Hong Kong Performance Art Research ProjectThis project launched in April 2005, in parallel with ‘Hong Kong Performance Art On the Move’, a local performance art festival. It consisted of latitudinal and longitudinal studies of the development of performance art in Hong Kong and included extensive documentation as well as a chronology of Hong Kong performance art since the mid-1970s.
An Opportunity or a Risk? When performance art becomes part of art history
- Report on Hong Kong Performance Art Research Project
wen yau, Researcher for Hong Kong
Parallel to Hong Kong On the Move Performance Art project launched in April 2005, I started a research project on Hong Kong performance art in collaboration with a group of artists involved in Hong Kong On the Move. The research consisted of latitudinal and longitudinal studies of the development of the art form in Hong Kong. By inviting artists who are currently active in the field to conduct interviews with each other, their experiences of performance art have been shared, recorded, and accumulated. Also, extensive documentation of performances, talks, and seminars in the 18-month On the Move project has developed a broad range of audiovisual materials of the art form in AAA's collection. Last but not least, a chronology of Hong Kong performance art has been constructed by collating related materials in an attempt to trace its development since the mid 70s.
Tracing the history of performance art is a visionary yet arduous task. Performance art, with its anti-establishment nature has long been marginalised by mainstream ‘art history’ and also marginalises itself so as to maintain its critical distance from the establishment. Unlike traditional art forms which produce objects of consumption, works of performance art only come to life once. In some extreme cases, artists do not or even refuse to document their work in the belief that documentation cannot represent live performance. Also, the expense associated with photo and video technology in the early days of performance art added to the difficulties of documentating and preserving this history. These realities make writing the chronology of Hong Kong performance art a painstaking process, but also a welcome challenge.
The chronology that I drafted, of course, will never be a complete one, but it is at least an attempt to list all the events between 1975 and 2005 which I could collate from books, artist monographs, exhibition catalogues, news clippings, etc. In some cases, due to a lack of documentary evidence available, the ‘history’ of performance art could only be constructed by artists' descriptions or scattered printed materials. As well, oral histories are also somewhat unreliable, especially when comparing different versions of stories by members of the same group of artists who participated in the same event. Thanks to the Internet and electronic media which enable us to search for related events swiftly, and the availability of low-cost audiovisual technology, documentation of performance art is becoming increasingly more accessible. As a researcher at AAA, I feel a strong urge to document and preserve the flashing moments of performance art before they are lost in memory and history.
My research has included collating material for AAA’s collections on active members of the Hong Kong performance art scene. I also conducted 11 video interviews with 14 artists (or art groups). In each interview, an artist was invited to talk to another artist chosen by him/herself about their practice and views on performance art. This artist-led approach has generated very fruitful and in-depth peer-to-peer dialogue by minimising their resistance to the presumed authority of the researcher. Special thanks to Chen Shi-sen/San Mu, Ko Siu-lan, Kwok Mang-ho/Frog King, Leung Po-shan Anthony, Mok Chiu-yu, Pak Sheung-Chuen Tozer, Project 226, Tsang Tak-ping Kith, Ricky Tse, Voila, Ricky Yeung, Yuenjie, and Sunny Yung who contributed to the research project and helped write the history of performance art in Hong Kong. This, together with the documentation of the On the Move project, conducted by AAA, forms an important and solid resource on performance art in Hong Kong available for anyone wishing to conduct further research.
Kwok Mang-ho/Frog King was the first artist to start doing so-called performance art or action art in Hong Kong (and perhaps China, though this has yet to be proven). My literary reviews start with Kwok's monograph which stated the first documented event ‘The Splash of Cow Bone Action’ in 1975 when Kwok splashed a big black bag of burnt cow bones next to his award-winning sculpture Fire Sculpture in the 'Contemporary Hong Kong Art' exhibition in Hong Kong Museum of Art at City Hall. The performance art scene was joined by Liang Yee-woo Evelyna who returned to Hong Kong after studying abroad in the early 80s. Performance art in Hong Kong at that time showed a strong sense of experimentation of the art form and reached its first peak in the late 80s when the June 4th Incident saw a lot of artists speak out through performance events. Since then, one can see the close relationship between performance art in Hong Kong and the social-political situation in Hong Kong and China. The 1997 handover, which brought about uncertainty and issues of cultural identity was a crucial turning point in Hong Kong's performance art, or even contemporary art development. The ‘Red Man Incident’ by Pan Xing-lei, who splattered red paint on the Queen statue in Victoria Park has become the most-cited typical example. Again, in 2003, the SARS outbreak and political controversy saw half a million people take to the streets, and again acted as a catalyst for performances by artists, such as the renowned wedding of Clara Cheung and Gum Cheng of Project 226 and related performance events such as ‘SARS International Inc.’
