PHD Group: How a 1970s Clubhouse Became Home to Cutting-Edge Art

In her 1986 book The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction, American author Ursula K. Le Guin posits that the first man-made tool was a carrier bag instead of a spear. The essay argues that, as the majority of early humans were gatherers, not hunters, their principal food was vegetables. That essay turned conventional wisdom about human nature on its head, and it is now the source of inspiration behind Hong Kong’s latest contemporary art gallery. 

PHD Group—short for Property Holdings Development Group—is an effort by former ArtAsiaPacific editor Ysabelle Cheung and former de Sarthe Gallery director Willem Molesworth. The gallery takes over a space that housed a private clubhouse owned by Cheung’s grandfather in the 1970s. While a gallerist’s first instinct might be to knock everything down to start afresh, the two wanted to create an architecture-and programming-that adapts to and carries the space rather than dominating it. 

“There is something meaningful about contributing to this legacy that my family began,” says Cheung. “Not legacy in terms of our family names, but legacy in terms of context. This used to be a gathering spot, was abandoned for a while, and now we are revitalising it.”

Cheung and Molesworth first met in 2016 at a New York gallery where Molesworth was serving as gallery associate director and Cheung as communications director. They loved working together, but couldn’t find the opportunity to launch a project until last year. 

“We have a shared worldview, and are always willing to expand our perspective of what something might be,” says Cheung. “But I couldn’t imagine a scenario where we could do that, so I’d just assumed that chapter of our lives was closed.”

It was Molesworth who floated the idea of opening a gallery together in Hong Kong, leveraging their experience, passion and connections with artists and curators in the city and region. But the city’s sky-high rents were a problem. It wasn’t until they realised they could use the old clubhouse—still in possession of Cheung’s family—that the dream turned into reality. The space sprawls over 3,000 square feet, with a wraparound balcony, making it a rare gem in a city of cramped spaces.

Standing in the new gallery, their personalities are a lesson in contrast. Molesworth is more vivacious of the two, while Cheung is more reserved, taking the time to formulate her answers. Cheung says it’s a difference reflected by their previous careers, with Cheung behind the notebook as a journalist and Molesworth running the show at various galleries. “We are very different. Willem is more extroverted, while I’m more introverted,” she says.

Though their temperaments may differ, their passion for art does not. Both come from families with a long history of engaging with the arts. Molesworth’s father is a documentary filmmaker and cameraman and his mother is a journalist and producer. Cheung’s grandmother was a classically trained Chinese opera singer named Irene Lau, and her grandfather was property developer David Lau, who built the building that houses the gallery, among many others. PHD Group’s name is a cheeky reference to that heritage. The gallery’s website describes it as “a nonsensical string of words related to Hong Kong’s real estate and skyline growth; a tongue-in-cheek critique of capitalist, accelerationist growth at the expense of those building slowly and meaningfully. When shortened to PHD Group, the name also references academia and becomes a satirical double entendre that skewers the elitist, exclusive, and narrow corridors of the art world.”

Beyond his property business, David Lau was an ardent collector of art and collectibles, some of which are on display at the gallery’s charming study. Formerly the clubhouse kitchen, the space is decked out in vintage furniture, from a coffee table salvaged from the clubhouse to a rattan bench acquired from Carousell. Photographs of Cheung’s grandparents and an assortment of titles, including on Italian miniatures, China’s legal history and the opium war, speak to his varied interests.

Incidentally, Cheung discovered that some of these paintings were fake after consulting her arts specialist friends. Instead of chucking them into the bin, Cheung kept them, noting that they are reflective of a particular cultural moment in time. “People think it’s such a shame because my grandfather thought they were real and paid good money for them,” she says. “But I also feel there’s this narrative behind it, of the shanzhai counterfeit culture in Hong Kong in the 70s.” 

While Cheung was born and raised in London, she saw her grandparents at least three times a year when she was young. In fact, it was fond memories of hanging out at her grandparents’ house and going out for dinner with their friends—”I probably had an old person’s view of what living in Hong Kong was like” she chuckles—that cemented her desire to work in the city one day. 

For Cheung and Molesworth, contemporary art provides a gateway to thinking about knowledge and ideas that may seem disparate at first. Cheung—who is working on her first book—is particularly interested in the relationship between fiction and visual arts. “I enjoy the generative, rhizomic nature of both genres, the freewheeling concepts that can grow from a single thought,” she says. “And there has always been something fascinating to me about the visual manifestation of a concept.” 

