Art in Hong Kong has never had it so good. Aside from being the 3rd largest art market in the world after London and New York in terms of auction sales, complete with Christie’s, Sotheby’s and auction-driven Gagosian Gallery presence in the city, the local art fair has fire-rocketed into the upper echelons of art world prestige in characteristic Hong Kong style; efficiently. Launched in 2008, Art HK hit the ground running, so much so Die Welt predicted the fair would soon become the Art Basel of Asia in 2009. In 2011, Art HK was bought by Art Basel. Of course, this comes as no surprise. A historical haven for international trade and finance, with a Freeport history that imposes no taxes on art sales (compared to China’s 34% import duty on art), and convenient proximity to the world’s second largest economy, Hong Kong was born to be the host of a major international art fair in a 21st century world where power shifts have veered towards the east. Agnes Lin, merchandising magnate, philanthropist and founder of Osage Art Foundation as well as contemporary art spaces in Hong Kong Beijing and Singapore, sheds light on Hong Kong’s cultural, economic and political mindset in her own words, on pages 34 and 35.
At the same time, there is also major arts development going on here; from the massive West Kowloon Cultural District project to the development of the M+ Museum. But what does this say about local art production? Hong Kong’s emergence as a major art market not only highlights the disparities between the city’s international and local realities and its commercial and artistic communities, but also the fact that Hong Kong has the world’s largest gap between rich and poor. Confronted by this reality on a daily basis, local artists maintain a refreshingly healthy perspective to the market that does not impinge on individual practices. This is where things get interesting. In a city that economist Milton Friedman once dubbed the perfect capitalist society, which has lived between British colonialism and Chinese communism, and has its currency pegged to the US dollar, Hong Kong represents a true 21st Century market economy that has evolved with the input of China, Europe and America combined. In terms of discourse, one can only guess what this might reveal for the future.
For Hong Kong artists Leung Chi Wo, Lam Tung Pang, and Lee Kit, who have witnessed the city’s art boom from their studios located far away from the glittering skyscrapers and designer stores that plague the city as much as Macdonald’s franchises, there is a sense of bemusement. “Art HK has drawn people who are consuming, and yes, commercial galleries provide opportunities for artists to survive,” Leung Chi Wo concedes. “But in many cases, they do not allow the artists to grow.” And though habitually suspicious of the market, Lee Kit recognises the opportunities the fair presents in introducing foreign audiences to the city’s art scene while encouraging younger generations of Hong Kong artists to interact with international art discourse and the market as an education, even if they might not want to. “It's always good to work out of the system but when they need or want you, you can be part of it; then you can leave it again. That’s how to make the scene sustainable from a practical perspective," he points out.
Lee Kit recalls Leung Chi Wo opening up a road for later generations of artists by showing them “that if you want to be an artist, start something,” an attitude that has served Hong Kong’s artists well thus far. The first artist to represent Hong Kong at the Venice Biennale in 2001, Leung also co-founded the non-profit art space in Para/Site in 1996 with a mission ‘to establish and maintain a platform for artists and other art practitioners to realize their vision, in relation with their immediate and extended communities, with the aim of nurturing a thoughtful and creative society’. Para/Site has since become one of Hong Kong’s most active spaces and in May 2010, was invited to take part in the Tate Modern’s 10th anniversary celebration, No Soul for Sale: A Festival of Independents, where Lam Tung Pang, Leung, Lee Kit and Beijing-based Hong Kong artist Morgan Wong presented work. No Soul for Sale is an apt title. These artists appear to be searching for soul in a city that has already been sold to a 21st Century globalised world directed by market economies buoyed by faceless populations.
