For Art’s Sake: “Galleries Gal” Yulia Yarkova on The Art of Gallery Hopping
November 04, 2022
“At some point, people said, ‘oh, it's a passion project,’ I'm like, ‘no—that's my rage project!’”
Last year alone, Yulia Yarkova visited 500 different art exhibitions across Hong Kong’s various galleries. Known by the alternate moniker of Galleries Gal, she is the chronicler behind the eponymous ongoing documentation of all the art happenings in the city. A visually stunning archive in itself, her Instagram profile consists of straightforward images depicting artworks and installations, accompanied by an explanatory blurb teeming with her witty commentary and poetic mulling.
Speaking to The Beat Asia about her progression into the art world and the transformations she’s witnessed in the local scene, Galleries Gal shares with us some sharp observations of Hong Kong arts culture as we see it today, as well as her hopes for its future.
Initially born out of frustration with being unable to find aggregated information detailing what art exhibitions were on, Galleries Gal began as Yulia’s own record of all the art she encountered while out and about around the city. Five years later, her page has grown a strong following, as did her personal web of ties with budding local artists, curators, gallery operators of all persuasions, and of course, fellow art lovers.
She tells The Beat Asia, “it is a bit difficult, I cannot go to an art specialist because I'm a bit too chatty for that. But I cannot completely go for purely lifestyle [writing], because I'm too arts-oriented for that.”
A chance visit to Hong Kong by train nearly a decade ago was Yulia’s first brush with the city, where she immediately fell in love with the sights of rolling verdant hills that tapered off into glittering cityscapes. Her entry into the world of art was equally as simple, beginning with her typing “art galleries near me” into Google Maps and venturing off to find them. Despite her existing familiarity with aesthetics thanks to an educational background in interior design, stepping into the art world was a wholly different ballpark that Yulia had to conquer.
“When people say: ‘oh, I'm so intimidated, I'm too shy to go to galleries’, I say to them ‘you tell me!’ You have no idea how shy I was at first. I asked my friends to literally hold my hand [when visiting galleries] because it's so confusing. Anybody else who has been to a gallery without any prior experience, you just don't know what to do. When you go to museums, you know how to do museums, right? You understand it, you understand that game, but what are the moves in a gallery?”
“Especially on opening night. I’m thinking, ‘okay, everybody seems to know each other, and you're standing in the corner.’ You want to go and see the art, and there’s just these people standing around in front of it, so you have to dance around,” she chuckles, “it’s a deeply confusing experience.”
Paradoxically, Yulia’s own method of navigating an art exhibition is a far cry from the sort of experience that Galleries Gal encourages. Where her alluring photos of the art pieces lull viewers into becoming compelled to meet face-to-face with the works themselves, Yulia’s process of setting up a feature to publish is less in-the-moment rumination and more retroactive contemplation. Yulia slots in up to five or six site visits a day, assuming the Galleries Gal persona allowed her to smooth out her time in the gallery without having to feel emotionally drained saying goodbye to part for the next stop.
“I thought that I would be kind of a satellite around the art world, objectively observing everything from a distance. I failed totally, of course. How can you be objective if it's your friends, your favourite gallery, your favourite artists? Somehow, I managed to squeeze myself into the art world, but it’s still a niche thing that I’m working on. It's not art journalism, not like art critiquing. It’s a completely different profession. People usually go to feel something, to be impacted. I go to document it.”
The heart of Yulia’s continuous record-keeping is not some lofty ideal to offer artistic salvation to the masses that prefer to stay glued to Instagram Reels, but a gentle open invitation that draws their gazes towards the abundance of art offerings all around.
“I think that if a person is not determined to learn about art, it will be very naive to expect that they somehow absorb art. Sometimes we don't like something at first sight because, well, it's unfamiliar to us. But I feel that if you see something like that, let's say abstract art, and the first time you dislike it. The second time, maybe still. Then maybe on the third, you realise ‘oh it kind of looks like a mountain! Is it a mountain?’”
“It's a long process, which will take months or maybe years, even if you don't do it on purpose. But the more you see it the more familiar it looks. You only enrich your experience, and that builds a tolerance to new things. And sometimes you see something that maybe we would have not liked two years ago, but now you see it and go ‘what’s this?’ So, you're becoming more curious, because you have this mass of visual experience.”
Her early days in the city were marred by the unfortunately widely uttered assertion of Hong Kong being a “cultural desert,” yet her own forays into galleries had proven otherwise. She credits the Hong Kong Arts Galleries Association (HKAGA) as a group that directed her attention towards the local talents who are almost always only an arm's length away.
Today, the Galleries Gal site is approaching half a decade of covering the annual RMIT BAFA Graduation Exhibition, and with that, she has seen the blossoming of many cohorts and the evolutionary journeys that follow their leaving the nest.
“Somebody told me that in all the other parts of the world, you first have your studio and then you have your solo show, but in Hong Kong it's vice versa. You can have several exhibitions and even a solo show in a gallery, and you still won't have a studio.”
The COVID-19 pandemic putting a wrench in the interflow of artists and industry folks in and out of Hong Kong meant finally dedicating the spotlight to local artists. Lamenting the scarce support and insufficient venues in maintaining this momentum, Yulia calls for more breathing room for Hong Kong art to develop.
Amidst the loosening of measures in Hong Kong, she adds “I want one more thing for Hong Kong artists; it’s art residencies in other countries. Hong Kong art is so intertwined in terms of style, in terms of approach, [the artists] need to go outside and see something completely different in person in order to return with new ideas with new approaches, new themes.”
“And they can just digest it to make it a new wave for Hong Kong art. Because right now, we have several professors in our schools, and sometimes when you're looking at the graduate show, I can see your professor in your works. It’s understandable, it’s not a crime or something, but to be influenced by something outside of the community as well, I feel that it will enrich our lives greatly. For the public, I just wish more schools would go to visit galleries and aren’t sticking to just the things they are sure they will like. To go and explore more.”
Following along and providing pinpoints for Hong Kong’s contemporary art over the past couple of years, Galleries Gal as a project doubles as a sort of unofficial time capsule enclosing several epochs in the city’s ever-shifting arts scene, as told through Yulia’s accompanying perspectives. When prompted to identify and share the most monumental moments she’s witnessed in her timeline, she instead raises attention to the contributions of local artisans that have been consistently overlooked throughout.
“Sometimes [traditional crafts experts] are like ’Oh, I wish I could pass my knowledge of making this birdcage, or these post boxes, but the younger generation are not interested.’ First of all, a lot of the younger generation, they're just not aware, or they have no knowledge of these crafts. Then, there's no support built around [the artists’] sharing. That’s a tragedy, like with the disappearance of neon signs.”
“You cannot see the art scene as separate, it will always be intertwined and interconnected with culture, with heritage, with design. Working with architecture, charities, art institutions, and with art residences for artist exchange—it should be flowing. It should be merging together. And if we have this dying out, you cannot continue to build on the art ecosystem.”
Underneath these high hopes, Yulia believes that anyone can play their own part in sustaining the arts and culture in Hong Kong. She started off armed with only a map of marked galleries, after all.
“Just being aware, showing support. I would encourage people to begin to just go to galleries. You do belong there, and you have a right to go there.”
Follow @galleriesgal on Instagram to stay in the loop for Hong Kong’s current and upcoming showcases, and stay tuned to Yulia’s Galleries Gal blog for more musings on art in Hong Kong and the culture of galleries.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity
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