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Curating Contemporary Art (MA)

Chao Liu

Starting with the figure of the herbalist or apothecary, this project considers the interconnection of art, medicine and plants via the number five and the quincunx pattern. A quincunx is a set of five objects arranged in such a way that four are at the corners of a square or rectangle and the fifth is at its centre – like the five on a dice. It is embodied in the motif of the lozenge from Thomas Browne’s 1658 text The Garden of Cyrus, in which the number five stands for a sacred geometry of self-similarity in the plant kingdom. This metaphor is used to (re)construct a healing ecosystem of plants and medicine formed of five artists in isolation and five historical medicinal plants from five apothecary histories. Artist Rachel Pimm has collaborated with four other practitioners across disciplines – artist Lilah Fowler, composer HP Parmley, poet Daisy Lafarge, and chef and designer Peiran Gong – on an exploration of medicinal plants, sounds and breathing. The plants are recorded to form choral, poetic, edible, written and visual compositions, which seep into each other. Made to heal, breathe and sing in time with the earth and its seasons, the work employs these histories to decode the link between modern life and nature. 

The project, developed in partnership with Team London Bridge, started as a public art commission responding to the local histories of medicinal plants in the London Bridge area. Covid-19 meant radically adapting to new conditions of communication, production and site-specificity. In its current form, the project stands as research, a positive series of exchanges between isolated individuals and a foundation for future work when possibilities emerge. This microsite presents some of the project research and production processes, fragments of the collaborators’ work and short interviews between each of them and us – a group of eight graduating curators from the Royal College of Art. The hope is that one day some of the research will manifest in shared physical space.  

The pandemic has placed many in a vulnerable position, especially creative practitioners who work freelance. With exhibitions, events and all kinds of gathering cancelled, this situation puts the urgency of cultural production into question. At the same time, it highlights our need for togetherness and, for many, the irreplaceable position that nature and plants occupy in our lives.

Quincunx is curated by Junyao Chen, Jinghua Fan, Hetian Guo, Chao Liu, Si Shen, Costanza Simonini, Irina Sinenkaya and Jianan Wang as part of the MA Curating Contemporary Art Programme Graduate Projects 2020, Royal College of Art, London, in partnership with Team London Bridge.



Graduation Project Website

Degree Details

School of Arts & Humanities

Curating Contemporary Art (MA)

Chao Liu is an curator and window display designer. He has a wealth of experience in curating artistic visual concepts, having worked with a range of artists and designers for major luxury branding businesses from both China and Europe. He has worked on several major art crossover projects and exhibitions in Shanghai, Hong Kong, Japan and Italy. 

Chao's curatorial practice has focused on the sociality of public art, exploring especially the influence of art intervention on community culture and among local residents. Particularly, his research pays attention to the shifting ground of human existence and experience whereby the power of virtual reality, boosted by its growing accessibility, nurtures novel social experience and reconfigure social cohesion, and thus makes it not only possible but also necessary to imagine and create an experience of physical proximity through interactive experiences in online galleries. As a witness to this particular moment, and as a curator, his research entails a probe into the ways in which curators may we work with the artist to rebuild the virtual community of contemporary art world.

His dissertation, titled ‘A Reflection on Curating Contemporary Art Through Religion’, proposes a curatorial thinking that allows curators to engage the public to the greatest extent through examining the relationship of antagonism and cross-over between Religion and Contemporary Art. It aims to build a more constructive relationship between the two worlds and a broader point of contact for contemporary art and the public, so as to enable a curatorial bricolage that appropriates elements and experiences of religious community building to enhance public engagement of Contemporary Art. 

For his graduation project, Chao co-curated an artist-led research project Quincunx, partnered with Team London Bridge. Inspired by the history of apothecary and medicinal plants in London Bridge area, Quincunx utilizes number five, a sacred geometry, as a metaphor to build a temporary community/ecosystem with interdisciplinary artists’ practice to (re)connect the art intervention with geographical features, culture of locality and natural environment. 



