Shenzhen art show Adrift explores what it means to be a migrant

Six artists express in various ways what it means to live in a place you can’t truly call home, such as Hong Kong and Shenzhen, or to cross daily from one country to another for work or pleasure

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 20 January, 2016, 7:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 20 January, 2016, 2:09pm

Shenzhen is a city of migrants. Of its 18 million people, eight out of 10 have their hukou – or household registration – somewhere else in China. So the theme of a new exhibition at Shenzhen’s OCT Contemporary Art Terminal (OCAT) will strike a chord with many there.

“Adrift” is a group show by six artists that explores the multifaceted experiences of the world’s migrants, from the daily cross-border commute from Estonia to Finland to the exodus-for-life from China to Hong Kong.

“We considered the likely audience around Lunar New Year and thought this would be an appropriate theme. Those who come to see the show will likely be a migrant who, for one reason or another, cannot go home for the Spring Festival,” says Qu Chang, one of the three young curators behind the exhibition.

“Adrift” is modest in size, but Qu and fellow curators Leo Chen and Zeng Wenqi – all in their 20s – have put together a succinct and intimate narrative under the auspices of OCAT Shenzhen’s newly appointed artistic director, Venus Lau.

Lau, a Hongkonger, has led a peripatetic life for years, working as a curator and writer in Beijing, Shenzhen and Hong Kong. She has sympathy for the 15 million people in Shenzhen who cannot, for legal reasons, call the city home.

“Despite promises of reform, it is still very hard for the migrants to feel they belong here because they cannot move their hukou and it is very difficult for their children to go to school here,” she says.

Half the people involved in the exhibition have come from Hong Kong, and one wonders if Shenzhen is more receptive to the theme of belonging/not belonging than Hong Kong, where xenophobia increasingly rears its ugly head.

Beijinger Zheng Bo has lived in Hong Kong, on and off, since 1999. His interactive video work, Sing for Her, is installed at the Art Square in Salisbury Garden, Tsim Sha Tsui, and he has taken a condensed version to Shenzhen.

“I never felt out of place in Hong Kong when I lived here from 1999 to 2005. But after I came back from a few years in the US, the place had changed and it’s become harder for me to feel at home here,” says the assistant professor in City University of Hong Kong’s school of creative media, referring to rising anti-China sentiment among young Hongkongers.

The Shenzhen version of Sing for Her features groups of Filipinos, Indonesians and new migrants from China in Hong Kong singing songs from home; the audience need to sing along for the videos to continue playing.

Lau Wai, a second-generation Hongkonger, is showing an ongoing photo project, Album. Blown-up fragments of old photos tell the story of parents who uprooted themselves to set up home in Hong Kong. “I recently discovered that there is a lot about my parents’ past that I do not know. These fragments of images resemble the way they tell their stories. They jump all over the place, remembering the past snippet by snippet,” she says.

One of the participating artists had never been to China before, but brings a work that portrays a familiar situation. Karel Koplimets’ Case No 11. Talsinki is made up of two videos playing on back-to-back screens. One shows Estonian commuters getting off the ferry that takes them daily from their country’s capital, Tallinn, to Helsinki in Finland, and the other shows Finns making the reverse trip.

“My topic is about the workers who go to Helsinki to work every day, and the people from Finland who cross the border to Tallinn to buy cheap liquor,” says the Estonian artist.

The other three artists in the show are Trevor Yeung, who grew up in Hong Kong as a bewildered new migrant from Dongguan, Guangdong, and two of the rising stars among Chinese artists 35 and under, Cheng Ran and Li Liao.

Venus Lau, who has recently moved to the OCT Contemporary Art Terminal from Beijing, where she was consulting curator at the Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art, is finalising a raft of exhibitions for the rest of the year which Hong Kong art lovers should take note of.

Hardly anyone attending the opening of “Adrift” has come from Hong Kong, despite the fact that the venue is merely two hours away, door to door.

For Hong Kong artists, the pull of Shenzhen is obvious. “It’s easy to get to, and there is so much more space here. Also, there are several times more people attending the opening than what you get in Hong Kong,” says Lau Wai.

The curators, too, are at ease working on both sides of the border. Chen is studying public policy at City University and is partnering with Qu and Zeng again later this month for a group exhibition called “Re-imagination of Everyday Life”, to be held in a new art space called Star Project in Sha Tin.

Adrift, Exhibition Hall B, OCT Comtemporary Art Terminal, OCT Loft, Enping Street, Nanshan, Shenzhen, Tuesday-Sunday, 10am-5.30pm. Ends February 28