One October evening in 2014, sitting in the middle of a crowd on the streets of Mong Kok in Hong Kong, an ordinary employee from some company talked to me about his motivation for participating in the mass protest. Calm and relaxed, he revealed little excitement in his emotions. Sitting cross-legged, he clutched a shabby black shoulder bag in his two hands; his shoes were speckled with oil and dust. We talked a lot, and I learned that he was full of contempt towards “left-tards” (zuojiao) but feels similarly disdainful about Carrie Lam’s middle-class inclinations—like many of Hong Kong’s students and citizens sitting here, he brought with him dissatisfaction and anger, and sought answers.
A few years later, cries of “It will return!” still ring in one’s ears. That evening has left an impression. Apart from scenes of normally thriving businesses in Mong Kok closing up shop and crowds of people on the street, what left a mark me on was this office worker. The protests spanned a period of three months. Faced with a pressing reality, individuals were forced out of their routines in search of an exit from such a complex situation, clashing intensely with authority and its mechanisms of power. I often think of this nameless character, attracted by that unique character of his that was simultaneously aggrieved and calm. All he did was to express himself. As in all political movements, his instincts and sentiments were incited and moved to action.
Will it come back? From an outsider’s perspective, I have my doubts. Daily life in Hong Kong is largely comprised of shopping malls and bustling streets; the stark contrast between the neon lights and deprived Southeast Asian migrant workers often jolts you. On the one hand, there are the pressures and inequalities in the fight for survival; on the other, there is the temptation of making it, of success and glamour…Will this zeal mobilized by resistance to the Mainland and that desire for a distinctive political subjectivity be worn down to a scant nothing amid such a quotidian reality?
Separated by a mere river, people on the other side, in Mainland China, scoff at all this. The “media of record” guides whichever way the discussion goes, while members of the art world sound like aloof, otherworldly historiographers maintaining a serene “calm” and “objectivity”. That particular period of time has left its imprint on me—and not just because of the human indifference. In particular, think back to Hong Kongers’ support for democracy on the Mainland over 20 years ago, or to Hong Kong’s place as a site of refuge for many. What’s more, there is this cavalier, uncaring attitude among people in the art world. They apparently deemed beneath them any sense of nationalism and any hostility towards outside nationalities and groups; in a rather aloof manner, they seemed set in the belief that such a collective movement was naive, weak and ineffective, and moreover that it had virtually no effect on art—the people have nothing to do with art, political movements have nothing to do with me, and art has nothing to do with reality. To such a subconscious, the 1980s seem never to have existed. This tendency of de-politicization has permeated the entire art world on the Mainland.
Politics and art were gradually abandoned on the Mainland during the 1990s. A shift in favor of seeking self-affirming momentum from within art and unearthing the possibilities of expression in the everyday—in mediums, in language—has been the default ever since the critique of Political Pop in the 1990s. Yet rarely has it been asked what the political reasons for this were, and how it can be situated as part of a historical field of vision for the sake of further observation? How does this “turn” in art occur, and how does it occur under the diffraction of state ideology? Do these continual “turns” and “shifts” in art in fact happen in the cracks of state ideology? And if so, how? What kind of effect have the parallels between art and state or national ideology in the last three or four decades had on art-making, art criticism, and the writing of art histories? Thanks to certain epistemological biases, the discussion over “politics and art” is incorrectly described as “politics determining art” or “politics determining art making”, which renders these questions as neglected topics. At the same time, despite the fact that the premises of contemporary artistic discourse have shifted from politics to economics, they still gain a position of legitimacy within the historical narrative of a certain period, whether politically or economically.
Crucial to the writing of the “History of Contemporary Art in China” is that we always strengthen the legitimate positions of politics, economics, or other forces within a fragmented critique; the writing of contemporary art history itself was, for instance, created amid a state of utter fragmentation in 1976. The want of a more comprehensive historical perspective and a fundamental historical horizon of looking forward and backward makes it such that the discussion of art in today’s situation—“after leaving politics behind”—seems much weaker than it should be, and unable to generate a dialogue with the actual making of art.
In the early 1980s, inspired by Hong Kong’s new wave of filmmaking, a group of young people began producing video art in Hong Kong under crude conditions. In hindsight, this was the beginning of contemporary artistic practice in Hong Kong. In 1986, a few of them, including some members of Zuni Icosahedron (a Hong Kong–based experimental theater company), put forward the idea of further developing their ideas about media art, and set up the collective Videotage. In the absence of precedents, with little attention to the topic and an overall lack of support from educational institutions, Videotage served as a vanguard in introducing video art and its contemporary spirit into this region with all its geopolitical peculiarities. The concept of new media art was still pretty vague back then. As the forerunners, Videotage made use of all possible artistic mediums to experiment with; as something new, video art clashed interestingly with all kinds of forms including dance, painting, installation, and theater, among others. Over the next decade in the wilderness, in tandem with developments in media and equipment, video artists carried out a large number of rich experiments that were nevertheless difficult to categorize. Thereafter, the power of institutions arose, and in 1996 Videotage launched the “Microwave International New Media Arts Festival”, gradually introducing international video art to local audiences. From 1996 onwards, Hong Kong’s Art Development Council began supporting Videotage on a long-term basis; meanwhile, the Independent Short Film and Video Competition hosted by the Hong Kong Art Centre began in 2005 to accept interactive media works. From an institutional perspective, the Hong Kong City University also founded the School of Creative Media in 1998, and subsequently became a hub for video and media art in the city, with a select number of active practitioners based at the college.
