Bloom and Blust 空穴來瘋
約翰百德 (John BATTEN)
at 3:52pm on 11th June 2012
1. Ho Sin Tung: Parapraxis 2, graphite and digital print on paper, 2012. Published in Ming Pao, 15 April 2012 after a Hong Kong newspaper vendor was attacked that week by mainland visitors for being unable to speak Mandarin. (Image courtesy of Ho Sin Tong)
2. Street sticker, Sham Shui Po, Hong Kong, in support of artist Ai Weiwei during his detention on the mainland, 2011 (Photograph: John Batten)
3. Display of work, protest and reconstruction (by artist Ng Ka Chun) of Master Fung's desk inside Woofer Ten. Master Fung was a street artist who worked nearby from a small hand-built stall in Shanghai Street, Yau Ma Tei; recently demolished by government street cleaning/Lands Department staff, 2012. (Photograph: John Batten)
4. Rental United (Stephanie Sin, Damon Tong, Timothy Zau): Performance C, outdoor performance during Hong Kong ArtWalk, 14 March 2012. (Photograph courtesy of Rental United)
5. One of Tse Chi Tak's series of photographs of villagers, displayed as an enlarged photocopy on a village house during Choi Yuen Village Art Festival, organised to protest against demolition of village, 2010. (Photograph: John Batten)
1. 何倩彤的作品《Parapraxis 2》發表於今年4月15日的香港報紙「明報：星期日生活」，有關香港報攤店主因不懂國語而被內地人毆打事件。墨汁、數位印刷（圖／何倩彤
2. 2011年香港街頭可見聲援艾未未在中國被捕的街頭塗鴉貼紙。（圖／John Batten)
3. 藝術家吳家俊在「活化廳」內為街頭畫家馮畫師裝置的抗議和重建作品。馮畫師在油麻地附近的上海街，親手建造了小畫攤，於今年被政府的清潔隊拆除。（圖／John Batten）
5. 香港政府和港鐵為興建廣深港高速鐵路，迫遷石崗菜園村。2010年謝至德在拆村前展出了一系列紀錄反迫遷事件的攝影作品以示聲援。（圖／John Batten）
( 中文翻譯請往下看 Please scroll down to read the Chinese translation.)
The Hong Kong of-the-street has had for decades - and continues - a nascent spirit, energy for the possible and a surprising acceptance of difference and others’ strongly held attitudes. First-time visitors note the palpable energy in the air and amongst all this an Asian allowance for fate tempered by hard work. There is freedom of thought (despite the lack of democracy) and, importantly, a dogged determination not to allow this openness of spirit to be compromised.
The city also has a stultifying government and a solid but passive bureaucracy that together reinforce the hard edges of concrete parks, high-rise buildings and roads that overwhelm the urban environment. (1) There is also a serious widening wealth gap, poverty, and an unsavoury coziness between officialdom and big business. Above is the real and imagined presence of China, as motherland and as the ultimate power. However, the sceptical public - and the entrepreneurial, creative, independently minded and ambitious - can and do ignore most of this; they confidently continue being sceptical and independent ….and ‘do things.’
