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‘Another Day in Hong Kong’: Archival Intervention in the Time of Disappearance

By Jun Shen  |  Hong Kong, 12 July 2024

‘Another Day in Hong Kong’: Archival Intervention in the Time of Disappearance

Ocean Leung, That's Why You Go Away (28 Anniversaries) (2024). Performance video. Courtesy Asia Art Archive. Photo: Kwan Sheung Chi.

'We know too well that it's impossible to archive everything,' I overheard someone say while visiting Another Day in Hong Kong (18 March–31 August 2024) at Asia Art Archive (AAA).

Underlining the title of this group exhibition is One Day in Hong Kong, an exhibition at the Hong Kong Arts Centre in 1990 that comprised photographs of daily life taken by Hong Kongers on 7 September of that year. Co-curated by AAA researchers Anthony Yung and Hazel Kwok, Another Day in Hong Kong adopts 19 October 1996, the median date of data in the Archive's Hong Kong collections, as a starting point for artistic interpretations of memory and imagination.

Exhibition view: Group Exhibition, Another Day in Hong Kong, Asia Art Archive (18 March–31 August 2024).

Exhibition view: Group Exhibition, Another Day in Hong Kong, Asia Art Archive (18 March–31 August 2024). Courtesy Asia Art Archive. Photo: Kwan Sheung Chi.

Scattered throughout the existing collection of AAA library are videos, sculptures, installations, artists' books, and an interactive screen display by eight Hong Kong-born artists and seven in-house researchers who had differing memories of 19 October 1996 when they began researching for the exhibition. Some of the participants had largely forgotten it, some were too young to remember, or had yet to be born before the date, making it a seemingly trivial day. However, the porous nature of historical records permits artistic intervention, offering a way out of our doomed expectation of archives: if capturing every historical detail is impossible, incomplete materials at hand may provide space for imagining forgotten lives.

Aki Kung and Pun Tsz Wai, A Call from 2024 to 19 October 1996 (2024). Video.

Aki Kung and Pun Tsz Wai, A Call from 2024 to 19 October 1996 (2024). Video. Courtesy Asia Art Archive. Photo: Kwan Sheung Chi.

Mounted on the window near reception, Aki Kung and Pun Tsz Wai's A Call From 2024 to 19 October 1996 (2024) takes the viewer back to the day through the three-channel video montage featuring footage from the 1990s TV, film, and advertisements. The screen in the middle differs from channels on either side, which correspond to each other, suggesting the dual role of archives as both a bridge and a threshold to the past.

KK Cheung, Goodnight Beth (2024).

KK Cheung, Goodnight Beth (2024). Courtesy Asia Art Archive. Photo: Kwan Sheung Chi.

Also in the reception area is Goodnight Beth (2014), an installation of a sculpture and a set of meteorological charts by KK Cheung. One of the youngest artists in the group, Cheung relates to the day that passed before her birth by introducing a long-forgotten typhoon called Beth, which bypassed Hong Kong on 19 October 1996.

The artist expresses her empathy for it through the dynamic blend of materials including concrete, steel, umbrella spines, and industrial waste that mirror the formation and dissipation of airflow. Will Beth be remembered—Cheung's question is a pun on the fading of collective memory and events that were once significant in our lives.

Lee Ka-sing, A Floral Transformation (2024). Artist's book.

Lee Ka-sing, A Floral Transformation (2024). Artist's book. Courtesy Art Asia Archive. Photo: Kwan Sheung Chi.

In the main space of the library, a column loaded with exhibition and event posters from around 19 October 1996 reveals that almost a hundred cultural and art events took place on the day. Nearby, conceptual photographer Lee Ka-sing traverses time in his art book A Floral Transformation (2024), where the metaphor of the flower threads together his memory and fellow artists' photographic depictions of Hong Kong from the past three decades. Neither the posters nor Lee's book gives a comprehensive outline of the past, but the archival collage recreates its atmosphere with striking vitality.

Holly Lee, Days Book: 1926 Tang 鄧 | 1996 Man 文 | 2016 Chai 茶 (2024). Mixed media.

Holly Lee, Days Book: 1926 Tang 鄧 | 1996 Man 文 | 2016 Chai 茶 (2024). Mixed media. Courtesy Asia Art Archive. Photo: Kwan Sheung Chi.

Personal histories gain depth in Holly Lee's window installation Days Book: 1926 Tang | 1996 Man | 2016 Chai (2024), which presents diary entries by three modern Hong Kong women from different generations alongside their portraits. Disparate but similarly diasporic destinies also unfold in the Hong Kong Room, dedicated to local historical research, where in-house researchers have collated visual and audio news clips to foreground individual perspectives and marginalised communities in the 1990s Hong Kong, stretching the exhibition to a broader social dimension. Looking outside the window, over which a news clip bearing the title 'More and More Unhappy Hongkongers' has been pasted, it is as if similar anxiety pervades the streets in contemporary Sheung Wan.

