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World
Milena Placentile
Hong Kong
June 17, 2010

At some point while the Hong Kong Tourism Board was planning new mega-destinations to “maximize economic growth through culture”, they came to realize that culture existed all around them and increasing opportunities for it to flourish in a more organic fashion would not only serve their purposes but benefit local communities as well. This observation influenced a new Cultural Policy that presently leads the development of many new venues for the arts, including studio and meeting spaces for contemporary artists and other cultural workers.

 

 

A view of the JCCAC from within the quadrangle

Despite this top-down approach, and an undeniably influential art market, there exists a young and critical arts community in Hong Kong that is injecting new ways of thinking and doing into the city. Many of the organizations working out of the Jockey Club Creative Arts Centre, a reclaimed factory in the Shek Kip Mei district of Kowloon, are strong examples of this, including the Hong Kong Open Print Shop, WRONGPLACE non-profit research collective, the Hong Kong Film Critics Society, and DanceArt Hong Kong. The design of the facility promotes interaction between artists working in different disciplines and audiences, and thanks to extensive open hours, there is always something to see or do any day of the week.


 

Laura Li Nogueira, Fantasy Land, 2010 (detail), paper on acrylic board 

In another area of Kowloon, an older development called Cattle Depot Artists Village is home to two notable artist run centres: 1a space and Videotage. At 1a space, I encountered a non-thematic group exhibition of work by artists affiliated with the organization. The practices and interests were diverse and I was particularly interested in a cut paper work by Laura Li Nogueira that offered a witty response to consumerism and trite celebrity culture, both of which are known to dominate popular interest in Hong Kong. Speaking with the curator of this installation Choi Yan Chi I learned that this type of show is irregular for 1a space and was a spontaneous effort to keep the venue active while they focused on delivering educational programming at the Art Hong Kong 10 art fair (see below for more). As an example of activities supporting their mandate, she told me about GREEN – through the Kai Tak River, an ambitious public art project that had just ended involving local communities and experts collaborating with artists to revive a nearby river. I wish I’d caught this in person because the publication looks fantastic!

 


Installation view of Transgression at Videotage

Videotage pushes its audience to encounter new media practices and challenging social ideas through diverse programming initiatives. I visited during the opening of a dense installation of provocative post-communist video and media art by forty-six Czech/Czech Republic-based artists titled Transgression and organized by Videotage’s curator in residence Gabriela Jurkovič. Multiple monitors plus a projection featured several programs of work causing a great deal of competition in the small space. I realize Jurkovič wanted to test the conventions of curatorial selection by reflecting the geological definition of the word, but I wonder if it would have served the project (and the artists) better if she’d culled her choices a little more since it was virtually impossible to pay reasonable attention to any of the works. Still, I caught intriguing moments here and there on subjects spanning from religion to sexuality, and just about every remaining western taboo in between.

 


FAKE Studios (Ai Weiwei) and Studi Acconci, 2010, installation view 

Para/Site Art Space is Hong Kong’s first non-profit contemporary arts organization and a self-proclaimed leader in the visual arts. Given its numerous accomplishments since it’s founding in 1996, including the establishment of an eight-month curatorial training program, I had very high hopes for their commission of an experimental collaboration between veteran American artist/architect Vito Acconci and Chinese interdisciplinary guru Ai Weiwei. The challenge proposed by Para/Site involved the artists collaborating over eight weeks via telephone/internet and presenting their results at Para/Site. It was crowded when I visited the first time so, apart from wallpapered images of Acconci, Weiwei and others, and an inaudible installation of speakers, I wasn’t able to make anything of the show. When I returned about an hour later I realized there wasn’t much more to glean. The speakers whispered either “Vito… Vito…” or “Weiwei… Weiwei…” and the images were indeed snapshots of Acconci and Weiwei and their cohorts walking around, looking at papers, talking, drinking wine, etc. A cube-shaped template used to create a black magic marker grid throughout the room (and its cardboard shipping box) was positioned on the floor. Weiwei’s statement described the project as an effort to define the process of working together in the context of city planning with Hong Kong’s dense urbanity as a backdrop. I saw none of that present in the work, just a whispered cue that these guys are name brands so the very memory of their presence of the space ought to be adequately compelling.  