Self-organisation is something Leung fully-engaged with as a student after the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown in Beijing. “Every Hong Konger was politicized by those events,” he remembers. “For most people it was the first time they marched…After that people either left or self-organized,” he remembers. During the 80s, waves of immigration took place by Hong Kong Chinese leaving for western countries, or mainland Chinese attempting to enter the city, firstly after the Sino-British Joint Declaration, signed in December 1984 set the date for the city’s handover from British rule to China. After the ’89 Tiananmen crackdown, immigration intensified and continued in the run up to the handover, creating a sense of impermanence which Leung remembers – he saw many of his classmates leave the city. In fact, everyone saw people leaving; the city even suffered a brain drain. Yet as fears of China subsided, people gradually returned after the ‘97 handover, along with an influx of mainland migrants. Factor in the supplementary flow of expatriates who come to the city to work for a few years, and it is understandable that those who live in Hong Kong look on it as a city where people come and go, and nothing ever stays the same.
Now an Assistant Professor at Hong Kong’s City University in the School of Creative Media, where artist Jeffrey Shaw is Dean and a Daniel Libeskind building will soon house the school, Leung, like many of his contemporaries, is somewhat self-taught. On his experience as a student at the Chinese University he recounts; “I was bored in the fine arts department with painting, Chinese calligraphy, and ink painting,” discovering a preference for social sciences, economics, and psychology. However, unable to change departments, he pushed his work to a more conceptual level: “I tried to see how I could do things in more of an interesting way for myself and started to look outside instead of inside the fine arts department; the world is much bigger.” This is something Leung ponders in his discussion with Jeffrey Shaw on pages 32 and 33.
The idea of looking outwards is something that resonates with Lam Tung Pang. “When I was in London I realised that art, social issues and identity were linked; and at that time I asked myself why in HK I never learned about how social situations and identity could feed your work,” he recalls, and his worked has developed within those lines ever since. In 2007, Lam organised an exhibition of Hong Kong artists including himself, Chow Chun Fai, Kwan Sheung Chi, Lee Kit, Ma Chi Hang, and Pak Sheung Chuen entitled Inside Out: Art and Life, held at Osage Kwun Tong, one of the city’s largest spaces. “From the beginning when I started studying art I saw it as a way you deal with your life,” Lam remembers. “Art and life is integrated - I cannot separate them. I find this kind of quality in the work of Lee Kit and other Hong Kong artists. I find this as an interesting position; being very against society but at the same time not strictly protesting; they hide themselves and keep doing work that actually has a very significant meaning that relates to society.”
From Pak’s Travelling Leaves – a Box of Leaves from Poland (2007), to Kwan’s Don’t Let the Tower Fall (2007), to Lee Kit’s interactive installation of painted pillows My Pillow Seems Like a Bed, A Pillow Seems Like My Bed (2007) to Lam’s Them, Vanish (2007), the show introduced a group of artists who balanced a sensitive introspection with curiosity for the world at large. By revealing their personal observations from their immediate reality, the artists invited viewers to react personally in kind, encouraging a multitude of individual readings that ranged from formalistic to purely sociological. For Lee Kit, whose work is firmly rooted in the everyday, the point is to encourage new perceptions. “It is time to enhance individual practice; I mean just change something from daily life,” he says, explaining that he lives his life antagonistically to the frenetic pace Hong Kong is known for. In many ways, Hong Kong’s artists are pushing not only the boundaries of art; they are testing the limits of their personal freedoms. As Lee observes; “Being an artist in Hong Kong itself is a political act.” Yet Lee Kit manages to balance his conflicted relationship to the art market, with an attitude that dismisses its importance entirely.
This interest in daily life underlines the impact small actions can have on a grassroots level, something Leung demonstrated in 2007 when he made the decision to relinquish control over Para/Site so the space could remain truly independent, explaining that other spaces had entered into difficulties because directors – some of whom had been in control for over thirty years - simply could not let go. The way Para/Site operates – with complete transparency – suggests one of the different approaches to life Hong Kong’s artists are exploring. “I think Para/site is a reflection of my own character in that I am very adaptive, I’m a kind of pragmatist and I’m not an idealist.” Leung explains. As such, Para/Site developed organically, evolving from an exhibition space to a forum for talks and lectures to a center supporting experimental curation to a publishing house, centering on critical discourse and perspective that encourages active engagement with society at large.