These varied interests also mean the space will be more than a gallery that shows art. Cheung and Molesworth mention the possibilities of hosting book readings and film screenings in the future. It would be a return to form for a space that had seen better days. When they first visited the old clubhouse last May, Cheung says it was full of mouldy furniture. “The smell was overwhelming,” she says, scrunching up her face. 

They ended up keeping most of the clubhouse intact, including the vestibule separating the main space from its entrance. Molesworth had originally wanted to knock it down, but the impulse was challenged by Beau Architects, who served as architectural consultants to the gallery. “Why not lean into the history and characteristics of the space?” he recalls them saying.

The idea of leaning into the space’s architecture and history is compelling, especially in an era when the white cube gallery model still dominates, and—in Hong Kong specifically—there is an alarming tendency to erase local histories and stories considered unfavourable to those in power. 

The old clubhouse is located in Wan Chai, which “has such a rich history, says Cheung. “I think it matches our philosophy of trying to work with what we have, instead of importing something entirely new into the space.”

This philosophy also appears to underpin the way they explain the gallery’s location. PHD is open by appointment only, with the exact address of space only disclosed after the visitor’s booking has been confirmed. (The gallerists say this is because they want to avoid being overwhelmed by walk-in traffic, seeing as they are the only staff.) “We are trying to tell people, ‘We are near Ngo4 Geng2 Kiu4 (鵝頸橋) or Gooseneck Bridge, as it’s such an iconic local landmark,” says Molesworth, referring to the flyover on Canal Road. 

It’s a kind of geographic ambiguity that isn’t unusual in Hong Kong, whose densely-packed landscape is layered both physically and symbolically. Part of what drew Molesworth to Hong Kong is the way the city’s history is braided into the cityscape. “The street names here are crazy, some are old Hong Kong, others are from the British colonial era, and yet there are others featuring a weird mix of both. You don’t really get this in the big mainland Chinese cities,” says Molesworth, who lived in Beijing and has travelled extensively around China for work.

As their own bosses, Cheung and Molesworth also have greater freedom in selecting artists they want to represent and curating the kind of programming they felt was important. One of the things that frustrated Molesworth when he was working at the New York gallery was the lack of understanding of the Asian art scene. “I saw Lu Yang’s [“Underwater Zombie Frog Ballet”] when she created it,” he says. “I told my boss, this artist is amazing! And he was like, ‘Who’s going to buy that?’”

He hopes PHD will be the kind of forward-thinking gallery that embraces such work – one that is “punching at international level, in terms of programming and artist roster, but also deeply committed and really encouraging of Hong Kong’s art scene.” Among the 11 artists in the gallery’s current roster, half are from Hong Kong, and the rest from South Korea, Japan, mainland China, Taiwan and the US. More than just representing artists from the region, however, the gallerists’ want to work with “artists who are critically engaged and culturally relevant.” 

Some of this could be seen at Rendering, the gallery’s inaugural show, which ran from January 22 to March 26, 2022. One of the strongest pieces in the exhibition was Sasaoka Yuriko’s “Icarus’ Bride,” which critiques the patriarchal society’s demand for heroic sacrifices by equating Icarus, the Greek mythological figure who flew too close to the sun, and kamikaze, the Japanese pilots who made suicidal crashes into enemy military targets. Artistic duo Virtue Village’s “Talisman for Radical Monogamy” subvert the usual portrayals of love and intimacy by merging a love locket, a traditional symbol of love, with a violent image of two male characters, one driving a blade into the chest of the second. The duo will be the focus of PHD’s second show, which opens in April.

There’s a bright future ahead of the gallery. And now that they’ve started working together again, are Molesworth and Cheung discovering anything new in each other? “I was really cognizantly aware of something new in Ysabelle yesterday that I hadn’t seen before,” begins Molesworth, though he suddenly turns coy. “But it is a bit personal…”

Cheung jumps in with a story of how they’re learning to carry each other’s burdens. “Yesterday morning, I was feeling a bit anxious, so Willem suggested that we put our worries into our coffees, then we switch our cups and drink each other’s worries. Somehow, that helped me get on with my workday.”

PHD Group is open by appointment only. Visit phdgroup.art to make arrangements. The next show, a solo exhibition by Virtue Village, opens on April 16, 2022.

 

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