In conversation with Aric Chen on the role of cultural institutions

STIR speaks with Aric Chen on decolonising cultural terminology, his new role as the General and Artistic Director of Het Nieuwe Instituut, Rotterdam, and working with an asterisk.

by Devanshi ShahPublished on : Jan 14, 2022

What is the role and importance of cultural institutions? Many institutions are in the process of reimagining their purpose and reflecting on their internal processes. In a fascinating conversation with Aric Chen, who was recently appointed as the General and Artistic Director of Het Nieuwe Instituut (HNI) in Rotterdam, we explore the shifting paradigm of institutional practices and contemporary design. One of the things to keep in mind is that HNI essentially functions as the national museum and institute of architecture, design, and digital culture for the Netherlands. Chen explains in great detail the importance of the archive, referencing the past, but at the same time emphasises the value of decolonising the archive as well. He refers to the vocabulary as having an asterisk, as an indicator of an ongoing discourse of the word’s connotations. Extracts of the complete conversation can be viewed in the article lead, while the following text summarises some of Chen’s other work.

  • Research Centre in Het Nieuwe Instituut, design by Sabine Marcelis | Aric Chen | Het Nieuwe Instituut | STIRworld
    Research Centre in Het Nieuwe Instituut, design by Sabine MarcelisImage: Pim Top, Courtesy of Het Nieuwe Instituut
  • Study Centre Studio, seating at the HNI | Aric Chen | Het Nieuwe Instituut | STIRworld
    Study Centre Studio, seating at the HNI Image: Pim Top, Courtesy of Het Nieuwe Instituut
  • Study Centre at the HNI | Aric Chen | Het Nieuwe Instituut | STIRworld
    Study Centre at the HNI Image: Pim Top, Courtesy of Het Nieuwe Instituut

Chen has had numerous leadership roles, such as the Lead Curator for  Design  and Architecture, and later Curator-at-Large at the M+ Museum, in Hong Kong from 2012-2019. He also served as the first Curatorial  Director  for the Design  Miami fairs, in United States and Basel until November 2021. Chen speaks about the inception of the role at the trade fair itself saying, “I think the fact that the fair created this position of Curatorial Director, which is unusual, says a lot about the fair—both about its commitment to content and also its sophistication in understanding that investing in content is what creates real value in the end.” Having recently completed his term as Curatorial Director of Design Miami, Chen elaborates on this role and the changes the festival itself has undergone. Starting with the initiation of the festival, Chen explains, “When it first started in 2005, Design Miami really pioneered this area of design, which needed some explanation, as it existed neither entirely in the commonly understood realms of design or art. The fair did a lot in building conversations around what was then called design-art, and after a number of phases, it was exciting to help take it to its next stage. We did this in part by introducing themes that focused on how many designers are rethinking the relationships between production and consumption, natural and artificial, raw material and waste.”

Interior view of the Design Miami Fair | Aric Chen | Het Nieuwe Instituut | STIRworld
Interior view of the Design Miami Fair Image: Courtesy of Design Miami

On the evolution of the fair's format, Chen mentions the sustainability of large-scale fairs. This is an aspect that has been a prevalent discussion within the industry. Chen elaborates on the fair's strategy saying, “We tried to rethink the fair format itself. Even before the pandemic, many people had a sense that fairs, in general, had become unsustainable in all senses. They were getting too big, too homogenous, there were too many, and at the same time, they weren’t necessarily reaching more people. As a response, we began to develop what is now called the Design Miami/Podium format, which is essentially a lighter, more portable version of the fair that brings a curated selection of works from Design Miami galleries to different parts of the world, while simultaneously creating a new platform for us to work with local designers and galleries. It essentially opens up the fair to a wider range of participants, lowers barriers to entry, and brings the fair to new places and audiences while also bringing new talent into the fair.”

Luxury brand installations at the Design Miami | Aric Chen | Het Nieuwe Instituut | STIRworld
Luxury brand installations at the Design Miami Image: Courtesy of Design Miami

This Podium format was to debut in 2020 but has since faced delays. Chen continues, “We had planned to launch the first Podium in Hong Kong during Art Basel Hong Kong in 2020, but the pandemic got in the way and everything was cancelled. Later that year, the main fair in Miami had to scale down due to the pandemic, but that gave us a chance to try out the Podium format there instead, and it was a great success. This past November, we launched our first Podium in Shanghai, which I hope will continue, and Doha will launch in 2022.”

Luxury brand Fendi’s installations at the Design Miami | Aric Chen | Het Nieuwe Instituut | STIRworld
Luxury brand Fendi’s installations at the Design Miami Image: Courtesy of Design Miami

As Chen handed over his role at Design Miami and took over his new job at the Het Nieuwe Instituut, he also curated exhibitions including X is not a small countryat MAAT, and the design contribution at the Suzhou Garden Art Festival in Canglangting, Suzhou. Titled In-Between: Objects on the Threshold, the exhibition is located in a traditional Chinese garden from the Northern Song Dynasty. Chen explains the idea saying, “This was a fun project. It was an amazing chance not only to work in this beautiful and culturally significant historic place but to also further explore the design-art dichotomy in a Chinese context.”

I was often asked in China—though this of course comes up everywhere—if experimental or conceptual design should be considered design or art, and my answer, naturally, is that it doesn’t matter. – Aric Chen

He continues, “It’s worth remembering that the distinction between the two disciplines is a very recent invention; for most of history, it didn’t exist. Especially in China, where the culture is deeply rooted in a scholarly tradition of contemplating objects, whether a painting or a brush pot. Chinese gardens are in many ways the apotheosis of this literati worldview, as highly constructed landscapes that exist between the interior world of the scholar and the exterior world outside, between natural and artificial, continuity and transience, and so on. They are in many ways spaces of in-betweenness, and so it was really exciting to create new dialogues between these ideas, in the garden, and these works by contemporary designers who are exploring resonant issues.”

In-Between: Objects on the Threshold, an exhibition curated by Aric Chen and Anne Zhou Image: Courtesy of Aric Chen

Under Chen the Het Nieuwe Instituut (HNI) will be hosting the World Around Summit 2022, while he continues to build the program at the institute.

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