Interview by Madeleine Dore
Photography by Bri Hammond
Growing up in Hong Kong, Nikki Lam dreamed of becoming a fashion designer. But, at the tender age of sixteen, she began to paint. “One thing led to another and I believed, at the time, that I wanted to become a painter,” she reveals, almost surprised at her own beginnings as an artist, “So I applied to do Fine Art at Monash. It was the only course listed on my preference list because that was the only thing I wanted to do. My mother was not too pleased about that.” She was accepted into the course and soon began exploring photo-media, eventually deciding to take it as her major.
In 2008 at an artist residency in Prato, she started thinking more about themes relating to her own journey, identity, and sense of belonging. Soon after, she employed the use of video to explore the very themes that have now become the staple of her work, “If I have to pick the seed of my practice, it was probably there in Italy.”
After exhibiting for a couple of years alongside interning at galleries and holding down a day job, Nikki longed to be more hands on in the arts sector. She enrolled in the Executive Master of Arts at Melbourne University with the hope to champion diversity in the arts and support under-represented artists.
Today, Nikki Lam upholds a long list of job titles. She is an exhibiting visual artist; the Artistic Director of Channels Festival, Australia's video art biennial; Visual Arts Editor at Peril Magazine; Founder and Curator at The Curious Other, a hybrid project on contemporary art and culture; and a freelance curator and arts manager, where she has worked for arts organisations such Foundation for Art and Creative Technology (FACT) in Liverpool.
Nikki Lam no doubt has a lot on her plate, but she also has a lot to say. The dedicated visual artist and articulate curator shares her thoughts on the artistic process, the paradox of her multiple careers and the sometimes troubling state of the arts industry – and the simple joy found in preparing a delicious brunch, tending to the garden and watching a film on her home projector screen.
PART I: DAILY ROUTINE
I’m not exactly an early morning person. I usually wake up around eight, eight-thirty and spend maybe fifteen minutes reading on my phone in bed – checking emails, social media, reading the news. I’m a little guilty of that!
Most of the time I have a proper morning routine – I get up, make coffee, have a simple breakfast and get dressed before sitting at my desk in my home studio, knowing I won’t leave the screen for hours. Sometimes I speed through the morning and jump right into it. I will even reply to work emails in bed!
I usually start working at nine otherwise I can’t finish everything by six in the evening. I check my emails first and there are days when that can take up the whole morning. Some days I might have meetings and need to go in and out of the studio, but I usually take my laptop with me to work between meetings. The flexibility to work anywhere also means I am always working. I think because of that, it throws me off routine a little bit.
It really depends on the day, but usually I will break for lunch at about twelve and then rest for an hour before heading back to my desk. On a less busy day I might make lunch to de-stress. Cooking is one of the things I do to relax, yet still remain productive. There are times when I skip lunch, and it’s probably not very good for me. But I will go for a walk later in the day to balance it out.
Sometimes I'll head out to grab lunch. Bánh Mì is probably my favourite lunch in Footscray. Cheap, fresh and delicious. While I’m out, I’ll get a caffeine fix from Guerilla Espresso. I usually pop by the market too when I’m on a break.
It really depends on the day, but if I’m working on arts management related project the afternoon will be a whole lot of coordinating and working on documents… more staring at the computer! [Laughs]
My work with Channels Festival is part-time at the moment, but sometimes it feels like full-time! But because it’s something I am passionate about – I’m putting my heart and soul into it – it feels alright to do over time… A lot. [Laughs]
I usually have a couple of meetings scheduled for Channels Festival in the afternoon. We are currently developing the conceptual framework of the 2015 festival program, so I have been chatting to a number of local and international arts organisations, curators and artists to establish new partnerships. Even though the festival has grown into a bigger event than last year, we are trying to encourage emerging, early career curators and artists to get involved. In a city like Melbourne, there is always so much going on in the arts, which also shows you how competitive it can be, particularly for emerging artists. Much of the time I just want to make sure the communities feel comfortable approaching us with ideas.
Sometimes my whole day might consist of meetings and I will come home and work on my emails afterwards.