 


Simon Birch, Hope and Glory, 2010, installation view

Hope and Glory, a twenty thousand square foot multi-media installation orchestrated by Simon Birch in collaboration with numerous others was billed as the largest event of its kind ever staged in Hong Kong, and advertising for this top shelf sponsored production was virtually impossible to avoid. Subtitled “a conceptual circus”, the project sought to explore ideas concerning heroism and courage. Upon arrival, I was ready to welcome the project as a potentially transportative spectacle, but as I moved through it, spotting one cliché motif after the next (skulls, guns, crowns, etc.) before stumbling onto a silver laminated skateboarding half-pipe, it began to feel less and less conceptual, and more and more like Chuck E. Cheese for hipsters. In a Tron-like area of the installation, a video parody of American Idol taking jabs at living and deceased artists was as tired as a rapper dissing other rappers. And, just when I thought it couldn’t get worse, it did: a collection of interviews with the artist’s friends describing their surprise and grief upon discovering the artist had become sick with a life threatening illness. So many of them wondered: how could such a kick ass surfer/snowboarder/skier/club kid/art star possibly get sick? Okay. I get it. Birch triumphed over a terrible illness and this project is his “I’m not done with you yet, world!” fist-wave, so the global art scene and other tourists to Hong Kong can witness how awesome he is and how many adoring friends he has. 

For all the printed educational support material (brought to you by Louis Vuitton) offering rather condescending questions to prompt visitors into a more “enriching” viewing experience, and the multiple offers from attendants for a “free tour” of the exhibition, there wasn’t much to mull over. That being stated, as strictly aesthetic achievements in cinematography and design, the video loop of the woman assertively and athletically throwing herself off a high rise, and the gang of circus freak costumes were quite striking as independent objects. I also won’t deny that the machinima clip featuring intergalactic video game warriors blasting a monolith to a voiceover about the monumentality of large-scale artworks was humorous. If the clip was Birch’s wink admitting that the eye-roll-inducing display was basically only entertainment, I’ll gladly accept the project as such.

 

 

Lu Yang, Dictator E, 2009, video still 

The modestly scaled installation of three videos and two illustrations by Chinese artist Lu Yang at the newly established I/O (Input/Output) easily reinforced that bigger is not necessarily better. In fact, I’d consider Lu’s A Tortuous Vision a highlight of my visit to Hong Kong because I’m still reflecting on her questions about scientific research, bioethics, hierarchy, and control. The featured video was an animated remix set to electronic break beats of footage gathered from an earlier project called Happy Tree that the artist has declared she will never present ever again. It was vibrant and edgy, just like what one expects from a VJ performance. It was only when my peripheral vision drew me to the two flanking videos that I properly registered her intentional pop aestheticization of the earlier project that, ultimately, caused harm to small fish and amphibians via digitally controlled electrical currents shocking their bodies into motion. Confucianism declares that animals have a lower moral status than humans, so while cruelty isn’t directly advocated, there is no suggestion that animals ought to be treated with compassion. This compelling difference between mainstream Eastern and Western philosophy opens the floodgates on all kinds of thinking about the body politic and the exercise of power, as well as the status of rights for all living things. Her drawings of proposed necrotic bio-sculpture, sometimes involving human bodies, make it apparent that Lu is also concerned with the problem of unbridled scientific research. Where are the lines between medically necessary, helpful, interesting, and sadistically amusing?


 

Eko Nugroho, The New Flower Generation, 2009, resin human scale sculpture, plastic flowers, plastic gun

Art Hong Kong 10 was my impetus for visiting Hong Kong and my first impressions were positive. Many galleries took significant risks presenting large scale sculpture and new media installations that are difficult to collect, and the fair organizers coordinated various interesting focal points, some stronger than others. Sure, there was more Hirst and Nara than you can shake a stick at, but there were still many satisfying opportunities to encounter work by lesser known artists. Among them I was pleased to discover interdisciplinary artists Shine Shavin (India) and Eko Nugroho (Indonesia) for the first time. Kudos to Ark Galerie from Jakarta for offering an intriguing presentation of two installations in two booths; one by new media artist Jompet Kuswidananto (Indonesia) and one by Nugroho. I felt like I was seeing the artists’ work for what it was, instead of as an object for sale.

 


Milena Placentile is a curator and writing living in Winnipeg

 

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