Here’s one Hong Kong art show that would have been ideal handover anniversary highlight

Canton Express was part of a larger show at 2003 Venice Biennale that was a coming-out party for a generation of Guangdong artists, and its resurrection at M+ Pavilion is a chance to reflect on past and future of art in southern China

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 22 June, 2017, 7:30am
UPDATED : Thursday, 22 June, 2017, 12:54pm

There is a long list of cultural events being promoted to mark the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover to Chinese rule this summer, but the latest exhibition by the city’s M+ art museum is not among them.

Perhaps it should be.

Its title, “Canton Express”, may evoke the problem-plagued high-speed railway to Guangzhou whose construction has held back work on M+ and the rest of the West Kowloon Cultural District, but this restaging of a 2003 Venice Biennale exhibition of Pearl River Delta art is a timely reminder of the complex economic, linguistic and cultural bonds between Hong Kong and the Chinese province on its borders.

“Canton Express” was part of a larger display in the main Arsenale exhibition in Venice called “Z.O.U. - Zone Of Urgency”, curated by Guangzhou-born curator Hou Hanru to show art from around Asia that reflected the tensions and excitement of the region’s rapid urbanisation and integration with the global economy.

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Nowhere else in Asia were people as intensely embroiled in that process than the Pearl River Delta, which was why Hou decided to provide a rare chance for a group of largely Cantophone artists to step from under the shadows of their high-profile northern Chinese peers of the cynical-realism and political-pop art schools.

Late Chinese paramount leader Deng Xiaoping’s 1979 “open door” policy opened the floodgates to investment and by 2003, Guangdong had become the undisputed “factory of the world” because of its proximity to Hong Kong’s manufacturing and sourcing businesses.

Sample Room, by Zheng Guogu from Yangjiang, is a fake commercial display of the kitchenware churned out by his hometown’s factories. Behind the rows of utensils are excerpts from real e-mail exchanges between Hou and the Canton Express artists ahead of the Venice exhibition. Their entry to the international art scene involved much talk of budget and publicity, and the text is as banal as the surrounding silicon spatulas and rubber scoops.

Sucker, by Jiang Zhi, is a multimedia installation of nude couples literally feeding off each other without any show of pleasure or affection, alluding to the isolation of the individual as market realities trounce socialist principles, and how the “Factory of the World” also supplied sex as a commercial commodity to wealthy visitors from Hong Kong and Taiwan.

The late Liang Juhui, a member of Guangzhou’s Big Tail Elephants collective, made a giant wooden tower called City for the show. On its base is a projection of a multiplying crowd, all faceless and with their backs turned. There is a showcase of videos by another member of the collective, Lin Yilin, including Safely Maneuvering across Lin He Road (1995), his seminal performance about the relationship of individuals and the changing urban landscape.

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Southern China’s art infrastructure still lags behind that of Beijing and Shanghai, but back in 2003 a number of experimental art spaces had already appeared that embodied the region’s uniquely vibrant grass-roots, guerilla cultural movements. For “Canton Express”, the then one-year-old Vitamin Creative Space had connected a simultaneous exhibition at a Shenzhen residential complex with the Venice exhibition via internet cameras.

Utèque, a film collective that started off with underground screenings of banned films brought over from Hong Kong, showed its own creation, called Sanyuanli – an experimental black-and-white documentary about a famous skirmish between local villagers and invading British soldiers during the first opium war, the conflict which led to China losing Hong Kong to Britain for 156 years.

It was due partly to Hong Kong connections that the 2003 exhibition happened at all (unlike what was to have been the inaugural Chinese pavilion exhibition at the biennale, cancelled because of the serious acute respiratory syndrome epidemic). Hou didn’t have the money to move the artworks from the port of Venice to the exhibition venue. Hong Kong gallerists Alice King Tung Chee-ping, sister of the city’s then-chief executive (the head of its government) Tung Chee-hwa, and Johnson Chang Tsong-zung were among those who stepped in with financial assistance at the last minute.

A collector from China, Guan Yi, eventually bought the whole exhibition so that the art could be shipped home (Hou’s team didn’t have money for that either) and in 2014, he donated it to M+.

A mere 14 years after the Venice show, the balance of power between Hong Kong and southern China has shifted fundamentally and the relationship between the two has become a fraught political issue.

Some may see this exhibition as a nostalgic reminder of the good old days when Hong Kong was top dog and its model and values were replicated in the region. Others will see in it the basis for even closer cooperation today: this week, Adrian Cheng Chi-kong of New World Development proposed setting up a “cultural Silicon Valley” with Tencent’s Pony Ma Huateng at a forum about the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macau “Greater Bay” area.

“We are not attempting to make a political point. We have no solution. We merely want to remind people of how things were in 2003, and the complex web of relationships between Hong Kong and Guangdong that has always existed,” says Pi Li, Sigg senior curator at M+.

Canton Express, M+ Pavilion, West Kowloon Cultural District, Wed-Sun. June 23 to Sept 10, 2017