From ANU to the Bustling Art Scenes of New York and London
London is bustling with activity as the city prepares for the Coronation.
Cycling down the busy streets, past Buckingham palace, Tamsin Hong makes her way through Hyde Park to Kensington Gardens, arriving at Serpentine for another day working as Exhibitions Curator. It’s been home to contemporary art since the 1970s, recognising a wide range of emerging practitioners to the most internationally recognised artists of our time.
It’s chilly today, a top of 7. On the other side of the world - in Canberra, summer just ended, but the warmer weather hasn’t.
Tamsin reflects on her time studying at Australia’s National University (ANU). Initially undertaking International Relations, she had “visions of working in some kind of diplomacy field,” but quickly realised it was more about “arm wrestling power dynamics.”
It just wasn’t the right fit.
Realising she’d begun to accrue a history major, and having written most of her essays with a focus on art objects, she decided to enrol in a Bachelor of Art History and Curatorship. It was something she was actually passionate about.
But it would be a hard sell to her family.
“I think a lot of people from migrant backgrounds will relate to the experience of nerves that our family feel towards us choosing a vocation that might not be as financially lucrative or as stable as others but I was really grateful that we got there in the end. And I really cherished, particularly in hindsight, the fact that there were a few courses that are just not offered in other parts of the world.”
Whilst at ANU Tamsin studied Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art, Southeast Asian art and architecture, Australian art history, introduction to modern contemporary art and reflects fondly on a post-modern sublime course she undertook with Dr. Andrew Montana.
“These are the courses that would, in particular, really help me as a contemporary art specialist.”
Tamsin begun her studies in 2006, graduating in 2011 with Honours. During that time, she had to juggle her academics and finances – a challenging feat for those willing to put in the long nights and early starts.
“I was one of the few students who had to financially support myself, so I did three courses a semester instead of four, which allowed me to be full time, but also, I was able to work a few days a week at the National Portrait Gallery.”
Then, whilst working at the Australian War Memorial as an Assistant Curator in military heraldry and technology, she took part in a workshop that showed her how to think about her career more strategically.
She built up a skillset that would allow her to work specifically as Assistant Curator in the performance program at Tate Modern.
“I was told that even if I didn't obtain my dream role, I could get a job that was similar or in a space that was similar to where I wanted to go. And miraculously I actually managed to get the job at Tate Modern.”
She’s most proud of 'A Year In Art: Australia 1992', an exhibition that has been on show for the last two years and is still currently running.
“It's an exhibition focusing on Australian land rights and it was a really ambitious exhibition. I had lots of nerves about curating it because, we who have been in Canberra, we know how incredibly important it is to get the messaging of the nuances of contemporary indigenous politics right. It was important to my co-curators and I to honour the artists who have been working in this space for a very long time and have had to fight hard to have their voices heard accurately. So for me having that context sometimes put a bit of pressure on me, but it is also the thing that keeps me sharp - knowing that context, knowing what's at stake.”
Tamsin reflects about the relationship between nature and politics in art and the way in which it’s presented.
“Having that connection to green spaces is really important for so many of our artists who are thinking quite deeply about what it means to be a custodian of this planet.” She says.
Tamsin is continually questioning, “how do we - as human beings - see ourselves within nature rather than being separate to nature?” Noting, “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are leading those conversations in Australia.”
She spent four years at Tate Modern but growing up on Ngunnawal country, green spaces were calling her name. So she upped sticks and moved to one of the greenest parts of London – where the Royal Parks are full of carefully manicured flower beds, grassy fields, serene ponds and plenty of ducks.
The world of art can be highly competitive, with trends and market demand often dictating what is deemed valuable. However, as Tamsin reflects on her own journey, she’s come to realise the power of channelling her own distinctive voice.
“I've had to really learn how to tune into that instinct and to be guided by my own intuitions rather than what feels like the forces of the art world. That can be challenging when you have bills to pay and you're just trying to get your foot in the door. Those things can all be quite difficult but there is immense strength and power in one’s individual perspective.”
Recalling the transition from school to university, Tamsin remarks, “I think the thing is, there's this pull towards the collective experience, which is wonderful but also, the pressure to achieve or reflect what’s happening for everyone else might set us up for unrealistic expectations for our own individual circumstances. At least, that was true for me. When I realised I needed to do things differently to take care of myself, that’s when I started to come into my own. I’m still learning these skills.”
For Tamsin, the most valuable moments are the connections she continues to make along the way, and encourages those in the midst of studying and/or trying to make it in the art world to cherish these moments. “It's the things that are unstructured, it's the conversations over a glass of wine at the end of the day. It's having a chat about an exhibition we've seen or a reading that we’re inspired by - it's those spaces that are so incredibly wonderful.”
As our conversation draws to a close, she quips, “opening exhibitions and attending private views - it sounds really glamorous, but a lot of it is me cycling from one place to another in lycra.”