In curator Anna Hugo’s field of vision, nothing goes unnoticed. Living amongst New York City’s constant torrent of imagery and architecture, Hugo is able to distinguish and construct exhibitions that give voice to the unconventional. Involved in multiple projects at a time, she has the unique ability to pivot between playful and serious, mapping out connections between artists that challenge and engage the public. Whether an exhibition takes place in a hotel room in North Korea or an abandoned FedEx shop in NYC, her curiosity redefines the conventional landscape of curation.
Anna, you have a background as an artist. What led you to make the transition into curating?
Anna Hugo: I studied at the Edinburgh College of Art, The University of Applied Arts Vienna (die Angewandte), and the School of Visual Arts (SVA). I was a painter for approximately seven years, but when I moved to New York, I noticed very quickly that my main interest was not in making art, but to collaborate with other artists. Moments such as going out to buy art supplies or stretching a canvas no longer felt exciting, but draining to me.
Can you give an example of one of the similarities between curating and art-making?
Anna Hugo: One of the similarities I experienced was in spring 2016. I was setting up an exhibition called “That Unclouded” in the Lower East Side at Coustof Waxman and once I had the works installed, I felt the same satisfaction I would feel when installing my own work. This realization helped me understand how close I felt towards these artworks getting exposed to the public, almost as if they were my own. Exhibiting art gives me creative relief, which helped me to naturally transition from making art to curating. I now have the tools to further expand with different media and perspectives, and not only mine.
Would you say New York has been a catalyst for your curatorial work?
Anna Hugo: Yes, definitely. I knew coming to New York would allow an opportunity for change. New York functions at an incredibly fast pace, which has triggered diverse encounters with artists, curators, and projects.
Tell us more about your recent exhibition “Soft Segments” in Chelsea. What is the inspiration behind the show and its artists?
Anna Hugo: “Soft Segments” is a group show at 326 Gallery. The gallery space initially interested me because it used to be a FedEx shop, which gives the space a particular character. When I viewed it, I was in conversation with an Austrian artist called Patrick Roman Scherer, who works solely with pencil and paper. I felt a strong attachment towards Patrick’s drawings and the gallery. He actually produced a selection of drawings for the space, which I was very excited to debut.
What are some of the themes you explore in “Soft Segments”?
Anna Hugo: Paulette Penje’s work pointed to a dominant theme in my research, which is the role of documentation. The ways she presents her performances through video and photography raised valuable questions about documentation as a practice. This brought me to a series of photographs by Oliver Cry, which depict his studio space, which he felt important to document during the making of his sculptures. Including the parts of clay, cement, plaster lying on the floor that broke off his sculptures during the transportation from his studio to the gallery. This was a coincidental, yet an essential moment in the narrative of the exhibition, which we decided to present. This highlights the exposed vulnerability through documentation as part of the weight these works have.
What was another exhibition you curated most recently?
Anna Hugo: I curated a series of projections in a large warehouse space at Dune Studios in April, titled “Placing Proximity.” The exhibition showed a reenactment by Pedro Meda of Andy Kaufman’s iconic performance “Mighty Mouse,” Sivan Dayan intimately licking a piece of glass, and Aya Rodriguez-Izumi’s collaborator practicing a reading of a poem by Sylvia Plath.
I understand the architecture of a space is important to you and is one of the driving forces behind the inspiration for a show. How does the space influence the work you show?
Anna Hugo: Space provides limit and restriction, whether it is the location itself or the walls not being straight enough. A good example is an exhibition I co-curated with Sandino Scheidegger, where we traveled to North Korea and set an exhibition up in our hotel room. It was an exciting and very effective exhibition format because it tested the physical experience of an exhibition versus one that solely exists online, becoming always accessible to the public. It was a curatorial challenge where the concept and structure of the exhibition become almost as important as the artworks exhibited in the space.
Tell us your definition of what you think is a powerful or successful show.
Anna Hugo: A powerful and successful show for me is an exhibition format that tests the norms of curating, attempting to expand the definition and context of exhibition making. For the past years, I have collaborated with the Random Institute, which is a curatorial platform for experimentation. It has been truly an experience working in this curatorial field of “random thoughts and ideas.” The development to think outside the box is something I truly appreciate from one of my so-called icons, Lucy Lippard.
Interesting, how has Lucy Lippard impressed you?
Anna Hugo: She is an artist, curator, writer, activist who challenged in the sixties and seventies formats of exhibiting conceptual art as well as documenting conceptual art. I think there is something powerful and poetic about putting together an exhibition at a gym or on skype, because it engages different artists and viewers, essentially broadening what an exhibition can entail.
Another project you are involved with is Debris Projects, is it a collective?
Anna Hugo: I co-founded Debris Projects earlier this year as a platform to collaborate with emerging, interdisciplinary, local and international artist as well as creative unknowns. Our interest is to gather thoughts, moments, and experiences that reflect the urban and natural environment. We have a website where we display the artists we work with. I feel we have a strong connection towards artists that have a common sensibility. Our goal is a poetic interaction and a communal experience. Our contributors are, to name a few, Marysia Gacek, Hannah Karsen, Ana Popescu, Gioia Zloczower and Avner Chaim.
I read that you have a project called Hugo Penje, tell us more about it?
Anna Hugo: I work very closely with Paulette Penje and developed a persona called Hugo Penje. We worked together for the past three years making exhibitions, art, poems, and publications. This form of collaboration has allowed us to experiment with the artist-curator relationship, which is a creative partnership. We develop concepts together and try to find ways to execute them, they can happen through painting a room pink or writing emails to each other. Hugo Penje shifts between art making and curation and allows us both to be what we feel like at that very moment.
Being that you were a practicing artist, do you find yourself being empathetic towards the artists that you exhibit?
Anna Hugo: I’m generally very empathetic. And I think that does make me occasionally vulnerable, but it also makes me a very strong person to work with because I want to have an understanding with the artist. This, of course, relates to my artist’s background.
Define the biggest risk of curatorial work?
Anna Hugo: Not knowing the outcome of the exhibition, how a particular work might react to the other, is very interesting in the process of planning. The works have a presence, and sometimes they’re too sensitive or too dominant. It’s a matter of respecting the work and understanding the dynamic they produce with the other works and location. This question leads me to think about the risk of a press release, where it is often expected to define what the exhibition is about before physically experiencing the exhibition.
Tell us about the next exhibition you are currently working on?
Anna Hugo: A show I am currently working on is with Marysia Gacek, Juan Betancurth, Ben Thorp Brown and Paulette Penje. Where relationship is a central focus for here; each artist seeks an intimate relationship in a different and personal manner. It is the search of relationship in an object, or to the other and occasionally to themselves. In Marysia Gacek’s work, the hand becomes a recurring motif in her melancholic ceramic sculpture by binding the two ceramic hands with a piece of cloth and velcro. Juan Betancurth engages into the history behind his work, tracing his practice back to his mother, Nydia, where he tries to get to know her through the use of photography. Ben Thorp Brown 3D prints a now extinct oyster, in order to touch upon the depletion of its kind. Paulette Penje builds a further relationship to herself by licking her own body in a constant loop.
One last question, in today’s landscape, how do you think art is important?
Anna Hugo: Art gives the capacity to think in a different manner, to think outside the frame, to experiment. There’s no clear definition of what art is and what it is developing towards, I define curating as a sort of mapping and development of thoughts, to remain in conversation, and create new connections.