article of Koon Yee Wan — 2008

Skirting the Borders: A Preliminary Sketch on the Issue of Gender in Hong Kong Art

Koon Yee–wan

In recent years postcolonial theory has dominated the writings of Hong Kong art particularly in response to the handover of the former British colony to China in 1997. One of the key ideas in recent research is “borders” used as a metaphor that can be inscribed on different types of identities. Borders highlight the “inbetweenness” that functions around the binaries of sameness and difference, inside and out, East and West, and as such prove to be useful tools for a region whose identity has been undergoing a crisis.

David Clarke, one of the main scholars of the field, looked at how Hong Kong art responded to the changes took place in the late colonial period (1984-1997)1. In particular, he was interested in expressing a local cultural identity that was often oblique. Clarke examined different strategies, including the way language was used as a marker of the local. Given the considerable difference between Cantonese (the spoken language of almost all Hong Kong people) and Putonghua (the official national spoken language of China), the spoken word is a ready way of signifying “Hong Kongness”. As Cantonese is a colloquial form of language, it brings in jargon, slang and idioms, which roots HK in the present, denying its colonial past and its Mainland future.

Another important scholar who examined the cultural consequences of postcolonial Hong Kong is Ackbar Abbas.2 Abbas explored how Hong Kong was disappearing through simple dualities of East/West and tradition/modernity. Abbas argued that Hong Kong's media saturation that carried out the reductive dualism changed its people's experience of space so that it became abstract, dominated by signs and images that dispelled memory, history, and presence.

1David Clarke, Hong Kong Art: Culture and Decolonization (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2001).
2Ackbar Abbas, Hong Kong Culture and the Politics of Disappearance (Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1997).

The scholarly trajectories of the scholars have filtered into the local art scene with artists making works that reinforce the critical writings. Artists have continued to explore the porous effect of linguistic plays and abstracted memories that project Hong Kong as a liminal space. Warren Leung Chi-wo in his Sky Series [2000 -] uses a pinhole camera to capture the sky framed by city buildings (Plate 1). He then cuts out the open space, leaving the outer edges of the buildings as dark borders, places color filters that flatten the image. He also made cookies in the shape of the sky for the Venice Biennale in 2001. The sky was turned into a tangible object, an odd entity that was constantly being shaped by the increasing intrusive thrust of ever-growing skyscrapers.

In Tsang Kin-wah’s Wallpaper [2002-] (Plate 2), the twirling vines of the blue and white flower motif recalls Chinese porcelain designs, the Orientalist aesthetic of an imperial age and William Morris’ wallpaper. The decorative gentility of the design, however, is disrupted on close inspection. The flowers are depicted using a series of slang and swear words cursing market greed, or suggesting that one is engaged in improper behavior with one’s mother. Tsang’s wallpaper blurs the boundaries between beauty and profanity. The repetition creates a dizzying effect not too unlike the kinetic energy of the urban landscape outside. Tsang has turned outside on the inside.

While Abbas and Clarke approach the politics of location as a critical engagement, their works are now being co-opted by institutions as strategies of “branding” a cultural economy and increasingly articulating an “urban authenticity” of a singular and marketable local. The government pushes towards recognition of the uniqueness of Hong Kong as a spectacle that will attract visitors, and thus brings cultural identity into the political and economical arenas.3 The most recent exhibition at the Hong Kong Museum of Art was “Made in Hong Kong—Contemporary Art Exhibition.” The show maped out the diverse creativity of the local arts scene with seven representative artists. The show included interviews with all seven participants with questions that aimed to bring art to the masses by casting them, with photo-shoots and brief interviews, as real people who loved snack foods, taichi and film culture. All seven artists were men.

3Jim Ming-wai Alice. “Urban Mediations in Hong Kong Contemporary Art: Notes on A Very Good City and Local Orientation, ” Positions (Winter 2004), pp.733-58.

Amongst this group of artists, Chow Chun-fai is the youngest and one of the most prolific. His latest project includes large enamel paintings of scenes taken from well-known Asian films, which explore language (the combination of Chinese and Western words) used in the sub-titles, and media saturation that has changed people’s experience of space (as seen in the non-space of films). Chow highlights how the dual function of English and Chinese (non-Cantonese) language denaturalizes Hong Kong by imposing itself onto the celluloid surface. Choosing famous shots from films such as Infernal Affairs (which was remade into The Departed), Chow includes clichéd panoramic shots of Hong Kong’s harbor skyline full of reflections and grid structures of skyscrapers (Plate 3).