Hong Kong’s contemporary art no longer drifts along a cultural periphery; meanwhile, general expectations and understandings of contemporary art have also been transformed. Nevertheless, the practice of video and new media art continues to this day to symbolize an independent spirit in the Hong Kong contemporary art scene—one that represents an epistemology of individual existence and a practice by which to explore the relationship between the individual and social life. While culture and society in Hong Kong have undergone numerous shifts, video and new media art have consistently been situated within this context and amid changing states of co-existence and dialogue. Hong Kong’s unique political landscape and developments in political consciousness have provoked its artists equally to consider its relationships with history, the relationship between the individual and the collective, and between art and life. Even though art has already gone beyond being a “vision of social reality”, the awareness of active participation in reality still permeates the local art scene. As an open region, a place where various artistic discourses gather and commingle, the maintenance of such a participatory consciousness certainly has its own historical momentum and reasoning.
Today, the more critical the conditions are that we face in everyday reality, the more compelling is the inclination to look back on history. The Hong Kong sociologist and scholar Ambrose King has described the political system of Hong Kong as emblematic of what he calls the “administrative absorption of politics”, and posited reasons for its political stability from a neutral perspective. However, the issue of the “vacuum” in political subjectivity is virtually lost in this account; also, aspirations and actions with regard to achieving subjectivity in the course of history as well as amid conflicts and dialogue with the British colonial government are blurred. In his Hong Kong, China: Political and Cultural Perspective (Zhongguo Xianggang: Zhengzhi yu Wenhua de Shiye) of 2010, the Mainland scholar Qiang Shigong offers a detailed analysis of such a vacuum and resistance to it. Qiang suggests a particular interpretation of the British colonial government’s turn towards the “grassroots” (jicheng) and its widespread establishment of advisory boards and committees (in other words, fashioning a completeness of politics with administrative cornucopia), together with the suppression of the 1967 protests as well as subsequent policies of appeasement: interpreting and understanding, through the inherent contradictions between attaining political subjectivity (for the masses) and emphasizing administrative actions as political strategy (for the government), Hong Kong’s societal transformations and the process by which its Spirit is awakened.
Both of these perspectives dance on the precipice, so to speak.
In my WeChat Moments, a post I published about what was happening in Hong Kong was quickly blocked, and anyway, there really wasn’t anyone on the Mainland who was interested in what exactly was going on in Hong Kong. Taking apart politics and art was once an urgent issue; now, it has turned into something stressful, with many generally lacking narrative and creative perspectives with which to approach the world. Before resolving issues with lingering beliefs in authority and dualistic modes of thought in people’s political consciousness, a world of depoliticization had already arrived.
Between September and December 2014, debates took place every day on Facebook, with members of the Hong Kong art world naturally taking part. This was evidently not a matter of being politically correct or incorrect, but rather one of ineluctable action in terms of humanity and politics. The Umbrella Movement makes for an excellent exhibition, though in this case, a direct pain has replaced the performative aspect of art. It is not activism or actionism; it itself is action.
On May 17, 2016, a series of dazzling white numerals appeared across the façade of Hong Kong’s tallest skyscraper, the International Commerce Center. Towering above Victoria Harbor, they were a countdown to the year 2047. Created by the artists Sampson Wong Yu-hin and Jason Lam Chi-fai, the work was commissioned by the Hong Kong Arts Development Council (ADC). Its political undertone eventually led the chairman of the ADC’s film and media art group and an artist in her own right, Ellen Pau, along with Caroline Ha Thuc, the curator of “Fifth Large-Scale Public Media Art Exhibition: Human Vibrations”, to issue a joint statement withdrawing the work from public display. The statement justifies the withdrawal of the work on the basis that the artists had violated the agreement that had been made and the understanding that had been reached with the curator and the ADC by making changes to the work without any prior notice. Such actions “put at risk any future possibility to work further in the public space.” The artists quickly turned to Facebook to take their stand against this withdrawal, describing the event as an infringement on art and the freedom of expression.
Such a heated confrontation is not very common in the Hong Kong art world. Ellen Pau, the founder and trailblazer of Hong Kong’s video art scene, has never hesitated in her fight for freedom and democracy, persisting throughout her artistic career of over 30 years. Her works emit a distinctive voice with a certain intellectual depth and from a standpoint of freedom. However, Pau’s protection of art’s “good intentions” in a politically sensitive moment were completely misinterpreted by the public, making her notorious for her decision. Such regretful circumstances awaken one to how tiny the individual is on the political level, and how important it is to steel oneself and persevere with one’s own political consciousness. Yet, at the same time, the position assumed by the two artists is one we should also respect—even if their sense of morality and motivations provoke some unease. The effects of their actions went so far as to inspire Ellen Pau herself—who has in recent years been pre-occupied with organizing and planning—to devote herself once more to making art.
At Art Basel Hong Kong, I saw many Mainland counterparts whom I had not seen for a long time. A great many artists, writers, and curators had made their way there independently. After paying visits to a few international art institutions, one wonders if they had time to take one look at the world beyond the exhibition center.
The Mainland and Hong Kong aren’t the same story. And yet, at this historical juncture, the two are connected.
Su Wei is an independent curator and art critic based in Beijing and Hong Kong. He participated in ICI’s (Independent Curators International) 2012 Curatorial Intensive in New York and co-curated the 7th Shenzhen Sculpture Biennale “Accidental Message: Art is Not a System, Not a World” at OCAT Shenzhen in 2012. In 2014, he was awarded first place in the first International Awards for Art Criticism (IAAC).