1964-2017 – “Don’t let me be misunderstood”
Hiram’s mum Helen just rang me with shocking news. Hiram is dead.
I am still in shock. As yet we don’t know the cause. Hiram was sick last year and lost a lot of weight, and he had the flu and asthma. A friend found him in bed, apparently dying. It was very sudden. Maybe the “flu” was pneumonia and Hiram didn’t know how sick he actually was? It happens. I feel ill thinking about it.
Hiram was one of my best friends in Art and one of my best friends full stop!!
Hiram To was complex and wildly gifted. A tireless worker for Art, Hiram was an Artist, Curator, Writer, Critic, Designer, PR Man, Fashionista, Obsessive Record Collector and Spirited Provocateur. For me, Hiram was one of the very few people in art I could totally relate to. Yes, Hiram was “highly strung” but he was also VERY kind and generous. One forgave his excesses because he meant well really and he was so intelligent and talented. Hiram had a big streak of sentimentality within him too. Last April he travelled to Osaka for a small gig by the 1980s UK pop band Dream Academy, the first time they had played together since 1991. Hiram met Nick Laird-Clowes and Kate St John, saying later, “Kate was so nice and when I asked her if she’d do a third solo album—she reached out for my hand, touched that there are still people listening.”
Hiram grew up in Hong Kong and Scotland (1978-83) and lived in Australia from 1986. Successful from an early age, Hiram’s work is Post Conceptual / Post Identity. In 1994, Hiram was invited by London’s Camden Art Center to have a solo show, becoming the first Hong Kong contemporary artist to exhibit in the UK. In 2005 his work was the subject of a survey exhibition at Winnipeg Art Gallery, Canada, titled “Hiram To: don’t let me be misunderstood”. In 2007 Hiram represented Hong Kong at the 52nd Venice Biennale. A solo show was planned for the Queensland Art Gallery but cancelled by former Director Doug Hall without explanation.
Sometimes Hiram’s work was criticised for being “too much Design” BUT that was the work’s polemic AND is the reason Hiram’s work from the ‘80s and ‘90s looks so NOW. Hiram was way ahead of his time. What made Hiram’s works so special though was a certain complexity and conceptual longing, romance even. Hiram was known for his obsession with the perfect finish and material for his work. Everything had to be just right. The curator and writer Nicholas Baume once commented to Hiram that his work “fetishised fetishism” and there is truth in that. Hiram was always after something more in his works and was quite proud of the almost ungraspable fusion of facture, narrative and theory embedded into his production.
Hiram didn’t suffer fools easily and found it hard to mesh with the mainstream contemporary art world, especially in Brisbane and Australian. As an act of defiance against the stolid mainstream art world, in 1995 Hiram moved back to his native Hong Kong to take up PR work full time. Hiram continued to make art but now as an adjunct to “real life”. We must see this as a conscious move by Hiram as an aesthetic act of removal. Some of the most interesting of artists have enacted similar: Lee Lozano (1930-1999), Charlotte Posenenske (1930-1985) and Cady Noland (b.1956) come to mind.
Contemporary art had become too stifling for Hiram and his work, and his thinking was far too advanced for the cookie-cutter Asian identity art we see everywhere now. BUT make no mistake: Hiram loved art. He and I had an ongoing conversation about how we may have loved music and music imagery more than art, but to Hiram it was all the same in the end.
Obviously I know Hiram’s work so well it is hard for me to choose my favorites. Hiram was a ferocious critic of Australia’s “rush to Asian art” from the 1990s onwards. He found the whole concept banal and highly problematic, and curated a number of exhibitions around the subject, including “Here Not There”, “Mao Tse Tung Hour” (1993, IMA Brisbane) and “Bad Rice/ Fooling the Gods” (Taipei, 1999). We also must mention the climate of subtle racism and homophobia that Hiram had to deal with in Brisbane and Australia.
Of all his fine works, I will focus on just one of his most darkly pitiless critiques. It is a work from 1994 titled “In Visible Differences”. On the back of six thick glass discs are mounted monochrome re-photographed photographs of Caucasian Hollywood actors playing “Asian” roles: Bette Davis as Madame Sin, Peter Sellers as Dr Fu Manchu, etc. But across these images and almost violently, deeply etched into the thick glass are the signatures of major local “art players” in the game that has become Australia’s “Engagement” with Asia…that search for the exotic.
Hiram To, b.1964, d.12 March 2017, Hong Kong.