Ideas Journal

The City Doesn't Love You Back: A Conversation on Artistic Distance

Oscar Chan, Lau Hiu Tung, and Eunice Tsang discuss “stalking” Hong Kong, transnational art-making, and curating “Hong Kong” shows.

 

Karen Cheung (KC): What was the catalyst for you deciding you wanted to either leave, take a break from, or stay in Hong Kong?

Oscar Chan (OC): I left Hong Kong in January 2019, because I thought I fell in love with somebody in France. Somehow this exit worked for me then, and I just never came back. But I had been thinking of leaving Hong Kong for a very long time. I think that as an artist, you quite often have to go somewhere else to develop your career, to learn more about what’s happening elsewhere, get more experience somewhere else, instead of just being stuck in the place where you were born.

So you’d want some new ideas about how other people would think about the same issues, or the possibilities of other practices. The moment when I left, well, there was a lot of administrative immigration stuff to take care of, and then COVID.

I wasn’t even able to make real friends, because during the lockdowns there were no occasions to see people in Paris. It was very tough, you could only go out for one hour within a one-kilometre radius. Now, I’m in a residency in Basel, until the end of July. You can start to meet friends and attend exhibition openings. I can finally try to do what I set out to do in Europe, so I want to stay here for a while first.

Lau Hiu Tung (LHT): I came to London for my MA in 2015, and I decided to stay after I graduated. I love paintings, and one of the main reasons I wanted to stay was to be closer to the paintings I love. There are more museums here, and as a painter, I get to see all these masterpieces in Europe and in the UK. Living here, I have the luxury of going to the Byzantine section at the National Museum, and just sit and see a painting on a casual day. I went back to Hong Kong at the beginning of the lockdown in London to stay with my family for a bit, and I thought I would stay for a month or two, but I ended up spending two years there. I thought I would not want to move back to Hong Kong, but in the past two years, I really enjoyed my time there and I felt like I reconnected with the city and the people. Now I am back in London, but who knows where I will be in a year or two.

Eunice Tsang (ET): For me, it’s been such a long process. I also have a partner that’s not in Hong Kong which makes things really difficult. I studied in London, at the Slade, as a painter. At that time, I always thought, “I’m just going to go back to Hong Kong for a while, finish my MA,  reconnect with my hometown...then I’ll go back to London to work because I love that lifestyle.” But when I came back, I just accidentally found work in great places, like Timeout and Tai Kwun. Meanwhile, Brexit and Boris Johnson happened. Suddenly, I felt like I didn’t want to go back anymore.

Incidentally, my career in Hong Kong began going smoothly at that time. I was starting to feel like it was very difficult to suddenly just uproot and leave. To be honest, I’m still trying to figure a sustainable way to live in between Hong Kong and Europe. I feel like everyone needs to step outside once in a while—it can be such a claustrophobic place—but emigration is a whole other story.

 

Image: Oscar Chan Yik Long in his Helsinki studio. Courtesy of the artist.
Image: Oscar Chan Yik Long in his Helsinki studio. Courtesy of the artist.

 

Stalking Hong Kong

KC: I’m curious, how does this distance or lack of a distance from Hong Kong—how does it change either your work or your curatorial practice? What do you think distance has done for your work?

OC: Recently I made a series of paintings based on Wong Kar Wai’s movies. I painted Takeshi Kaneshiro in one of them. I named it Stalker Days 1095, the number of days I had been out of Hong Kong, which means I have been stalking Hong Kong for almost three years. I’m a stalker in the sense that the only thing I can do to try to understand what’s happening in Hong Kong right now is to go through social media or the news or forums. This kind of distance is quite weird, because I’m attached to Hong Kong, and I also want to know about other people’s feelings and opinions. But in the end I’m just a stalker.

LHT: I felt like I was a stalker as well. Even though I was so far away, I was making work related to Hong Kong. I was watching livestreams on YouTube, trying to get a glimpse of what happened a few years ago. I wrote some short stories and did a series of oil paintings. When I was back in Hong Kong this time, I got to talk to people who had experienced what was happening there. When I think about it now, although the paintings are similar, the approach was quite different. In Hong Kong, I started to use acrylic and found material for my sculptures. It was also the most convenient option when I had no studio in Hong Kong. The distance definitely changed the work, if not only for the materials I used. The relationship with material and time changed. Hong Kong is faster and you are forced into adapting to all kinds of restrictions; everything here in London is slower, so it makes sense that I’m using oil paint again.

