Pamela Kember highlights four books on a group of transnational artists originally from Hong Kong.
The good of a book lies in it being read. A book is made up of signs that speak of other signs, which in their turn speak of things.
—Umberto Eco, 1980
To begin this encounter with the "space of flows," I have chosen a quote from one of Eco's character's in his compelling, if rather complex, series of plots waiting to be unravelled inside The Name of the Rose, for his words perfectly describe the library as a place where many of the books and printed material that line its shelves often allude to other books, or where title’s may play upon other works.
"Space of flows" also articulates for me the state of existence of a number of artists originally from Hong Kong who now manage a transnational existence, living and working elsewhere, whilst returning infrequently, but maintaining a connection through either familial ties or calls for exhibitions, projects, and talks in the city that relate to their ideas or practices. I am also interested in Esther M. K Cheung’s comments on the city’s "crucial role" in the contribution to the wider Chinese Diaspora, as seen through her impression of Hong Kong as "a space of flows," one that acts as a model study for the wider global issues of China’s migratory communities, internationally.
In choosing just four works in the Archive’s collection, by a small but significant group of diasporic individuals, all of whom I have come to know over time—John Young (AUS), Paul Chan (USA), Suki Chan (UK), and Simon Leung (USA)—the focus is on specific self-expressions of their ideas through various visual mediums, and to hint at their innumerable relationships to one another's works, even though they have rarely, if ever, met.
For me, what is also symptomatic of all four artists’ works is that what they often practice is, in essence, nomadic. They all continue to be selected or proposed for international shows, and constantly travel to various global art exhibitions. If necessary, their work may change scale accordingly, or can be reconfigured in more than one place, wherever that place happens to be, and wherever they may reside.
Let me explain what I term "spaces between" as such displacement and flows that I have encountered recently, and through the first of my choice of works from the Archive, which is the video work, Interval, by Suki Chan. From the mid 1990’s, the artist has been working with moving images and sound to address critical interpretations of migratory trans-nationalism through her startlingly evocative series of films. To think of migration as "swarming," as a movement of people in continual flux and motion, is for Suki Chan to think of a return, of sorts; a re-connection to the place of her Hakka ancestors after her family left Hong Kong for Britain and, before then, moving from Fujian province where they had settled in the incredible high-walled earth-built, roundhouse formations, having been forced from their former homelands in the northern parts of China.
The artist’s poignant investigation into the historical and existing tensions between diasporic (trans-national) communities and local community spirit emerges through the myriad of moving images and "voices" she captures through film. Navigating the border-lines, contours and crevices of interiors, inner courtyards and multi-levelled, wooden platformed rooms of these remarkable structures, the notion of "home" and belonging makes direct references to the cultural and spatial politics of dwellers and their cultural dwellings in regards to home-land, belonging and nationhood. Interval also explores new variations on how we occupy space and the different temporalities that Suki Chan's moving images evoke. It also blurs our awareness of time and distance between past and present; between "now" and "here" and "nowhere," as the comforts of "home" have been replaced by the shifting nature of being in space and time; familiarity with objects—a fragment of lace, a curtain, a light bulb—are thrown into discord.
There are many ways to connect the various threads at work also between Suki Chan’s concepts: the interest in floating images and shadows—more specifically with Paul Chan’s ability to capture light, cast through windows—in contrast to Suki Chan’s shadows of the real. His shadows are formed through creating projections and animations, of objects and figures, both imagined realities of a world in constant flux, to apprehend objects as traces of the real world. We might compare this to the world of the prisoner’s entrapped in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, in which the sound and reflections of the everyday world is all these figures actually imagine as the real, because of being tethered to only being able to face the back of the cave, they only ever see shadows, rather than mirrored images of people and things as they pass the lit passageway behind, and cast reflections as silhouettes off the back of the cave.
This brings me to my second choice—Paul Chan’s lively, humorous, and poignantly illustrated monograph, provocatively entitled The Shadow and Her Wanda. The artist tells the anecdotal tale of a little girl and her shadow, narrative and images also by Chan, with his added comment on the cover, “(strictly for children).” He plays on a whole host of characters and multivalent referencing to literature and art, from Goethe to Goya, from Adorno and Hegel to Michaux. It is, however, from Nietzsche that Paul Chan makes explicit reference to in his title, taking it from the philosopher's text The Wander and his Shadow. It's not that I've discovered this association through some deep thinking to past references, as Chan himself notes these connections and philosophical insights, dream fantasies, and alternating shadows, through witty comments made at the back of the book. The Shadow and Her Wanda is an enjoyable and informative encounter with other people's ideas, which have in turn influenced Chan’s own.