I don’t really have a regular schedule. I know vaguely what is going to happen one week to the next. It can feel rather challenging sometimes. Even in the evenings, quite often I’ll need to meet up with people after work. It is just the nature of the arts industry–most people work on independent projects outside of normal office hours.
I like to go to gallery openings and exhibitions. They really inform me when it comes to who is around, what everyone is doing, which galleries are showing specific artists that we might be interested in.
However, I must confess I often find openings quite peculiar. It is, I suppose, more of a social event than an artistic one. When I see artworks that I find interesting at an opening, I usually have to go back to the gallery again to see it and spend some time with it. Because let's face it, there’s a wall of people holding wine, standing between you and the artwork.
It’s interesting because lately I’ve also been invited to a lot of literary events because of my work with Peril magazine. I really enjoy it and I try and make the most of these events. You just naturally learn a lot, meet a lot of people, and get a sense of what everyone is doing.
Once or twice a week I will attend a talk or forum on art, culture or politics. Usually at The Wheeler Centre, University of Melbourne, NGV or ACCA. I love getting out there on a weeknight and being inspired in different ways.
My partner Scott comes home around seven, and we usually make dinner together, eat and talk, put on some music and maybe read a book. It becomes a lot more relaxing!
I do love cooking and a regular meal is maybe something like Japanese curry, okonomiyaki (Japanese pancake) or something simple like pasta. We both love seafood, so quite often we will bake a whole fish or make spaghetti vongole. There are some definite perks when it comes to living so close to the market!
As part of my work for Channels Festivals, there are a few partners overseas I need to communicate with, so I sometimes have to extend my working hours due to the time zone differences.
But I try not to do that too often. Being in a home studio means that when Scott comes home, suddenly the environment has changed – it’s not an office anymore. It kind of forces me to think about managing my work hours, and to make sure my work doesn't bleed into my life. Not too much anyway.
PART II: WEEKEND ROUTINE
Friday evening probably sounds a bit boring, but by the end of the week I just get so exhausted from working I will just have a really quiet night. A lot of the time Scott and I might go to a restaurant somewhere in Footscray and watch a film. We have a film projector at home, which allows for a nice set of introverted activities. [Laughs]
I tend to sleep in a little bit on Saturday and wake up around nine-thirty. For some people they have pets to keep them in schedule, but I really don’t have a routine!
Footscray Market is really great – everything is really fresh and cheap. It can get a little chaotic on weekends as it is closed on Sundays, but we would usually go there and grab some ingredients for making brunch at home.
Breakfast is actually one of my specialities. I’ll make baked eggs with spices and oyster mushrooms, or poached eggs with quinoa salad, and slow-cooked balsamic portobello mushrooms.
We sometimes make rice rolls for brunch as well. You can get them quite fresh in Footscray. Imagine the texture of rice noodles but in a sheet – think Lasagna – rolled up like a piece of paper and cut into pieces. You can either steam them for breakfast so it’s nice and light, served with sesame sauce, soy sauce, chill, and onion. Or you can pan fry it with spring onion, fresh chilli, Chinese broccoli and some mushrooms so it’s a whole meal.
We try and do drinks with friends or dinner parties on Saturday. We recently had a hot-pot party here – everyone was extremely full but we still had a whole table left of food!
We keep joking that we should open up a restaurant. It would be a fusion café with really good coffee with maybe congee, which is this rice porridge for breakfast in Asia. You can put anything in there – the classic would be chicken congee, but you could put seafood, shallots, spring onion, it’s a really light dish to have in the morning. It would be hybrid arts space too! [Laughs]
Sometimes we try and get out of Melbourne if the weather is nice. We might go do some vintage furniture shopping in Geelong, or go to the hot springs or just go for a drive.
When you are working so much you really need a change of scenery. Especially when you’re working from home. Otherwise we might do some gardening, plant something delicious and just spend the day doing that sort of thing.
PART III: BEHIND THE SCENES
On imagining an eighth day in the week…
I would love an extra day to just focus on my art practice. Being a curator as opposed to being an artist requires two very different mindsets.