Appreciating Hong Kong’s ethos is easy; trying to define it can be inexact. Similarly, historian Isaiah Berlin groped to understand the essence of European Romanticism – a movement that recoiled against some of the excesses of the Age of Enlightenment. Many of Berlin’s examples of the early 19th century romantic spirit precisely fit Hong Kong’s recent and current social landscape and these sentiments can be taken as a rudder for the city’s economic, political and cultural fabric. Berlin listed them to include:
“…the primitive, the untutored, it is youth, the exuberant sense of life of the natural man, but it is pallor, fever, disease, decadence….It is the confused teeming fullness and richness of life…inexhaustible multiplicity, turbulence, violence, conflict, chaos, but it is also peace….Also it is the familiar, the sense of one’s unique tradition, joy in the smiling aspect of everyday nature...concern with the fleeting present, desire to live in the moment, rejection of knowledge, past and future, the pastoral idyll of happy innocence, joy in the passing instant, a sense of timelessness. It is nostalgia, it is reverie, it is intoxicating dreams, …the sense of alienation, roaming in remote places, especially the East….It is beauty and ugliness. It is art for art’s sake, and art as an instrument of social salvation. It is strength and weakness, individualism and collectivism, purity and corruption, revolution and reaction, peace and war, love of life and love of death.” (2)
Berlin’s flowery description can be physically appreciated throughout Hong Kong, but there is an artistic element in the Fotan industrial area. Situated mid-way between Shatin and The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Fotan is in a valley surrounded by steep hills that replicate the mountainous shrouds of a Chinese traditional painting on a misty winter day. Nearby are high-rise industrial buildings housing a variety of practical car repair, logistics, engineering, food production, storage and other small businesses. Amongst this commercial activity and completely compatible is a scattering of about 80 artist studios housing individual and shared studios of up to eight artists in each. This is the largest concentration of artist studios in Hong Kong, although studios are also found in Hong Kong’s other industrial areas of Chai Wan, Ap Lei Chau, Wong Chuk Hang, Kwun Tong, Tsuen Wan, Kwai Hing and San Po Kong.
The varied art produced in Fotan is a world away from the well resourced programming of Hong Kong’s official art funding channels, museums, public and private exhibition spaces that are essentially conservative and self-protective in approach. Fotan’s art studios are all self-financed and independent with no constraints on artistic expression. In contrast, the government initiated Jockey Club Creative Arts Centre (JCCAC) provides studio, exhibition and theatre facilities but resident artists have at times complained about inflexible rules and a non-conducive artistic environment. Since opening, the JCCAC has become increasingly occupied for institutional studio uses such as children’s private art tuition classes and teaching facilities for the Hong Kong Arts Centre. There is certainly a need for such business-related (or “cultural industry”) uses, but the original intention of the JCCAC to provide predominantly artist studios has met resistance from its target group: artists themselves.
Rental United is the name of the shared Fotan studio of artists Stephanie Sin, Damon Tong and Timothy Zau. Each has recently graduated from art school and they are predominantly painters, who have not – yet – received any glossy magazine attention. These three artists are an example of the practicalities necessary to present as a committed artist in the art world and experienced by many of their fellow artists.
Rental United have evolved since originally opening their studio in 2010 for viewing during the yearly Fotanian Open Studios – an event visited by thousands of people. In a conscious decision to use different media in their work, they have presented a series of performances as a group rather than show their individually executed paintings. In 2011, attired in formal suits and standing statue-like on plinths, the artists silently stood stock-still in daily five-hour performances over two weekends. It was only later that they realized, to their embarrassment and unfortunately too common for Hong Kong artists with a hazy knowledge of art history, that British artists Gilbert & George had done similar in their celebrated Underneath the Arches living and singing sculptural performances of the early 1970s.
Again dressed in suits but identifying themselves as “hygiene technicians”, Rental United performed a ritualized cleaning of their white studio space accompanied by the music of a free-form playing solo guitarist in front of an intrigued audience over four days during this year’s Fotanian open days. This scenario is not far from Hong Kong’s authorities’ obsession with cleanliness, extending to the official sanitizing and demolition of Hong Kong’s older urban areas and implying a destructive SARS-like potential if ignored.
A few months later, a similar but critically stronger performance was undertaken around Central’s streets during Hong Kong ArtWalk 2012, attended by 2,000 participants and the passing public. Unannounced, Rental United appeared outside Central and Sheung Wan commercial galleries and thoroughly and obsessively cleaned a gallery’s front windows, leaving an adhered note of job completion (with the sly hope, largely unrealized, of receiving payment for services rendered). Their participation in these two large public events, allowed Rental United’s performances to be seen by thousands of people, an audience wider and larger than the tight arts crowd who would have seen their paintings if solely exhibited in a gallery.
Rental United’s first performances were essentially done as a theatrical attempt to be different alongside more conventional artist studios and exhibitions. However, as they debate their work with other artists and the public their artistic confidence has grown due to this close interaction with an audience. It is the sort of boost needed when you are generally ignored in an art market that highlights the consciously careful paintings seen in auctions of mainland contemporary art and the varied high-price offerings along the shopping mall-like aisles of another “international” art fair.
