Challenges And Questions

by Jonathan Thomson
Asian Art News, Volume 20 Number 2, Asian Art News (International) Ltd., March/April 2006, pp.57-63. 

The Hong Kong Art Biennial has seen its successes and failures in its brief history. Yet, even with the many questions that the exhibition raises, there are always a good number of pleasant surprises


The Hong Kong Art Biennial is Hong Kong ‘s largest and most important regular contemporary art exhibition. It gives young Hong Kong artists the opportunity to exhibit their work in the city’s largest and best located public art museum for a period of three months. The exhibition comprises two parts-Chinese media and Western media. In order to better set Hong Kong art in an international context, this article will focus on work in Western media.
The Museum of Art has been beset with criticisms from the moment it first opened its doors on the waterfront at Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon . It has been criticized for lacking a coherent collection’s policy or clear mission, for lacking transparency, and for lacking quality scholarship. Collections are at the heart of a museum. Collections and the knowledge they contain constitute the capital of museums-they are the intellectual and social capital, which guarantees the museum’s international authority and credibility. Museums must also respond to the evolving intellectual needs of their audiences. The relevance of collections, research, interpretation, and education and public use are all key factors in a museum’s long-term sustainability. The Hong Kong Museum of Art does not generally serve well the interests of contemporary Hong Kong artists or their audiences. The curatorial emphasis of the Museum of Art is focused more on antiquities and exhibitions better suited to a history museum, or on being a venue for overseas-sponsored traveling exhibitions.
The Hong Kong Art Biennial has become a platform for local artists and cultural commentators to renew their criticisms of the Museum of Art . Some of these criticisms are well founded, while others are not. The current exhibition catalogue contains a piece by a local curator who is sharply critical of the Museum of Art because its Art Biennial is not a “real” biennial. However, most of these criticisms hinge on issues of nomenclature, on the fact that the term “biennial” has come to have a particular meaning in contemporary art circles rather than its original simple meaning of something that recurs every two years. Many of these criticisms could be defused, or at least better focused, if the exhibition was called the Hong Kong Art Biennial Competition.
The works that are selected for exhibition are chosen in a two-stage process. In the first round a group of local adjudicators appointed by the Museum makes their selections by assigning each work submitted a point score. The scores are tallied and there is then some discussion to establish where the cut should be to determine which works go through to the next round. In the final round of marking, the group of local judges is joined by a number of others with well-established reputations in the international art community. The process is scrupulously fair but does not allow for the discussion of the merits of individual works or the sort of horse-trading that can result in much bolder work being selected. An averaging of marks can perhaps lead to an average selection. Notwithstanding, as competitions go, the current exhibition has thrown up some real winners. In particular, the first-past-the-post method of selection has meant that some artists are represented with two works. This puts an interesting slant on the whole exhibition.


However, it was young Hong Kong artist Kwan Sheung-chi who benefited most from the first-past-the-post selection process. Kwan is a young artist who combines a fully fledged, well-reasoned critical stance with art that is innovative, approachable, and utterly unpretentious. He makes work that is reminiscent of the conceptual art of the 1960s that questioned the process of making art, the idea of authorship, and the definition of art as a unique precious original object in an age of mechanical reproduction. However, his work is more than art about art, and explores notions of artistic identity, time, place, and the institutions of the art world. Kwan’s critical practice recalls the seminal conceptual work of the American Joseph Kosuth (b.1945) and works such as One and Three Chairs in which a chair, a photograph of a chair, and a greatly enlarged dictionary definition of a chair were exhibited side by side in an exploration of the meaning of art. In his work Kosuth sought to demonstrate that the “art” resides not in the object but in the idea or concept of art. Kwan is similarly interested in the question of how meaning is constructed but he is also concerned with the question of who makes art and the interaction of other people, places, and things as an integral part of the work’s cultural context.
His work, called Teapoy, is a deceptively simple installation that combines text, archival photographs, oral history, technical drawing, and a reconstructed domestic object. This work is the product of collaboration between the artist and his mother, on their shared memories, on her background in technical drawing and his critical examination of what is an artist. The object in the installation is based on technical drawings made by his mother. As such it is she, Tsang Yin-hung, who is acknowledged in the exhibition and catalogue as author of the work. There is nothing fraudulent about Kwan’s practice. The submission of the work in his mother’s name and its acceptance by the jury, whether they know of his involvement or otherwise, gives his critical strategy of interrogating identity the highest possible art-world endorsement.
The work in his own name is exhibited side by side the one by him and his mother. Not surprisingly, both works share the same format and the same elegantly minimalist production values. Menu of the Mustard Seed Garden Cigarette comprises a table with some wooden boxes filled with cigarette shaped objects, a photograph of the artist looking out over Hong Kong harbor while smoking a cigarette, from which roil “Chinese” clouds, and a series of four documentary photographs. In the 17 th century various styles of Chinese painting (including clouds) were collected into a manual called the Chieh Tzu Yuan Hua Chuan (the Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting). For centuries, artists have used these manuals to hone their own techniques. Kwan’s cigarettes are actually paintings copied from the manual and rolled into cigarette form (the cigarette now being much more prevalent in China than the scroll.) His work is a highly thoughtful form of engagement with the past, present, and future of traditional Chinese art.
A great many of the other artists represented in the Biennial with just one work are also worthy of special mention but unfortunately a lack of space precludes further comment. Suffice it to say the standard of works, in all categories, seems to belie those voices critical of the selection process.
Jonathan Thomson is an art historian, art consultant, and writer. He is regional correspondent for Asian Art News and World Sculpture News.