“If Hong Kong, A Woman/Traveller”: The Production of Art in the Post/colonial City1
Manuscript accepted by China Information for a special issue on Gender and Culture.
Associate Professor of Geography
University of Southern California
Los Angeles, CA 90080
Contemporary and alternative art in Hong Kong has strong local roots, translocal connections and reflects cultural politics in the city, while it lacks substantial international recognition. This interdisciplinary analysis focuses on the contexts of production of contemporary art by women in Hong Kong and their centrality in the city’s arts community. The narrative contrasts the presence of contemporary and alternative arts and its absence from art criticism discourses through the disjuncture between the geopolitics of contemporary Asian art and the making of Hong Kong into an unprecedented territorial formation. Reading local art through alternative space-time concepts and intersubjective arts practice is proposed through the exhibit-event, “If Hong Kong, A Woman/Traveller.”
Keywords: Hong Kong, China, contemporary art, women, feminism, intersubjectivity, translocality
There are interesting relationships between the identities embodied in women artists and their experiences in creative processes. Why is this ‘she’ doing this and why is that ‘she’ doing that? When they experiment in Life amidst the intensity of Art, when they practice Art by leading their Life, it becomes another kind of experience, another kind of journey. ‘Hong Kong’, ‘Woman’ and ‘Artist’ are frames, whilst the journey is the content: from point A to point B, the content is framed with forms in the volume of time and space. This is how If Hong Kong, A Woman/Traveller is conceived.i
1This paper is based on research carried out under a US-Fulbright CIES grant held at Hong Kong Baptist University during 2005-06.
I am grateful to the Department of Geography there and to colleagues, students and friends for supporting my visit and continuing research. I am especially grateful to the artists whose work is featured in the paper for granting interviews and allowing reproduction of their works. I also wish to thank Jeroen de Kloet for comments on a previous draft as well the anonymous referees. While I could not have carried out the research alone, I am solely responsible for the analysis and any errors of fact or assessment that it may contain.
Over the past decade, several contemporary art exhibits dealing with perspectives on gender have appeared in Hong Kong. The most recent, “If Hong Kong, A Woman/Traveller” was a major exhibit-event held in 2005 at 1a space and Artist Commune, two alternative art spaces in the Cattle Depot Artists Village.
The exhibit showed the work of eight Hong Kong artists in association with a scholarly symposium on issues concerning feminism and art history and the practice of art by women. Another Hong Kong independent art space, Para/Site, has produced several exhibits dealing with gender and feminism. Among them, “Ma’am’s Box” was a multi-media exhibit on the lives of five women—curated by a man; “May Fung: Everything Starts from ‘HERE’” featured the work of one of the city’s pioneering experimental video artists; and, in recognition of the comparative absence of themes dealing explicitly with masculinity, a woman curated “Man Made,” featuring the work of five male artists.ii Para/Site also co-coordinated “Wo…Man—Feminine Art” at Old Ladies House art space in Macau in 2001, which artist and critic Phoebe Man Ching-ying observed “was not advancing any clear definition of ‘woman art’.”
As she assessed, “We might want to expose some traditional views of ‘feminine art’, but to establish a counter authoritative definition is precisely what the artists didn’t want to do.” “Wo…Man” developed without a curator as a group event and, like earlier exhibits, incorporated both male and female artists. In this conscious avoidance of participation based on sex and gender, the exhibit effectively enacted a double movement against gendered essentialisms and marginalization of art by women: the project resisted ‘woman art’ and did not identify a historic representation of ‘female’.iv
At the larger regional scale, “Text and Subtext: Contemporary Art and Asian Women” was a conference, international touring exhibition and a core event of the 2000 Singapore Art Festival; it produced a conference volume in addition to an exhibition catalog.v
While it has pan-Asian reach, the edited collection includes essays on the ‘big’ countries from East to South Asia (“China”, “Japan,” “Indonesia” and “India”), some of their former colonial powers (“England” and “Australia”), and the arts centers of the Chinese cultural diaspora (“Taiwan” and “Singapore”), in addition to three significant though somewhat less central countries of arts productivity (“Korea,” “Philippines” and “Vietnam”). The casual analyst might not note the absence of a “Hong Kong” contribution, or assume that its coverage would be subsumed within “China.” But the latter is not the case and among 22 participants, one artist from Hong Kong, Leung Mee-ping, showed work in the exhibition. For her installation, “Memorize the Future,” Leung shaped human hair, collected from over a 1000 people in over 100 countries, “into shoes which a child, one just learning to walk, might wear.” vi
Her consciously global project did not index a particular tradition or cultural context and instead transcended distance, boundaries and bodies to weave individuals into a common context as if setting forth on a new collective path. A different art criticism project, Global Feminisms, aimed at women’s art on the global scale devotes three chapters to Asia: women in India, in Japan and in Asia generally. About Asia, Joan Kee poses the question: “What is feminist about contemporary Asian women’s art?” Her response discusses nothing about art in Hong Kong (or the People’s Republic of China) with the oblique exception of quoting Phoebe Man’s observation that trying to define feminist art style “only reinforces a kind of authoritarian logic that does not always change the way people think.” vii
Where the work of an avant-garde creative movement is to generate communication through artworks that incorporate new forms, attempts to define those forms and pin down the process could only be antithetical to the project.
