Hong Kong, China, Hong Kong—China as a mirror on Hong Kong

The year 2008 saw the 11th anniversary of Hong Kong’s reunification with China...

Lam Tung-pang
Translated by Chan Lai-kuen

The year 2008 saw the 11th anniversary of Hong Kong’s reunification with China.
Under Deng Xiaoping’s promise of “One Country, Two Systems” for fifty years,[i] Hong Kong as a “Special Administrative Region” (SAR) preserves its China-Hong Kong border control for its citizens who travel either way across the border, distinguishing the territory from other cities in China. During these five decades of transition from a colony into a Chinese city among others, the nuanced relationship between the territory and its motherland has brought conflicts, controversies as well as changes and opportunities. While one-fifth of this transition period has already gone, what are the changes that have taken place regarding arts and culture on both sides of the border? What influences and ideas were generated in the process? From the perspective of the shifting relationship between art and society, this unique period of fifty years deserves in-depth study for both Hong Kong and China.

Artistic endeavour appears personal and unimportant compared to the above lofty discussion on society and the nation. An artist is only a practitioner confined in his or her own point of view. When I began working and exhibiting in both Hong Kong and Beijing after setting up a studio in Beijing in 2007, I did not anticipate that this would gradually turn into a political statement more than anything else. From 2007 to 2008, Hong Kong artist Chow Chun-fai and I were often interviewed by the local press;[ii] and we spoke about our experience of setting up a studio in Beijing, the identity crisis of Hong Kong artists and how Hong Kong art was received by the art world in China in a public dialogue titled “Hong Kong—Beijing Return” in the Hong Kong International Art Fair 2008, at the invitation of the Asia Art Archive (Plate 1).[iii]
1.《香港–北京 北京–香港: 藝術家周俊輝與林東鵬對談》,08年香港藝術展(圖片由亞洲藝術文獻庫提供) 1. A seminar, "Hong Kong - Beijing Return: A Conversation between Artists Chow Chun-fai and Lam Tung-pang," was organized by Asian Art Archive during the Hong Kong International Art Fair 2008 (Photo by Asia Art Archive)

Obviously this China-mania should be attributed much more to the media coverage on the Beijing Olympics. A great number of Olympic-themed exhibitions sprung up in Hong Kong, some featured Mainland artists, such as “Arts Times Square—Exhibition of Works by Sui Jianguo”; some comprised Olympic-themed artworks by local artists such as “Play Stadium in 2008” held in Artist Commune in Cattle Depot; while City Art Square established by the Leisure and Cultural Services Department and the Sun Hung Kai Properties Charitable Fund Limited is a public art scheme born under the Olympic fervour. On the official side, there was “Meet in Beijing Arts Festival”—2008 Olympic Cultural Activities
Hong Kong and Macau Arts Festival and “2008 Hong Kong and Macau Visual Art Exhibition” which took place in Beijing. Part of the programme was an exhibition titled “Made in Hong Kong”, curated by Eve Tam, Curator of the Hong Kong Museum of Art, which featured works by seven Hong Kong artists. It was first exhibited in the Hong Kong Museum of Art and then the Beijing World Art Museum. Hong Kong based art unit C & G Apartment presented “Under the Bird’s Nest” Art Exhibition, showing works by a selection of Hong Kong artists who have established their studios in Beijing in recent years, namely Hyunjae Cho, Chow Chun-fai, Kwok Mang-ho (Frog King), Li Pang, Gary Mok, Bobby Sham and myself, with a purpose to examine the career development of Hong Kong artists in China, taking the Olympic fervour as a point of departure.

