Window on change

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 February, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 February, 2008, 12:00am

The Hong Kong Museum of Art's latest contemporary art exhibition is a showcase of works by seven local artists from different generations and media disciplines. However, there's more to Made in Hong Kong than first meets the eye.

The work of Kwok Mang-ho, aka Frog King, for instance, is not shown with the rest of the artists. His collection of 'junk art' clutters the public space outside the Contemporary Hong Kong Art Gallery, creating a slight sense of chaos and calamity - just as his art should - in the open.

Works by installation artist Kum Chi-keung are also outside: his ivy vines creep all the way to nearby restroom cubicle walls. The message is clear: art can be anywhere and everywhere. Art is about living.

Made in Hong Kong is the museum's latest effort to bring art closer to the people. 'Exhibitions are, in fact, sites of life encounters and energy exchanges,' says curator Eve Tam Mei-yee. 'More often than not, 'good art' doesn't start with art history. It starts with life. To appreciate art, it doesn't matter if we know little about art or its history.'

Art is also about people, she says. This exhibition is as much about the art as it is about the artists. Hence the publicity materials for the show include slick portrait shots and a series of Q&As that introduce the artists, who also include Chow Chun-fai, Chu Hing-wah, Kevin Fung Lik-yan, Wan Qingli and Vincent Yu Wai-kin.

'These artists are uniquely Hong Kong because they're shaped by this city's culture while, on the other side of the coin, their works reflect this 'Hongkongness' that gives this place its identity. There is a reciprocal relationship between the two. You can't take people out of the equation,' Tam says.

The government-run establishment has come a long way since the days when it was criticised for its insularity, putting on 'official' exhibitions that were politically and academically correct but had little relevance to the masses.

Just like the Tsim Sha Tsui waterfront site that it's been standing on since 1991, many in the local art community viewed the museum as inaccessible. Other than the biennale art competition it organises, young Hong Kong contemporary artists barely got a look-in while its doors were firmly shut on curators who worked outside the system.

Although the museum is still not as easily accessible as some would wish - approaching from the Nathan Road side involves navigating an underground labyrinth of tunnels and shops - and remains bound by red tape, it has reinvented itself in recent years to become more embracing and relevant.

Changes were brought about mainly by a new generation of curators who are more open-minded than those from the colonial administration and mounting public pressure for increased transparency and accountability.

Last year's Chinglish was a local show featuring works from the museum collection, exploring cross-cultural language and literacy through visuals. The ongoing Made in Hong Kong looks at whether the city produces its own art with distinct characteristics.

In May, the museum will launch the Hong Kong Art: Open Dialogue series. The first of its kind, the open house exercise invites local and overseas guest curators - who will have full access to its collection - to come up with their own ideas for a thematic exhibition, which will be held at the Contemporary Hong Kong Art Gallery.

Veteran video artist Ellen Pau will kickstart the programme with Digit@logue, which takes a trip down memory lane to look at the development of digital works over the past two decades. That will be followed by New Ink Art: Innovation and Beyond, a contemporary ink exhibition to be curated by the medium's advocate Alice King.

Independent curator and art critic Valerie C. Doran will reexamine works by the late Hong Kong sculptor Antonio Mak Hin-yeung (1951-1994) and ask what they mean to us today in Looking for Antonio Mak. The first series of Open Dialogue will conclude with Grace Cheng Sim-yee's Charming Experience, which looks at works by artists of different abilities.

Originally scheduled to open last year to coincide with the Museum of Art's 45th anniversary, the series was delayed to make room for a number of blockbuster shows, including Pride of China, to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the handover.

Chief curator Tang Hoi-chiu says the new programme will foster meaningful communication between the museum and the guest curators, the curators and artists and artworks and the audience. The participants were chosen purely based on merits of their submitted proposals. Despite criticism that the exercise is not completely open to all artists in Hong Kong, he stresses this is no exercise for 'the small circle'.

Of the 20 invited proposals received, six were shortlisted and four finally selected based not on impression but criteria such as concept, feasibility and budget.

'The four exhibitions pursue key aspects of the museum's mission,' says Tang, 'which is to promote contemporary ink art; to seek a new position for Hong Kong art; to strengthen the museum's role in development of local art in new media; and to protect equal opportunities for minority art groups.'

He says the series also provides a summary of local art development over the past four decades, embracing both the traditional and the avant garde.

Open Dialogue is scheduled to run until mid-2009 before the next Hong Kong Art Biennial, tentatively scheduled for autumn.

Tang says the event, held every two years, will continue to be, as it has for the past three decades, an 'open platform' for local artists to showcase their works. However, the museum is considering renaming it because the word 'biennial' suggests it's a big curated art event showcasing works from around the world along the lines of Venice, Singapore and Shanghai.

It's also toying with the idea of altering the way the art biennial is presented. One is to showcase artworks outside the museum at historical sites - as the Hong Kong Institute of Architects has done with its inaugural Hong Kong-Shenzhen Biennale of Urbanism and Architecture at the Central Police Station Compound on Hollywood Road.

Tam points out that while the site worked out well to house the architecture biennale, whether this same level of success could be repeated would depend on how artists interact with the space.

Tang agrees and stresses that the museum is programming events - such as the Open Dialogue series and the Hong Kong Art Biennial - to strike a balance between curated exhibitions featuring overseas works for avid art lovers and shows that cater for the general public.

'Establishing a close partnership with the arts community as well as different sectors in society and adapting more open-minded and transparent strategies are important guiding principles for the work of the museum now,' he says.

Made in Hong Kong, daily, 10am-6pm, Sat until 8pm (closed Thu), HK Museum of Art, 10 Salisbury Rd, TST, HK$10, free on Wed. Inquiries: 2721 0116. Ends Apr 6