Edited collections are always partial stories and we cannot draw from such volumes particular conclusions about the role of Hong Kong art in Asia or globally. Yet I deploy these would-be regional projects on art and women in Asia to raise questions about the presences and absences of Hong Kong art from some contexts of recognition, international exchange and art criticism. While I do not focus on an analysis of discourse, this discussion recognizes “how power works through language, literature, culture and institutions which regulate our daily lives,” and, once revealed, “makes it possible to trace connections between the visible and the hidden, the dominant and the marginalized, ideas and institutions.” viii
At this juncture, it is not the intent to suggest a particular absence of art produced by women—indeed women make central contributions to the development of contemporary art in the city, and the artwork is on the poststructural intellectual edge—but certain absences of Hong Kong art generally in arenas of public engagement. In 1997 critic Chang Tsong-zung described these absences:
…the significant Hong Kong artworks of recent decades are precisely those which have burrowed underneath the city glitter and gone against the grain. In a manner of speaking, Hong Kong art is truly underground, much more so than, say, in Communist China where independent art is thought to be dangerous and is gingerly handled by the authorities. Here, art is ignored.
In response to the overall ‘transparent’ character of Hong Kong life, the pursuit of art (specifically art seen to be ‘avant-garde’ or ‘contemporary’) becomes above all a strategy for protecting one’s spiritual integrity. Here art is practiced as self-defense, rather than as a means to reach out, to proselytize or to attack. This means a concern for personal values and attachment to experiences of an ephemeral and private nature. Opaqueness is the primary colour; therefore, some of the most interesting art is created out of paranoiac secrecy. As one cannot expect much public accolade, making art nearly always comes from intense personal need. Like soliloquies, they are private projects that stay shy of the public. In cases where artists have gradually developed a routine of open exhibitions, the art is often intentionally obscure and full of closed, personal references. ix
In this account, subjectivity and complexity characterize Hong Kong art, whose works do not regularly feature legible iconographic symbols. In Chang’s view from 1997, artworks represented deep personal sensibilities in the context of national hegemonic time: the transformation of Hong Kong into a Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). In Chang’s interpretation we also find how it is easy and difficult, reasonable and unexpected, to discuss contemporary and avant-garde art in Hong Kong without relation to art in the PRC. x
For observers of popular culture in contemporary China and its global circulations, knowledge of the dramatic rise of an international market for Chinese art, and related aspects of visual culture, suggest questions about their contexts and reach in what Shu-mei Shih calls the “Sinophone Pacific” and its connections through communities of Chinese-language cultures. xi
Yet just a few scholarly treatments have examined contemporary Hong Kong art media in relation to place-based identity in the late colonial and postcolonial periods. xii A few local critics and scholars have published writings on women artists in Hong Kong, while fewer studies have been published in the international arena and even fewer have sought to consider the production of art by women in historical, geographical and comparative contexts. xiii Thus this analysis seeks to make a modest contribution to understanding some conditions of significant contemporary art production in Hong Kong, while identifying its absences from broader regional and international discourses on ‘Chinese’ art. Rather than constructing a binary formation, I raise these presences and absences to propose a dyad of potential translocal interrelatedness, between the production of art in Hong Kong and other places;
or, ways that a translocal perspective seeks “to highlight a simultaneous analytical focus on mobilities and localities” among artists and along women’s individual lifepaths. xiv This is a step toward suggesting that we might better view Hong Kong art, or art produced in Hong Kong, outside conventional geopolitical (i.e. national and world regional) frames.
Feminist theorists have also developed critical readings of art from alternative perspectives on space and time, which hold the potential to unseat linear accounts and national schools of art and associated discursive modes. The art historian Griselda Pollock interprets concepts of space and time in the writing of Julia Kristeva to incorporate the realities of multiple feminisms and their geographies.xv Her materialist approach historicizes the production of art as an explicit strategy of resistance to art criticism that has judged works based on normative, aesthetic and monetary values, and as if gender is invisible. xvi
This is not an analytic that would restore historic outlooks on earlier waves of feminism, of whatever origin, or the feminine as a known other, but in Pollock’s words, one in which “the feminine comes to stand for an ethical, political, aesthetic dissidence that we want to allow to emerge into the social and cultural systems of meanings so that it can really make a difference through what it reveals of other possibilities, other affects, other aspirations, other understandings, other desires, other forms of ambivalence and conflict.” xvii This is an analytic of experience that holds potential for ethically rethinking the possibilities of places and social contexts, and a position for locally negotiating political economic transformation in an era of globalizing change. Pollock is also a central participant in the symposium event of the exhibit “If Hong Kong, A Woman Traveler.” The next sections address contexts of the production of art, followed by focused discussion of the exhibit.
