Interview with Glen Helfand, Curator of “Proximities” at Asian Art Museum

by Admin on 01/07/2014

Glen Helfand arrives to meet us in the Asian Art Museum’s 2nd floor gallery currently exhibiting “Proximities 3: Import/Export,” the final exhibit in the three-part series he has independently curated during its first weeks on view. “This is the first time I’ve been back here since installing the show,” he says, while he briefly inspects the projection of Byron Peters’ Untitled video and surrounding artworks, and surveys the audience occupying the space. Helfand might be best known as an art critic and writer, whose articles have been published in arts magazines from ArtForum to the Huffington Post. Making a transition to curation seemed to just have happened through many years and continued opportunities. “[my career in curation] all happened fairly organically,” he says to us. “Writing was the first entry into it. I’ve done a variety of exhibitions and solo projects,” he says. “I think writing and curating come together a lot. Seeing a ton of work, it’s easy to see connections between things. And as a critic and curator, it’s always been interesting to see both sides of the coin, to engage the dialog as a practitioner and viewer.”

Seated just outside the gallery space while in the background the sounds of Amanda Curreri’s tapping jump rope in the two-channel video, Double play on a loop, Helfand explains to us the genesis of the project. “It was interesting,” he says, “the Asian Art Museum proposed the project to me as a series of three solo shows by artists working in the Bay Area. When I asked what artists they thinking of, they were not all Asian or Asian American artists. I felt that granted me a degree of permission, curating the show in some way to consider how I interact with this particular institution (one that I have to admit has not been a place I frequented), and the viewpoints that are represented within it.”

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Curator Glen Helfand at Proximities 3: Import/Export 

There were precedents, not only in Helfand’s career but within the museum’s past programming that informed and influenced Proximities. Helfand, whose interest and expertise is in contemporary art, has previously worked within a museum setting introducing contemporary art programming. “I did a show at the de Young in 1999 which was a similar project, airing the place out in a certain way with contemporary artists, and to hopefully expand the museum’s engagement with different audiences.” For the Asian Art Museum, it was their previous contemporary art exhibition, Phantoms of Asia that had laid the foundation. “[Phantoms of Asia] was a global exhibition, artists from Asia,” Helfand says. “whereas for the museum, Proximities aimed to mine artists locally…” In many ways, he explains these kinds of exhibitions, like Proximities, are an effort to weave contemporary, local artists and their audiences into the fabric of the museum community.

Curating a three-part exhibition series, however was something that Helfand has never done before, and was one of the first aspects that intrigued him about the project. “I liked it in the sense that I had to think about sequencing, a narrative. The challenge is if an audience will have the full experience of seeing how each iteration informs the other…” The gallery’s space, cornered between two cultures, early Japan and Korea 1392-present, seemed to pose more opportunities than limitations to the curator. During our conversation, Helfand likens the gallery’s location to SECA’s recent, simultaneous off-site locations, which coolly inserted artworks into public’s everyday lives, where artworks seem to creep up on, or coax audiences in: “[SECA projects] were doing something interesting, like as an anti-spectacle: more integrated into their contexts and people had to find them. I think it’s something more interesting, integrated into the space… Someone had written on a blog, they felt you’d been swimming through the rest of the Asian Art Museum, and with Proximities you’d risen to the surface.” He enjoyed the resonances these contemporary artworks have had within their placement of Proximities to the adjoining galleries. In “Import/Export” he quickly points out, “Rebeca[Bollinger]’s pieces sitting here and looking back at the artifacts [Korean ceramics] in there. And I love that Imin Yeh’s video piece plays with the style of other didactic videos positioned very close to her monitor.”

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Proximties 2: Knowing Me, Knowing You
Image Courtesy Asian Art Museum, San Francisco. Photo by Kaz Tsuruta

Three solo shows turned into three group shows examining, as Helfand eruditely says, “the notion of Proximity: how close is anybody to ‘Asia’ as a place, as an idea, and what constitutes an authentic experience, and who gets to present that.” This bold thematic question poised him at an interesting vantage point, however large and difficult the task, making major connections between, Helfand says, “this notion of place, people, and objects” in a space where material artifacts aim to illustrate the culture of a country so distant from the Museum’s location, exhibiting work by artists who may or may not have Asian ancestry. Helfand navigated the curation carefully, examining the ways in which Asia has been perceived and its culture mediated and exhibited through the Museum, the Bay Area, and by artist’s personal experiences of countries in Asia. Proximities’ ideas and themes, Helfand says, “did seem problematic for people who have a very deep investment in this institution primarily for identity reasons…” And, in large part due to the ensuing two exhibits and well-balanced organization, Proximities at once held fast to these experiences and concepts expressed within the artworks and also, as depicted through the use of color and materiality of the show, slowly disentangles their complexities. “I view the narrative as a big colorful burst [in the first show] that would then and slowly over the course of the next two in a way be emptied out of color — a reality that would be more ethereal and hard to get your hands on.” Helfand points to Byron Peters’ video work in the opposite wall of a beautiful, almost heavenly cloudscape. Peters’ work is the result of a contract with an architectural firm in Shenzhen, China that specializes in the visualization of luxury homes to be constructed in North America and Europe to produce a rendering of the sky above their workplace, a subject without a blueprint. “Byron’s piece shows that in the end, the idea kind of evaporates, dissipates over the whole subject.”

After our conversation, Glen and we move through the galleries, taking another look at Proximities 3 before parting through the ceramics exhibition adjacent to the gallery. Glen prefers to stay behind, and so we leave him in the space to observe and view the exhibit.”Proximities 3: Import/Export” will be on view through February 23, 2014.

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Proximities 1: What Time Is It There?