Anthony Leung Po Shan and Lantian Xie discuss ideas of the city, the appearing demos, and metabolising the archive, in response to the exhibition Portals, Stories, and Other Journeys, on view at Tai Kwun from 23 April to 1 August 2021.
Portals, Stories, and Other Journeys, curated by Michelle Wong, stems from Asia Art Archive’s Ha Bik Chuen Archive Project on the personal archive of the late Hong Kong–based artist (1925–2009). This conversation brings together Hong Kong art critic Leung Po Shan Anthony, who conducted several months of research in the archive’s Fo Tan project space, and Dubai-based artist Lantian Xie, who has had ongoing conversations with Michelle Wong about Ha’s archive over the years. Moderated by Jane Cheung, an archivist who worked on the Ha Bik Chuen Archive Project, with additional research assistance by intern Summer Ng.
Jane Cheung (JC): I’d like to begin with this quote from Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities: “As this wave from memories flows in, the city soaks up like a sponge and expands. A description of Zaira as it is today should contain all Zaira’s past. The city, however, does not tell its past, but contains it like the lines of a hand, written in the corners of the streets, the gratings of the windows, the banisters of the steps, the antennae of the lightning rods, the poles of the flags, every segment marked in turn with scratches, indentations, scrolls.”
Calvino describes a city’s past as the lines of a hand—subtly but uniquely tangled in everyone’s palms, like our very distinct memories of the same city or place. The Portals exhibition, to me, creates a space where visitors might discover some hidden “scratches, indentations, scrolls” of the city. This leads to my first question: How would you define a city, and what are some elements or aspects of a city that stand out to you, that you pay attention to the most in your practice or everyday life?
Lantian Xie (LX): People always cite Calvino, specifically Invisible Cities, in reference to Hong Kong or Dubai. Why? Especially the first chapter’s formulation on memory, even though there are many other propositions in the rest of it. This memory palace thing seems to have found the most traffic.
I guess Calvino opens up into formulations on psychogeography that urbanists like. There’s this thing of the amalgamated city but also reading it feels like, oh, this is how white people travel. Calvino’s city is empty, waiting for the protagonist to enter and to activate it. Figures seem to make appearances to perform some action for the benefit of this detached roving eye. What does this mean in relation to places like Hong Kong, where it seems there is a city-wide obsession with disappearance, loss-production, and temporal scarcity? If those things are happening, how are they conspiring with one another?
Leung Po Shan (LPS): Apart from Calvino, there is another scholar that people take as an essential reference to understand Hong Kong, Ackbar Abbas.1 Like Calvino, they both work across an articulation, or an imagination of disappearance. For me, from day one, when I read Ackbar Abbas, I found it so counterproductive, back in the nineties, not to mention the current situation in Hong Kong.
Last year, a book by Pang Lai Kwan, titled The Appearing Demos: Hong Kong during and after the Umbrella Movement, was published.2 In the book, Pang talks about different kinds of creative expression on the streets—how people, the “demos,” catered to and provided an opportunity for each other, not just for themselves or the egoistic artists, to express themselves on the street. She also talks about how the occupation movement had a local significance as well as an international significance. Occupation is not just about accepting a politic that is merely about representation, as Abbas implies, but about objects and people with their corporeal reality. It is about a vulnerability that demonstrates the will of individuals, as well as collectives in the public spheres. We should think of appearance instead of invisibility. I was brought up in the 1990s, and I was very into postcolonial theories, but I find it can sometimes be very counterproductive if we indulge ourselves too much at the margins.
LX: You know, I think Wong Kar Wai also did a lot of damage. It’s interesting that you say it’s counterproductive, because the way that I read it is the production of scarcity through the production of loss. When you get into the business of producing scarcity, you get into the business of producing limits, and then, you get into the business of producing inheritances and proprieties. Since we are talking about archives, we should think about how we can understand archives, or the work of institutional archives, as a proprietary metabolism of time.
Then when you get into that, you get into the trafficking of property logics, of ownership. These are, in the end, containment logics.
In Wong Kar Wai’s films, you see the production of loss and its recital. In Chungking Express, there is that famous formulation of eating time with the cans of pineapple. It is not in fact about aggregation. One pineapple can is kept every day—collected—to be given as a gift. But that is not the work of an institutional archive. The work that’s actually interesting is that, finally, the archivist gets hungry, eats the pineapples. The point is not the collection of pineapples, the point is the eating of archive, the metabolisation of the archive. Preciado was just speaking about digestion the other day [in another talk for the Portals exhibition programme].
