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Nothing but a few longer looks
at 11:28am on 19th December 2011


These photographs have been sitting in my computer for weeks. The harder the press of time, the further they withdraw from me - how hungry and kind.

To physically approach a photograph is serious business. Even now, I have trouble believing in myself looking at them. Each one is a world, hungry and kind.

Where should I stand? How far? How close? Where could I hide? How? My body becomes the photographer’s eye – what she sees and stabilizes, my body swallows. It is personal.

No photograph is without a body, even when the camera isn’t interested in human figures. Phenomenologically, all conscious perception is a bodily experience, incorporating the photographer’s body before he decides, and incorporating the viewer in her lived body as she stands physically in front of the photographs, scaled, cropped, framed and hung in particular and peculiar ways.

Besides the body, there is also the question of unity. It is wishful thinking to assume that writing about the works could achieve the same kind of unity that a curatorial strategy promises, for the latter builds on the faith in particular space, particular time, while the former, on the faith in cutting through space and time. Or, perhaps it’s the other way round. That kindness that insists there is a life to each work that both writing and curating are ready to cope…

It exasperates me to see signs after signs of that thing called civilization that has been feeding us pride – piling up concrete, tearing it apart, sugar-coating places, trapping human lives and alike. It intrigues me to see repose, punctuating the speed of time. This visual and thematic disparity, also a disparity of values, is the flesh and stone (to steal Richard Sennett’s phrase) of our social landscape, this way we live.

Still, I wonder, why are there no boats? So the legend goes that a civilization without boats is without dreams.

Is this our world? Is this our destiny?

A father and son are cycling towards me.
The son hesitates in front of a small speed bump. He stops.
The father asks him to turn around and try riding through it.
The son does, only to burst out in tears.
The father said, See? That was alright, wasn’t it? You are a boy. You must be brave.
I wonder what is in the stump that is so insurmountable;
its graveness must have even been scary.
The father just asks him to do something he finds scary, but does anyway
because he wants to be good for his father.

You object. You say I am being realist. The works are not documentaries of life. They are not about social belonging. They are merely the result of the play and obsession of a photographer. To this I answer, I cannot forget and forfeit my right as a viewer to assert that the photographs produce realities for me, too, the ways that their sociality becomes mine as they are shown to me.

Yasmina Reza’s mother keeps all articles where her daughter is mentioned
for “proof of [her] presence in the world.”
The writer herself, however, keeps nothing.
“Disdain? Detachment? No. Terror. Terror of the future insignificance
of these scraps of paper, terror of their cruel irony, terror of regret, terror of time.”
(Yasmina Reza, A Time Gone By)

This then is where I must start: from the faith that each photographer does her art a little differently from the other, that each one wants to be different, not just from each other and each other’s genres, but from reality, so that to live differently is to live.

To know someone…

They stand confident, composed and self-sufficient, these persons in Bobby Sham’s How to love yourself? The portraits invite us to regard them as the persons do themselves - fully, in vitality, without knowing all, without haste. So do Hisun Wong’s Rural China. To meet these villagers from the hills of Guizhou is to meet their land, to greet with them a modernization that has arrived. The rural is lived, not a fixed, unchanging identity.

Enter the worlds of Cantonese film stars, these worlds of personas. As Chung Man Lurk was invited into theirs, some in moments of beauty that are not self-conscious, we also encounter a visual practice of making portraits of people with fame. Their faces, their eyes, their gazes – their individuality despite the little information offered is striking. Somehow, our days render that practice out of date, as we do in many other ways. I recall a friend’s remark as we strolled along the streets of Causeway Bay one day. She said, in a tone of frustration, How come everyone has jumped out of a fashion magazine? Translation: same makeup, same mix and match of outfits, same walk, same hair, same look. It certainly sounds like fiction, but it’s all real.

Simon Go makes everyone feel famous, too, not by turning them into legendary film stars, but by articulating and acknowledging the pride that a lot of cultures share when we have a chance to be photographed, a primitive pride from the primitive history of photography. Hong Kong Old Shops’ portrayal of a radically anthropologic relation in between a person and her surroundings begs a question – what else is there for the person if not those objects, the materiality of the shops? I worry the frame would crumble.

Wei Leng Tay’s Hong Kong Living also portrays persons in places they feel comfortable. But in these photographs, nobody is stuck, nobody is caught in a moment of triumph from being photographed. That each character is self-sufficient and indifferent to the camera enables a similar kind of beauty of the some of the unselfconscious film stars of Chung.

I find it easy to smile to all of them – only trust could yield such poise.
To not know someone…

Chan Chik’s works show anonymity as a familiar aspect of urban life today becoming new in a not-so-distant past. Our bodies touch in shops and teahouses, then and now. But are we the same distance apart?

Work – how over-rated it is for the wrong reason: profit, efficiency, economies of scale… Chak Wai Leung show us how work was different, and valued for different reasons. Every worker is an individual person, having full command of the tools at hand. It is not what they do, but their integrity, that is visualized. The photographs compel us to ask, What is it about work that is worthy of the person’s attention? What is it in work that absorbs her?