Contexts of arts production
In an essay on the ubiquity of installation art in Hong Kong, curator and critic Oscar Ho has observed that its popularity “is, in a way, a natural outcome of the dramatic rise in the real estate market in the late Eighties, which simply made it impossible for young artists to afford their own studio space. Art making became urban guerilla warfare; artists would make art wherever there was an opportunity and a venue. … the highly flexible character of installation art resolved the critical space problem.” xviii The production of art—in what is the highest density urban environment in the industrialized world—generates particular constraints; literally making space for art in Hong Kong is always a political project.
While I do not adopt a spatial determinism, the contextual approach to the production of art in Hong Kong concerns some acute relations between space and time and social milieus of arts practice, which include the making of the Hong Kong SAR and power relations in arenas of art criticism and national art formations. xix
Hong Kong does not have a museum for contemporary art and artists and cultural activists have established the city’s independent art spaces, led by 1a space and Para/site, introduced above. They enjoy considerable local and global recognition among independent arts communities even as they operate on the margins of institutional support and public patronage. Hong Kong museums are run by government under a relatively conventional mandate, now often with a national outlook.
For example, the 10th Anniversary of the handover in 2007 brought to the Hong Kong Museum of Art “The Pride of China,” a group of dynastic era paintings and calligraphy including the 12th century “Qingming Festival,” the single most important painting in the history of the nation. The government’s promotional materials and the local and international press uniformly interpret such events as highlights among an ongoing Beijing-supported program to foster nation-oriented Chinese identity among the people of Hong Kong, whose settled population identifies with the local and translocal culture of the city. xx The run-up to the handover in 1997 led to widespread concern over Hong Kong’s future, and the contemporary arts community interpreted the process through diverse works exploring Hong Kong identity.
The context of this historically unprecedented decolonization, in the face of simultaneous globalization and neocolonization, as the international curator Hou Hanru interpreted, made the repatriation of Hong Kong into a spectacular world media event. xxi When Hou curated “Hong Kong, etc.” for the Johannesburg Biennale in 1997, “Hong Kong” was a signifier of the postcolonial city, a symbolic city for the world of cities “in which Hong Kong's paradoxical position, straddling the divide between the East and West [was] employed to map the cartographies of the modern global city.” xxii Hong Kong issues and Hong Kong art were not featured at the event. Making the Hong Kong handover itself a critical political subject was, as it is now, politically incorrect: whereas Mainland art trades in bold Cultural Revolution symbols and other iconography, which appear to critique the political regime while working the global art system, any attempt to popularize Hong Kong art cannot be accomplished by trading in bold PRC symbols that critique the contemporary state.
If the art critical world looks for internationally legible symbols of such ‘Chineseness’ in Hong Kong, it comes up relatively empty-handed.
Thus contextual understandings of contemporary art must begin in Hong Kong, not in the clichéd metaphorical space between ‘east’ and ‘west’, but in places of arts production and their spheres of influence and connection. These places are local contexts with translocal reach, places interrelated with others through mobilities of people and ideas and their traveling transformations. While there is nothing new in pointing to high mobility in world cities, the territorial space of colonial and postcolonial Hong Hong also makes mobility a fundamentally transnational experience if we remember that every trip outside the Hong Kong SAR is still an inter-national journey of citizenship documents and proper channels (divided among Hong Kong residents, PRC passport holders, APEC and Frequent Visitor Card holders, and foreigners).
Every flight from the city’s airport is still an international flight and, even within the Pearl River delta region, a day trip to Shenzhen or Macau cannot be made, whether by helicopter, ferry or foot, without crossing a controlled border. Daily life in Hong Kong takes place in this complex context of bordered geographies, while “a woman traveller,” is symbolically opposite to traditional cultural and historical norms about who would make an independent journey.xxiii Such translocal politics “do more than operate across or between the boundaries and borders of nations; rather, they actively question the nature and limits of these boundaries by practising forms of political identity which, while located in geographical space, do not depend on the limits of territory to define the limits of their politics.” xxiv
If asked directly about feminism, many artists in Hong Kong tend to express disinterest in a feminist project labeled as such or identification as a feminist.
Ivy Ma, curator of “If Hong Kong, A Woman/Traveller,” explained “I will say no to ‘are you a feminist’?” because “for us it is a kind of limitation.” xxv She continued, perhaps “it is too political for us” if “a feminist should be doing something strategic and tactical in some movement.” But this does not mean that gendered subjectivities and their politics are absent. Recalling postgraduate study at Leeds University, “what I learned from feminism is a way to rethink norms and infrastructure,” so “the switch is always turned on to remind you to rethink.” Currently, “I’m interested in how we come to meanings of self and want to explore ways of expressive self and my own language-psyche; but these are not outgoing and outspoken. I’m very interested in psychoanalysis, in Freud, Lacan and now Deleuze.” Concerned with such perspectives of interiority, “Hong Kong art is quite subtle—not like a kind of Western expression, also found in China.