To & Ling Are Covering Their Ears, Something happened in the world that made time meaningless (2024). Performance video.

To & Ling Are Covering Their Ears, Something happened in the world that made time meaningless (2024). Performance video. Courtesy Asia Art Archive. Photo: Kwan Sheung Chi.

Not all artists feel the necessity to recover the day as it has been. In the three-channel video Something happened in the world that made time meaningless (2024), artist duo To & Ling Are Covering Their Ears read newspapers from 19 October 1996 until the water in the pot in the central frame evaporates completely. Their voices cancel each other out, mirroring the vapourising process. The day is invalidated by lack of evidence, lost in the continuity of life.

Siu King Chung, Generative Histories from 19 October 1996 (2024). Mixed media.

Siu King Chung, Generative Histories from 19 October 1996 (2024). Mixed media. Courtesy Asia Art Archive. Photo: Kwan Sheung Chi.

Siu King Chung's installation Generative Histories from 19 October 1996 (2024) attempts to reconstruct his lost memory of 19 October 1996 through materials from his personal archive and the help of friends, family, and curators. Because he lacked an exact record of the date, the artist used old photographs, biographies, and diaries from the period around it to fill vitrines and adjacent walls. Arrows and handwritten labels with hypothetical analysis of what he might have experienced reveal Siu's efforts to locate the void of memory by approximation, where the past resurfaces in lived experience.

Florence Lam, Who Am I? (2024). Artist's book.

Florence Lam, Who Am I? (2024). Artist's book. Courtesy Asia Art Archive. Photo: Kwan Sheung Chi.

Drawing from family narratives and personal memories, Florence Lam's illustrated children's book Who Am I? (2024) reflects on her dialogue with her younger self on the brink of adulthood. Lam's story is retold from an interview with her mother, in which they sought to recall the memory of the designated date. Beneath the innocent language, her pressing question on identity expresses the sense of rootlessness shared by younger generations of Hong Kong.

A similar sense of emptiness can be found in Ocean Leung's video That's Why You Go Away (28 Anniversaries) (2024), in which the artist shouts the ballad 'That's Why (You Go Away)' 28 times in a KTV room in commemoration of the popularisation of the song in 1996 Hong Kong. The mixed cuts of his repetitive gesture amplify a desperate attempt at grasping the fleeting essence of a bygone era.

Hazel Kwok and Leah Lam: What would you do on 19 October 1996? (2024). Interactive interface produced by Jervois X.

Hazel Kwok and Leah Lam: What would you do on 19 October 1996? (2024). Interactive interface produced by Jervois X. Courtesy Asia Art Archive. Photo: Kwan Sheung Chi.

On a nearby interactive screen, Hazel Kwok and Leah Lam's What would you do on 19 October 1996? (2024) presents the results of their survey of Hong Kong cultural workers across generations with the titular question. In their responses, individuals reflect on the day from their own temporalities, a time when they were new artists or artists-to-be, brimming with anticipation despite the uncertainty of the future.

One learns that Ellen Pau, the early predecessor of video art in Hong Kong, returned to the port city in 1996 from an overseas exhibition with the idea of establishing non-profit Videotage in her mind. Artist and architect Sara Wong, then a master's student, was on her way to meet her fellow initiators at Para Site, Hong Kong's first independent artist-run space. Artist Ho Ting, who was born after 1996, adapted lyrics from a Taiwanese pop song Pink Memories (1987) as a response to the survey. Kwok and Lam's work shifts the initial curatorial question from the quest for archival engagement to that of the virtual, exploring the idea of becoming and transitioning from a fixed narrative to an open invitation.

Isabella Chan and Cho Wing Ki, The Bygone Fragments: 19 October 1996 (2024). Reproduced newspaper clippings.

Isabella Chan and Cho Wing Ki, The Bygone Fragments: 19 October 1996 (2024). Reproduced newspaper clippings. Courtesy Asia Art Archive. Photo: Kwan Sheung Chi.

In a library housing over 130,000 records, it is easy to miss the 'acknowledgement' label that Siu discreetly placed between bookshelves. In it, the artist thanks friends and family, curators, and archivists for mnemonic support in recovering his memory of 19 October 1996. This gesture underscores the inherently relational nature of memory, generated by living our lives together.

Another Day in Hong Kong is part of the institution's long-term project, Recalling Disappearance: Hong Kong Contemporary Art, whose title is reminiscent of cultural critic Ackbar Abbas's notion of 'space of disappearance'. Writing in 1997, Abbas argued for a continuous manoeuvre by the port city in constructing its own cultural subjectivity in the face of the handover and subsequent identity crisis many Hong Kongers faced.

While the exhibition foregrounds sensuous textures to a day that has seemingly disappeared, it reevaluates disappearance not as a historical void, but as a relational space full of tangible membranes. It leaves with a hopeful reminder that, just as the city's past remains unsettled, its future cannot be easily predetermined. —[O]

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