Evangelo Costadimas’ works locate intimacy in tough, persistent and anonymous bodies, a streetwise move. To find beauty in accidental encounters isn’t cliché; it’s survival.

Karl Chiu pushes further. In his works, human bodies are monumental – not that they are not to be approached, but that their return to the primal, the erotic, the narcissistic, in tension with the alienated, the rigidified, the gregarious, gives a quality of exaggerated unreality common to monuments, too. They are calls for getting dirty.

Michael Wolf’s bodies are cleansed for being deprived of day and night and of shadows, for being pixelized. I find it difficult to call them culminations of the voyeuristic gaze because the conventional voyeur is rewarded with a sense of pleasure in possessing the power over whoever is looked at. In his works, pleasure is hard to come by. What must be revised about the understanding of voyeurism in this online world that parallels our existence in offline worlds is the mutual exchange of indifference, even toleration.

John Fung’s One Square Foot isn’t interested in the monumental nor the ruling power of the camera. He is curious whether the camera can tell bigger lies than reality does. He is left to make sense of the mirage of market worship via the mythical. The curious decision to leave small and composed human figures in his images…is it a sign of not surrendering, or merely a play on the dizzying impact of oppression? Perhaps the dog knows.

A black mark on the wall catches the attention of Virginia Woolf.
The mark is above the mantelpiece. She wonders what left it,
how her previous tenants were. She also declares,
“[The] mystery of life! The inaccuracy of thought! The ignorance of humanity!
To show very little control of our possessions we have –
what an accidental affair this living is after all our civilization…” Bluntly, radically.
The mark, she eventually finds out, is left by a snail,
(Virginia Woolf, The Mark on the Wall)

To go outside…

Outside is in extinction. Dustin Shum’s It isn’t Disney! shows the indefinite expansion of artificial coloring of reality enveloping human bodies, groups of them. Will it ever stop? The images almost make it desirable to be part of a designed scene, playing a role. What kind comments on the contagion of cut-up and tailored spaces.

Sarah Wong and Warren Leung’s City Cookie takes the production of artificiality to the extreme. The negative spaces of a skyline liberated from their sky trap, humanized on the one hand, ridiculed as a sign-without-meaning on the other – perpetually in the making, the story of the cookie is a convex lens of its original, our skyline.

If Wong and Leung’s works are concerned with exposing the manufacturing of artificial realities, Almond Chu’s Parade finds solution in not stopping, but flooding. Individuality gives way to collective will, culminating in a skyward and glass-organized way of life. Can a laugh be squeezed out of the homogeneity of postures, a strategy of peopling brutalized spaces? Hear who is laughing.

Ivy Ma has a game to offer - it moves between destinations and cancels out distances sometimes known as global, local, and focal. Dabs of blue swimming pools are dished out of a concrete jungle. Ma may well ask, Can Google teach us swim? Distances can still be fun.

Juxtaposed against Ma’s works, Ducky Tse’s The Flâneur’s Vintage Prints from 90’s touch on inhabitation as a matter of social belonging. But their spirits are certainly not dampened to inaction. Look how they live in the anarchy of everyday life – take a nap, take a turn, let the divine sit and watch, be it the indifferent swimmer or the stranger who walks.

Vincent Yu is interested in frontiers - not how people inhabit or settle into their places, but how they could have been elsewhere, how they would have leaped over. The Vanishing Coastline considers urban wilderness. It observes carefully and quietly what it means for a pier, a truck, a heap of rocks…to be a certain frontier. Yu is not interested in what lies beyond, but what gives mythic quality to the frontier laid bare. What about the dinosaur?

If only Chan Kwong Yuen’s Megafauna were offered up to the dinosaur, it would have caused quite a stir. It must have been difficult for Chan to find a place to stand so that Megafauna becomes graspable. Designed to rouse desires to consume by being impending and overpowering, these mega banners of super models are now regarded from a distance. They remain airy, that wallpaper quality, yet mega. Themed into a concrete park, they purge the city of fauna. The honor of our city is no longer a colonialist-driven and abstract miracle about rags to riches, but the speed and skills in putting up megafauna, our new totems, spirit not included. Will they ever rebel?

Before, after…

The rest is a visual and physical exploration of cavities. Some have been curious and kind, others, irritated and uncompromising. Whichever, they are all insistent with having to incorporate this built environment into conscious experience so that it is in dwelling that they are countered.

Have these skeletons just arrived or have they been left behind, out cast, by the homogeneous time of construction and destruction? Are they skeletons before or after? Stanley Wong’s lan wei are portraits of states of limbo – it is almost possible to imagine envying such a blankness of life, moments of non-development.

If Wong’s images are counter-monuments that expose imperatives that glorify the wrong things, So Hing Keung’s works recall conventional images of skyward monuments, only in their dilapidation. They are carefully designed to become tokens of time, as proof of the future decay of verticality. The bleaching shows slow loss in time. What are memories but scratched copies of realities?