I would like to advance this as a pose to think about the work of archives as opposed to the making of silos, which is a European epistemic logic—the idea of lock-and-stow. Keep something safe by removing it from the world, removing it from mutability, susceptibility, removing it from circulation and locking it away. Somehow this is the way that we are told to keep things safe, by removing life from life.
I’d like to think about this in relation to the exhibition, and the wider project about Hong Kong’s loss-production. If we’re talking on a temporal register, how do you—how do Hong Kongers—contend with Sundays in Hong Kong? What happens to the city’s imagination of itself when the entire city is changed in terms of how it is occupied? Or, another register: with my passport, I can only be in Hong Kong for seven days on an on-arrival transit visa, so I’ve never seen Hong Kong on the eighth day. I think about this all the time, what would an eighth consecutive day in Hong Kong feel like? How do you imagine Hong Kong, and does it admit these provisional and contingent occupations of Sundays and seven-day time horizons.
JC: Maybe I can explain why I chose the quote from Invisible Cities. The Portals show gave me a strong sense of everything being suspended in the space. I found a similar feeling of suspension in the book. There are the city’s fragments in every set in the show, which can be transposed, shifted, or juxtaposed. Same as the elements of cities in Calvino’s words, all floating but at the same time pointing to an ultimate city (Hong Kong/Venice) in real life. Everyone is reading the scenes distinctively as reading the lines in their own hands. Visitors can find “scratches, indentations, and scrolls” in Lam Wing Sze’s route, in the sofa produced by Raqs Media Collective, or in Lo Ting’s shadow.
The suspension is also present in the air. Originally in Ha’s To Kwa Wan studio, the weather is humid, hot—just very typical Hong Kong weather. The air kept changing when the materials were moved from Fo Tan to Tai Kwun. In Fo Tan we need to keep it air-conditioned, very dry to keep all the materials safe. Then at Tai Kwun, it’s much colder because the venue needs to be welcoming to the visitors as well. However, since I’ve spent almost a year with the Ha Archive, I have an emotional attachment to the boxes and materials inside. I experience this feeling of loss when I see the materials being detached from the original context, but at the same time I understand the detachment is necessary.
LPS: I guess Lantian will have something to say about this sense of loss in terms of the context of the city and the cultural institution—whether there is necessarily a loss of reality when you have to preserve something?
LX: In this production of loss that we are talking about, there are two notable things that emerge. One is a kind of inheritance, and one is a kind of debt. I am generally in the business of evading debt. When we start talking about inheritance, then you get this sense of rightful inheritors, and the production of loss then is tied up with the production of the rightful inheritor, the heir. So this is where the origin thing comes in—this thing was here first, or before—but then are we simply talking about locating the primary encounter along an axis of our own hubris and then fixing that?
It’s interesting that you talked about weather systems. There’s a book called Air-Conditioned Nation by Cherian George on centralised air-conditioning as a model of governance in Singapore—air-conditioning as deployment of an epistemic logic towards the production of discrete political distinctions. Good air and bad air, and the air-conditioning as a sanitisation regime that designates and expels bad air away and draws good air closer. Where is the boundary? A threshold emerges.
LPS: Lantian talks about air-conditioning. This is very relevant, not just to the boundaries or realms of artefacts or real-life objects and art, especially in this epic time. This makes me think of notions raised by Boris Groys, the way he talks about how museums or exhibition systems turn living things into dead things in order to enter immortality and the post-human life of the objects.
When I look at the exhibition, I find it interesting because the curator put a lot of effort into activating the archive, just as Lantian said, so you have to eat the pineapple, not just keep it in the can. It’s an encounter of retroactivity that invites artists to make use of the archive, and then there could be a date or year of insignificance. But then, through looking/digging into the archive, it sheds light on the artists’ own work and new creations. The exhibition is pushing the participating artists to reactivate historical moments or insignificant moments in the history of Hong Kong.
With the work of Kwan Sheung Chi, he deploys cynicism to tackle the cynicism in Hong Kong, that is to take things seriously. He draws things from the canon that take very trivial things seriously, and also engages issues of multiculturalism in Hong Kong, like the work he puts in the exhibition is a tribute to Antonio Mak Hin Yeung. The work here in the exhibition is reactivating the archive so that it is not putting it in the silos, not just preserving it, but using it to activate a lost moment in Hong Kong history.