In Hong Kong, I think art takes more time to see. It is distinctive…it is more difficult to understand.” These complexities of gendered subjectivity in relation to the production of art hold their intersubjective potential in shifts toward local meanings, in which ‘local’ can be an escape from or the antithesis of provincialism—as if Hong Kong is ever only on the margins of large geographies (China, the West). While such outlooks are reasonably well known among artists and critics in Hong Kong, is it possible that such understandings are less clearly observed among projects and markets that seek to find ‘Chineseness’ in Hong Kong?
Any attempt to examine the production of art among women in Hong Kong must also incorporate some understanding of the relatively high status of professional women in relation to identity formation.xxvi
For example, one of the city’s path-breaking artists, May Fung, reflects on how her position as a mid-level civil servant (Hong Kong introduced an equal-wage law in the 1960s) commanded a salary that supported her artwork. xxvii Educated women in Hong Kong have experienced greater equality than elsewhere in Asia, which mitigates against the notion of a homo-geographical ‘Chinese woman-ness’ across the region. One of Hong Kong’s most prolific writers on the contemporary arts, Anthony Leung Po-shan, comments on the situation: “In Hong Kong, feminism and the status of women in the arts seem to be different from their counterparts in mainland China. … The younger generations in Hong Kong do not need to waste their energy protesting against the male-dominated art world. They can follow their artistic aspirations. This is different in mainland China and Taiwan.” xxviii Artists and intellectuals in Hong Kong often regard with indifference or may adopt resistance to characterizations of ‘Chinese’ women or ‘Chinese’ feminisms;
on the other hand, some may evaluate and perform them in art works—or have such characterizations projected on to them as if constituted in ethnicity. In an essay on Choi Yan-chi, whose work is introduced briefly below, Matthew Turner noted that “While in Chicago she had to deftly evade expectations of Chinese-ness: the repetition of calligraphy in her graduate works is insouciant, much as she was unmoved (if inwardly amused) by her tutor’s suggestion that she must, surely, be expressing subjugation of women in Red China.” xxix
Intellectually, it is axiomatic that there should be no particular association between the subjectivity of an individual artist in Hong Kong, or anywhere in the Chinese diaspora, and ‘Chinese’-in-China or ‘Chinese’-in-the-international-academy women’s or feminist issues; even we all may have interests in these nationally-indexed formations, their resonances and effects.
Positions of subjectivity and intersubjective understanding among women artists in Hong Kong represent individual choices and possibilities, whose articulations of gender identity may challenge ‘being’ the HKSAR—insofar as that identity requires a ‘Chinese’ outlook. Thus in the time of the SAR we encounter the contradiction of geopolitical ‘Chineseness’: the Hong Kong SAR whose future is defined by the international system as sovereign territory of the PRC, propelled toward national unity, and Hong Kong as the international city and settlement of Chinese people, which has no political history under Chinese state rule. Against this backdrop, artwork by women faces the possibility for double erasure: marginality in an art historical world still coded through national affinities and its amplifications in the global art system, and absence of resonance with the transhistorical category ‘Chinese’ women and its symbolic affects.
Art historical scholarship in Hong Kong has begun to account for the production of art by women. In Hong Kong Art, David Clarke draws connections between the popularity of installation art in the city and the prominent participation of women as a consequence of timing, social transformation and gendered power relations in established media, especially painting. In the 1990s “women were beginning to play a more prominent role in Hong Kong art…and installation is also much less male-dominated…and thus it has no long history of service to patriarchy.” Yet I query this interpretation of openness for women in installation art and instead suggest that larger numbers of women artists, trained locally and abroad, were coming into productive practice in Hong Kong at a time when conceptual and installation art was becoming established worldwide. With the exception of local ink painting, artists in Hong Kong did not face deeply established local arts traditions, and by the 1990s both men and women were working in alternative arts and mixed media without much apparent calculation about gendered power relations.xxx
Indeed many exhibits consciously mixed the genders of participating artists, as introduced above. While installation art may have comparatively welcomed women in other places, the condition is likely the other way around in Hong Kong. For example, Choi Yan-chi’s “An Extension into Space” in 1985 was the first major solo exhibit in installation art, held at the Hong Kong Arts Centre. The work made significant use of mirrors and empty picture frames to experiment with positive/negative space as, in the eyes of one critic, “a systematic, if unconscious account of a divided self grappling with the complexities of how space is perceived and organized.” xxxi Interpreting the medium through local ways of seeing, Choi Yan-chi began producing artwork in Hong Kong in the late 1970s upon return from the Art Institute of Chicago. By contrast, when installation art emerged in the PRC in 1986, it was a dialogue between national schools and Chinese and Western art, in response to the impact of the 1985 Robert Rauschenberg show in Beijing.xxxii
Outside national discourses of art production, the Hong Kong art scene is more a collage of individual lifepaths and their translocal networks, a landscape of Deleuzian rhizomatics rather than a geopolitical weight on the world art map.
