Leo Li Chen explores how Ha Bik Chuen’s collection opens up new ways to understand Hong Kong art history.
For all the cultural hybridity that manifests in a city like Hong Kong, its residents seem to share fundamental characteristics such as a complex sense of identity and cultural tolerance. In this sense, Ha Bik Chuen was quintessentially Hong Kong. An artist active since the 1960s, Ha Bik Chuen was primarily known as a printmaker and sculptor. Meanwhile, he is remembered in the Hong Kong art world for his parallel practice as a photographer: Ha attended and photographed art openings for almost four decades, documenting over 1,500 exhibitions and art events from the 1960s to 1998. With the artist’s passing in 2009, the Ha family donated his lifelong collection of books, magazines, exhibition catalogues, and photographic records to Asia Art Archive, where Ha’s private collection has been made available to the wider public for the first time.
In the early 1990s, Boris Groys argued in On the New that our so-called cultural economy could be defined as the “exchange that takes place between the archive of cultural values and the profane space outside of this archive.” Here, the “archive of cultural values” signifies the entire system of research and collection including the museum. Compared to the systematised, institutional methods of classification and codification, Ha Bik Chuen’s collection and archival practice was much more flexible. At Asia Art Archive, original materials are roughly sorted into the categories of art books, newspapers, magazines, collage books, and exhibition documentation photographs. Nonetheless, the artist never considered his work as conforming to an existing framework of knowledge, but a self-initiated, subjective practice. In other words, the authority of inclusion and exclusion—the power of value judgment at the core of any archival practice—belongs to the artist himself, rather than some form of official narrative.
Granted, the transformation from individual collection to archive entails the parallel processes of publicisation and legitimisation. Ha Bik Chuen’s practice is invaluable in its subjective, creative documentation of and intervention in the Hong Kong art ecosystem, compensating for a critical lacuna in its history—especially the collage books and exhibition documentation photography. Ha Bik Chuen attached newspaper clippings and photographs of artworks to illustrated books of interior design and decorative arts, such as At Home With Art (1999) and London Interiors (2000), creating collages that became a catalogue of history. For example, the sculpture on the cover of College Life magazine’s 1960 special issue on “Modern Thought” is juxtaposed with a photograph of the original sculpture in an art catalogue; fashion editorials from local magazines resonate with modernist masters like Matisse and Picasso, revealing the ways in which Hong Kong had been profoundly influenced by western modernism, which stand in stark contrast with the artistic and intellectual ruptures in mainland China. Ha Bik Chuen’s own work was deeply influenced by modernism and abstract art; apart from his fondness of Picasso and Matisse, Ha made several notes on Abstract Expressionism in the archive, accounting for the abstract, concise lines in his prints as well as his incorporation of element such as human figures, trees, and flowers. The impact of modernist art also transcends regional boundaries. In his project Section 39_Indeix XXXVII: Traboulsi, the artist and scholar Walid Raad retraces the ways in which a Lebanese artist by the name of Suha Traboulsi draws inspiration from his exchanges with Ha Bik Chuen and Ha’s collaged notebooks to create a series of “sculptural spaces,” as well as Traboulsi’s application of the collage method in his approximation of modern Arab art.
The exhibition documentation photos taken by Ha Bik Chuen open up new dimensions in our understanding of the genealogy of art in Hong Kong. Covering seminal art events such as Art Asia (1991), The Stars: Ten Years exhibition in 1989, Out of Context art show in 1988, and Celebrating the Return of Hong Kong to the Motherland (1997), these photos retrace the interactions between the ’80s mainland avant-garde art movement and the Hong Kong art world of the time. The 1993 exhibition China’s New Art: Post-1989, held at Hong Kong Arts Centre, provides an exemplary footnote to the marketisation and globalisation of Chinese contemporary art in the ’90s. Presenting works by artists most emblematic of their time, the show was organised around categories such as “Political Pop” and “Cynical Realism: Irreverence and Malaise.” In the decades that followed, these labels of style became an inextricable burden to an entire generation of artists, even though some artists, like Liu Wei and Qiu Zhijie, managed to develop their practice in completely different directions.
Ha Bik Chuen’s collaged notebooks and exhibition documentation photographs provide indispensable sources to the study of Hong Kong art history. Apart from Ha’s identity as a Hong Kong artist, I’d like to emphasise his role as a practitioner whose work is predicated on material retrieval and information collection. His consciously subjective method of working provides us with an optimal paradigm of viewing the archive as a dynamic process, constantly in progress. In Under Suspicion: A Phenomenology of Media, Groys reflects on the contentious demarcation of archive, art, and reality. From a phenomenological perspective, he points out the inherent contradiction in the practice of archive: on the one hand, the archive is “charged to pursue completion.” On the other hand, value dictates the fate of things—whether or not they are to be archived. In the hands of the practitioner, objects deemed worthless in the prosaic world acquire the potential of becoming archive, just like Ha Bik Chuen remodels discarded materials of everyday life into sculptures, or makes collaged books out of newspaper clippings. Like a dumpster diver in the Hong Kong art world ecosystem, Ha Bik Chuen challenges official art historical narratives with information that has been discarded, neglected, or judged worthless. Through Asia Art Archive and researchers like myself, these uniquely personal judgments continue to be reinterpreted and represented—a process that best embodies the subjectivity and dynamism of the archive itself.
This essay was first published by the Times Museum. Reprinted with permission.
Leo Li Chen, a curator and researcher based in Hong Kong, is AAA Researcher-in-Residence in 2016.