'Déjà Disparu' exhibition is more than a blast from the past
Resurrecting notable works from the 1990s, this exhibition gathers provocative threads from the city's recent past, writes Edmund Lee
"DÉJÀ DISPARU" AT Pearl Lam Galleries features a selection of older works by four Hong Kong artists who have been active for more than two decades.
And it feels like an anomaly: while the artworks on show are of unquestionable cultural significance, it makes for an interesting debate if it amounts to anything more than a belated recap of one of the most eventful periods in the city's history.
Curated by David Chan Ho-yeung, the former director of Shanghai Gallery of Art and Osage Gallery, the exhibition of sculptures, videos and photography takes its title - and pretty much its entire conceptual framework - from scholar Ackbar Abbas' Hong Kong: Culture and the Politics of Disappearance, which was published four months before the 1997 handover, and is the canonical text on Hong Kong cultural studies since.
In the book, Abbas examined the various forms and practices - including cinema, architecture, photography and writing - used in Hongkongers' search for cultural identity in the transitional period between the 1984 signing of the Sino-British Joint Declaration and the handover.
With the concept of déjà disparu, Abbas famously reconsidered our viewing process by highlighting the tendency of local filmmakers to construct images out of clichés - a process the academic described as "reverse hallucination" or "not seeing what is there".
"It would of course seem that we've already dealt with all the colonial and post-colonial issues in the 1990s, although I feel that it's time to look at them again," says Chan of his approach for the show, which features works that were exhibited back in the day.
"I'd say that Hong Kong, right now, is beyond being numb [towards the rapid social and political changes]; we're so numb that we don't even talk about it anymore.
"Another reason to stage an exhibition about the 1990s is because this bunch were the pioneers," Chan adds, referring to the exhibiting artists Ellen Pau, Sara Wong, Ho Siu-kee and Vincent Yu. "We talk a lot about new artists nowadays, but people seem to have neglected and left behind these artists from the '90s. They accomplished a great deal."
For Wong, a founding member of Para/Site Art Space and an intermittent collaborator with her artist husband Warren Leung Chi-wo, the show is an excellent opportunity to revisit her study on our evolving urban space.
In her 1998 video Local Orientation, the artist walked in a straight line towards the west - sometimes through buildings and other physical barriers - from Para/Site's Sheung Wan premises to the harbourfront.
It was meant to explore the discrepancies between the representation on the map and the artist's own daily experience of navigating the city.
When Wong took the same route again earlier this year - the result of which is exhibited at "Déjà Disparu" - even the starting point now looks different. "The old address of Para/Site has become the Lomography store [next door]," she says. "There's a delicate inconsistency between the map and the actual places I was standing in. Also, it's very meaningful to show the two walks [from 1998 and 2013] side by side at this exhibition."
The opportunity to restage a notable work is equally appreciated by Videotage co-founder Pau, who showed her one-channel video Recycling Cinema (1998) at the 2001 Venice Biennale and has always wanted to revisit it "in a cinema setting".
She is enthusiastic that there is a screen and two comfy chairs that go with the representative work this time.
Similarly, Pau's art practice has often seemingly echoed Abbas' concern about the speed of historical change and the subjectivity of visual representation. The traffic on the Island Eastern Corridor expressway speeds into and out of sight in Recycling Cinema, whereas in the video collage Diversion (1990), archival footage of swimmers jumping into Victoria Harbour for the Cross-Harbour Swim are either superimposed or juxtaposed with images of large windows, a tall staircase and a concrete wall to hint at the population's pre-1997 desperation.
Despite the curator's best intentions, and to take nothing away from the distinction of the works on view here, the parallel between the exhibit and the idea of déjà disparu is nevertheless not always obvious. For instance, it may be hard to associate the historical images taken by Vincent Yu with Abbas' concept beyond its most superficial sense.
An award-winning photojournalist who has staged various solo exhibitions, Yu's black-and-white photography documents a variety of now-demolished parts of the city in possibly the most matter-of-fact way. From old pictures of the Kai Tak Airport and Star Ferry Clock Tower to a wall of portraits of elderly residents of old housing estates, these are chronicles of disappearance - even if they are more déjà vu than déjà disparu.
When it comes to Ho Siu-kee's body-conscious work, the curatorial concept appears to be stretched very thin indeed. The artist is presenting some of his most memorable works from the '90s, when Ho had just come back to the city after studying abroad.
In his 1996 installation Gravity Hoop, which was also exhibited in Venice in 2001, Ho is seen suspended upside-down inside a circular stainless-steel apparatus. The artist's subjective negotiation with his surroundings is readily recognisable; its relevance to déjà disparu, slightly less so.
"I haven't thought about doing any particular type of work to correspond to the particular era," says Ho of his practice in the '90s.
"I'm always working on topics that I'm personally interested in. But at the same time, the curators and the audience can have their own ways of interpreting the works - and they often do that by linking them to the social and political environment of the time. I'm OK with that."
Meanwhile, Chan is adamant it's not his aim to explain the here and now with the exhibition.
"Often you need the historical distance to look at things," he says. "The significance of this show is we should not ignore our history or the things that people have done before us. When it comes to this experiment, I might sit down with the artists after the show to collect our thoughts and put them into writing again."
That could well read like an unwritten chapter of Abbas' book - or maybe not at all.
Déjà Disparu, Pearl Lam Galleries, 6/F Pedder Building, 12 Pedder Street, Central, 10am-7pm. Ends September 4. Inquiries: 2522 1428