Choi and several of the artists whose work appears in “If Hong Kong, A Woman/ Traveller” have been at the forefront of making space for contemporary art in Hong Kong. Among Para/Site’s seven founders, four were women (Lisa Cheung, Leung mee-ping, Phoebe Man Ching-ying and Sara Wong Chi-hang). Women were also at the center of establishing 1a space (Choi Yan-chi, Irene Ng, May Fung, Wendy Chow) and Videotage (May Fung and Ellen Pau), each of which consolidated in the short-lived, hotbed of contemporary Hong Kong arts in the late 1990s, the Oil Street artist collective. Inspired by that movement, artists sought studio space in industrial districts, where flatted factories had begun to open up as a consequence of economic restructuring and lower rents after the Asian economic downturn (1997-99).
Chai Wan, at the eastern end of the Island Line of the Hong Kong MTR, was the first to become a fledging area of studio arts. There in 2000 women students from Hong Kong Arts Centre art school established the first group studio space at the Ming Pao Industrial Centre, led by Carol Lee Mei-kuen, whose work is included below. The following year, arts studios emerged in other industrial districts, including a concentration among the industrial buildings at Fo Tan, which was my residential district when I initiated this research in 2005-06. At Fotanian 2006, the district’s second open studio event, I encountered the artwork of Pauline Lam Yuk-lin, also discussed below.
“If Hong Kong, A Woman Traveller”
Ivy Ma’s introduction to the exhibit-event, “If Hong Kong, A Woman/Traveller” in this paper’s epigraph expresses several subjects associated with contemporary and avant-garde art in Hong Kong: place identity, mobility, and processes of the production of art in time-space relations and the dynamics of the city.xxxiii
The title of the exhibition exercises a logic about life and the city: a journey of personhood, identity and subjectivity whose relationship between travel and intersubjectivity must be multiple, located and fragmented. Its language is poetic and symbolic, while it codes social contexts. The experience is the woman’s journey, the lifepath whose events and gathered wisdom are better shared. I also interpret this intent through relational identity and intersubjectivity as a basis for understanding artworks mediating among artists and between artist and audience. This is art that “takes more time to see.” Hilary Robinson evolves this intent—the intersubjective—in reading Luce Irigary’s theoretical work as a basis for learning the transformative potential of the politics of art by women. In Robinson’s hands, “the art object between women can then be understood as a means of attending to an intersubjective relation if we recognize it as a gift of a means of mediation between subjects….” xxxiv In mediating between attentive subjects, this art does not present spectacle to win approval.
If we anticipate in this project the subtlety and complexity of meanings that are characteristic of Hong Kong artworks, then the participating artists may interpret the subjects of the exhibit, which are simultaneously contextual and at turns translocal, in ways that are deeply personal and with openness to human connections, as well as through symbolic languages and abstract forms. The artists’ journeys of experience yield content for the works, framed in space and time through multi-media forms. The exhibit’s eight contributing artists, Amy Cheung Wan-man, Lam Wai-kit, Pauline Yuk-lin Lam, Leung Mee-ping, Au Hoi-lam, Carol Mei-kuen Lee, Zoe Shek Min-wai and Stella Tan Ying-chi, engaged different aspects of exhibit themes in different ways and through different media, including installation, performance art and video, photography, sculpture, textile art, and painting in both acrylic and ink. While the exhibit-event is known primarily by its main title, the show was presented through interrelated concepts portioned by halves in 1a space under “If Hong Kong, A Woman/Traveller” and the parallel “Schema: A Traveller’s Approach,” located adjacent art space, Artist Commune.
The exhibit incorporated a substantial international exchange event, the Bilateral Cultural Exchange Program on Woman Art, whose guest speakers were Griselda Pollock and Alison Rowley, leading scholars in feminist art history. At Leeds University, Pollock established the master’s degree program in Feminist Historical, Theoretical and Critical Studies in the Visual Arts (Feminism and the Visual Arts for short), “the only dedicated programme for feminist studies in the visual arts,” xxxv where several Hong Kong artists pursued postgraduate study, including Ivy Ma. At the symposium opening, Pollock set the outlook for an international arts practice: “working with the resources of feminist thought and analysis of society, language, subjectivity, textuality, difference, and so forth, and with a deep analysis of modernity and sexual difference, artists are enabled to forget that they are ‘women’ and become themselves within the particularity of their sexed, gendered, classed and generationally and geographically positioned self.”
Such a practice “has to start from the premise that each woman lives herself and her history in relation to specific placements, to the relation to place that is not just geographical but a whole world of language, memory, culture, images, politics and sensations and affects.” In Ma’s words, this is a project embedded in “the resonance of history, and the texture of space and time.” xxxvi International though not geopolitical, this is a practice outside the national frame; one that desires to be true to the lifepaths of women artists, their translocal connections and their local interpretations.
