pulse – a review of Hong Kong Anarchitecture Bananas
at 5:50pm on 6th April 2011


Not long ago, cultural critic Paul Virilio says, “I am retiring from architecture. I don’t want to hear any more about it. The city, yes, let’s keep talking about it. But architecture, it’s finished, over. Curtain.” Architecture for Virilio is no longer of interest unless considered in relation to cyberspace. As cynics continue to portray architecture as works by profit-hunting accomplices of trans-border corporations, and humanists continue to burden architects with such noble missions of harbingers of social change and guardians of urban space and built heritage, one is compelled to ask, If there is still an interest in architecture today, where and how is it to be found?

In Hong Kong, public discussions on the relation of architecture and what makes it interesting are rare. It was only until recently, after civilian protests over the demolition of the Star Ferry Pier and Queen’s Pier, that architecture became more visible as coming out of a complex legal, social, cultural, economic, aesthetic, and political environment. Since then, we have celebrated (some with more excitement than others) first contact with architect Zaha Hadid’s art container, commissioned by the Chanel Mobile Art project (Feb – Apr, 2008). Showing the work in aerial views, the official website describes the project as an “artistic experience within a nomadic building”.

Ironically, the container was installed at the top floor of the parking lot opposite the former Star Ferry Pier site, a vantage point during the protests for hundreds of journalists, policemen, onlookers, and supporters because of the view it offered to the protests down below. The Star Ferry Pier site is currently being reclaimed. The art container is on its way to Tokyo.

Society’s expectation on the relevance and reach of architecture is self-consciously felt by architects, too. Consider the Wang Weijen’s “curatorial notes” in the Hong Kong-Shenzhen Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism\ Architecture (Central Police Station Compound, January – March, 2008). He asks, “What are the critical issues of Hong Kong’s urban and architecture conditions, and how are we going to respond to the growing concerns from the public about the way our city has been, and will be shaped?” While implicated in such global corporate capital as Chanel, architecture is also presented as the very tissue of urban living. To be fair, it is less pride than vulnerability that also marks the problematics of architecture in Hong Kong today. As I write, a 30-storey high Calvin Klein advertisement banners around the entire Ritz Carlton Hotel in Central, as the building waits for its demolition. City branding imperatives are translated into LED-powered lights beaming on buildings lining the Victoria Harbor front. I wonder how much control an architect has over the afterlife of his/her works.

It is from this hyper-surreal environment that Hong Kong Anarchitecture Bananas (Mar 29 – Apr 17, 2008) emerged. Compared to the hundred plus works in the Biennale, Anarchitecture is a small show, with thirty-three artists, from such veterans as Kwok Mang Ho (aka Frog King), ceramic artist Annie Wan Lai Kuen, and visual artist Leung Chi Wo, to emerging young artists as Doris Wong and public art group We Are Society (WAS). It also took place in a much smaller gallery, Artist Commune in the Cattle Depot Artist Village. But it is also precisely this habit of sizing up and sizing down that Anarchitecture sets out to challenge. Rather than looking up, looking down, Anarchitecture approaches slowly, closely, dearly and with a sense of humor.

Fundamentalists may question Anarchitecture’s reconstitution of architecture, the very phenomenon it sets out to shake up. If architecture in the Biennale has established itself at the expense of the visual artists who received treatment during the Biennale of a “hierarchised differentiation” nature, as the curators put it, why bother keeping art’s interest in architecture alive?

Anarchitecture offers at least two ways into the question. First, the exhibition conjures up a strong sense that architecture is not where and how we have been instructed to find it. Rather than in skyward slabs of concrete, Anarchitecture finds the built environment inscribed in the human body. Yuen Kin Leung’s installation Pieces of S-Nail: Re: Wanchai Remains (2008) lets his tattooed body sink in and float across fragments of a similarly tattooed floor. Cornelia Erdmann’s installation Squatters has pillows hugging a bamboo pole suggesting the value of intimacy and mobility often sidelined in gigantic building projects. The exhibition also finds the built environment manifested in nature and its expanse rather than in high technology and speed. Lau Chi Chung’s A Wounded City (2008) is a series of photographs of empty built structures profiled in natural landscape. In Jeff Leung and Cheung Wai Lok’s Gap (2008), architecture is compressed into a black and white tourist postcard of Hong Kong, bent to hang between the gap of two walls – is it the manmade or natural laws that keep the postcard suspended?

The other way Anarchitecture approaches architecture is oblique: it reveals how new meanings on architecture can be produced when taken away from its urban comfort zone into the context of visual arts, a perspective disproportionately lacking in the Biennale. By art-ing architecture, the exhibition recycles architecture in a way that it can never do for itself as built. Recycling materials is dirty business, says the consumer-led market-driven logic, for it is antithetical to the principle of compulsory obsolescence built into the mass production of commodities. The business of recycling meanings is even dirtier, for new meanings for finished works shake them up. The art world is arguably subject to this logic, too. Exhibition copies must be destroyed after being shown once and new works must be made routinely to satisfy the appetite of those having a stake in the trade. Little time is left for reflection and debates, activities increasingly wiped out of the art ecology.

Anarchitecture works on a different dimension: it values the inscription of time on the artworks themselves. It displays works that have been shown before not because they “deserve more attention” in the size of audience. Rather, they are carefully included to reveal a constant concern among visual artists over architecture. I am thinking of, for instance, Kwan Sheung Chi’s The Arch (2005) previously presented in the exhibition A-way, which profiled it as representative of the younger generation of Hong Kong artists. Clara Cheung’s mixed media work Teaching Material for Government’s Administrative Officers (2007) has also been shown under more polemical frameworks. I am not questioning the validity of different ways of profiling the works; my point is, as Anarchitecture brings these works again into focus precisely as architecture, the recycling becomes transformative. In this sense, Anarchitecture must be seen as a productive footnote to the Biennale. Instead of congratulating the Biennale and its own novelty, Anarchitecture reconstitutes its significant other to make intervention possible. If curatorial work gives new meanings to artworks, good curatorial work enables meanings that artworks already carry to reveal themselves. In a world slanted towards the inflated promise of oppositional politics, Anarchitecture reminds us of the accountable kind.

Henri Lefebvre, widely known for his rhythm analysis of urban space, says, “It is not the architect who will ‘define a new approach to life’…It is the new approach to life that will enable the work of the architect, who will continue to serve as a ‘social condenser,’ no longer for capitalist social relationships and the orders that ‘reflect’ them, but for shifting and newly constituted relationships.” Anarchitecture shares with architecture the same plight and obligation. That Anarchitecture has chosen to work from within enables it to insert a gentle but insistent pulse that always already finds interest in emotional vibrancy.

This review was first published in 2008 in iSh, Page One Publishing: Singapore.