ET: Distance is also a very physical constraint with curating in Hong Kong. As someone running a space, you have to deal with a lot of production. Of course I would love to work with international artists, but with quarantine and shipping, there’s no way I can make that happen with my limited budget. But on the other hand, I’ve been working with local artists that haven’t been shown before. It’s interesting that both of you mentioned stalkers in terms of scrolling, digitally trying to keep up with everything, but also knowing that you cannot totally keep up with all the nuances—I was like that too, when I was doing my residency in Italy. When I’m elsewhere, I don’t want to come back. But when I’m back home, I don’t want to leave. It’s always a very conflicted feeling.

KC: Eunice and I just got back to Hong Kong around the same time and we were just saying, it was like being back in the city and immediately feeling kind of just overwhelmed by how it looks, but also, I forgot that the weather is like this. It was a very sensory overload sort of experience, being back.

LHT: Every time I land in Hong Kong, and you’re breathing into this air—it’s home. It’s complicated—and it’s not like going to any other cities.

ET: Sometimes I think of it almost like a toxic relationship where it’s like this terrible man that you love, but they don’t love you back.

LHT: Over the past two years in Hong Kong, I see people still trying very hard, doing whatever they can to save what’s left. This time I went back to Hong Kong, I felt so much love. I saw that there are people still loving this place, and I’m more attached to it. I hadn’t even considered moving back before, but after spending the last two years here, I have been thinking about moving back.

OC: I feel the physical distance every time I meet Hong Kong friends in Europe. Whenever you say goodbye, you really hesitate to say “see you soon,” because you feel like you don’t know when you can see them again. Things change so fast, and then COVID and the war and so on. I saw my friend [the artist] Angela Su in three different locations—in Helsinki, Venice, Basel. But I don’t know when I’ll see her again.

KC: Not knowing when you’re going to see them again—that’s related to the pandemic and borders. Hong Kong has one of the most restrictive border controls in terms of quarantine. But I have the same feeling as you even though I’m in Hong Kong, because so many of my friends have left. Over the past year, more than half of my best friends have left. I also constantly have the feeling that every time I see them, I don’t know if it’s the last time I’ll see them for a long time. It’s very emotional sometimes. Everyone’s scattered in different places now.

What is something that, when you’re not in Hong Kong, you’re not used to? Is there something that maybe impacts your practice, or affects your day-to-day experience?

OC: Living in Helsinki wasn’t really my own choice. My partner is in Helsinki, so I live there now. I had very serious panic attacks and anxiety last November and December, because of the darkness. There is less and less daylight, even if it’s only decreasing by a few minutes every day.

I never imagined I’d be worrying about darkness. You feel like you’re living in a dome of darkness, and even when there is sunlight, it is also cloudy. The cold lasts for a very long time, like five or six months. It rains and it snows, and when it goes up to minus one, it already feels warm.

My friends here in Europe and I, we’re always searching for different Asian restaurants. There is a really good Cantonese one in Helsinki. The chef makes wonton noodles and soup, soy sauce, chili sauce—everything by himself. It is really tasty, even better than many restaurants in Hong Kong.

After moving here, I find myself appreciating Cantonese as a language way more. I intentionally listen to more Cantonese songs, like Mirror, Leslie Cheung, or Hins Cheung. When I was learning French in Paris, I also started to appreciate more how Cantonese is constructed as a language—how to really use it, or how it’s composed. I forced my partner to listen to Cantonese songs all the time.

I also miss swearing in Cantonese. And whenever I speak English with my partner, I always add those “uhhs” and “ohs” to my sentences, which is so unnecessary, but because I’m homesick I add them anyway.

LHT: I think language makes me a different person. When I’m speaking in English, I’m so much more polite. Cantonese is so on point when it comes to swearing at someone. My partner and I argue in Cantonese. If you’re not arguing in your first language, you can’t reach that level of emotion.

OC: When the emotion comes, and you cannot express yourself well, it’s so annoying.

KC: I’m the opposite, because I have to argue in English.

OC: Maybe there’s more distance there? I use English to be passive-aggressive or bitchy. It’s just letting you know that I’m angry. For me Cantonese is also a language where I feel that if you go all the way [with the aggression], you can’t take it back.