With an interest to start with abstraction and experimentation with form, I turn to consider some aspects of “Schema: A Travelers Approach.”
his set of works demonstrates negotiation between sensation and artistic subjectivity, which reflects the curator’s inspiration from Deleuze: “schema is not ‘sensible’ but rather confines sensation: it is neither a concept, yet essential to make concepts applicable.” xxxvii Gilles Deleuze’s philosophy of art departs from aesthetics and the notion of seeing or critiquing art to focus on sensation as complexities and multiplicities, combining shape, juxtaposition, color, rhythm, and intensity.xxxviii Experiencing sensation challenges a relationship between artist, art and viewer—the intersubjective process—leading to connections across space and time and as a foundation for creative and critical practice. Works in this group especially demonstrate a meticulous art practice, a sensibility of craft produced between the hands and eyes that the artists themselves occasionally characterize, with some ironic amusement, as “women’s work.”
Carol Lee’s “Lost in the Void of Kaleidoscope” is a collage of paper burned into shapes of kaleidoscopic whirls, surrounding and superimposed over small human forms. Plate 1. The humans are disproportionately small, of adult stature, individually placed, different in appearance and on the move. The overall effect startlingly suggests the potential for social anomie among constant passers-by in the world, which Lee confirms. When we discussed her works in the larger series “To Set Fire and Stir Wind,” she explained the inspiration from daily life in the intensity of the city—so many people yet solo and disconnecting; even as we can see the potential for meeting and community it may remain elusive.xxxix Delicate aesthetic qualities of this work belie the realities of the burn technique, which holds the potential to enflame and destroy the material. The practice requires careful control, which contrasts with the seductive power of watching the flame.
This sensation of artistic practice appears to effectively connect artist and viewer, who is keenly attracted to the singed edges of the forms in this work, at first uncomprehending that a destructive force has yielded such refinement.
Stella Tang Ying-chi’s intensively stitched textile artwork, “Hanging Veil,” also conveys a focused approach to transformation of materials. In this work, Tang machine stitches every which way across sheer fabric until the lines produce an irregular tight grid, a mosaic of light and opacity as if abstracted from a stained glass window. In a city whose history is tied to the global textile industry, where many middle-aged women have worked in garment factories, an excess of stitching is both a luxury and a testament to women’s uncelebrated past. This work, part of her “Visual Veil” series, symbolizes power relations between those who see, those who are seen and those who work behind the/(without being) seen.
In this practice, with everyday materials and its egalitarian implications, “sewing is intimate resistance to external forces.” xl Such works hold the impulse for interactivity and indeed Tang’s textile works also take the form of wearable art in cloaks and capes, and are among acquisitions of the Hong Kong Heritage Museum and the Hong Kong Art Museum.
In the works of Zoe Shek Ming-wai and Au Hoi-lam, the medium of painting is, in the Deleuzian sense, the literal frame in which sensation is produced. These artists are distinctive in Hong Kong for their devotion to contemporary painting, including large format works which are generally difficult to execute and store in the city’s environment of extreme density and small work spaces. Reflecting concerns with personal values and experiences, both artists draw on life history to express memories and emotion in paint.
Shek’s works in the exhibit, including a triptych, “Voices from the Past,” demonstrate strong curvelinear patterns in muted though distinct colors, some grey-blue, others olive with black line work. She sees in patterns abstracted repetitions of life activities and events, including her place in relation to family narratives and regularities in daily life. Au Hoi-lam also presented works with strong forms, mainly rhythms of linear patterns in neutral and pastel colors. In her own words, “I long to see my own traces in my paintings…my desires to take shape on the canvas.” xli She interprets some of her paintings as detailed records of daily experiences, “a monologue on a painters fragmentary thoughts and feelings” xlii including the works “Close My Eyes I-III.” As Ma asked, what is this “process of ‘patterning’—a mediation, an unconscious activity, a self-indulgence?” xliii Will the works convey to viewers Deleuzian sensation, and a sense of introspection and desire for self-reflection?
Ma’s vision for the “If Hong Kong, A Woman/Traveller” developed from an intersubjective engagement with Leung Mee-ping’s 2004 multi-media installation at 1a space, “In Search of Insomnious Sheep” and its central object, the “mirror-boat.” Plate 2. The mirror-boat was the Lacanian metaphor of the artist’s journey: “setting off from the artists’ personal experiences is like getting on board the mirror-boat, a forced encounter with the fragmented self; between representation and non-representation, and a searching desire for self-integration.” xliv The actual boat, a dinghy faced inside and out with glass mirrors, was the subject of and vessel for Leung’s interactive performance art and video: members of the public were invited to take a turn at being towed in the mirror-boat at Tai Mei Tuk, a rental boat destination in the Hong Kong New Territories. On the water, between light and shadow and fleeting moments of fixity in motion, the mirror-boat would appear to disappear;
while the passenger could speak by microphone about his or her dis-oriented ‘reflections’ to a group of passengers watching from the tow-boat. In this multi-media work, themes collide between relations of appearance and disappearance, present and absent space, shifting and quasi-dependable boundaries, inner emptiness and belonging, and the significance of the Hong Kong site and situation: a mobile population at the shore of a once isolated territory and now globally surging semi-nation, refracted by other countries’ stories.