Launch Project

QUINCUNX — Rachel Pimm, Quincunx (Detail), 2020

Throughout Quincunx, there has been an emphasis on a process-led as opposed to outcome-led working. Research-led conversations have been the foundation of our collaborative process and the Covid-19 pandemic has arguably brought the feeling of being together and the potential to exchange research via online channels into stark relief.


Artist-led Research Process

In Collaboration with:

Rachel Pimm’s sound, video, food, text and textile research branches out into new and growing exchanges with four additional collaborators. Rachel Pimm works in sculpture, text, photography, video and performance to explore environments and their materialities, biochemistries, histories and politics. They are interested in queer, feminist, postcolonial theories and materialisms, natural histories and resource extraction, and the potential of surfaces and matter to transform. Their recent work has been included in programmes at the Serpentine Gallery, Whitechapel Gallery, Jerwood Space, Chisenhale Gallery and The Royal Academy (all London 2014-2019), as well as internationally across Europe and the US. Residencies include time spent at Loughborough University Chemical Engineering, Gurdon institute of Genetics at Cambridge University, Rabbit Island in Michigan, and Hospitalfield in Scotland. Rachel is currently artist in residence at The White House in Dagenham, working in their garden, and has a forthcoming commission with Arts Catalyst in 2021.
Lilah Fowler weaves environmental sound and image data from ancient and contemporary technologies of growing and dyeing into coded textiles and material studies. Lilah Fowler’s work examines the common, mutable languages that inform how we interpret our surroundings. Sculptures, images and other elements draw on sources that include the planning of natural and urban environments and their architectural design values, combining into responsive and intricate installations. Recent works have involved collaborations with biochemists, quantum physicists, computer programmers, mathematicians and weavers. For her most recent body of work she has spent several research periods in the South West of the US, the Lake District, Epping Forest and Dungeness, including residencies at Montello Foundation, Nevada (2016) and Joshua Tree Desert Highlands, California (2013). Recent exhibitions include Code Clay, Data Dirt at Firstsite, Colchester; nth nature at Galerie Gisela Clement, Bonn and Assembly Point, London; Bauhaus at Frauenmuseum Bonn; Sie Machen Was Sie Wollen at Varna City Gallery, curated by Mélange, Cologne; and PURE LIGHT at Vasarely Museum, Budapest, curated by Dora Mauer.
HP Parmley’s slow midi sound and video compositions act as a meditation on the audience’s breathing and sets a meditative pace for the group. HP Parmley is a London-based artist who works with moving image and sound. Leaning into the space of poetics and humour found in the everyday, she collects fragments of daily life, building new narratives through rhythm, arrangement and (re)composition. Finding meaning that emerges from an unravelling or a reshuffling, HP is interested in a dream logic where the sensory and the sublingual become sites of potential for new forms of communication or reactivation. Drawn to the incomplete, the unfixed and the present tense, her practice meditates on the relationship between movement and stasis and what it means to move forwards.
Daisy Lafarge’s poetry and her short writings build proximity and intimacy with the air, disease and organisms around us. Daisy Lafarge is a writer, artist and editor. Her first poetry collection, Life Without Air, and a novel, Paul, are forthcoming from Granta Books. Her pamphlets include understudies for air (Sad Press) and capriccio (Spam Press). She received an Eric Gregory Award for poetry in 2017 and a Betty Trask Award for fiction in 2019, and her visual work has been exhibited in galleries and institutions such as Tate St Ives, Talbot Rice Gallery and Edinburgh Art Festival. Daisy is currently working on Lovebug, a book about infection and intimacy, as part of a practice-based PhD at the University of Glasgow.
Peiran Gong graduated from the Royal College of Art in 2012, used to be a fashion designer, and accidentally became a chef. She now runs a Chinese food pop-up called Chinese Laundry with her best friend, whom she met in RCA. The food they serve at different pop-up restaurants and residencies are very personal and authentic to them, combining childhood memories and flavour profiles from different parts of China with seasonal British produce.

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