Inside Looking Out pointed to another connection the artists shared; their studio address in Fotan, an industrial area in the New Territories known for its concentration of artist studios. Lam, Lee and Leung are based in Fotan, and are among the first to settle in the area, which gained increasing popularity after a group of students from the Chinese University - including Lam - came looking for a space in 2001 after their university studio was destroyed in a fire. That year, they launched the first open studio event in Hong Kong, 318 Studio Opening Show. Simultaneously, Lee, a fellow classmate, hosted his first solo exhibition at Chinese University professor and established painter Lui Chun Kwong’s studio nearby. Mostly supported by friends and classmates, the event gave artists the opportunity to present their work and proved how students need not wait until graduation to exhibit.
Re-named The Fotanian in 2003, the annual open studio event has since bolstered a growing dialogue between Hong Kong artists and the public and empowered artists to pursue their careers despite the lack of a system or support. And while many attribute Fotanian’s evolution into an arts district to the migration of industry to China, the economic recession and the SARS-induced property crash in 2003, Lam believes the real force behind the development was a generation determined to create a future on their own terms as professional artists, an uncommon notion in the city. “In Hong Kong, we learned from our university professors that art is to be treated like your life partner; you keep it as a hobby; or you study for three years and learn how to teach it,” explains Lam. “Of course, [our teachers] are very talented but they never had the system or structure to support them so they didn’t have that kind of mentality.” On pages 28 to 31, Lam Tung Pang explains how the Fotanian began.
Lam is also referring to the Chinese tradition of art as an academic life pursuit. “Actually it’s kind of an impression; in Chinese tradition they think art is a kind of hobby, so you keep away from society. That way of living is kind of ideal; and I got that feeling even stronger at the Chinese University because we studied both Chinese and Western art, and that kind of quality really attracted me,” he recalls, admitting he enjoys maintaining a certain distance from society, something his Fotan studio – piled high with books earmarked for reference - allows him to do. “At the same time, I really hated the idea of art as a hobby only. That’s why I went to study for an MA in Fine Art at Central St. Martins in London; it was my own critical statement.”
Through their individual and collective actions, Lam and his contemporaries have broken traditional moulds by incorporating external influences without rejecting tradition outright, while recognising the differences between mainland China’s artistic tradition and Hong Kong’s. “It’s actually quite interesting when people ask to compare between Hong Kong and China in terms of art development,” Leung notes. “Art has always had an important position in Chinese society for centuries, even during the time of Communism in the form of propaganda. But in Hong Kong, this was never the case. That makes people show a very different respect towards art in China and Hong Kong.”
This creates an entirely new way of dealing with contemporary art that focuses on the individual experience within a collective, less-fixed, global and social context. In post-colonial Hong Kong, there is no better way to approach society. Post-97, the Hong Kong population is navigating another wave of sweeping social changes. “Look at the one country two system policy,” Leung begins. ”I imagine why Deng Xiao Peng gave fifty-year period of transition for Hong Kong as a Special Administrative Region after the 1997 handover was because he saw the distance between Hong Kong and China and believed that this would be enough time for the two systems to merge.” As we discuss the protection Hong Kong receives as a result of the Basic Law, which stipulates that Hong Kong continue under the capitalist system for fifty years before reverting completely to Chinese socialist rule, I raise the issue of the controversial Christmas Day 2009 sentencing in China of academic Liu Xiao Bo for his part in drafting Charter 08 calling for democratic reforms. In response, Leung gravely states: “People have already done what Liu did in Hong Kong but they are still around, so imagine – at least we can be protected by the Basic Law if we stand up against something; in China there is no protection.” Until 2049, that is, when the Basic Law expires.