LX: Ha’s practice was not possessive of things coming into the archive, or managing permission of entry. I would go even further than what Leung Po is saying—Michelle’s curatorial framework and the work of the artists in the Portals show is not only just activating some inert potential, but it’s constitutive, and this constituting is in a way continuing the work, continuing the high-bandwidth traffic that is a major operating logic in Ha’s archival practice. If you open one of those collage books, for example, what you see is not each thing in its place, you do not see a kind of management capacity, you see things colliding, cascading, you see a bandwidth amplification sensibility. What Leung Po says about the curator is also very interesting, because we can see from multiple moves that Michelle produces the appearance of the curator/archivist as someone who is within the diegesis of the exhibitionary, which is to say that it’s not floating on top. It’s not that I go to the curator, and the curator affords me entry to the exhibitionary, but that the appearance of the curatorial and the archivist is laterally in diegesis within the exhibitionary, that the curator/archivist walks alongside as opposed to being perched atop a non-diegetic vantage.
Recently I went to a data centre. The popular imagination of data centres in movies and television is of storage facilities, but actually if you go to a data centre, the least interesting part of it is storage. In fact, the much more interesting parts of it are processing and networking. The data centre can be a tomb in which you embalm things for safekeeping, but this is counter to the safekeeping logic of the data centre because if you keep something safe you don’t keep it in one location, you keep them moving across multiple locations. The capacity of the data centre is not so much of the tomb but of the engine. Its potential is in its ability to process and leverage its network to process. The storage and network potential of the data centre is larger than the discrete appearance that it makes as a physical property.
JC: It reminds me of the days in Fo Tan space, which was really like a tomb. My colleagues always said there were some strange sounds and shadows—we always said it’s Ha’s ghost coming back.
LX: What you described earlier was archive as a series of moves, as a weather pattern—the moving of boxes from climate to climate. It was describing a moving that renders infrastructure but also it works as a choreography in fact. I like thinking about the role of archivists in this choreography. You know that Bolshevik joke: the future is certain but the past is unpredictable.
JC: That actually matches with what I want to say—every time when I opened a box, I felt like I was witnessing a newborn ghost.
LPS: We are all on the same page that the past is unpredictable, right? There is so much unknown when you bring down the heavy boxes from the shelves. I spent three months at the archive, working with a team of very energetic, humorous people. For people who have a very romantic imagination of an artist, the studio is like the last reference of the artist, it’s like the spiritual home; it’s sacred, it’s about a genius subject, and so on. When we were moving the heavy boxes, we found a lot of jokes, a lot of unknowns about Ha. This includes the pornography that is his desires, and all the materiality of the artistic creation that we always think of the immaterial sides of creativity. We found the heaviness of all these materials.
One day, we opened a box and we found the teeth of Ha. Because we had to put a tag on everything—that’s the job of the archivist—you are creating the boundaries between the artefacts, art, and object. You are actually setting the boundaries between the artistic creations and the unknown or the private life of Ha, that shouldn’t be preserved in the archive. When we found the teeth, we had an argument, or actually, jokes about whether this is an art piece, an artificial object by the dentist, or a relic. It makes us think more about the role of an archivist, the cultural institutions, and the public life of an artist, also the afterlife of a genius.
LX: I think what Leung Po is saying is fascinating. Then what we are talking about is: do the teeth come into the archive, does the pornography come into the archive? When you produce a taxonomy in order to determine what to admit or dismiss you are in the business of management—or, you are in the business of morality police, like this thing is good, that thing is bad; if so, then how does something like pornography come into that? I think the trouble is the distinction is drawn through a kind of suspicion, or a kind of scrutiny. What you arrive at is a kind of and securitisation of the possible.
LPS: Do you mean it’s more bringing a closure to the evolving things from Ha’s inheritance?
LX: Yes, to not take what is received from Ha as an inheritance, to disorder the propriety of that framework, because then you get into the receiving of it as a kind of invitation to contiguity, so that you can’t take it for granted. Then you can think about the volatility potential of that which is received, like the teeth that you described. Then it multiplies, like Schrodinger’s teeth: they’re teeth, but they’re also dentist’s tools, but they’re also artefacts, they’re also this and that, and and and. Somehow they are simultaneously all of these things, and I am saying let the role of the archivist not be to say that this thing is only this one thing, and not any of the other things. Because they are not inertial appearances, they are volatile and potentiating. So how do we think about hospitality for these volatile possibilities as opposed to managing them to death in the framework of an archive as a mortuary? It’s interesting because from Leung Po and other folks who’ve worked at the archive over the years, you get a sense of kinetic energy—it’s always jokes, laughs, chips, beers. And ghosts as well—multiple forces at play, not always coinciding, sometimes colliding, sometimes contradicting. What I’m describing is also Ha’s practice. If you look at the work, it is not asking for immobility, it’s asking for abundance. I think Ha’s entire practice is against scarcity.
