Contemporary art in Hong Kong is having a bit of a zeitgeist moment: art is in the news more than ever as Art Basel Hong Kong makes it debut, and a number of other fairs and numerous gallery shows compete for attention. But what does it mean to be a ‘Hong Kong artist’? A number of emerging and mid-career artists are tackling this question in different ways through their art.
The survey exhibition Hong Kong Eye takes as its central premise this commonality of place. Now at ArtisTree in Taikoo Place in Hong Kong, the show, which has already travelled to Saatchi Gallery, London, is designed to illustrate the breadth and depth of contemporary art practice in Hong Kong. The twenty artists represented are old and young, male and female, and their use of media diverse. It ticks all the boxes. Yet, like so many country-themed group offerings it seems that the sum is less than the parts.
Some of the most striking works in the exhibition are by emerging artists. Kong Chun Hei’s, Door, 2013, Suitcase, 2009, Book II, 2009, and Drawers, 2011, a series of works in ink on paper and ink on paper mounted on archival board, are not so much representations of the objects themselves, as static-y reincarnations of them: it is as if the atoms that made up the original objects have been dispersed and then reassembled via some kind of wonky transporter. Although their identity, meaning and purpose have been transformed by their re-creation as artworks, they still harbour their namesakes’ original aura.
Annie Wan Lai Kuen is a mid-career rather than emerging artist, and her work deserves more attention. Her porcelain moulds of everyday objects are stand-ins for the real thing: in one work cans and cartons of milky porcelain are pictured on the supermarket shelf among the ‘real’ items for sale, reminding one of the museum practice of filling in the missing pieces of statues, pottery, etc, with a plain porcelain piece. In Hong Kong Eye, Looking for Poetry in Wanchai, 2005, features a series of plaster moulds of Chinese characters that reads ‘Modern people cannot see the ancient moon, but the modern moon had shone on the ancient people’. In taking the characters out of their context (Wanchai is by turns seedy red-light district and old-style Hong Kong) she removes their original meaning and gives them a new poetic one. Wan says: "The reality cannot reappear. We can do nothing but to describe or mimic it through various ways. Moulding is my way of depicting the reality. Moulds, like maps, come from reality".
Young artist Ho Sin Tung, whose work is also in Hong Kong Eye, explores this re-representation of reality via maps. Her precise, old-fashioned cartographical drawings belie their personal, topical content. The Discreet Charm of the Proletariat, 2009, apparently illustrates an episode in the artist’s life where, over a 2-year period, she asked someone out and he always said no. The work shows a distorted view of Hong Kong, illustrating only the places between his and her home. Like the work’s namesake, the 1972 film, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie by Luis Bunuel, the artist seeks to show that even the most seemingly straight-forward depiction of reality is manipulated by its author’s position and views.
Another of Ho’s works, Hills Won’t Heal, 2009, picturing ‘The Demolished and Disappeared Hills in Hong Kong’, highlights the ongoing battle in Hong Kong between nature and the city. A mountainous city, with limited useable land, the natural landscape (including the ocean) is constantly being clawed away at. In both of these works Ho highlights how the particularities of place impact on people.
Away from Hong Kong Eye, nature continues to be a subject being taken up by a number of young Hong Kong artists, who lately seem to have developed an environmental awareness. Halley Cheng’s work Shing Mun Arboretum Encyclopedia, 2013, illustrates species of trees found in Hong Kong, accompanied by texts in Chinese giving anecdotal information about the plants, while another work, Thailand Plants vs Michael at Hellfire Pass, 2013, features Michael Jackson and the cast of the Thriller music video bizarrely juxtaposed in a natural landscape that supposedly resembles the artist’s father’s garden. Like Ho, Cheng’s work appears conservative. Cheng uses media such as pen, pencil, charcoal, and felt-tip markers, and the yellow tone of the background wash on the board give the work the feel of an age-worn ink painting. However, like Ho’s, his focus in resolutely contemporary, global, and personal.
Will Kwan and Kurt Tong are two Hong Kong artists who have spent most of their adult lives out of Hong Kong. They are not so much emerging artists, as absent ones, although Tong has recently returned and set up a studio in bourgeoning art district Wong Chuk Hang. Kwan hasn’t come back to Hong Kong and although he does draw on Hong Kong motifs and symbols, his work is international in look and theme. He doesn’t consider himself a Hong Kong artist, and finds that: "Living away from Hong Kong means that when I happen to make a work about the city, I approach it as a model or archetype of some wider condition. On the one hand, I can be analytical and distanced, reading the city in relation to other urban conditions, and working with it on a macro level. On the other hand, I also interpret the city as an outsider without access to understanding the nuances of everyday life in the city". Kwan’s work looks at the power and influence of multi-nationals and how the co-opting of images and signs by capitalist culture furthers their own ends.
Tong’s photographic practice draws on his childhood in Hong Kong. His series In Case it Rains in Heaven, 2009, looks at the tradition of leaving gifts for the dead to use in heaven. Items include an umbrella (in case in rains), a birdcage – complete with birds – cans of coke, and food.
I asked Tong how he thought photography worked as a tool to express his ideas and themes: "I am paraphrasing Alec Soth now, but I think photographs are a terrible narrative tool: it’s a tiny frozen moment with little context, no beginning, no middle, no end. Viewers are put right in the middle of it. Photographs only suggest stories and that precisely is what I want to achieve with my work. To leave emotional impressions, if you will, and allow the viewers to put it together fusing it with their own experience".
Paul Yeung and Enoch Cheung are two young photographers whose work finds inspiration in the local. Yeung’s series Flower Show, 2009, and Chueng’s series “The Making Of” New Territories, 2012, transform local events and landscapes into patterned colourful tableaus. Yeung’s work abstracts into pure colour the people and flowers he finds at a flower show; while Cheung’s New Territories series takes the everyday identifying elements of the local landscape – bus shelters, rubbish bins, diggers, construction barriers, and real estate signage – and manipulates them into something quite majestic.
These are just a few Hong Kong artists making their mark today. There are many more. And it is their act of transforming the ugly, the commonplace, the unremarkable – or indeed the shocking, disturbing or exciting – into something Other, that excites viewers of contemporary art. - [O]
Susan Acret is a writer and art advisor who lives in Hong Kong. Art Asia Advisory will be conducting tours highlighting contemporary Asian art during May.
The three artists above can be seen in Hong Kong Eye, at Artistree, Taikoo Place, Hong Kong.