Para/Site gallery's new exhibition explores Hong Kong's identity

Topical post-Occupy take on a burning issue features 16 works by 12 artists

Lam Hoi-sin’s lightbox installation, OK.

For artist Jims Lam Chi-hang, Para/Site's "Imagine There's No Country, Above Us Only Our Cities" is an exciting project on many fronts. It is his first curatorial effort, and the independent art space's latest attempt to collaborate with emerging curators. The group show is also very topical as it sets out to explore the notion of "nationality", which has been driving a wedge between people in post-Occupy Hong Kong.

The show comprises 16 works by 12 artists of different generations working in different genres; Lam says he wants to present a variety of views to engage the audience. His role is not to take sides, the 28-year-old says, but to start and lead a dialogue on what being a "Hongkonger" means today: "This is the collective insight of the artists but we are not here to impose any values or judge what is right or wrong. Art is about being open-minded... we take a persuasive approach to what is otherwise a controversial topic."

Lam is quick to point out that the exhibition is not a follow-up to the umbrella movement — when people took to the streets between September and December last year, demanding universal suffrage in 2017 — but a reflection on the changes brought about by the protest.

"There are things that cannot be changed," says Lam, alluding to the fact that Hong Kong is part of China. "But we can at least have our [humorous] take on this fact."

So on show are works that are both "proactive and reactive" (read: political and personal) by artists from the so-called "post-'80s generation" as well as those in mid-career.

Lam says the idea of this exhibition stems partly from author Xi Xi's book (1979) — which charts a rise in social awareness in Hong Kong during its economic boom in the 1970s — and partly from an installation work by Luke Ching Chin-wai that features a series of televisions showing commercial logos.

"We grew up with these brands so there's nothing surprising there," he says. "But what's changed is how we interpret these logos today." For instance, we now look beyond a certain US fast food chain as somewhere for a quick meal but a form of cultural imperialism. That, Lam points out, is a result of our "identity awakening" — or increased political awareness — and that, in turn, leads to a change in our understanding of who we are and what Hong Kong is.

Elvis Yip's newspaper collage piece Absent of speech from Evening post series.

"King George V Memorial Park is no longer just a leisure park but a remnant of this city's colonial heritage," he adds.

There are other works in the show that illustrate this shift of awareness. Mark Chung's (2015) is not just about fireworks but what they stand for. While fireworks are legal in China, they are banned in Hong Kong except when officially organised to celebrate events such as the Lunar New Year and handover anniversaries. Chung's installation offers viewers a "new experience" by projecting video footage of fireworks he sourced on the internet, dating from around 1997, onto the ceiling "so visitors can look at the fireworks, directly above their heads, every day during the exhibition period," says Lam, who is also Para/Site's head of production and associate curator.

It is up to viewers to decide whether or not the piece is a satirical critique of an exercise that is symbolic yet quite meaningless.

More personal is Lam Hoi-sin's (2015), which comments on how most big social media platforms — such as Facebook and Instagram — are created in the US. But unlike Ching's piece that partly talks about cultural imperialism, this young artist is indifferent to the "politics" and is happy to use these online tools to interact with people from around the world.

At the other end of the spectrum is Elvis Yip Kin-bong, whose two works, (2014-2015) and (2013-2015), are political and look at the power of words by taking away, or manipulating, text in political speeches printed in newspaper over the past couple of years. Deciding what sort of political messages the artist is conveying is again up to the audience.

Lam, who won the Hong Kong Art Prize organised by the Asia Contemporary Art Show in 2013, says the role of an artist and a curator share similarities in that both ask the same questions: what to tell, and how to deliver that narrative. However, there is one difference: a curator needs to micromanage, he says, referring to the way he guides visitors through the exhibition so they have an engaging visual experience. Another challenge in his curatorial debut is realising his artistic vision with the resources he has.

How about staging what is de facto a political show? "Art and politics go hand-in-hand," says Lam. "What I want to do is to present different viewpoints and perspectives. We also want to fight indifference and tell people that things are happening [and changing] in this city."

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Signs of the times