I find that when I do set aside a day to work on art, I spend half of it trying to get to that point where I can actually think about my work. It’s just a change of pace, and I find the act of organising can change the way you create.
I start thinking, "How am I going to write about the work, or how is it going to be shown." These are important thoughts, but I think when I am still developing the idea, it is better that I don’t consider them and instead just focus.
On art as the opposite of productivity…
From a productivity perspective, it can be hard to allow yourself time to get in the zone of creating. I was born in Hong Kong and it’s a really efficient city – sometimes I have these emotions where I’m just like, “Agh, I wasn’t productive enough today!”
But at the same time, I think making art is kind of the opposite of productivity. There has been a lot of discussions around how laziness is potentially an essential part of being an artist. Not ‘lazy’ in a classic term, it’s more so that you need to be in a state where you are seemingly not doing anything.
Art making is a very personal process, and it is often internalised. You may just be sitting there having a cup of tea, or spending a couple of hours in bed just lying there thinking, but that is part of the process. There are a different set of scales when it comes to creativity
On the decision to branch out into arts management…
There is an existing structure in the arts that can be discouraging for artists. When you think about it, where do the opportunities come from? Why aren’t artists ever paid enough? How does the industry fund its artists and art workers? How do we encourage public engagement?
Behind the champagne trays at opening nights and powerful speeches about the arts sector from politicians, inequality, misrepresentation and funding issues happen every single day.
These are all big, complex issues. I guess I wanted to facilitate, or attempt to anyway, a sort of practice that genuinely supports diversity in the arts. I wanted to be in a position that allows me to provide opportunities to under-represented artists, and to generate dialogues around issues that are not spoken of. I was interning at galleries at the time and realised that it was something I wanted to do as well as being an artist.
On the relationship between vulnerability and creativity…
I guess I feel a little bit vulnerable whenever I struggle to create. But it’s interesting because – for me anyway – it is when I feel vulnerable and a little bit emotional that I make things.
There is this personal, intimate relationship that I have with everything that I make. It’s usually a reflection of my journey or my experiences and a lot of the time it is a reflection of my past, my history.
In order to get to that place where I can think of ways to explore those themes, I need to feel a little bit scared, a little bit vulnerable.
I think the better art I have seen creates this sort of emotional connection with its audience.
As an artist you really need to reveal a lot of yourself in order to connect emotionally with the work, and by extension with the viewer.
On comparing yourself to other artists…
In my first few years of making art I compared myself with others a lot. But somehow now I don’t compare anymore.
With my work, it has taken me a long time to understand that it will forever be subjective – and that’s how art should be. So when you see trends of certain art forms being popular, a lot of the time it's just timing and just so happens that the gallery likes that kind of work, or that many curators have similar interests at that point in time.
There are so many factors at play, so for me I will still pursue opportunities, but at the same time I want to focus on making what matters to me the most, and eventually that will come across for others to see.
On juggling being an artist and an arts manager…
I think jumping between different roles of an arts manager and an artist can be difficult. I get used to a certain level of productivity and find it really difficult to get to that state where I am just with myself and my thoughts.
Making art is almost like meditation, you become really aware of what’s going on in your mind. There is a certain kind of discomfort when I am alone with my thoughts.
I think finding a balance is really important as well. At one point I was having back-to-back exhibitions and I didn’t enjoy it much. I think it made me realise that I was serious about my art, but I wanted to pace it out so that I could be thorough with each project before feeling the pressure to exhibit.
When you are pumping out shows one after the other, you tend to lose that creative process and it becomes all about project management.
I enjoyed the project management side of it, but I thought I should separate the two and focus on developing ideas for my art projects and managing someone else’s
Part of the creative process is to overcome and accept such ‘unproductivity’, to be at ease with the paradox between having multiple roles in life.
Guerilla Espresso cafe in Footscray
Sen in Footscray
M Yong Tofu in Kensington
The Plough in Footscrayfor good pizza and wine, they have craft beer
Ajitoya in Seddon, a Japanese cafe with a mini Japanese store selling craft beer like espresso beer or red rice beer