Indeed, Hong Kong performance art, which started with artists' experimentation of the art form in the mid 70s and early 80s and turned to address more political concerns in the late 80s and the 90s, has reflected a wide diversity of styles in the last 5-10 years. Artists have shown different concerns in their work, such as body, gender, space, sound, religion, personal emotions, and linguistics in addition to social-political issues. In recent years, the concept of live art has been introduced from the UK to Hong Kong by young artists who have been studying abroad. The idea of live art blurred the boundaries between performance art, which has a long history and influence from fine art, and experimental theatre/dance, which has been somehow marginalised by the popular mainstream theatre. The year-round festival On the Move in 2005/06 also created opportunities for local artists to show works and brought international artists to Hong Kong. With a significant increase in international performance art festivals, especially in Asia in the last few years, more and more artists have been invited to present their work overseas. This frequent cultural exchange not only increases artists' international exposure, but also provides references to them in works of other artists of different styles from diverse cultural backgrounds. The performance art scene in Hong Kong seems to have reached an unprecedented vibrancy.
Undoubtedly, the On the Move project in the last year or more has contributed a lot and enlivened the scene by creating a regular platform for local artists showcasing their work and meeting renowned international artists. Their guerilla performances in streets or public talks have effectively attracted audiences, whereas empty seats in theatre performances have brought about frustration. There may be several reasons to explain this; performance art is not suitable for theatre presentation or box sales; the type of work is not appealing to theatre audiences; and marketing strategies have not been strong enough. The biggest challenges that need to be addressed are people's perception of performance art in Hong Kong and performance artists' own resistance to conventions or mainstream culture. I was surprised when I searched "performance art" on a news database, and found that the term was described as unreasonable, irrational, or destructive actions. This is perhaps because the term ‘performance art’ was given a bad name by the media in Hong Kong after Pan Xing-lei's controversial ‘Red Man Incident’ in 1996.
Indeed, the increasing interest in performance art (especially Chinese performance art, which often has strong political appeal and has aroused controversy such as the infamous ‘Eating People’ work by Zhu Yu) in the international art scene gives the art form growing force. ‘Inward Gazes: Documentaries of Chinese Performance Art’ organised by the Macau Museum of Art is an ambitious example in which Chinese performance art has, for the first time, been formally included within the establishment in a high profile and large scale manner. Also, the Chinese Arts Centre in Manchester, in the UK has just organised the ‘Vital 06: International Chinese Live Art Festival’ which extraordinarily showcased Chinese performance art outside China. Thanks to the Macau Museum of Art and the Chinese Arts Centre, who invited AAA to present the chronology of Hong Kong performance art in the symposium and exhibition catalogue, and to screen selected documentaries of work of Hong Kong performance artists respectively in the above events, Hong Kong finds its place within the domain of Chinese performance art in an international context. The On the Move project, as the first large-scale performance art project, also indicates how local funding institutions are opening their doors to the art form which has long been neglected or marginalised. While the Hong Kong art scene arguably faces the threat of increasing maginalisation in the face of dramatic growth in mainland China, this project has shown the vitality of Hong Kong performance art and ways in which we can keep it in the recent history of contemporary art in an organic, supportive, and sustainable way.
Special Thanks to the Hong Kong On the Move Performance Art project presented by Asian People's Theatre Festival Society (APTFS) collaborated in part of the research.
Photo of performance documentation by: Cheung Chi-wai, Keith Sin, Leung tze-fung & Fung Wai-sang @Two Too Ideas
Photo Copyright: Asia Art Archive and Asian People's Theatre Festival Society (APTFS)