H ong Kong in all its variety is the subject of the unusually good Hong Kong Contemporary Photography Exhibition. For this group show, curator Tse Ming-chong, photographer and organiser of the non-profit space Lumenvisum, at the Jockey Club Creative Arts Centre, in Shek Kip Mei, has selected a diverse range of local and international photographers who live in the city.
There’s also the subtle influence of European Photography magazine editor Andreas Müller-Pohle, who has devoted an entire issue to the show. The international publication is both catalogue and conduit to a wider contact list. Publicly funded international cultural initiatives can be
hit and miss, but this time the Hong Kong Arts Development Council’s resources have had a successful outcome.
The show covers all aspects, physical and emotional – back alleys, countryside, sea, concrete and high-rises; the grittiness and life of the street, and the contrasting living conditions of the middle-class and the poor. This suggests a fill-in-the-box approach, but the choice of photographic genre and styles is consummate.
Taking centre stage is Peter Steinhauer’s Yellow Cocoon #2, Hong Kong (2011), a diptych of an enormous Mid-Levels building under construction, with its yellow safety netting playing hide-and-seek and a fractured anonymity. Hong Kong’s urban designs and current political climate are captured in this embracing photograph: in the bottom corner is a glimpse of the century-old Chinese Rhenish Church, a pillar of solid community, its facade now primly covered in pink tiles that destroy its historical aura. Across the adjacent nullah, separated by the incongruously named Beautiful Terrace, is a seemingly innocuous apartment block, Bonham Towers: overlooking the University of Hong Kong, it is a “military closed area”, guarded by the People’s Liberation Army.
Singaporean photographer and former long-time Hong Kong resident Wei Leng Tay captures an entirely different mood. Her decade-long Hong Kong Living series is a quiet exploration of people at home. “[I] spent time in homes – chatting, observing and photographing. The scenes were never fully staged and unfolded during the time we were together,” she says.
These are deceptively nonchalant photographs, part documentary, part casual cinema-like scenes of people relaxing, or failing to relax, in spare, tight, high-rise apartments with a television or computer, often unseen, as the centre of attention.
Tay’s photographs capture the placid safety of home life and the psychological, subtle tensions of generational, domestic and marital relationships.
In the city’s newerhousing estates, Dustin Shum Wan-yat documents recreation and open spaces. These monolithic “blocks”, giving name to his photography series, have an unreal aesthetic, with decorative features, painted walls and ground space often given a geometric renderingsimilar to optical art. However, these carefully applied, regimenting lines are purely for the purpose of control, demarcating what can be done where and what’s simply not allowed. In Shum’s photographs these spaces appear otherworldly, but in reality they are considered, planned and actively used.
Benny Lam’s Trapped series attracted worldwide attention in 2012 by showing the shockingly small living conditions in which 200,000 Hong Kong people exist. Each of these bird’s-eye-view photographs of illegally subdivided units shows a single small space where – unbelievably – the occupier eats, sleeps and relaxes.
Lau Chi-chung’s staged After School photographs perfectly capture the dichotomy between the freedom of childhood and the responsibilities of adulthood. Viewing Lau’s juxtapositions of schoolchildren in uniform with the harsh, adult-built landscapes of urban and rural Hong Kong is like watching innocence meeting a hungry tiger.
The city’s vibrant street life appears in the photographs of Jonathan van Smit, Johnny Gin and Akif Hakan Celebi. Gin’s Architecture of Insurgency, street structures built during the 2014 “umbrella” protests, continues his documentation of Hong Kong buildings. Celebi captures people on Mong Kok’s crowded streets, the resulting images highly digitally manipulated to create a hyper-coloured realism.
The traditions of black-and-white photography are well-handled by Alfred Ko Chi-keung, whose Salvation (2013) – a bare cross amid a crowded tenement – is a knock-out, and by van Smit. Next to his gritty photographs of late-night Kowloon, he succinctly observes, “Dreams fade, money is king, and the moon is falling from the sky.”
The Hong Kong Contemporary Photography Exhibition will run until Sunday at the L0 Gallery, Jockey Club Creative Arts Centre, 30 Pak Tin Street, Shek Kip Mei.