How to plan an art exhibition from across the globe

A model of a man.

Art curator Nicole Schoeni and street-art organisation HKwalls describe taking over a London townhouse from half a world away

By Gavin Yeung   Above image: Isaac Cordaldis (Schoeni Projects London)   Tuesday 18 August, 2020   Short read

Nicole Schoeni is on day 11 of a two-week, government-imposed quarantine at home in Hong Kong when I speak to her over video call. She’s just returned from a trip to London to inspect her newest exhibition, disCONNECT. ‘It’s worth it, because we put so much blood, sweat and tears into it,’ she says. ‘I booked my flights as soon as they took down the quarantine in the UK. Otherwise, I would never have seen it.’

disCONNECT represents Schoeni’s inaugural exhibition under her new banner, Schoeni Projects. She launched it after a five-year hiatus from running the art gallery founded by her father, the late Hong Kong gallerist, Manfred Schoeni. Spanning London and Hong Kong, its debut just happened to coincide with a pandemic, and the most challenging time for the art world (along with the global economy) in a generation. Yet if Schoeni is at all fazed, it’s impossible to tell. ‘When we decided to do [the exhibition], I suppose part of the reason was that, well, I really like challenges,’ she says.

The exhibition is certainly of the moment. It involves taking over a Victorian townhouse in south London that Schoeni and her husband were due to renovate – ‘one day I just woke up and thought, it’d be a missed opportunity not to do something with the house’. disCONNECT brings together 10 artists working across seven countries to create immersive, site-specific artworks in response to the COVID-19 crisis, and the creative and physical constraints that come with producing art right now. Meanwhile, Jason Dembski and Maria Wong of Hong Kong-based, non-profit, street-art organisation, HKwalls, were instrumental in ideating, co-curating and organising the exhibition from afar.

Given the temporary nature of the space, which is scheduled to be refurbished after the exhibitions concludes, the line-up is entirely composed of street artists well adapted to working between processes of destruction and renewal – an apt parallel to the current state of the world. However, one crucial element of street art, the physicality of being in a space, was all but impossible save for the four London-based artists. Therefore, some ingenious workarounds were required for those stuck abroad. Summarising her approach, Schoeni says, ‘Since a lot of people just couldn’t come to the house, the idea was to bring the house to them.’
Artworks in a Georgian house.
Artworks in a Georgian house.
Artworks in a Georgian house.
Clockwise from top left: Aida Wilde (Nick Smith); Vhils (Ian Cox); Zoer (Courtesy of the artist and Schoeni Projects)
Take Portuguese artist Alexandre Farto, better known as Vhils, for whom Schoeni had the library doors dismantled and shipped to his Lisbon studio. He carved his signature bas-relief portraits on them, before they were shipped back to London to be reinstalled. Then there’s British artist Adam Neate, who painted tortured, isolated figures onto the window blinds of the house while in his São Paulo workspace, which were subsequently hung in the stairwell.

The most technically complex artwork in the house is Zoer’s ‘A Case Study Of A House’, an anamorphic installation splashed across one half of the dining room, which was made even more complex by his being in Italy. Consisting of a ‘barricade’ of domestic objects and furniture precariously stacked upon the optical illusion of a derelict car, the installation must be viewed from a particular spot at the opposite end of the room to make sense. 

‘There was a lot of back and forth between us building a 3D model for [Zoer] to use, which he translated into 2D images. They could then be printed and put up like wallpaper across the floor, the walls and the ceiling,’ explains HKwalls co-founder Jason Dembski, whose previous career as an architect proved essential in executing the piece. 

Although disCONNECT is open to visitors in London with social-distancing guidelines in place, technology was a key component for those who can’t experience it in person. Schoeni, Dembski and Wong enlisted 3D-imaging service Matterport to create a fully navigable VR version of the townhouse, which is available online. What is lost from an in-person visit is made up for in added sound effects: pandemic news reports accompany a miniature sculpture by Isaac Cordal; the din of a city leaks out from Alex Fakso’s photos of large pre-pandemic crowds; and David Bray’s escapist landscape paintings are set to the sound of crashing waves and birdsong.

While disCONNECT wraps up its stay in London on 24 August, it is due for a second life in Hong Kong this November, with an exact location yet to be announced. ‘Whatever [artwork] is removable, we’re going to bring with us,’ says Schoeni. Whatever is not, however, will be committed to the VR replica of the townhouse as a digital artifact – in much the same way that 2020 will be recorded. 

Amid the heavy curtain of panic and anxiety that pervades this moment in time, disCONNECT still manages to convey the enduring quality of art to inspire and give meaning. In the second-floor living room, above Berlin-based duo HERAKUT’s cardboard cutouts of oversized children lost in a world of their own imagining, the writing is literally on the wall: ‘Who can remember a time when we as one species were physically so far apart while mentally so very connected?’
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