No “Local” is an Island

by Jaspar Lau
Yishu, Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art, Summer Issue, Art & Collection Group Ltd., June 2006, pp.85-92. 
 
 

 
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One good indicator of the recent local art scene not having much curatorial intervention (but taste perhaps!) is the Hong Kong Art Biennial 2005, held at the Hong Kong Museum of Art. Among over one hundred works by more than eighty artists in the show, there were almost no political works…
 
Noteworthy in the Biennial was a work Teapoy (2005) by Kwan Sheung Chi, or, more exactly, by his mom. Inspired by Molly Nesbit’s article on Marcel Duchamp’s education in technical drawing in France, Kwan noted the similar background of his mother in mainland China and was successful in getting her “work” (drawings and furniture) into the open competition and exhibited. A similar piece, Mum after Duchamp, A Brief Chronicle of Tsang Yin-Hung’s Artistic Career (2005), was shown in Berger’s Irreality. In a city drowning in the rhetoric of creative industry (the supposedly magical cure for the future of our post-industrial city), this discreet act by Kwan is a good critical footnote that challenges the tendency towards the formalism of an art institution running a competition on creativity. Another artist, Wong Wai Yin, proposed to copy the Biennial catalogue as her work, reversing the normal order of business and providing a sense of how the local, younger generation is beginning to pick up new artistic forms of engagement when dealing with the bureaucratic institutions.
 

 
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While Kwan’s work dealing with his mother mentioned above has perhaps borrowed the format of Chinese artist Hai Bo’s photographic works, his Mustard Seed Garden Cigarette (2004) box set, also included in the same Biennial, played with Chineseness in an even more obvious manner. The clouds of smoke over Victoria Harbour he drew inside the package menu reminded me of another of his works that appeared in the local newspaper Ming Pao. In it, he set fire to the phoenix design for the universal suffrage campaign (as according to the legend, a phoenix could rebirth in fire), which was designed specifically to counter the flying dragon that accompanied the government’s Asia World City campaign. As there is a neon sign of the flying dragon over the city’s skyline, where regular fireworks displays were held for tourists in front of the harbour, Kwan, here, is mocking at once Cai Guoqiang’s fireworks display and gunpowder drawings, as well as the local Hong Kong image symbol. Another work Kwan produced in the newspaper mimicked an advertisement for the The Arch, a residential block just next to the future West Kowloon Cultural (and Entertainment) District. But Kwan utilized street-sleepers’ cardboard boxes (resembling some high form of paper architecture, as Ackbar Abbas once suggested), juxtaposing the “sky-high” price of property with a mobile form that represents poverty and necessity. These works deviated from his previous long-term subject, which was the status of the artist in the local arts circle and which quickly gained wide exposure.
 

 
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With the heightened social and political awareness brought about by Post-’7. 1, the younger generation is experiencing something that is as critical as perhaps June 4th is to my generation. But instead of something negative happening in China that struck every person, July I was in the end something positive, for it fostered a new local collective identity among the Hong-Kongers living in Hong Kong, China. The works of Tozer Pak record his real daily life, his true self, his action and deeds, and his creative thoughts. They are humane yet strong conceptual pieces. They face confusing times without neglecting the individual. Hong Kong society does not leave much space for artistic cos-play to be more appealing than consumerism itself. The dislocation of Can Fei’s cos-play and hip-hop figures, and the dog-faced human in Burberry checkered costumes, might have been an “overdose” (Berger’s phrase) of energy in her mainland context. But, as Abbas argued, “cynicism exploits contusion, other people’s and one’s own, and turns it into a fine show. But no new sense of a public can emerge from it. Cynicism is conservative, not wild at heart.”“Hong Kong artists in the Post-’7.1 paradigm, I believe, could do something more concrete than this. To borrow a distinction from Swiss artist Thomas Hirschhorn, it is “to make art politically,” rather than to “make political art.”
 
 
Jaspar Lau is a curator and writer. He has also served as editor for several books, including Local Accent: 12 Artists from Hong Kong (Para/Site, 2003) and a monograph on Wu Shanzhuan (Asia Art Archive, 2005). Exhibitions he has curated include Organisation for Cultural Exchange and Mishap (Hong Kong/Melbourne, 2003) and his own mMK (mini-Museum von Kaspar, since 1996).

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