KC: I spoke more Cantonese when I was travelling in London for a month, because almost every single person I met was from Hong Kong. So I spoke Cantonese all the time. In Hong Kong, at work, I speak English with [AAA Managing Editor] Paul; sometimes he is the only person I speak to all day. When I was away, it made me realise there are certain sounds I thought of as part of life, but are only part of Cantonese. There’s “huh” in English, but the specific Cantonese intonation of “har” is ours.

 

Image: Lau Ho Chi at the event <i>Fault Lines Closing Party</i> organised by SEEAHOLE, 11 November 2021. Courtesy of Eunice Tsang.
Image: Lau Ho Chi at the event Fault Lines Closing Party organised by SEEAHOLE, 11 November 2021. Courtesy of Eunice Tsang.

 

On transnational art-making & curation

KC: Oscar—you moved from Hong Kong to Paris in 2019 to be with your partner, and you were also based in Helsinki, but you had a solo show in Gallery EXIT in Hong Kong last year. How has moving abroad been for you, creatively? Did you come back for the show at all?

OC: I moved to Helsinki in November last year. I’m not going to spend three weeks’ quarantine money just to come back to Hong Kong. And I worked with the gallery before, so I know the space quite well. The gallery team helped me out, because in the end I didn’t go back to set up the show myself.

This might be a new way of working for artists—you probably just have to accept the fact that you won’t be able to be there to set up the show, or that you won’t be able to attend your own opening. I really appreciated how Gallery EXIT connected me and Hong Kong, so I could remain in communication with the audience there.

KC: Do you kind of see it as a temporary sort of experience abroad, or do you not see yourself wanting to come back in the near future?

OC: Moving to Paris was really helpful for my creativity and art practice. I appreciated the possibilities I had there as an artist and how open the art scene turned out to be. In Hong Kong, I would never just gather some friends and do drawings together. In France I did, and it wasn’t for any project. It was simply friends enjoying drawing together, and I found that very magical.

Before, in Hong Kong, it was always a bit challenging for me to make artworks or an exhibition. It became a little like handing in homework: I was chasing a deadline and needed to produce something. In Paris, I realised it doesn’t need to be that way, I could just enjoy the process.

Now, in Finland, I make artworks because I want to, and when I have an exhibition I can decide what to show and how. It has activated my creativity and made me more relaxed about exhibiting. That is a step forward for me, because art is my lifelong practice, and I don’t want to be stuck in an anxiety-ridden way of going about it.

I think I have seen enough in Hong Kong; I’d rather stay overseas now. I can really dress however I want in Berlin, and nobody bothers to judge me. They may even appreciate how I wear my earrings. Hong Kong is still rather conservative.

ET: The way of working in Hong Kong, and Europe—in Hong Kong everything is also hyper-capitalistic; everything is about production, about selling. Your whole identity as an artist and curator is based on production.

OC: It’s the same everywhere, to be honest. Because artists and galleries have to sell to feel “productive.” But I think in Hong Kong productivity is seen quite differently. In France, for instance, I felt that productivity is not about making an object exist in a gallery, but more about how it helps others read you. It’s about how the object communicates with the audience.

KC: The contemporary art world is one that favours open borders and artists/art workers who can afford high degrees of mobility—from attending international biennales and residencies to the cliché of artists working “in between X and Y city.” The presumption is that people will be able to move very easily in and out of a place, or even move to a new place easily, but that has to do with visa restrictions and class. But in Hong Kong, with the pandemic’s closing of borders, and also Hong Kong being potentially closed-off politically to some people who can’t return—that changes this mobility. A related question is, do you think transnationalism is now a precursor to joining the mainstream art world?

OC: During COVID, people kept saying we have to rethink our carbon footprint and stop flying too much. But this month [July 2022] was completely crazy. The airports were so packed, everyone was flying everywhere. I was at the Venice Biennale, then Art Basel, then documenta. People just want to go back to the old ways. Maybe we’ve been too geographically isolated for too long, and people really just want to be somewhere else.