Hong Kong artists have taken part in the following Mainland art events: Guangzhou Triennial (Amy Cheung, Zheng Bo, Tozer Pak, Liu Heung-shing, Zhou Yi, Tobias Berger, Michael Honghwee Lee, Lee Kit, Leung Chi-wo and Wong Wai-yin Doris), The Sixth International Ink Painting Biennial of Shenzhen (Fung Ming-chip, Wilson Shieh, Hsu Yujen, Chai Bu-kuk, Huang Lixian, Wong Hau-kwei, Shen Ping, Wucius Wong, Hung Hoi, Zhang Minjun), “Everloving Shuimo—the Second Invite Exhibition of the Shuimo Union of Songzhuang China” (Leung Kui-ting), “Shanghai MoCA Envisage II—Butterfly Dream” (Movana Chen and Wilson Shieh), “Departure: Contemporary Art Exhibition of Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Hong Kong and Macao”(Tozer Pak, Luke Ching, Leung Mee-ping, Lam Tung-pang, Su Sai-kee), and “The Shop”, an exhibition project located in Jianwai SOHO in Beijing, organized by Vitamin Creative Space of Guangzhou (Tozer Pak and Lee Kit). Besides, Hong Kong artists participated in art fairs including “Mapping Asia” of “China International Gallery Exposition 2008” (Lam Tung-pang and Chow Chun-fai) and “Shanghai Art Fair International Contemporary Art Exhibition” by ShContemporary” (Wilson Shieh, Anothermountainman, Simon Birch, Chan Yu). For media art, “Yuanfen New Media Art Space—Mind + Soul / Sensibility x Sensation” and “Artseason: The Third China New Media Art Festival ” which featured seasoned Hong Kong media artist Hung Keung took place at Yuanfen New Media Art Space in Beijing and China Academy of Art in Hangzhou respectively. While
 Jao Tsung-I Exhibition “Taozhu gujin: Jao Tsung-I xueshuyishu zhan” jointly presented by Hong Kong University and The Palace Museum in Beijing was the museum’s first solo exhibition dedicated to a Hong Kong artist.

Although it was only their debut in China for many of the Hong Kong artists mentioned in the above examples, the overall level of involvement is beyond imagination ten or twenty years ago. “Reversing Horizons: Artists Reflections of The Hong Kong Handover 10th Anniversary” (2007) held in MoCA Shanghai, which put together works by over thirty Hong Kong artists, was a rare occasion where Hong Kong art was displayed in the Mainland on a large scale (Plate 2).
2. Artists, curator and museum director,  who involved in "Reversing Horizons: Artists Reflections of the Hong Kong Handover 10th Anniversary" exhibition, took a group photo at MoCA Shanghai.

In terms of the relationship and crosscurrents in art between China and Hong Kong, there is a big disparity in artists’ experience depending on the field in which they belong, especially between traditional Chinese media (ink painting and calligraphy) and contemporary art (including action art, conceptual art, installation, multi-media, sculpture and painting). As there is little contact between the two artist communities which have distinct traditions, audience and exhibition spaces (though some artists employ and transform traditional media in contemporary approaches, such as Wilson Shieh who specializes in fine-line figure paintings, Wong Chung-yu who produces video installation, and the veteran artist Leung Kui-ting), I can only focus my discussion on the contemporary visual art community with which I come into closer contact, based on my own and fellow Hong Kong artists’ experience in working and exhibiting north of the border.