The artworks in “If Hong Kong, A Woman/Traveller” directly engage unsettled relationships between embodied identity and experience, through modes of communication, via subconscious voices, at different stages of lifepath, and in recognition of uncertainties and insecurities, some human some technological. Pauline Lam Yuk-lin’s contribution to the exhibit derives from her decade-long “Cultivating Civilization” research project. xlv
An interrelated series of conceptual works, the project takes as its main concern relations between humans and natural and historic worlds, and contemporary tensions in retrieving and representing humanistic meanings and their deep histories. At the heart of the work, the concept of cultivation becomes a process of revisiting relations between nature and society through juxtapositions of site, forms and materials. The works include fields of polished steel plants installed inside buildings, demonstrating excess human control over the natural; and assortments of hand tools molded in concrete by the hundreds—“Fossil Tools” as evidence of a compulsively utilitarian people. Lam has also crafted bronze mesh into women’s garments and voluptuous abstract objects, which, like the steel plants, embody contradiction between material and representative form. By sewing and tailoring bronze, she brings a meditative and gendered-female quality to an ancient material otherwise associated with the transhistorical significance of traditional Chinese culture.
For the exhibit Lam presented three works from the series. “Civilization Observation” records Lam’s experiment with taping compound metal alloys to her body as a “test case of body sensitivities” and then recording the reactions in felt tip pen on her skin; the effect shocks us into facing what we would know but don’t otherwise see about the effects of heavy metals and chemicals in our midst. Her art performance, exhibited as video, treats rice as seed and her body as soil, as she pours rice over her upturned face, smeared with a paste so that it sticks. At the performance site—a yard of railroad switching tracks in Taiwan—she stands dressed in black and white face, presenting herself as evidence of a lost relationship between land and life under harsh industrialization. Plate 3. The idea of the human body as the source of fertility and growth for nature inverts relations between body and world, compelling reconsideration of human possibilities. Her “Depiction of Civilization” photographs are signs of the PRC’s spiritual civilization (jingsheng wenming) campaign.
They register as if from another world in Hong Kong, where such slogans geared toward socialization of citizen-subjectivity in the name of civilization appear alien and unnecessary. These works portray a cultural politics indexed to place while representing concerns that are universal in reach, linking localities and global spheres in a symbolic translocality.
Lam Wai-kit explores the relationship between sensory modes and contexts of daily life in the video “On the Phone,” whose subject is the near-ubiquitous experience of mobile phone use in Hong Kong. The video material depicts the artist holding the device to her ear and making a call; she waits, perhaps she listens but doesn’t seem to speak. The camera moves and then only the half of her face below the eyes appears, superimposed with partially occluded views of local images—a few goldfish in a bowl swim by, pedestrians hurry along a street, the side of a car and its darkened window.
The sound portion is deceptively unmatched to the visual—surging ocean waves accompany the goldfish—with the effect of jarring the viewer/listener into a task of attempted sensory alignment. xlvi Her works too are part of an ongoing project to examine “the subtle relationship between individuals and surrounding circumstances” and especially the relationship between “identification and assimilation.” xlvii If her video is any indicator of outcomes, people’s efforts to engage are not reliably being answered. Is this work possibly a visual metaphor of contemporary concerns in Hong Kong? In addition to the mirror-boat, Leung Mee-ping also exhibited the video “Yip Hoi,” who is her grandmother and whose end of life story she renders in film through poignant perspectives that are both individual and universal, a kind of transcendent tribute.
The photography from Amy Cheung’ series, “Indefinitive Portraiture, invests expectations and makes a significant statement: a series of large format photographs showing women, and some men, in different occupational and landscape contexts with their backs to the camera. In this artwork, reversing the body has the effect of quieting the image and putting greater emphasis on the person in the setting, spurring curiosity about the person and the context. These portraits deny conventional possibilities for objectification of women, effectively posing to the viewer: do you think you want to look at my face? Cheung explains that this work “challenges the status of truth in portraiture… and the glorification of surface glamour.” xlviii Do her photographs capture the effective self and subconscious voices that the curator seeks? She has perhaps done so fundamentally in another work.
Her installation sculpture for the July 2007 Shanghai exhibition, “Reversing Horizons—Artist Reflections on the Hong Kong Handover 10th Anniversary,” is a set of cars made from granite, painted black, which visitors can smash into each other by remote-control—“a commentary on the erosion of Hong Kong’s cultural heritage and identity.” xlix Cheung refers to this work as the “male part” of her other piece at the 52nd Venice Biennale.1
In recognition of considerable use of vernacular materials and portrayals of daily life in Hong Kong art, it is interesting to consider Hou Hanrou’s evaluation of the works of the women artists included in the PRC national pavilion at the 52nd Venice Biennale, which he curated: “both inside and outside of China, the discourse of Chinese contemporary art often overlooks the importance of women artists, and, in particular, the intellectual and social issues related to women’s roles in China’s contemporary life.