LPS: So, Lantian, do you think artistic intervention into archives helps keep a sense of openness of all these things?
LX: I think they’re open anyway, they cannot but be open. Even if you think about the idea of silverfish around Ha’s archive, when we take on the management protocol, silverfish come as unwelcome intruders within sanitation regimes; they come in as squatters, looters. The question is do you think of them as squatters and looters? Do you think of them as a liability? They also metabolise the archive. They are reading the archive in a much more phenomenologically intense way than you and I can read it. I am not trying to talk about anthropomorphising. What I am saying is that the silverfish are reading the archive with their mandibles while you and I might read with our eyes. The archive is metabolising, it will continue metabolising. Even if we think about the silverfish, what are they doing? They’re drawing apertures in the records. These apertures are openings. The archivist cannot come to the silverfish as police.
JC: Lantian, I’m not trying to argue with you, but if there’s tons of silverfish that eat up Ha’s archive, then actually nothing will stay—how can we keep it open or keep it fluid to others? Silverfish to me is somehow killing the possibilities, what do you think about that?
LX: Thermodynamically, there’s no loss. A geologist I spoke to remarked that “synthetic” and “natural” are superficial distinctions in the formation pathways of minerals. You may have lost your records, but many silverfish had a very nice meal. I don’t want to fixate too much on this silverfish thing. It’s like fire metaphors. A friend made a nice turn of phrase some time back about how an alchemist sees fire where a chemist sees ashes. The exhibitionary cannot simply be occupied with display of records.
JC: Actually, that reminds me of Leung Po’s work, Book Burning (2007), in which you destroy the book to preserve the moment. Leung Po, were you the silverfish at that moment?
LPS: A long time ago, I did a book burning performance. It was when the government was demolishing the Star Ferry Pier. I brought Xi Xi’s novel My City, which was written in the 70s about my city. I found participants, witnesses, and passers-by at the occupied site. Then I read a page to them, and I burned the book leaves, so that there was a ritual for us to stay at the moment of disappearance. The reading and the listening become the monument of a presence in this moment of our history being demolished. That’s the idea of the work—it’s the silverfish in the archive.
JC: Thank you both so much. As a way of concluding, I’d just like to say a few words as a sort of epilogue, because for a long time, I felt a strong sense of loss when irreversible events were happening in the city, when collecting pineapples (or apples) might no longer be possible. This exhibition and the conversation pointed me to other ways of processing loss—whether it’s “eating instead of keeping” by Lantian, or the opposition of “disappearance” by Leung Po. These are ways to keep ourselves away from powerless emotions.
During our last days in Fo Tan, we needed to disperse some of the materials from Ha’s archive. Loss is transformed through the process of metabolism. Silverfish molt as they grow. The portals are then activated.
Anthony Leung Po Shan is an artist and art critic based in Hong Kong. Her research interests include art ecology, city space, cultural politics, and art labour. She is the author of I Love Art Basel: On Art and Capital and the editor of Modern Art in a Colony: Narrated by Hon Chi-fan at the Millennium, Odd One In: Hong Kong Diary (by Pak Sheung Chuen), QK – Specimen Collection of Chan Yuk Keung, and The Red Twenty-years of Ricky Yeung Sau-churk. She is a member of the art critic collective Art Appraisal Club. She is currently conducting research on islands that will lead to an art project.
Lantian Xie was born in Tell Abraq in 1988, and currently lives and works in Tuscany. Xie makes images, objects, stories, jazz bands, motorcycles, books, and parties. Xie’s work has appeared in Yokohama Triennale (2020), 14th Sharjah Biennial (2019), the 57th Venice Biennale (2017), the 11th Shanghai Biennale (2016), and the 3rd Kochi-Muziris Biennale (2016).
Jane Cheung studied Creative and Professional Writing at Hong Kong Baptist University. She writes prose and poetry. Her work has been published in various local magazines in Hong Kong.
1. An academic who studied and taught at the Hong Kong University for almost forty years. One of his most influential books is Hong Kong: Culture and the Politics of Disappearance (1997). By introducing the notions of “disappearance,” “reverse hallucination,” “déjà disparu,” etc., in relation to Hong Kong, Abbas examined the city’s identity as one that appears through disappearance.
2. Published in 2020, the book examines the specificity of Hong Kong’s situation through studying Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement in 2014. In contrast to Abbas’s claim, Pang borrows the concept of “appearance” from Hannah Arendt to explore the development and possibility of democracy in Hong Kong.