art scene and would be invaluable material recording the state’s arts and cultural scene.

 

Today, I am still a practising artist, having been able to build on my initial practice through early exhibitions at ARI’s such as THAT Contemporary Artspace, John Mills National, Arch Lane Public Art, Bureau, and many others, taking me to exhibitions at the Venice Biennale, and solo exhibitions in state and public galleries in Canada and the United Kingdom.


 

PA: 

1980’s Queensand/Brisbane Social History: what sort of world was this place for you?

 


 

HT:

I came to Brisbane in 1986, having had lived in Hong Kong and Scotland. As an outsider just starting in art – for me at least – it was rather liberating. There was already a bit going on in the young artists’ scene and it was lucky for me to be involved with it pretty quickly.


 

PA: 

The Bjelke-Petersen Regime, “The Police State” Qld’s unique 1980’s political backdrop how did it directly or indirectly impact upon you, or nor?

 


 

HT:

My arrival was towards the end of the Bjelke-Petersen-era so it didn’t play much of an impact on my art practice or myself to a large degree. However, the discussion relating to Queenland’s hot expressionist style versus the cool conceptual practices promoted by the Institute of Modern Art, and the politics of representation surrounding the Queensland Art Gallery and the IMA were more central to my interests at the time.


 

PA: 

How did this political climate directly impact on your friends and peers?

 


 

HT:

With those I knew who had lived in Queensland, the politics and corruption were definitely issues that drove many of their art practices. I came in late in the Bjelke-Petersen saga so it was more in the background of things.

Hiram To installation at Arch Lane Public Art, 1989
Hiram To installation at Arch Lane Public Art, 1989

 

PA: 

And your education, your mentors/teachers and how this influenced the type of cultural practice/ art work you were making during the 1980’s, media used, subjects and themes? Tell me about this work in some detail, your hopes and aspirations for this work?

 


 

HT:

My original background was in graphic design and illustration. I was interested in the Pictures Generation artists of the era, and artists like Ed Ruscha, Katharina Fritsch, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Barbara Bloom and David Diao. I began making installed works in Hong Kong and that continued in Australia – they were a mix of painting, objects and photography. Later on there was a focus on photo objects but the practice always resides in between those media. The work is quite varied in terms of their themes but they are always invariably connected with the premise of identity and its interactions with the world at large. There is always an on-going dialogue with the mechanism of art versus design, and their communicative roles.


 

PA: 

Tell me a bit about the artist collaborations you directly participated in, either directly or indirectly?

 


 

HT:

The first artists I met in Brisbane were Jane Richens and you Paul. I got involved with Adam Boyd and Virginia Barratt at John Mills Nationals and did projects there and THAT Contemporary Artspace. I had a little studio room underneath John Mills I shared with Adam, and later on at Site in Fortitute Valley. There were many exhibition projects and curatorial collaborations over that period, at Bureau, Isn’t, IMA, and the Queensland State Library, to name a few. There were endless conversations with Luke Roberts and Scott Redford over the years, and many collaborations with Scott continue to this day.

Today, I am still a practicing artist, having been able to build on my initial practice through early exhibitions at ARI’s such as THAT Contemporary Artspace, John Mills National, Arch Lane Public Art, Bureau, and many others, taking me to exhibitions at the Venice Biennale, and solo exhibitions in state and public galleries in Canada and the United Kingdom.
Hiram To

 

PA: 

Kinship: A brief biography?

 


 

HT:

I was born in Hong Kong and I lived in Scotland when I was a teenager. After returning to Hong Kong in the mid-1980s I came to Australia. Since the mid-1990s I have been back in Hong Kong, but I still have family in Brisbane.


 

PA: 

Are there other members in your family who are artists or designers? Tell me a bit about them?

 


 

HT:

I think my mother can be considered as the new generation of women in the 1950s/60s. She has always been creative and as I was growing up she became a floral artist and subsequently it turned into a career and business. She was definitely a strong influence on my artistic slant.


 

PA: 

Is there one particularly vivid memory or event from your childhood when you knew you wanted to become a professional artist, designer or media producer?

 


 

HT:

I can’t think of anything specific – when I studied graphic design it was natural progression than something I had always wanted to do. It was never my burning ambition to make art- but more a reflection on my personal growth


 

PA: 

Tell me about your most vivid memories of significant self-directed learning and education during the 1980-1990 years?

 


 

HT:

On reflection, I was reared on those IMA talks. They were certainly my art training in that era. Working on the many projects with artists, curators and galleries at the time was also great training- and I am grateful to many of those people. I also came to see the ‘quirks’ of some in the art world, and that had been highly educational.

Comme, Hiram To, 1987

 

PA: 

Tell me about your own experiences of that unmistakable QLD sense of place and your sense of belonging – or indeed not belonging – at the time living and working as an artist in Brisbane/ Queensland during this decade?

 


 

HT:

The most interesting art is probably borne out of being displaced and ‘not belonging.’ I remembered there was a talk at IMA on regionalism and provincialism- the ‘centre’ and ‘periphery.’ As the world becomes more globalized, cultures actually turn regionalized and inward-looking. Not being from Australia, my headspace was elsewhere (it still is). I think I have always been more interested in the interconnections between cultures and people, history and fiction, high art and advertising, pop music and design; and how the interaction of these elements create meaningful narratives that transcend their physical space.


 

PA: 

Where did you hang out? Where did you eat? What did you eat? Where did you dance? Sounds, smells, tastes?

 


 

HT:

I lived in Paddington for most of those years. I went to the Rocking Horse and Kent Records a lot. There were many dinners with the art crowd in New Farm and West End. I remembered cooking quite a few art party dinners at home.


 

PA: 

Tell me a little about two or three of your intimate/influential artist colleagues and peers at the time?

 


 

HT:

Over the years I worked with Scott Redford consistently. We continued the collaborations after my departure from Australia.


 

PA: 

Tell me in some detail about your most vivid and early exhibition/arts event, exhibition experiences? Why was this event so important to you, what legacy has it produced for you?

 


 

HT:

The invitation to show at Camden Arts Centre in London was a great break. It was the first show for a Chinese artist at a British contemporary art museum way before the China art boom. In 2002, my friendship with Canadian curator Donna McAlear (who visited and then later moved to Brisbane) resulted in a state gallery show at The Winnipeg Art Gallery. They were great opportunities to be working on that level.

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