After coming back to Hong Kong in 2006, I was invited to visit Tozer Pak and Leung Chi-wo’s exhibition in a space run by Taiwan artist Michell Hwang located in 798 Art District in Beijing, and I took this opportunity to take a closer look at the city where many Chinese contemporary artists congregate. After taking a tour around some artists’ studios near Huan Tie, I decided to stay in one of them. It was the size of a warehouse while the rent was only one-third of what I used to pay for my studio in Fo Tan, while a community of nearly thirty artists was formed in the neighbourhood. Apart from 798 Art District, numerous artist-initiated communities emerged in Beijing, such as Caochangdi, Jiuchang, Songzhuang, Feijiacun and Suojiacun. On the other hand, Beijing Yihaodi International Artbase and 318 International Arts Camp located in Hegezhuang were built by commercial developers with endorsement from government authority. The sheer size of these artists’ working and exhibition space stands in stark contrast to that in Hong Kong. The development of contemporary art in Hong Kong is often closely tied to the scarcity of space. As quoted by art critic Jeff Leung, Hong Kong based curator Oscar Ho wrote: “Critics have commented that space constraint in Hong Kong had catalysed the boom of installation art during the 1990s, but it also curbed its further development”.[iv] Space constraint not only inhibits the development of installation art in Hong Kong, but also makes it almost impossible to create artworks of considerable size for Hong Kong artists (Amy Cheung is an exception). For instance, Yue Minjun’s Colorful Running Dinosaurs in the 2008 Shanghai Biennale made an instant visual impact on viewers owing to its enormous size, but in Hong Kong art this rarely happens (it is not uncommon for a mature artist in Beijing to work in a space measuring 200 to 300 square metres, while in Hong Kong, only a few could enjoy a 100 square metre studio). Certainly it is arguable whether big is beautiful in terms of artistic creation; nonetheless, the ample working and exhibition space in the Mainland does pose challenges to Hong Kong artists who have grown used to working and exhibiting in tiny spaces. Would this discrepancy in spatial perception open up a new form of art practices for Hong Kong artists?

The most treasurable thing these spacious studio communities offer is a platform for sharing information and creative ideas, while each artist maintains his or her own independence. The ambience for creation and artistic criticism is the main attraction of the Mainland, especially Beijing, for young artists (Plate 3).

3.與內地青年藝術家交流 - 《從內到外》 展覽,奧沙畫廊,北京  3. Young artists from Hong Kong and the Mainland exchanged views during the "Inside Looking-Out" exhibition held in the Osage Gallery, Beijing.

With the close proximity of a whole community of artists, all you need to do is to ask your neighbour whenever you have any question about material or technique; in this respect it is much more convenient than in Hong Kong. Furthermore, as these studios were built by private developers or initiated by artists themselves, their location is usually remote; hence artists can work in seclusion from mainstream society. It is entirely up to the artists whether they wish to come out from their hermitage, depending on artistic need. For me it is rather similar to the relationship between a scientist and the laboratory. Whether a scientist’s experiments could generate products beneficial to the community actually depends more on the rest of the science world or even cooperation with other sectors. If scientists are often required to open their laboratories and to interact with the public for the purpose of public education and social responsibility, the most likely result would be complete exhaustion of the scientists, while at the same time losing the initial objective. I think most Hong Kong artists will share the same yearning for just a minute of solitude. Instead of developing my career in Beijing, I would rather say my stay in the capital was an artist’s retreat from the society.

In addition, the following factors enable Chinese contemporary art in various media to employ industrial equipment or intensive labour for production: large population of artists living in metropolises such as Beijing, Shanghai and Chongqing; thriving manufacture and craft industry due to huge supply of raw material and labour; and, generous supply of highly skilled graduates from art academies across the country, providing candidates for artists’ assistants. This probably has a profound impact on the majority of Hong Kong artists who are accustomed to manually producing most of their works. Among Hong Kong contemporary sculptors, Jaffa Lam had already transferred part of sculpture production to Guangzhou; while Leung Chi-wo and Lukas Tam whose works are often photographic, have some of their works printed in photo studios in China. Hong Kong artist Movana Chen’s solo exhibition “Two-Way Communication Beijing”, held in the gallery Pekin Fine Arts, is an illustration of such new experience (Plate 4).

4."Two-Way Communication Beijing" solo exhibition of Hong Kong artist Movana Chan was held in Gallery Pekin Fine Arts, Beijing.