ET: With the pandemic, more artist-run spaces have popped up in Hong Kong, gradually creating the diversity that I have been looking forward to. It’s partly because everyone is looking inward and spending more effort discovering local creatives. I think it has to do with media support as well, because it is through reportage that these budgetless spaces are seen and supported. But I don’t think this situation can last much longer. Back to the previous issue of entry restrictions and shipping costs, a small space just can’t afford quarantine hotels for international artists. I’m happy to host them at my home but I can’t book seven days of quarantine. I am actually quite worried about this, because a lack of physical connection would invariably make the scene less stimulating. When we were doing the art book fair in Tai Kwun, we couldn’t bring in international people, and the vibe and energy was so different.

KC: Hiu Tung, you have a studio right now in The Chocolate Factory N16 in Dalston, London, and when I visited you it felt like a tiny artists’ village. I’m curious how you see your own position in relation to the local art scene, do you feel like a part of the London art community?

LHT: I do, but in London there are a lot of artists, and it’s quite competitive. I’m also very aware that I am an Asian female artist living in London. And because I went to an art school here, I very much feel like I am part of the London art community. It’s just that it’s a very big community, and you can easily get lost in it...in comparison, the community is smaller in Hong Kong.

 

Image: Lau Hiu Tung at The Chocolate Factory N16. Photo: Eunice Tsang.
Image: Lau Hiu Tung at The Chocolate Factory N16. Photo: Eunice Tsang.

 

OC: My friends always say that in Hong Kong, if you attend ten openings, you’ll probably meet all the people you need to know.

Helsinki is actually quite small. Many artists don’t go to see exhibitions. They have a system where they get funding from the government or wealthy private foundations, and then for the next eight months those artists will just be in their studio and never go out. I just did a small open studio in Helsinki in April, because I had changed my own artistic practice a bit and wanted to hear people’s opinions or comments.

When I did this all my friends in Helsinki said, oh my god, nobody does that in Helsinki. They were shocked but in a positive way, because people are so worried about inviting people to their own studio, to let them know their practice or process. So it’s really hard to have fruitful conversations in Helsinki with other artists.

In Finland in general, they tend to avoid this kind of discussion because it feels personal, as if a comment on the artwork is a comment on them.

ET: I was remotely working on Chris Shen’s solo show at Current Plans while I was in Italy. Ultimately it fell on him to do 90% of the work. As a curator of my own space, there’s so much physical labour involved, I think I have to be present for every show...I’m not sure I would do it remotely again.

 

On curating “Hong Kong” shows

KC: Many from Hong Kong moved very recently in the past one or two years. The media always talks about how there’s a mass exodus to the UK and to Canada and so on. I’m just curious, what changes do you think that might bring to the category of Hong Kong artists and Hong Kong “diaspora” artists? Do you see yourself as a Hong Kong artist, or do you kind of see yourself as a Hong Kong diasporic artist? Are you currently part of a community of people who are also from Hong Kong and recently left?

OC: I live in Helsinki, so just statistically, there are not that many Hong Kong artists, and it’s hard to find them. I’m obviously not white so everybody asks me, “Oh, where are you from?” I will automatically say, I’m a Hong Konger but now live in Helsinki. I will definitely introduce myself as a Hong Kong artist, even if being out of Hong Kong makes more sense for my own mental state now.

LHT: Yeah, born and raised in Hong Kong, and I always identify as a Hong Kong artist. I didn’t really study art in Hong Kong, I did my BA in New York, and my MA in London. I lived and worked in Hong Kong as an art technician and art teacher in between my BA and MA. I didn’t really show much of my work while I was there. In the past two years, I met more people in the arts. And when I came back to London in March 2022, I can hear many more people speaking in Cantonese on the street.

OC: I think there’s a circle of Hong Kong artists in London.

ET: Yeah. A lot of them were also older, like with families or kids.

KC: Over the past two or three years, because of all the changes happening in the city, does the label of being a Hong Kong artist also become heavier? Do you feel pressure to play up the “Hong Kong” part of your work or biography or artist statement by curators or organisers? What are some expectations they may have in this regard? Or, as a Hong Kong curator, what’s expected of you?

LHT: Recently, there have been shows curated under the title of Hong Kong artists, and they are very politically charged, though I haven’t been yet. Definitely, when people hear you are from Hong Kong, they ask you what happened over these past few years.

I curated a show when I was in Hong Kong with my friend, Tiffany [Leung from a’fair]. We went to school together, and she’s a curator. What Oscar is talking about is very valid—not enough people in the art world know how to talk about Hong Kong. We’re hoping to bring the show outside Hong Kong, to bring a’fair here, and write proposals for gallery shows. But we aren’t necessarily positioning it as a “Hong Kong” show—we would just want to include Hong Kong artists in conversation with artists from other countries.

