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Culture curator Grace Lai on what she loves – from books to podcasts and everything in between

‘Carried Away: Bags Unpacked’ was undoubtedly one of the most talked about exhibitions of the year in 2019.

We caught up with Grace Lai, the curator behind the popular Auckland War Memorial Museum exhibition to find out a few of her current cultural favourites.

No Such Thing as a Fish is my companion on my daily commute. Unusual facts delivered through witty banter starts my morning with a good laugh and primes me for a good day.
On a recent trip to Thailand, I picked up The Travelling Cat Chronicles by Hiro Arikawa from the airport bookstore. I was immediately enamoured with Nana, the titular cat, through which we see Japan’s landscape unfold evocatively in his witty observations. The deceptively simple structure and light tone belies a heart-wrenching story of friendship, loyalty and gratitude. It’s a gentle reminder of the power in acts of love.
Local gallery
Objectspace is one of my most frequented galleries in Auckland. A champion of craft, design and architecture, the gallery highlights New Zealand practitioners. Each show is thoughtful and intentional, often bringing to light making practices that are otherwise cloaked in shadows.
Julie Andrews, Sound of Music black & white film still

Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music

My mum introduced me to the charm of musicals through films. The Sound of Music (1965) was the soundtrack to my childhood, and even today, any song from the score puts me in a good mood.
International museum
The Wellcome Collection has a special place in my heart as it was a landmark during my time studying at SOAS University of London. Nostalgia aside, their exhibitions are provocative
and challenging, yet always accessible, implemented with a whimsical approach. Topics range from the history of mental illness to the psychology of magic.
The Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris characterises the type of building where the experience of the space is unparalled with its facade. The mechanisation of photosensitive mashrabiya (lattice windows) delays the act of seeing, heightening the reveal of the landscape beyond. And Bar Luce in Milan is fiction come to life. Designed by director Wes Anderson, the café is a homage to 1950s Italian cinema and reminiscent of Wes’ films, with candy-coloured Formica furniture and terrazzo floors.

Inside London’s Wellcome museum

Being interested in the psychology behind space and space making, I adore immersive installations. One of my favourites was created by the Singapore group Vertical Submarine. A cupboard door left ajar leads into a narrow corridor papered with excerpts from books describing interiors. Reaching the end, text transforms into images and objects within a room tucked through a small crawl space. Titled A View with a Room, this 2009 work plays with the inversion of dimensions, elevating the room into a character.
Nice nails by Lizzie Darden

“Nice nails” by Lizzie Darden

Instagram account
If I’m ever in need of a visual pick-me-up, then I head to the colourful rabbit warren created by @lizzie_darden. Her portfolio is the culmination of craft, design and photography, sprinkled with wit and a dash of pop culture. From chandeliers covered with ears and cotton swabs to belts affixed with miniature chairs, she has an affinity for fun.

Milan’s Bar Luce, designed by Wes Anderson

Wes Anderson’s films never fail to deliver in details that delight me. His mastery of visual language conjures immaculately designed worlds that are equal parts whimsical and earnest. Every artistic choice, from colour to font, is nuanced and sculpted to deliver the narrative – stories with a grandiosity that lingers long after the credits roll.
Is it cheeky to say Carried Away: Bags Unpacked? Unravelling mysteries and discovering unexpected stories are the rewards of curating an exhibition, and why Carried Away is dear to me. As for the show, it is a layered reading of how a ubiquitous object like the bag can speak to topical issues such as gender politics, colonialism and economy.
A version of this article originally appeared in Fashion Quarterly Issue 3, 2019.

Photos: Getty Images, Supplied


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