Chow experiments with film where outer spaces of a Cinematic Hong Kong are often used as metaphors for inner spaces of mindsets. However, as with Warren Leung’s and Tsang Kin-wah’s works, the space depicted is impenetrable, and imposed onto these flat spaces are Asian male heroes and anti-heroes dressed in Prada suits that frame and protect the impenetrability of this masculine utopia. I am reminded of the critic Dave Hickey’s formulation of pictorial space: “when flat pictorial space triumphed over the effeminacy of illusionist space, the ‘gender’ of the work of art changed. It became masculine, impenetrable.”

Given this, how do woman artists respond to these images of borders and spatial politics that have become increasingly male-centric? I am interested in pursuing this investigation because Hong Kong, unlike other areas in Asia, offers many opportunities to women artists.4

In 1985, the Hong Kong Arts Centre held the first major solo installation art show by the female artist, Choi Yan-chi. Starting from the 1990s, there has been a number of exhibitions each year centering on the theme of “women-art”. In May 2002, the Hong Kong Heritage Museum organized a full-year Women Festival. Valerie C. Doran, an art critic and independent curator, also put together a forum for female artists to share their experiences. The forum concluded that exhibition opportunities were abundant, but artists were not necessarily interested in gender issues. As an alternative, some critics and curators turned to projects that favored an approach without any overarching theoretical frame. Eva Man published interviews with 10 female artists of the 90s and held an exhibition of their works. Her book, Free Tribe, briefly interprets the works from a woman’s perspective, using what she calls “female sense”, but it is largely descriptive and sidesteps any type of feminist discourse.5

4A recent article on women’s art in Hong Kong is by Carolyn Cartier, “Hong Kong and the Production of Art in the Post/colonial City,” China Information (July 2008), vol. 22. This informative essay includes an overview of the writings on women’s art in the last fifteen years.

The skepticism of the women artists at the forum and elsewhere was in part because of a fear of being essentialized. But I will argue that this has also formed a mode of resistance—a resistance to explore the interstices of theory and practice. While some women artists resisted seeing Hong Kong as a liminal space, some made a different critical engagement. I will suggest that some women artists have explored different means of circumventing, or skirting, the borders that affix place-identities as a masculine presence.

Rosanna Li Wei-han, a sculptor and ceramicist, has been exploring the linguistic play of Cantonese. She breaks down the construction of words into composites of “men” and “women” in English word (man/men) and Chinese radical and character (女) respectively. She then exploits the imagistic properties of these words by turning these composites into human forms that reflect an alternative meaning. The sculptures play with societal expectations of male and female roles that are informed by words and language, and at the same time, look at how gender is inflated with east-west identities with man/men based on English words, and woman/women based on Chinese words—the masculine west and the feminized east.

5Eva Kitwah Man, Zizhu de zuqun: shi wei Xianggang xinyidai nüxing shijue yishu gongzuozhe (The tribe of autonomy: 10 women visual artists in Hong Kong) (Hong Kong: Chunghwa Books, 2000).

The construction of these two groups of words is very different. For example, menstruation: This word is represented by two sumo-wrestlers (hence men) in their mawashi (the loincloths), which acts as a reference to large Kotex pads worn by women. Manpower is represented by a group of women. Man in the Street shows signage of different street names that are transliterations of Cantonese road names that more literally map HK as a male space as the backdrop for her female pedestrian (Plate 4). These various ways of representing the cultural biases of words and language in English are also shared in Chinese. In each one of her representations of men and women, the materiality of clay is emphasized, asserting the process of making and of construction, as a crucial element. Interested in capturing the gray area between experience and representation, Rosanna is keen to plainly make visible the physical act of making.

What emerges is a personal engagement that appears strongest in her works on women. When Rosanna is looking at women and language, the “superscription” of writing one word over another and subverting its original meaning is extended to the sound of the word. For example, the word for rape (姦), which is made up of three Nu radicals—now means simply “three women” and is pronounced as loey. “Grandmother” 婆whose meaning is now changed into a “big-busted” woman (波bo, is slang for breasts) so acts as a semantic inversion of a slur. Her three-dimensional representation of a pretty lady is now represented as a fat woman with scabby knees enjoying cigarettes, booze and cake and meaning “happiness”. According to Li, speaking can be a many-edged sword, and her fat ladies make visible the everyday experiences of women in Hong Kong who are besieged by words in a linguistic cityscape. Presented as a sculptural dictionary, Li’s work also emphasizes the performative aspect, of reading, speaking and learning, which can be constantly reenacted and renewed as a form of female empowerment.