ET: People are always asking, oh, how is Hong Kong? When I was in Italy, we had to create a show with two other international curators, and I was trying to steer the direction towards some kind of political social movement, but in a very international or universal sense. What happened definitely made me feel much more connected to the city. I’m more aware of how to frame things like my curatorial work and research, and also in a way that’s not campaign-centric or propagandistic.

But then, I have conversations with some artists in China, they will also say, what about artists whose work has never been political at all? Do they feel left out? Or, do people feel that they are superficial and not valued? Which I think is a very legitimate question.

I don’t know how it would be if I operated outside of Hong Kong, which is also partly why I am so unsure about the question of moving, because I wonder how, with the discourse that I’m interested in—will it fit in a whole other city with another historical context? Or, if I talk about Hong Kong, will I become that spokesperson or propaganda person, always going on about the same thing? Workwise, it is something I’ve been thinking about a lot and I feel like I have to tread carefully to figure out how to do this.

 

Image: Eunice Tsang.
Image: Eunice Tsang.

 

OC: My personal practice has never really been political-issue-oriented anyway. Sometimes I find that curators want to find those kind of artists because everything is so politically-driven. I believe my work does respond to what’s happening now, in a subtle or non-direct way. And I prefer this.

Hong Kong artists are able to talk about the local situation, but they need somebody to put on exhibitions outside. Curators from abroad can’t suddenly just jump in and talk about it. They don’t really have that kind of knowledge, they don’t know what’s happening exactly. They often just use their own imagination. But as a Hong Konger you would have first-hand experience or knowledge.

I talked to some curators who are not from Hong Kong. Sometimes they also want to do something with Hong Kong artists, but they aren’t sure how to position themselves. Maybe they’ve visited Hong Kong for a few weeks, or even stayed there for a few years, but they’re not from there. It is not easy for them to talk about Hong Kong, because they risk misleading the audience.

KC: Are there conversations that you have with either other Hong Kong artists overseas, or in Hong Kong, that give you a different perspective on the place, or cause tension or conflicts? Sometimes I’d have conversations with friends who are in London or maybe overseas, and they tend to see Hong Kong more as, the city is dead. So they very explicitly think about everything as a memory already. It’s not part of their future, and it’s not part of their present. And even that notion, it causes tension between me and my friends.

ET: I think I will try to have more conversations with some of the people who have been dealing with these topics. Like, have a conversation about how to have that conversation. People in my circle have been dealing with things in kind of a similar way, and they tend to be empathetic. There haven’t been many arguments, more like a discussion or exploration, and there’s no right or wrong way to see Hong Kong, obviously. But it’s a conversation worth having.

 

Oscar Chan Yik Long is an artist living and working in Helsinki. He graduated from the Academy of Visual Arts of Hong Kong Baptist University in 2011. His practice explores the conditions of life, how individuals associate themselves with others, and fear, mythologies, and popular visual culture. He works with media such as painting and drawing, frequently as part of site-specific installations. His solo exhibitions include Don’t Leave the Dark Alone (Gallery EXIT, Hong Kong, 2021), Soliquid (Things That Can Happen, Hong Kong, 2017) and The Devil, Probably (Observation Society, Guangzhou, 2015).

Lau Hiu Tung is an artist living and working in London and Hong Kong. She received her MA in painting from The Royal College of Art, London, and a BFA in painting from The School of Visual Arts, New York. She has shown works in the UK, Ukraine, China, and Denmark. Her recent solo exhibitions include I am in training, don’t kiss me, (Flowers Gallery, Hong Kong, 2022), A cow’s head and a horse’s jaw (Karin Weber Gallery, Hong Kong, 2021) and Don’t forget to look at the moon (Alice Folker Gallery, Denmark, 2020).

Eunice Tsang runs Current Plans, an off-space in Sham Shui Po. Current Plans is dedicated to the development of contemporary art projects and aims to support creative experiments that cross disciplines, stimulate knowledge exchange, and encourage playful connections that push boundaries. She also publishes artist books under her small press Sulla Fuffa.

 

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Topic
Conversations
Date
Fri, 23 Sep 2022

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