This explains why Hong Kong’s local artists have developed a scene that emphasises direct and indirect communication. Fighting a constant battle to safeguard civil rights both from the mainland as well as from within the city, where self-censorship is common for the sake of the economy, expression is one of the most important things Hong Kong has, and its artists are intent on protecting that. “I want art to be as diverse as possible. Society should allow many different practices,” says Leung. “At the same time, I don’t care if the art is meaningful; we also need art that is not meaningful to society. This also applies to politics. You need both sides…It’s more about diversity of the spectrum…but it’s really important that we don’t stick to one thing.” Diversity is a key word in maintaining cultural and political perspective, which is why Hong Kong’s design-based collectives, many with links to street art, have managed to merge the very idea of art and design in a way that speaks to the popular through the language of design consumerism, as seen in the work of collective Start From Zero, and graphic design duo-slash-artists, Graphic Airlines.
“From history we know that Hong Kong is a city with no personality,” says Lee Kit, an admittance that somehow incurs a sense of loss and sheds light on how Hong Kong’s consumerism expresses itself in the daily lives of the city’s population. With no culture, consumerism somehow fills a void. Lee admits that his fixation as an artist with brand names reflects a sense of missing someone he doesn’t quite know. Referring to the function of karaoke, a famed Hong Kong past-time, Lee notes that growing up in Hong Kong, he never understood why English music was so popular, even though everyone spoke Cantonese. Travelling the world in his twenties he came to realise that the western influences of popular culture were evident everywhere. In this light, karaoke and branding create homogeneity, leading him to the conclusion that everything is readymade, from a karaoke parlour, to product packaging, to our very own emotional reactions to given situations.
“It’s how karaoke functions. When you sing the song it actually cleans your mind, then at the end you only have a song in your head,” says Lee, explaining the inspiration behind a solo exhibition that looked at Hong Kong’s karaoke culture as an outlet for emotional – and often drunken – expression, entitled Someone Singing and Calling Your Name, held at Osage Soho in 2009. “It’s a very sentimental, emotional moment but the reaction is the same.” More often than not, we are not aware of just how directed we are in our personally constructed realities. By creating the situation in an exhibition context, Lee implores viewers to look deeper into the rituals of daily life, and contemplate why melancholy bubbles beneath the façade. But he is quick to underline that his intention is not to criticise. Rather, he approaches his subjects with an intimacy that draws the audience in, even if they don’t really know what they are looking at. This is where fictions and realities meet.
Talking to artist Morgan Wong about his interactive media installations, he mentions Laurie Anderson, and her referencing of George S. Trow's essay Within the Context of No Context during an interview, an investigation into the loss of the "middle distance" between the individual and the group as facilitated, namely, via the dissemination of culture via mass media. As Wong talks about having to navigate between two cultures, two political systems, two separate societies, and arguably, two different levels of technological existence (Hong Kong has always been hi-tech in comparison to both China and even the West), the picture that emerges from the discussions with the Hong Kong artists interviewed here is a city that exists in a perpetual in-between, built on constructed realities and the value systems that emerge from them. In the midst of this, is how the individual within society relates to both, and it is clear that the very personal approaches these artists take to their work is not as introspective as one might like to believe. Looking at Leung Chi Wo’s ongoing photographic collaboration with Sara Wong, He Was Lost Yesterday and We Found Him Today (2010- ), there is a sense that things are only just getting started. Taking images from mass media as a starting point, Leung and Sara Wong extract ‘minor’ city characters – non-descript men and women dressed in clothes that don’t quite fit in the current age, with faces always concealed. Much like Lam Tung Pang’s faded landscapes, to Lee Kit’s ghostly cardboard homages to commercial brands, to the interpretative and somewhat un- fixed nature of Morgan Wong’s media works, what unites Hong Kong artists today is a shared history that is flimsy in its complexity, haunting in its lingering inconclusiveness, yet energised by a generation contemplating the past in order to better affect the future. And though the Hong Kong arts scene is still comparatively localised, whether its issues have a universal quality about them is for the reader to decide. In the following texts, Naked Punch introduces only a handful of creative people working in the Hong Kong art scene, who express how it is to be involved in the arts on this side of the world, to an audience that probably hasn’t yet been introduced. It is, as we call it, a starting point.
(This article is part of the NP 15's Arts Dossier on Hong Kong Art edited by Stephanie Bailey. NP 15 is now available and can bought here: http://www.nakedpunch.com/site/issues/10 )