Increasingly, the recent newspaper headline, “Galleries bloom amid heady art boom,” reflects the popular press view of Hong Kong’s art scene. (3) The press depicts Hong Kong’s art market as being successful and having a prominent position on the world’s art stage. The facts, however, indicate otherwise. The recent opening of international galleries in Hong Kong confirms for the press a booming art market; however, the actual number of “international” galleries opening over the last three years is six in total. Over the coming year, other overseas galleries are muted to open (e.g. Pearl Lam from Shanghai; Galerie Perrotin from Paris; a large gallery for secondary sales by Sotheby’s), however these sort of numbers, not even reaching double figures, cannot warrant the puffed up “art boom” label.
Any overseas gallery that opens in Hong Kong does so for strategic and legitimate business reasons. The obvious advantage of being located in Hong Kong is having the flexibility to book sales (but not necessarily move a physical piece) of art through Hong Kong and benefit from the city’s free-port status, low taxation and absence of sales tax. The opening of these galleries does indicate a trend in the globalization of the art market and also confirms Hong Kong’s long accepted porous money transfer and liberal banking environment.
The major auction houses of Christie’s and Sotheby’s have long recognized the advantages of basing some of their operations in the city. Hong Kong does have collectors of antiquities, but there are few collectors of contemporary art and the city’s current level of twice-yearly auctions and a yearly international contemporary art fair, and despite record auction prices being achieved, indicates that there are limits in Hong Kong being able to accommodate many more contemporary art sales outlets and events.
If Hong Kong were a true booming art market then this city with a population of 8 million people and yearly tourist arrivals of 42 million (2011) would be able to support more than the 70 commercial contemporary art galleries currently operating. Anecdotally, many of these galleries struggle to actually make a profit. Likewise, with the dominance of Chinese contemporary art over the last ten years, such an “art boom” would also see commercial exhibitions of such auction house darlings as Zhang Xiaogang, Fang Lijun and Wang Guanyi in Hong Kong – but they are not. Similarly, the claim that mainland collectors will become major international buyers of contemporary art is presently untested – indeed, if European modern masters were being bought by mainland collectors, then why is the work of these artists only offered for sale outside Asia? Furthermore, auctions on the mainland are claiming record-breaking bid results, but many buyers actually fail to complete their purchase and even Christie’s and Sotheby’s in Hong Kong now demand deposits on some premium lots from potential bidders. (4) This all indicates that the “art boom” is a fickle catchphrase.
A booming art market environment also supposes that success at the top trickles down – eventually passing success onto Hong Kong’s own artists. Similar to other countries, Hong Kong has a handful of successful artists able to live off their artistic output, however the majority need income from other employment - Rental United is an example: there is no trickle down for these artists.
One of the outcomes of Hong Kong’s press-inspired “art boom” is that a handful of Hong Kong artists are continually featured in the media and these same artists invariably appear in local and, sometimes, international curated group exhibitions and in public and private art commissions. The art market is, of course, not fair – the most successful artists are not necessarily the most talented. But in Hong Kong’s relatively small art scene, the ranking of the city’s small pool of artists in this way is disappointing. This revolving door of artists, gallerists, curators and other art tastemakers who network and socialize amongst themselves are often disparagingly, or with envy, viewed and labeled as “players.” The reality is this is the art world’s usual practice: welcome Hong Kong!
The perimeters of Hong Kong’s art scene often provide the most forward thinking and intelligent art ideas. At the moment, art spaces Woofer Ten, 1aspace, C&G Artpartment, commercial galleries Osage, Grotto and Gallery Exit, and private artist studio exhibitions are generally the most active places to view critically good Hong Kong art; and at times, the Asia Art Archive provides an intellectual environment for visual art enquiry.