Underscoring Li’s linguistic and mnemonic plays is the personal and subjective experience of the artist as a woman. Her fingerprints in shaping and forming these words in clay are stamped into the rough exterior of the figures adding her presence on the surface of each of her human-characters. She identifies with these fat ladies; the character “han”, one of the many words that describe feminine qualities and are commonly used in names, including Li’s Chinese name, is constructed with the radical nu (woman) and the phonetic character (lan). The new meaning of this word is “Li Weihan”. Her three-dimensional representation of that word is a fat woman sitting with a cup with her head cocked to one side as if listening to the world all around her. Rosanna has included herself in her rewriting of values embedded in words that recognize women as being different from men without invoking an essential Woman.

Joey Leung has also explored language in her works. She uses her words for story-telling and takes on the role of a narrator. In her handscroll painting, Perfect Legs, she narrates a story, in Cantonese (rather than a more formal Chinese) told in a series of short poems of four lines and seven characters mode, which is one of the modes of Tang dynasty poetry with its own particular set of rules regarding tones and parallelism (Plate 5). The illustrative quality of her work is enhanced by her use of gongbi, a brushwork style that again has roots in Chinese ink painting. Gongbi is a detailed fine brushwork traditionally used in professional art and paintings of flora and fauna dating back to the Song dynasty. It requires patiently articulating the fineness of the brushwork—there is no room for mistake as each calligraphic trace is permanent.

The format of the painting is also a traditional one which requires the viewer to slowly unroll and pause in their slow perusal of the painting. Compositionally, the painting echoes a famous extant Chinese handscroll (c. 12th century), which is believed to be a copy, entitled The Night Revels of Han Xizai by Gu Hongzhong. The compositional strategies of these early handscroll paintings use frame, screens and writing to create interlocking units of a continuous story, yet at the same time, the surface turns into active space that directs our gazes up, across, inside, and outside the unit. The surface of the painting plays an important role to create an active space that can direct the viewer in and out of the motifs. Joey, also borrows this device in her painting and her Perfect Legs, conveys similar active space despite the flatness of her comic protagonist.

The story narrates the desire of a young rabbit with a shoe fetish. The rabbit, however, considered her legs to be too short and stubby. One day, she saw an advertisement for long legs, which she then purchased, quite cheaply, with vegetables – Bargain! However, once she attached the new pair of legs on, she discovered that she was dizzy from being so high up and could no longer reach the floor. It was a valuable lesson; she abandoned the legs, her desire for fashion, and instead returned home. It is a very endearing fairy-tale with all the identifiable facets of transformations, undefined space and time, and a clear narrator’s voice. Despite the childlike element of this pictorial narrative, the references to advertisements for beautiful legs refer to the bombardment of beauty advertisements in Hong Kong for the perfect body that is everywhere.

By combining her Cantonese roots with traditional Chinese art, Leung creates a new way of identifying with being a Hong Kong artist—she seeks home and a sense of belonging.

Her works meditates gongbi and comic graphics to create similarities that catapult her viewers into a space where borders cannot be defined.

Sexuality underscores her latest project. In her painting, Good View, Great Time: The Lovers in Loch Ness, which echoes Chinese woodblock prints and comic illustrations, she again creates a narrative using Cantonese words in traditional poem format (Plate 6). The poem describes the scene below. It appears as if it is the partial image of a swimmer, but on closer inspection, the ankles are in fact the heads of the sea monster lovers. Viewers oscillate back and forth between the monsters and the legs, and thus disrupt a single reading of the image.

A similar shifting of perception is also evident with the central island, which doubles as the posterior of the swimmer. As a swimmer, the image depicts a bathing costume with peony design and banana trees which are traditional symbols of female sexuality in Chinese art. As an island, the image shows a bridge and a waterfall, which are also both classic symbols of sexual organs and desire. The meshing of worlds that can be read simultaneously evokes a visual ambiguity of this nevernever land of lovey sea monsters and desert islands. Through this multiple layers of reading that exists in the same plane (as opposed to optical illusions of ground and figure), Leung deconstructs innocence and purity with a combination of irony and ambiguity. As with her Rabbit, Leung retreats to childlike motifs depicted in an adult mode (a craft that needs training) as a way of acknowledging the complex nature of the transition from girl to womanhood.

The Lovers in Loch Ness is paired with Good View, Great Time: Element 123 (Plate 7). Again, Leung refers to Chinese traditional painting by evoking a typical landscape painting of a central mountain with the fisherman in his skiff. But the central mountain, long used as a symbol of the emperor as part of the cosmology of landscape, is now embraced by a young lady and turned into a phallus. Her short dress has motifs of young deer with one such deer climbing up her skirt. On top of this mountain are a willow tree and an apartment building. The poem plays with the term “willow” long used to denote female desirability, and uses it as a homophone for “foreign (new style) apartment” and “foreign (hip) babes”.

