Mind over material
Conventional works take a back seat at this year's Art Biennial as video and photography steal the show, writes Kevin Kwong
NEW MEDIA IS hot. Of the six winning entries at this year's Hong Kong Art Biennial open competition, only two are Chinese ink. The rest are either photography, video art or installation.
'Video art is in fashion in the contemporary art world,' says Yuko Hasegawa, artistic director of the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa and the adjudicator for the western media category. 'Artists here are used to digital media. Ideas coming from photographs and videos are well developed.'
Scooping this year's prizes of excellence - $25,000 and a trophy - are: Ching Chin-wai's No 6 Wai Ha Village, Tung Tsz Rd, Tai Po, NT, HK and Yau Wan-kei's Old Building (photography); Cedric Maridet's Huangpu (video art and digital art); Zheng Bo's Family History Book (installation); and Kan Chi-hung's Wandering (Chinese painting) and Fung Yat-fung's Handscroll in Running Script (Chinese calligraphy and seal-carving).
Although not as rich in history as traditional art forms such as painting, print, sculpture, ceramics and calligraphy, new-media arts aren't devoid of traditions. The philosophy and aesthetics are 'very oriental and Asian, like in a Chinese painting', Hasegawa says.
'It's very metaphysical and visual. It's very interesting to visualise. They use new media and digital art to visualise those very oriental spirits. That's why there are a couple of centrepieces that everybody liked,' she says. 'They were visual and visually organised. The technology is very high, the artists have a good sense of time and they're sophisticated.'
The centrepieces are Zheng's narrative journey into his family history and Maridet's audio-visual digital exploration based on the concept of what's called synaesthesia. 'It's basically the relationship between the eye and the ear,' says Maridet, who's now a doctorate student at City University. 'You have to listen to the music. It's a video, but also a musical piece, where the image and the musical or sound elements enter into a dialogue with each other.
'Most of the sound is produced by the original soundtrack of the video, which is just the noise of the barge, of the people working there, shouting. I use these elements to create music - some kind of experimental/concrete music piece.'
Maridet, who also runs his own electronic music label, moneme, says the 20-minute video was made from materials he gathered in Shanghai earlier this year. It's a recording of a journey on the Huangpu River (hence the title) and presents 'real images and real sounds, as well as some reprocessed vision of the space to achieve a new spatio-temporal perspective and topological perspective of the area'.
The concept of synaesthesia isn't new. The 32-year-old Frenchman says it was studied by Greek philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle. 'It's been used in research by many, especially in the avant-garde movement in art and modernism today,' Maridet says. 'A lot of painters are influenced by music like Kandinsky.'
Zheng's Family History Book presents a journey of another kind - one that took the 31-year-old artist into the heart of his family. The Beijing-born and US/Hong Kong-educated art student says he always enjoyed listening to stories such as Romance of the Three Kingdoms.
The installation comprises video footage and a book and serves as what he calls a family score, as told through its members: Zheng's mother, step-father, his sister and her children. As well, there are old papers that document his late father's past such as a Communist Party application form.
'Storytelling is an ancient skill,' he says. 'It's existed since the dawn of mankind. The video [of interviews with relatives] is simple storytelling. Through stories told by different generations we get a bigger, more complete picture of our history.'
There are two versions of the video. One features the voice of the interviewees and the other is dubbed by Zheng. 'I wanted to feel how they feel when they tell their story,' he says. 'That is my attempt to bring myself closer to how they feel so their story becomes my story.'
May Fung Mei-wah, a local judge for the western media category, says both pieces were among the panel's favourites because of their universality. 'Zheng's work is interesting in that it's lo-tech, with a video monitor, and the images are very simple and fundamental,' she says. 'Together with the book, the media used is very original. His interpretation of the stories [using his own voice] is interesting and intriguing and not exaggerated.'
Maridet's Huangpu is poetic, Fung says. 'The video is of one barge, but he caught the colours well. The digital editing also created a certain tempo. Although the life sound was treated and manipulated into a monotone, the piece has character and personality and wasn't completely taken over by technology.'
Fellow adjudicator Betti-Sue Hertz, curator of contemporary art at the San Diego Museum of Art, agrees that these award-winning works are experimental, combining old media or older ideas with new technologies and fresh concepts.
'The works that are experimenting and harnessing the possibilities of newer technologies are the ones [picked] for the awards,' she says. 'They apply more traditional aesthetics or ideas about time and space. A certain viewpoint that comes out of Chinese philosophy is embedded in these works. It's just that they express themselves in more contemporary contexts. They weren't created to disembowel traditions, but to incorporate that into the new [trend].'
Another reason new media received more attention at this year's biennial is that the traditional entries, particularly Chinese paintings, weren't strong.
'Compared to the mainland, Hong Kong is keener to conserve traditional arts,' says Liu Xilin, director of the research department at the China National Museum of Fine Arts. 'The better works in this [category] are all those connected closely to traditional culture.
'But the average level of the selected works is a bit lower than that of the mainland. After all, the mainland is a centre for traditional Chinese culture. It's hard to re-create those arts. People learning Chinese arts have to master three skills - calligraphy, ink painting and seal-cutting - which takes a long time. To learn a western art is easier, particularly the popular art of installation.
'I appreciate the works with a good combination of Chinese tradition and creation. The ink print that got the award this time is a good combination of the two.'
Additional reporting by Fanny Wu