Woofer Ten is currently Hong Kong’s sole artist-collective and artist-run space, located at the publicly owned Shanghai Street Art Space in the inner urban district of Yau Ma Tei. Initially spearheaded by writer and artist (and art world outsiders) Jaspar Lau Kin Wah and Luke Ching Chin Wai, the group does community art projects in the locality; so, their exhibitions are often an extension of surrounding life and businesses, but brought inside an art space. At times, this is confusing for everyone. They have developed a following akin to the attractions of a musty community drop-in centre, both with the local shop-keepers, market stall-holders, the elderly and younger Pakistani children who all live nearby – people who live in some of Hong Kong’s poorest accommodation.
Many of the artists active in Woofer Ten were also involved in the 2010 protests and artist exhibitions and performances against the construction of the fast rail line connecting Hong Kong to the mainland’s own fast rail network and the demolition of the rural Choi Yuen Village. There has been rising tension and concern about social and livelihood issues of Hong Kong’s grassroots people since the mass public protests of 2003, and these were again highlighted in the recent ‘small-circle’ and undemocratic Chief Executive election and criticism of the elitist practices of big business and decision-makers. Woofer Ten’s grassroots focus actually mirrors the sentiments of the general public and there has been enthusiastic involvement by Yau Ma Tei residents in the activities undertaken by Woofer Ten.
Public engagement in art is a serious topic in Hong Kong and an oft-stated requirement for Hong Kong’s massive US$4 billion arts complex at West Kowloon. This and other similar projects could become white elephants if the public is not successfully enabled, encouraged or allowed to participate, and more importantly, is proud of and have a sense of belonging towards these new cultural facilities.
Woofer Ten’s varied activities remind me of the early exhibitions mounted by Para/Site Art Space in the late 1990s, which had a concern for its neighbouring Sheung Wan community. Many exhibitions were related to Hong Kong’s own unique, and at times confused, identity - this was the time of Hong Kong’s return to the mainland. But today’s Para/Site is a completely different entity: no longer artist-run and often replicating much of the goings-on of the mainstream art market, including artists exhibited and issues tackled. Now headed by an influential board of management and a professional curator – and with little art community involvement in its programming. Para/Site is waiting for its own next big thing and hopes to be allocated (as are many others) a space in the soon to be renovated historic Central Police Station.
After public debate and rejection of a new large high-rise structure, the presently under-renovation Central Police Station will have an art and heritage focus, housed within a series of heritage buildings and two new wings designed by Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron. These new wings will be Hong Kong’s first purpose-built non-government contemporary art spaces. Hopefully, it will fill a real need for a contemporary art space similar to the sort of facilities provided by The Serpentine Gallery in London. However, final details of its funding, governance and by whom it will be operated have worryingly yet to be decided.
The recent Chief Executive election saw a series of allegations of misconduct each made by the two main candidates, Leung Chun-ying and Henry Tang Ying-yen. The resulting scandals caught the attention of the Hong Kong public who had rarely seen such public political mudslinging before. In a spirited burst of artistic freedom on Facebook and other social media websites, the general public posted hundreds of manipulated film posters and photographs relating to the scandals to pour scorn on the flawed election and each candidate. Likewise, and exacerbated by an increase in the numbers of mainland mothers giving birth in Hong Kong and whose children automatically receive Hong Kong permanent resident status, a series of incidents between Hong Kong residents and Mandarin-speaking mainland visitors over language and behaviour has seen similar cartoons, graffiti and newspaper illustrations.
This follows a pattern of witty and critical actions against the detention of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei initiated by the Hong Kong art community during 2011 – the only place in China where such protests were allowed and tolerated. Such parody and satirical imagery and freedom of expression has had a long history in Hong Kong and is particularly prevalent in low-budget movies and nightly TV shows using comedy as populist political and social commentary.
The newly elected Chief Executive, Leung Chun-ying, has proposed the formation of a new Culture Bureau to co-ordinate the currently weak and ill-considered arts and culture policies of his predecessors. But there is justifiable wariness for a new all-powerful Bureau. And a complete mind-shift in decision-making and sharing of ideas is needed for any new Bureau to be effective. The West Kowloon Cultural District Authority, for example has only one person related to the arts sitting on its 21-person governing board.