… It is no surprise then that the presence of women artists with their particular modalities of imagination, expression and action is largely marginalized.” li This identification of gender inequity, and its attendant essentialist expression (but which falls in line with characterizations of ‘woman art’ in China), is indeed relatively absent in Hong Kong. The title that Hou gives to the assessment, “Everyday miracles,” would signify how these women artists “manage to transform everyday objects and experiences into miraculously innovative and affecting pieces of art.” lii What is apparently remarkable and gendered-female in ‘Chinese’ art is an everyday condition of the production of art in Hong Kong. Is it possible that the use of everyday materials is an unexamined influence of Hong Kong art on contemporary artists in the PRC? Such a query lies beyond the scope of this brief analysis, and will likely be examined in current debates and through the project, “HistoriCITY,” and its concerns with limited art historical writing on Hong Kong.liii
The rise of a contemporary art movement in Hong Kong parallels the trajectory of the end of the colonial period under British rule and the making of Hong Kong into a Special Administrative Region of the PRC. Through the transition, contemporary art in Hong Kong has centrally explored questions about everyday life and the position of the individual in relation to larger scale contexts and social forces. Artists have worked in a city facing significant political change and economic restructuring; their art has addressed less directly the political dynamics of the post-1997 era than the experiential realities of incremental and unpredictable societal change. This art often makes use of vernacular materials—including materials whose history is practically vanquished by still-hurtling urban development in Hong Kong—and, as installation and performance art, is not long-lived beyond the social documentation of photography and video that records it; most of it is not salable.
Indexed to local and circumstances, and to remembering and recovering translocal conditions of experience, much of it is not dependably legible in an era of high-impact imagery and Asia in the world economy whose art market seeks recognizably ‘Chinese’ (and perhaps soon ‘Indian’) iconography. Coded to local Hong Kong contexts, and to places of experience worldwide without easily recognizable geographic coordinates, a good part of Hong Kong art does not travel unhindered in the commercialized global art system that adopts geopolitical frames.
Reading contemporary art outside nationally defined discourses refocuses our interest, from the outlook of the nation and its imperatives, to alternative space-time perspectives that situate artworks in a trajectory of artists’ experiences. Trajectories of possibility are also a reality of maintaining a translocal sense of place in Hong Kong’s unprecedented era of colonial interstitiality.
This is not a land in between nations, but a culture and society whose ties and relations have always been translocal and transnational while absent a home-grown national project. The artists whose work is discussed here have studied, worked or exhibited across the world (among other places, in Leeds and London, Moscow and St. Petersburg, Lombardy and Turino, Chiayi and Taipei, Daejeon and Seoul, Mans and Paris, Turku and Helsinki, Tokyo, Fukuoka and Kyushu, Toronto, Lucern, Guangzhou, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai and Beijing, Melbourne, Sydney, Berlin, New York and San Juan, Poznan, Sharjah and Copenhagen, among other places.). Increasing pressures of political change under SAR rule, including pressures to adopt national ‘Chinese’ outlooks, conflict with the culture of production of avant-garde art in Hong Kong, which, with the exception of a few individual artists, is not particularly integrated with art in the PRC or its history.
Artists also produce critical work concerning the HKSAR-PRC relationship, but which like Cheung’s mirror-boat, is arguably more legible from a perspective in coastal south China than nation-state frames of reference. Because it is axiomatic that Hong Kong women artists do not identify with the tropes of women in PRC history, their work may be doubly erased in international art criticism discourses. In these contexts, artists negotiate and reinscribe forms of Hong Kong identity; not as an end-game but rather as a basis for maintaining integrity or artistic production and independent creative practice.
Contemporary and alternative art produced by women in Hong Kong represents a central arena of artistic production. If we can identify a category of women artists, their interests resonate with cultural projects produced wherever women and men are seeking to work beyond non-essentialist categories and practices.
The artworks in “If Hong Kong, A Woman/Traveller” demonstrate experimentations with materials, different and mixed media and negotiations of subjectivity and community identity based on personal and translocal journeys of experience. If these are not feminist projects, they are ones whose production and acceptance depend in part on the paths opened up by feminisms’ multiple histories. Many of these artworks effectively engage the viewer by presenting unexpected arrangements, juxtapositions and forms, and in producing sensation, delineate arcs of intersubjective practice and what critics identify as subtle understandings of individual and group identity in Hong Kong. However ‘subtle’, this is art as evidence of a deeply politicized aesthetics.
1. “Lost in the Void of Kaleidoscope,” Carol Lee Mei-kuen
2. “Mirror-boat,” Leung Mee-ping
3. “Cultivating Civilization” Pauline Lam
4. “Indefinitive Portraiture” Amy Cheung
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