In the name of identity

A recent London exhibition of Hong Kong artists posed more questions than answers, writes John Batten

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 27 January, 2013, 4:45pm

Saatchi Gallery in London recently presented "Hong Kong Eye", an exhibition showcasing 18 of our city's leading artists. The show is only one permutation of possibilities: the selection is from a larger group of 66 Hong Kong-based artists listed in the hefty book of the same title edited by exhibition co-organisers Johnson Chang Tsong-zung and Serenella Ciclitra.

A further selection of artists and artwork will be shown in a modified exhibition in Hong Kong to coincide with the Art Basel art fair in May.

"Hong Kong Eye" is the latest project by Parallel Contemporary Art - a foundation set up by Ciclitra and her husband, David - which has previously mounted two similar presentations of art from countries with "emerging art markets". The "Indonesian Eye" and "Korean Eye" exhibitions each initially featured small, one-month shows at Saatchi Gallery, similar to the Hong Kong display, to "test the waters" before organising larger events.

A future, bigger edition of "Hong Kong Eye" will depend, says Saatchi Gallery chief executive Nigel Hurst, on the audience reaction. Hurst selected the artists and artwork for "Hong Kong Eye", which ended this month. The result was a curious mélange featuring a group of talented artists whose individual styles were not complemented by any curatorial intention.

Hurst gave prominence to the contemporary art world's more "international" style, embodied in João Vasco Paiva's minimalist paintings and stainless steel sculpture replicating Hong Kong's MTR station turnstiles and Justin Wong Chiu-tat's social media-inspired vinyl signage installation. "Contemporary" is contrasted against "traditional" with Leung Kui-ting's large and impressive Chinese modern ink paintings.

There was an intention to straddle a version of "East" and "West", possibly catering for an audience familiar with, arguably true in part, stereotypes of Hong Kong. However, apart from their geographical proximity and strong individual vision, the artists had few links to each other. They were also hampered by the limited selection of their artwork displayed in two small spaces at the Saatchi Gallery's prominent Chelsea venue, the historic former Duke of York's 18th-century army headquarters.

How did the London audience view this display of Hong Kong artists' work? What was unique about Hong Kong art? What were the artistic links, say, between the animatronic sculptural displays of Adrian Wong Ho-yin and the delicate porcelain shoes of Fiona Wong Lai-ching? Or Amy Cheung Wan-man's bulky life-size army tank and Hector Rodriguez's subtle computer-generated images?

These works were placed alongside each other. So what were the connections?

Unfortunately, there was scant explanation and little synergy. The exhibition's confusing display could have been vastly improved with a more sensitive art placement and explanatory text. The Saatchi Gallery's catalogue had no overview essay and understanding individual works relied on the brief statements provided by the artists themselves.

David Ciclitra explained this away: "Like it or not, Saatchi Gallery brings people in."

This is true. Nearly 190,000 people saw the initial six-week "Indonesian Eye" exhibition and more than 500,000 people saw its later larger edition. Hurst had estimated that 120,000 people would see "Hong Kong Eye" during its six-week exhibition run and said: "This is not an exhaustive exhibition, but an introduction - it encapsulates the Hong Kong art scene."

Veteran artist Lui Chun-kwong showed his latest vertically lined abstract paintings in this "supermarket" of an exhibition, but readily acknowledged that the chance to exhibit in London was an excellent opportunity. His new work featured small rectangular cloths overlapping the top of his paintings. "I don't want my paintings to be perfect, and the cloth makes the work a bit disturbing," he said. Lui's years of working on variations of lined abstract paintings now shows a conscious, albeit slow, departure.

As a teacher for 20 years in the Chinese University's fine arts department and recently retired, Lui taught many of the artists in "Hong Kong Eye". However, his inclusion in the exhibition made him incongruously the oldest "emerging artist" as he grappled to find a new artistic voice.

Lui's rigorous attention to detail and concern for a work to be carefully finished could be seen in the work of his former students Fiona Wong, Otto Li Tin-lun, Ho Sin-tung and Kong Chun-hei.

In contrast, Amy Cheung's wooden Toy Tank sat like an elephant in a crockery shop, uneasily. The installation's large size unfairly dominated, overwhelming the show's balance and introducing an element of violence that was the least likely descriptive noun anyone would ascribe to Hong Kong. Nevertheless, viewers could crawl inside the tank, pull a lever and symbolically destroy the exhibition's surrounding artwork, seen as a gallery landscape on video monitors. The digital gunfire and flames were gratuitous art fantasy.

Fiona Wong's ceramic sculpture Bodhi and Kum Chi-keung's bamboo-worked bird-cages embodied Hong Kong's interest in artistic craft and literati traditions, while Silas Fong's videos and Otto Li's recent computer-aided design - which "deconstructs everyday images with digital tools and reconstructs them into a sculptural form" - demonstrated the city's strong interest in new media.

To its credit, the Hong Kong Eye book acknowledges another view of Hong Kong's art history and current scene. The exhibition's "academic advisers" each contribute an essay. Former Hong Kong Museum of Art chief curator Christina Chu outlines Hong Kong's art continuum from the discovery of Neolithic ceramics to the ink painting traditions of the Lingnan School and the New Ink painting movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Para/Site Art Space founding member Leung Po-shan discusses the work of woodblock artist Karden Chan, abstractionist Hon Chi-fun and forthcoming Venice Biennial representative Lee Kit. Critic and founding member of community art group Woofer Ten, Jaspar Lau Kin-wah, talks about artists' recent involvement in social issues, the British colonial legacy, the handover and his disappointment with directions at the West Kowloon Cultural District. And Chinese University teacher and artist Chan Yuk-keung discusses how artists, including Cheung Yee and Luis Chan, "misread" western art to develop their own art practice.

The essays were a confusing inclusion as the exhibition tackled none of the issues raised and many of the artists discussed, who were seminal in their own right - including Luke Ching Chin-wai, Wong Yan-kwai, Hon Chi-fun and Cheung Yee - were not featured in the book and, therefore, not in the exhibition.

This is not only a failure of "Hong Kong Eye" but reflects a truth that art officialdom and museums are unable or unwilling to offer a permanent display of Hong Kong's "art story" as a reference for others to complement or challenge.

I suspect that "Hong Kong Eye" will come and go because of its flimsy and confusing curatorial expression. It will be seen as nothing more than a group exhibition of Hong Kong artists. But the air, of which it is a part, beckons for the mounting of strong, intellectually rigorous survey exhibitions about all aspects of the Hong Kong art story.

There is a challenge there and the arts establishment should look at "Hong Kong Eye" and do it better.