“Culture” is not just paintings on museum walls and sculpture in parks, but an appreciation of the entire spirit and physical make-up of a city. Hong Kong has allowed for too long bureaucratic needs and dubious administrative efficiency rather than a people-centred approach towards decision-making. The city’s vernacular institutions such as street markets, dai pai dong (outdoor restaurants), hawkers, tong lau (low-rise buildings), chan cha teng (Hong Kong style cafes), heritage landscapes, indoor and outdoor recreational facilities, and good urban planning influence every aspect of people’s lives – all these need to be cared for and appreciated.
A recent determination by Hong Kong’s Development Bureau to ease planning restrictions to allow conversion of industrial buildings to office and residential purposes has resulted in higher rental costs and a tighter market for industrial buildings. Many low-margin businesses, including artists in their studios, have been affected by this simple and shortsighted change in government urban planning policy. There will be a point in the not-to-distant future when reasonably priced industrial space will be almost unobtainable. In such circumstances, Rental United’s studio name could itself represent a real challenge in Hong Kong’s evolving political and cultural landscape.
(1) The recent election of Leung Chun-ying as Hong Kong Chief Executive is not expected to change this impression in the immediate future.
(2) Isaiah Berlin, The Roots of Romanticism, the A.W. Mellon lectures in the Fine Arts, 1965, edited by Henry Hardy, Pimlico, 2000, pp 16-18.
(3) Vivienne Chow, “Galleries bloom amid heady art boom” in South China Morning Post, 6 April 2012, p1 and p3.
(4) Peter Foster, “Almost half of £1million Chinese auction bids unpaid six months after they were lodged”, in The Telegraph, 11 October 2011.
Originally published in Chinese in: ARTCO Monthly, Issue 236 (May, 2012).
夾租團工作室在2010年開幕，當時是火炭村年度的工作室開放日，湧入數千人參觀，之後便持續發展。他們刻意在作品中使用不同媒材，以群作方式呈現系列演出，而非展示各人的繪畫。2011年，藝術家們西裝畢挺、如雕像般站在基座上，連續兩週每天進行五小時沉默靜止的演出。他們後來才慚愧地知道（不幸的是香港藝術家通常只有如此模糊的藝術史知識），1970年代早期的英國藝術家吉伯特與喬治（Gilbert & George）已在著名的活人歌唱雕塑演出《在拱門下》（Underneath the Arches）做過類似的事。
「活化廳」的多樣活動讓我想到1990年代末Para/Site Art Space的早期展覽，當時同樣關注鄰近的上環社區。許多展覽都是關於香港時而令人困惑的獨特認同──這是香港回歸中國的時代。但今日的Para/Site是完全不同的實體：它不再由藝術家經營，無論展出藝術家或觸及的議題，都常複製主流藝術市場的內容。目前負責的是頗具影響力的管理委員會和一名專業策展人，計畫中很少有藝術社區的參與。Para/Site正等待自己的下一步，並（和許多人一樣）期盼能在即將翻新的中區警署舊址分到一席之地。
經過對新高樓大廈的公開辯論與反對，目前整修中的中區警署將聚焦於藝術與文化遺產，建物是一系列古蹟建築和兩棟由瑞士建築師赫爾佐格和德梅隆（Sheung Wan community）設計的新側翼。這幾棟新側翼是香港首次非政府設置的當代藝術空間。希望這能滿足當代藝術空間的需求，像在倫敦的蛇型藝廊（Serpentine Gallery）。但令人憂心的是，最後的資金細節、管理權和管理者都有待商榷。
註2 Isaiah Berlin, The Roots of Romanticism, the A.W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts, 1965, edited by Henry Hardy, Pimlico, 2000, pp 16-18.
註3 Vivienne Chow, “Galleries bloom amid heady art boom” in South China Morning Post, 6 April 2012, p1 and p3.
註4 Peter Foster, “Almost half of £1million Chinese auction bids unpaid six months after they were lodged”, in The Telegraph, 11 October 2011.