Next to the willow is a foreign apartment

Inside the foreign apartment is a foreign babe

Each day the foreign babe appreciates the willow

Life as such is joyful without a care.

The style of the poem mimics Cantonese poems, which are often satirical rhymes. This one is no exception. It satirizes the stereotypical desires of Hong Kong men—foreign apartments and women, but where “foreign” is used to refer to new and hip, rather than ethnic origins. As with The Lovers in Loch Ness, Willow Landscape flaunts female sexuality, endorsing the complexities of women as possessions and possessors.

Carol Lee Mei Kuen’s Along with reason work is part of an ongoing project where she uses the sun as her brush (Plate 8). She places A4 and A3 sheets of newsprint paper in the sun, partially covered for long periods of time, averaging 3 to 4 months. The result is a matrix of luscious shades of shadowy ochres and golden siennas with off-white sections that are not exposed to the sun. The light-sensitized sheets of paper (about 100 in all) are then placed to form an evocative mapping of fragmented areas. In the centre is a smaller “map” that has been lifted up and framed. On this smaller map are many small black shadowy figures. Each one of these figures is plotted onto the individual sheets of the larger map. The work has an elusive monumentality of loneliness and is crowded with the dark forms of bodies emerging like apparitions from the shifting glow of the backdrop.

Transience is a common theme in Lee’s work as seen also in her “Till the End of the World” installation where her figures are formed by shadows cast through burnt holes in a draping long sheet of paper. The transitory relation of people and place captured by light and shadows creates a paradoxical geography that recognizes subjectivity as that of both prisoner and exile to place-based identities. The city is erased altogether, and instead there is quietness which is at odd with the everyday experiences of city living (compared with Tsang Kin-wah’s Wallpaper). As with Leung, Lee refuses to distinguish between real and metaphorical space, and to separate experience and emotion from the interpretation of places.

Why Spatial Politics Matter

Hong Kong is the quintessential site of spatial appropriation. The interstices of the city are constantly in flux of appropriation and with an extraordinary intensity. Soup cafes and kiosks, appropriate the streets at night; on weekends, large numbers of Filipina domestic workers congregate on their day off from work at public spaces. At the same time, property is the main guage of economic success with new buildings constantly fighting for urban space. Meanwhile, the government is investigating ways of packaging Hong Kong as tourist destination for the affluent Mainland Chinese, and consequently has sharpened the identity of the island as a spectacle. Over the last decade, the theme of spectacle has dominated discussions in the cultural, economic and political spheres of Hong Kong.

In academia, notions of liminal space and disappearing cuture have also shaped discussions, particularly with the upcoming proposed West Kowloon reclamation project, a controversial space where property developers are competing “to enhance Hong Kong's position as Asia's premiere center of arts, culture, and entertainment and create a new look for Victoria Harbour.” The controversy stems in part from the “new look for Victoria Harbour” and the constant building and rebuilding of a space that is being eroded of any sense of identity. Artists have responded to this cultural anxiety by exploring the contradictory desires of place, and at the same time left their male imprints on their impenetrable spaces of visual spectacles.

Many female artists have chosen to step away from the dominant discourse of place-base identities.

Carolyn Cartier maintains that women’s art in Hong Kong are “Transnational while 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”.6 If the present trajectory of place-identities is not a useful mode of understanding women artists working in Hong Kong, what can be used? In this brief introduction, I have looked at only three artists who have sidestepped the impact of spectacle to create self-reflexive works that mistrust the visual. Li’s sculptural words are rooted in the sociality of language; Leung turns to historicality to inform the present; Lee uses light to transcend specificity. In each of these works, the process of making is highlighted – the rough texture of clay, the gongbi of the brush and the rays of sunshine. They have given primacy to practices and processes of art-making with an emphasis on production and in particular on time.

By looking at these three women artists and recognizing the role of gender in discussions on Hong Kong art, a research trajectory in which other artists, male artists included, can provide different ways of looking outside of place-identities. For example, Joey Leung’s gongbi style painting carries echoes of Wilson Shieh’s detailed gongbi painting. Whereas Joey’s paintings play with childhood innocence and sexual awakenings, Wilson’s paintings are layered with burdens of intimacy that touch on homosexuality, heterosexuality and desire. The ambivalence of gender in Wilson Shieh’s works is palpable and deserves further investigation. This essay is only a tentative sketch on the surface of a rich and highly textured world of Hong Kong art.