Chen produces figures knitted out of shredded magazines pages, and the artist have often emphasised the importance of completing the knitting process all by herself. I have talked to her about this in her studio located in the Jockey Club Creative Arts Centre. She said she could only complete several knitted works in a year, while the gallery suggested that she hired assistants to finish in a few days what would otherwise take the artist a whole year, at an affordable cost. Of course it was necessary for the artist to provide instructions and supervision during the process. In the end, however, because of time constraint, the workers failed to grasp the required techniques, and the artist resorted to bring all her previous works to be exhibited in Beijing. This experience poses an alarming question: despite their critical and resistant stance against social and environmental constraints (such as expensive labour cost and technology), if Hong Kong artists are unable to provide reasons for their own involvement in such repetitive manual work, or if it makes no difference whether the job is done by the artist or just anybody, then would the craft that the artist so emphasised be taken over by cheap labour in mainland China? Alternatively, as the once treasured handicraft of the artist can be replaced by machinery or labour, would artistic creation be channelled towards exploration of pure concept and ideas? In this respect Hong Kong and mainland Chinese artists go opposite directions.

The gap between Hong Kong and Mainland cities still exists, despite growing similarity in lifestyle and behaviour. Taking my experience in Fo Tan as an example, artists from anywhere can rent a factory unit as their studio via property agents in the area, after completing certain procedures. Whereas most of those spacious lofts in Beijing are located in buildings without any management. Due to high demand, those studios sprung up overnight in the countryside. If not for the connection of artist acquaintances in China, I would have encountered great difficulties just in renting a studio. Kwok Mang-ho (Frog King) has told me a few times his story of being caught in legal proceedings because of his studio in China (Plate 5). The Hong Kong government has various overseas offices in the Mainland, such as the Office of the Government of the Hong Kong SAR in Beijing and Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office in Shanghai, but no such overseas office or organization exists for the arts and culture, making it difficult for inter-city or international cultural exchange. I have always been asked questions like “Are there any artists in Hong Kong?” when I took part in exhibitions outside home. For artists it does not really matter, since art is art, but it would be detrimental to the image of a city.

2.香港藝術家郭孟浩位於北京的工作室 5. Hong Kong artist Kwok Mang-ho's studio in Beijing

In terms of space and condition, major cities in China such as Beijing and Shanghai are endowed with resources and conditions beneficial to art creation which Hong Kong contemporary art is deprived of, thus drawing a certain type of artists to move there. It is beyond doubt that artists would seek opportunities and to benefit themselves through thriving contemporary art activities such as art exhibitions, publications and discussions in these attractive locations; however, a city must fulfil all necessary prerequisites before it could claim to be an international centre for the arts, namely: booming creativity, social institution that respects creativity, freedom of expression, and the conglomeration of different cultures. Mainland cities still have a long way to go in terms of the last three qualities. Also, most mid-career artists in Hong Kong have their own occupations, teaching posts or families that they are not so eager to part with for the sake of a life-long artistic career; hence it might not be the trend for the time being for Hong Kong artists to move their base northwards. But for artists of the younger generation, it is still too early to tell whether the boundary, as marked by the Shenzhen River, would dissolve in their minds as Hong Kong and its Mainland counterparts are growing increasingly similar in terms of lifestyle and popular culture.

As more and more Hong Kong artists are featured in exhibitions taking place in, or held by art spaces in mainland China, the development of Hong Kong art is no longer confined to the dichotomy of either focusing on issues of locality or to leave Hong Kong for an overseas career. Rather, China provides a middle ground between the two, thus enables Hong Kong art to broaden its spectrum (in terms of art organizations, art administration, creative media and art criticism etc.). Bono Lee, author of Chic China Chic (Enrich Publishing, 2008) once remarked: “In the past, Hong Kong is the entire world for us. Now Hong Kong people are like sugar cubes melted into a big pot of Chinese tea”.[v] What matters is whether Hong Kong, with its own unique attributes, still has a role to play while it dissolves into this giant melting pot of Chinese culture. This is the city’s biggest identity crisis since the handover, as well as an intriguing challenge to Hong Kong artists. Ever since the “ ’85 New Wave”[vi] that gave birth to the first generation of Chinese contemporary art which gained international attention, Chinese artists with different personal histories and education backgrounds created a kaleidoscope of Chinese contemporary art; this might be the way out for Hong Kong art.
6.筆者攝於一北京書店內朱其先生的著作《香港美術史 》- 既屬西洋藝術,亦屬中國藝術類別 6. A photo taken by the author at a Beijng bookshop in which Zhu Qi's book, Xianggang meishu shi (History of Hong Kong Fine Arts), is categorized as Western art as well as Chinese art.

