Oscar Ho, a senior curator in Hong Kong (with his recent exhibition, Home, almost a model exemplar of a gallery-size thematic photo exhibition, timely planned, delicately prepared and finely executed), has recently initiated three professional certificate courses in the Art School at the Arts Centre. One is on arts management, the other two on arts criticism and curatorship respectively. They address three very critical areas that until now have been poorly developed, and are crucial for the future development of Hong Kong’s art scene. Apart from the course on arts management, what is meant by "professional" in the practice of criticism and curatorship in the local context is still highly dubious and obscure. Until now the prime focus of Hong Kong’s art scene has mostly been to give support to artists' activities (and their survival). We, however, find ourselves in a bottle-neck position when trying to attain a more mature ecology (via professio nalisation, namely specialisation).
In the face of the lack of professional support, artists in Hong Kong have all the while counted on themselves, managing what they can manage, playing different roles and constantly changing hats. Artist initiatives have thus long been the beauty, as well as, the limiting factor of the local art scene. One of the most memorable local solo exhibitions I have seen was held by a younger generation artist nicknamed Kong-kee. The show interestingly belonged to a mockery series entitled Gifted Artist Self-Development Programme. A recent show, however, by some of the same generation of artists, who share a studio with Kong-kee at Fo Tan industrial estate, and received Arts Development Council funding to rent the (not cheap) gallery at the Art Centre, revealed how crude and unsophisticated their artist-centric practices can sometimes be.
Some might argue, as in the recent exhibition forum accompanying the Fine Arts Department's Cheng Ming in All Directions exhibition, celebrating the 40th anniversary of Chinese University, that for a long time the training of art students has mostly been skill oriented. Perceptions of career options have thus been limited to either artist or art-teacher. The reality that Chinese University Fine Arts graduates can be found in multiple positions throughout the art scene might not be a counter argument at all as it suggests that the level of professional training required in these other areas is very low. (Perhaps then, in this light, the Hong Kong University Fine Arts Faculty, which focuses on art history rather than studio art, should shoulder even more of the blame for being unable to provide the scene with more writers, critics, or theorists over the years?)
For years, Kith Tsang, the former Chairman of Para/Site Art Space, has upheld a holistic philosophy, to justify the Para/Site integration of the artist, curator and art administrator in response to the local situation. This undoubtedly stems from a kind of streetwise survival mentality. This said, however, some of the more memorable exhibitions held in the artist-run space, have owed their success to the curatorial approach. Does this illustrate the potential of the local curator, or perhaps signify the success of the local “artist as curator” model? In the catalogue for the OCEM exhibition (of which I was co-curator), I have already highlighted the crossroad of professionalism and artists-run space identity Para/Site is now facing. I have tackled this in another article for PS Venice Biennial edition, so will use this space to move on to the situation of local art criticism.
Recently, Oscar Ho resumed contributing articles to the local Chinese newspaper, something he stopped doing after quitting the post of exhibition director at the Art Centre to take up a job in a government cultural policy committee. Yet after digging into Oscar Ho's file at the Asia Art Archive (AAA), one has the inevitable impression that despite our belief that things in the art scene are moving, there is nothing really new to comment on. Take the recent heated debate on the West Kowloon Cultural District as an example, Oscar Ho's view on public arts policy, museum architecture design and management structure, could actually be traced back to his articles as early as 1985. If it is not art criticism that has come to a stalemate, then maybe it is the amnesia of the reader, or the blind eyes and closed ears of the government that it is criticising.
In an article this year, after repeating his views and examples of the fast-food, guerilla tactics of Hong Kong artists' installations from an article in 1994, Ho did, however, remark on the need for further investigation into the effect of the post 1997 crash of the real estate market and blooming of studios at industrial estates. This commentary on the development of art amidst Hong Kong’s economic downturn, somehow brings us full circle back to the prime force behind the local art scene development; that of the artists' initiative.
The last point I would briefly like to mention here may also be credited as an achievement of the artists' initiative. As heard from different mouths, it seems that we are finally entering into a phrase that is surpassing the "East meet West" paradigm in artistic creation. While we now believe that the "East meets West" mentality is part of the grand narrative that needs to be deconstructed, readdressed in some (post-)Orientalism discourses or even artworks, this East-West dilemma, still awaits deeper theoretical examination.
To be honest, I do not always think under an Asian frame of mind. I either see things closely tied to Hong Kong’s unique local situation, or prefer to examine things in the universality of modernity (which some may say is Euro-centric). So when the AAA approached me to write this column, I was not sure what to write for this particular readership. In my understanding, Hong Kong contemporary art is in many ways a glocal extreme. To borrow the tubes in the installation by the Para/Site Collective for the 50th Venice Biennale as a metaphor, they are a short cut connecting the local context and the international scene. However, such tunnel vision does not provide much other entrance and exit options for diversified experiences and references, such as strategic positioning and positive comparison with our regional neighbours, or Chinese counterparts etc., like curator Chang Tsong-zung took into account in the 49th exhibition.
Replacing the “East meets West” jargon, glocal, despite its dialectical formulation, still may lead to a lack of indepth examination. Ho’s text for the Jakarta CP Biennial, reiterates a number of ideas already expounded at the Asia Pacific Triennial in 1995. Is there still no change in his taste in artwork that combines a Western (or to be politically correct, "international") art language with images or signs of local origin addressing local issues? The overwhelming red walls found at the Mapping Asia exhibition at the Heritage Museum revealed another even more stereotyped view of Asian Art as something passionate and exotically bright in colour. This type of exhibition unfortunately brings out only the worse in Hong Kong art.
Worth mentioning, is the similar message found in the talks, “A Contextual Approach to Art Space in Hong Kong” by Gary Chang and “Hong Kong as Method” by Chan Koon-chung, during the recent Soul of the City - International Symposium on Art and Public Space. Instead of highlighting pollution of the harbour front, or proposing new museums and theatres, what we lack most, it seems, is an appreciation of what already exists and the intermediate level in explicating the specialties of the local. In the meanwhile, skeptical eyes must constantly be applied to all of the constructed identities with implicit hierarchy. Not only will the "Asia World City" image that the Hong Kong government is hard-selling bring Hong Kong's image closer to a generic city, but even more detrimental is the government’s allowance of "one country" overriding "two systems" in cultural, social and political aspects, which threaten t o turn Hong Kong into nothing more than a Chinese city.
- Thu, 1 Apr 2004