With the Right Keys, Any Space is a Space for Art

The latest exhibition by one of Hong Kong’s most dynamic curatorial duos was located on the 27th floor of Airside, a new commercial building in Kai Tak. One of the space’s striking features is the floor-to-ceiling windows, which offer panoramic views of the vast area that was once home to the Hong Kong airport, now being redeveloped into a commercial and residential area. To borrow real estate lingo, it’s prime real estate. Standing at the edge of the room, you either marvelled at all the infrastructure going up, or felt slightly terrified by how high up you are. The space was lined with cardboard boxes, as if they were waiting to be unpacked. 

This is just the latest disorienting environment that MUSTHAVEKEYS have used for their art exhibitions. During the summers of 2021 and 2022, visitors to Up Close: Hollywood Road found themselves in one antique store after another, some filled with replicas of terracotta soldiers, others Ming-style furniture, others still packed with snuff bottles and mala bead necklaces. On display amidst all the antiques were contemporary artworks by the likes of Oscar Chan Yik Long, Leelee Chan, Lau Hok Shing, Lam Tung Pang and Bing Lee. 

Hilda Chan and Iven Cheung are the couple behind MUSTHAVEKEYS, and they’re out to redefine the meaning of an art space. Could any space be an art space? An antique store? A street? A new office tower? The curatorial team’s unusual name was inspired by Cheung forgetting to bring his keys and locking himself out of their apartment one time. “I thought to myself: okay, one must have the keys,” he says. A more elaborate explanation came later: “We curate to learn about new things.” One reason the duo is interested in organising exhibitions in unconventional spaces, says Cheung, is the idea that viewers are suddenly gaining access to space they wouldn’t have access to normally. “And that’s what the key means.” 

The curators, who are partners in life as well as work, are both art school graduates. Chan studied film and animation at the Rhode Island School of Design, and Cheung creative media at the City University of Hong Kong. While they met at Videotage in 2010, when they were both working there, their careers ended up taking different turns. Chan worked various positions at galleries before becoming a gallery manager at Gallery Exit. Meanwhile, Cheung became an assistant curator at the museum at the Education University of Hong Kong. 

Their different paths gave them different perspectives of what a curator is and how a programme is run. Cheung notes that, at a gallery, a curator often needs to do everything themselves, while university work involves a constant back-and-forth between different departments. Having worked at these different kinds of organisations for so long, the couple is interested in creating something of their own – and something unconventional at that. “We met as colleagues, so now we built an office, we are colleagues again,” quips Chan.

The Hollywood Road exhibition was their first project. They wanted to break the taboo that antiques shops are exclusive to collectors and inaccessible to the general public. In developing the exhibition, Chan and Cheung worked with artist Leelee Chan, whose parents run an antique business. The original idea was to do the show in just one antique shop, but then it developed into a multi-venue tour. 

The biggest challenge was convincing antique shops owners and artists to engage with the idea – and each other. “The concept was just completely new to them. And it’s not like these antique shop owners need new collectors,” says Cheung. “Those who did it genuinely wanted to educate the younger generations about their antiques.”

A first edition was followed by a second edition, this time with sponsorship from property developer Nan Fung Group. The second edition attracted around a hundred viewers, which Chan and Cheung considered a success, considering that it was taking place when Covid restrictions were still in force, limiting the number of people who could gather in one place and barring any international visitors from coming. But the closed borders were also a unique opportunity to engage with a local audience. “People were stuck here, so we had locals, but also expats who might not otherwise have experienced that side of Hong Kong,” says Chan. The curators seem to have dispelled any initial hesitation the antique shops might have, as some of them are asking if there’d be a third edition.

While antique shops brim with tales from the past, the paint had barely come off Airside during our visit in early May. A contactless lift pulls you up to the 27th floor, where the exhibition space awaits. The exhibition route — niftily carved out by cardboard boxes, some stacked neatly, others haphazardly — shepherds visitors into different units, each housing an artist’s works. “The boxes are symbolic of the pressure [contained within us], but they can also be unpacked and removed,” says Cheung. 

The exhibition title, META-MOMENTS, was inspired by a term coined by research psychologist Marc Brackett to describe “a pause, a small window of time in which we step back to see a situation in a new light, so that we can stay calm and tap into our best selves,” says Cheung. They are the kind of moments much needed in any busy city, though the idea for an exhibition about mindfulness germinated in 2020, when the city was still reeling from the aftermath of the 2019 protests. 

Chan and Cheung went on the hunt for a space and at one point, considered doing it in a co-working space, but then Nan Fung Group told them about the impending opening of Airside. In a way, the idea of doing a show about mindfulness in an office space seems like a match made in heaven. Hong Kong has one of the longest working weeks in the world, and there is no more urgent need to practise mindfulness when you’re under pressure at work. 

The eclectic works on display by Lulu Ngie, Chilai Howard, Wy Lee, Shane Aspegren, Terry Tsang and Claire Lee included performance art, mixed-media installation, video photography and paintings. Wy Lee played with the idea of it being in an office, coming in and clocking in and out every day. Aspegren work provided a sanctuary space for viewers to sit down, close their eyes and meditate, as a soothing voice reciting passages from the Svadhishthana Chakra washes over them. 

Cheung emphasises the importance of creating new experiences as a way of connecting with new types of people, as with the antique shop owners for Up Close: Hollywood. “META-MOMENTS attracted many people from the local community of Kai Tak and Sun Po Kong, who may not be familiar with art programs,” he says.

Stepping into its third year, MUSTHAVEKEYS is also thinking about sustainability, by striking a balance between thinking more commercially but still doing shows that will allow them to think outside the box. Both Up Close: Hollywood Road and META-MOMENTS were non-commercial exhibitions, and the curators’ projects have relied on funding from a mix of corporate and government funding. Having a commercial art space where they could sell work, or at least a permanent space that would allow them to stage more regular exhibitions, would be appealing, according to the duo. But for now, two shows are keeping them busy.

Cheung and Chan have curated Michelle Fung’s solo exhibition at Pao Galleries, which opened on May 24. It’s not the most unconventional place, but Fung is a friend and reached out to the couple to curate her show. Lately in the summer is a group show on Chancery Lane, where the couple used to live in a walk-up building. Details are still being worked out, but they are playing with the idea of renting an apartment in the building to stage an exhibition. Whatever happens, as one may be inclined to expect from MUSTHAVEKEYS, it will be something out of the ordinary.

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