The absence of Hong Kong art from the Chinese scene will gradually come to an end (Plate 6). For Hong Kong artists, if setting up a local studio represents the beginning of a professional career, then exhibiting or founding a studio on the other side of the border means taking a further step to respond to challenges posed by China that would eventually change the face of Hong Kong art. The next step is perhaps to come face to face with personal issues that Hong Kong artists have always shunned and evaded, while breaking down our boundaries to see China or the entire world as the stage of our art.
Lam Tung-pang is Hong Kong Artist  

[i] In 1984 Deng Xiaoping met the Foreign Secretary of the United Kingdom and stated, “On the issue of Hong Kong, we first put forward the guarantee that the existing capitalist system and way of life should remain unchanged for fifty years after 1997.” Deng Xiaoping, Deng Xiaoping lun Xianggang wenti (Xianggang: Sanlian shudian [Xianggang] youxian gongsi, 1993), p. 9.
[ii] Related reports include: Que Shi Pa, ‘Niaochao xia qianxi de yishujia’, Mingpao, 24 August 2008, p. 25; Leung Chin-fung, “‘Niaochao zhi xia’ de ‘bei shang gang (yi) ren’,” Wenweipo, 2 August 2008, C01; Xu Xianshi, “Shenghuo zai tafang: Xianggang yishujia de Beijing tiyan,” Mingpao Weekly, vol. 2072, 26 July 2008, p. 90; “Niaochao xia de Jing Gang yishu,” AM730, 14 July 2008, p. 34; Liang Jiali, Chen Meiqi, “Yishu zhi du shi zenyang xingcheng de?” U-Magazine, vol. 130, 2008, pp. 8-9; Liang Jiali, “Xianggang qingnian yishujia huaxiang: Zhou Junhui x Lin Dongpeng,” U-Magazine, vol. 140, 8 August 2008, pp. 20-27; Bonnie Pau, “Yishu qianxi”, Perspective, October 2008, pp. 78-79; “The Works” Interview in TV program of Radio Television Hong Kong, 5 August 2008. Janice Leung, “Capital Gains,” South China Morning Post, 16 October 2007.
[iii] The interview record is stored in Asia Art Archive, DVD (English), 1 hour 3 minutes, Location Code: CDAAA.000023.
[iv] Leung Chin-fung Jeff, “Zhuangzhi zhong de shehui huayu: xie ‘Dangdai gongrong’ liti ji zhuangzhi yishu zhan,” Wenweipo, 4 November 2007.
[v] Bono Lee, “Xin Xin Zhongguo hou Xianggang”, Mingpao, 16 March 2008, p. 30.
[vi] An exhibition “'85 New Wave: The Birth of Chinese Contemporary Art” was held in Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing in 2007. Curator Fei Dawei took a retrospective look at the “'85 New Wave” which emerged in the 1980s in China. Considered a turning point in Chinese contemporary art, the movement brought changes to the mainstream art in China at the time with its radical and critical spirit, and it gained international attention and instigated a great deal of academic discussion.

Published in Chan Yuk-keung; Wan Chui-ki Maggie, Hong Kong Visual Arts Yearbook 2008, pp115-125 ISBN: 978-962-7055-15-0 http://www.hkvisualartsyearbook.org/2008/aboutyearbook.php