It came as a surprise to everyone when Nicole Schoeni decided to suspend her family-owned gallery seven years ago. Born and raised in Hong Kong, she had been running Schoeni Art Gallery in the city’s Central district for almost a decade after her father’s abrupt passing in 2004. Only now has she decided to return to art scene – and it’s all thanks to a Victorian town house in South London.
“I completely fell in love with the place. Discovering it planted the seed in me – I knew I wanted to get back to the art scene, but how? It was the house that made me think this is where we could do something unique and different,” Schoeni, 39, says.
In August she held “disConnect Ldn” at the house, inviting 10 street artists to transform what will be her future family home with pandemic-related artworks. Now she is bringing the exhibition to Hong Kong, to a restored 1950s tenement building in Causeway Bay.
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Opened by her father Manfred in 1992, Schoeni Art Gallery was known for dealing in contemporary Chinese art, working with artists including Liu Ye, Yue Minjun, Zhang Xiaogang and Zeng Fanzhi.
“My father was considered a pioneer. He discovered a lot of the underground artists at the time who are now household names today,” Schoeni says. “I continued his tradition of focusing on Chinese contemporary, but I always had a love of urban art and street art. And I feel like it’s come full circle.”
In collaboration with the non-profit arts organisation HKwalls, “disConnect” showcases installations by international artists including Berlin-based duo Herakut, Portuguese visual artist Vhils and London street artist Mr Cenz. For its show in Hong Kong, four local artists were also invited: Go Hung, Jaffa Lam, Kacey Wong and Wong Ting-fung.
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The installations explore themes of isolation and connection during a pandemic, with works such as miniature figures in masks, bright pink virus wallpaper prints, and photographs depicting pre-pandemic life in rush-hour crowds.
Some works take inspiration from the London town house, repurposing discarded objects such as an antique folding table or window shutters into the installations.
With travel restrictions and quarantine measures still in place, most artists were not able to install their work in person. “Now the roles are reversed. Before, we’d be FaceTiming with the artists and they’d be installing; now it’s us installing and they are overseas,” Schoeni says.
While that raises the question of authenticity, Schoeni thinks they are still able to capture the essence of what the artist wants to communicate.
“With the pandemic, we don’t have much of a choice, but the solutions we found were quite innovative. And if the artists are satisfied, that’s all that matters.”
The Hong Kong exhibition, housed in a historic building on Pak Sha Road, is designed to bear little resemblance to a traditional gallery.
“When I was running the (family) gallery, I noticed most people were intimidated to go into galleries. It’s still the same today. Art should be for everyone, so I wanted to create a more welcoming environment to encourage people off the streets to have a look and be inspired,” Schoeni says.
“I like the idea of taking art out of the so-called white cube into a more warm, domestic setting. Plus, Covid-19 has also highlighted how hard it is to run a gallery these days in a city like Hong Kong with high rents.”
Schoeni says that when she was running her family gallery it was always full steam ahead, with 16 to 18 programmes a year coupled with art fairs and publications. Eventually, she felt burnt out.
“I realised I was doing without thinking, because for a gallery there’s the expectation to have a certain number of programmes.”
Now rebranded as Schoeni Projects, the gallery will only do two programmes a year, focusing on heritage, inspiration, and dialogue between Asia and Europe. Schoeni’s two other upcoming studio spaces – a warehouse loft in Hong Kong’s Wong Chuk Hang neighbourhood and the Victorian town house in London – will not operate as typical galleries, she says.
“I don’t want it to be set in stone. It has to be adaptable and flexible. So my plan isn’t to have permanent spaces. And that’s something the pandemic taught: to be ready to face challenges and change quickly.”
disConnect HK, 2-4/F, 16 Pak Sha Road, Wed-Sun, 12pm-8pm, from October 11 to November 29. Appointments must be made in advance at schoeniprojects.com/tickets.
Highlights of disConnect HK and a virtual tour of disConnect Ldn can be viewed at Hysan Place, 9/F Urban Sky, 500 Hennessy Road , Wed-Sun, 12pm-8pm, from October 11 to 30.
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This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (www.scmp.com), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia.
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