Enoch Cheung’s Secret Dialogue: About Children Hospital is in a busy silence. Any hospital today is once the house of the immensities of life and death, now collapsed into some rooms, some walls, some traces of child play.

With visualizations of the intimidating impact of urban corrosion, Leon Suen offers a powerful take on the restlessness of reason – how can anyone expect to domesticate the oppression of geometry outside, a tide slowly encroaching on every corner of home, quietly replacing its walls with a skin of its own? Megafauna-Inverted whispers a slow and low hum of the crackling and crumbling. Listen. See how the drape of total urbanity hangs.

Expanse arrives like a refreshing breeze. Lau Ching Ping’s Thin as Air opens their frames in expansive gestures. They also throw the passing of time into open air, leaving a clock holding its breath, patches of green growing as planned, a diagonal line marking the camera’s trajectory. And then there is the child getting old and ready to float.

Raymond Chan tolerates. Cityscapes are city scenes without streets where people meet, where bodies brush, even just outfits swishing past each other. Cityscapes tolerate brightness that is some unwanted leftover from the pretence of glamour and wellbeing. Are these glimpses of the last hope or the last breath?

Historically, in what ways has the city defined its limits?

Within the city, what divisions were implied or built?
(Spiro Kostof, The City Shaped, Urban Patterns and Meanings Through History)

Between construction and demolition are the spontaneous environments that blankly and awkwardly wait for the next speed hump on the highway of development. Gretchen So’s images carefully avoid geometrical divisions of space to lure a desire to see what comes before, the disorder of sand, piles, occasional rubble, so the bare reality of the meanings of land keeps watch.

Ng Sai Kit’s images are density laid flat. Pleats, as he calls them in Chinese, are an obsession with folding and unfolding, until there is no more depth, no more ways out, only the coexistence of multiple orders, multiple centres, insulated, albeit temporarily, from sensationalism and sentimentalism.

Taking up an ordinary position that any other person can take, Tse Ming Chong offers extraordinary views of the city’s coordinated systems of people and traffic on the move. But these systems are by no means single-minded. They are a visual feast on the competing propensities of the convergence of structures and dispersal of anonymous bodies. Sometimes, they may even vibrate.

Leong Ka Tai comes “from the back”, figuring processes of fencing, mutilating, deserting, abandoning, all but parts of the deliberate policy of order. For Alfred Ko, claustrophobia is specially designed and engineered by Consumerism. His photographs are specimens from sacred aquariums of excess. They must be collected and studied. Will this be blasphemy? These signs known as prosperity and development have long attracted the attention of Yau Leung. Three decades ago, a parallel world next to that of a shared, interdependent communal life, the dignity and autonomy of the lone street hawker, gradually became visible – projects of reclamation that were spectacles became routine. Wong Kan Tai notices, too. Hong Kong Walled City, that place once known as Anarchy, is now removed, renewed, re-claimed. These images of the deserted inside out from the city within the city bear an erotic and down-to-earth quality, so much so that pride manages to ooze out of bleeding crevices. It must be the thick of the black.

In a very different light, Lai Long Hin finds a very different pride. Me on the Rooftop Scenery is less a scenery than a personification of the sometimes indifferent and sometimes mischievous roof things. Their autism offers solace, like a gentle poke on facebook, as a simple cure of others’ disillusion.

It’s the city’s crush and heave that move you; its intricacy, its endless life.
(Michael Cunningham, The Hours)

If you park here, Wong Wo Bik says with a smile, beware. Wong’s works add a rare and delightful tinge of adventure to this exhibition. They attend to the states of stability and fluidity, as well as tranquilly and harmony, too. How can anyone on the street not notice the drape of a full rainbow?

A delicate touch of silk is visibly present in John Choy’s Infra-red, too. What brings all these together – the busy solitude of the cumulus clouds, the upward looking plant, trees enveloping and silencing the bus in the background? Their fragility doesn’t make them weak. They are well aware this is the source of their beauty, in and with each other.

To save the obsession for last – Simon Wan’s City Glow shows grids over grids of light are not self-conscious about any big question marked by conflicts of yes or no, on or off, back or forth, fortune or misfortune. They are a concrete amalgamation of ordinary distraction, ordinary submission. No doubt, the ordinary never stops to mesmerize.

All said, I can’t wait to crash into the images.
Crashing involves throwing with force.
Crashing must be a crashing into.
Therefore it must also involve a tight squeeze,
like strong wind on the frames of a window. It then disperses.
Crash is about bodily encounter. It’s about breathing,
and getting out of breath. That is as if she crashes and crashes
and crashes until there are no more sharp edges.

An exhibition is a collision of realities.
I wait for the crush, the infatuation.

I wonder how future is to regard their vision.

Originally published in English with Chinese translation in the exhibition catalogue of City Flâneur: Social Documentary Photography, Hong Kong Heritage Museum, June 20, 2010 – January 3, 2011.

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