The book also reveals to me an insight into Paul Chan's own on-going world and his interest in projections onto the world, through his ongoing series The 7
Lights —of light and of light "struck out" as shadows, for here we may agree with Nietzsche’s idea that "thoughts are the shadows of our feelings—always darker, emptier and simpler."
For Paul Chan, his projected windows and animations of shadows of real objects, become paintings onto the world. Marcel Duchamp appropriated dust and shadows and offered what he termed “new thoughts” onto old, common-or garden uses, provocative, enigmatic reflections of his ready-mades, so that traces of his bicycle wheels, or a cork screw, could be captured by photographing them on the wall. Duchamp referred to these pieces as “cast shadows”, fragmented images of the real world, projected as new assemblages.
Good art, just like amazing shadows, can alter the way we see the world, and transform everyday objects into something extraordinary, whilst maintaining a sense of the familiar. Paul Chan’s, evocative, often powerfully emotive projects, afford us endless possibilities, if we are willing to not only look at something, but “to feel it too.”
In my third taking down "off the shelf," it is towards these hidden narratives that I move onto a volume showing some of the polychromatic works of John Young, visible inside his enigmatically entitled works Pine's Edge.
Here we have a similar play on shifting paradigms, between diasporic imaginings, silhouettes, and polychromes, creating a myriad of visual and literary quotations. We find a series of "voices" presented as multi ink toned paragraphs—passages from other writings, with another set of A4-sized pages, neatly tucked into the spine of the larger formatted photographic images of Young’s work. The texts appear in blocks of colour tones from blue to pinkish hues, and the first sentence of the first paragraph sets the tone for the remainder of the passages we read: "Allow the mind to wander, catch the surface of the wall, fall into memory cracks…"
Initially I thought they offered found fragments of other writers’ thoughts, or the artists own experiences in words. They are, however, attributed to writer and novelist Brian Castro’s work Voilées, (Flights and Swarms), and A Canvas for John Young. It is this encounter between the surface of John Young's own paintings and the author’s words that play between images and texts, texts and images. It is as if these wandering impressions link to what Castro receives from looking at the dark and hidden recesses of Young's series of painted layered images, of cropped nudes, natural forms, juxtaposed on a backdrop of digitalized swirling fractal shapes in virtual space. With their evocative titles by Young, including Cavemilk, Cosmos and Pine’s Edge, Castro’s reading of the artist’s works forms a multiplicity of ‘voices’ in response to John Young’s paradoxical world.
I am also drawn to the play on words, concepts and past narratives, both visual and theoretical, that emerge and recur in John Young's works. His background in philosophy often draws us to the concepts and ideas he has gained from his interests, particularly in Wittgenstein's ‘seeing-as’ where the image can been seen in different ways. Pine's Edge may also be referencing the landscape/figurative work of Caspar David Friedrich, and the Northern Romantic motif of the singular pine-tree as a metaphor for the human figure, pitted against the great forces of nature. Whatever the link or connection made by the viewer, John Young keeps us guessing, not only at what is on the surface of his enigmatic works, but also at what lies beneath, between his recurring motifs and their meaning, but always slightly beyond our grasp.
The squatting figure, as a recurring motif in Simon Leung’s public art and installation projects, re-emerges in the final of my four choices of material from the archive. Taken from the Third Guangzhou Triennial: Farewell to Post-Colonialism (catalogue & video installation), Simon Leung’s participation formed part of the Free Radicals section of show, a group of fifty-four artists engaging with issues of identity politics within post-colonialism through contemporary practice.
In Squatting Project/Guangzhou (2008), the artist focuses on issues of subjectivity and the body as a site of resistance. His approach is often to re-present, or bring about "new interpretations" of what he sees as "master narratives"—epic moments in cinema history, or grandiose operatic gestures. Whilst the viewer may recognise references, both direct and oblique, to other films or dramas, the artist considers his approach to be one of "translation, between past and present, the local and beyond, the post colonial and its theoretical negation." This was how Leung introduced his compelling re-presentation of Stanley Kwan's 1992 movie, Centre Stage, which, for the Third Guangzhou Triennial was shown by the artist as a multi-visual enclosed installation—two-channel video as nine double projections, each of the same length, each a repetition of specific moments in time selected from the original version of the film, and which link to the film at the moment the two main protagonists, actor Tony Leung Ka-Fai, as a film director squatting outside the Lianhia Studio’s in Shanghai, and the silent screen actress Ruan Ling-yu, played by Maggie Cheung, meet and squat together. In the dialogue that follows they both reflect upon the way crouching has multiple connotations, associated with a people waiting, and the individual resting. In Leung’s own statement for the project, he sees this act as:
A metaphor for power-relations under globalization of capital; as a form of Chinese historical self-reflection; as solidarity in a struggle; as shame of the lower classes and its trans-valuation leading to new possibilities; as the negotiations between economic tides, in particular the rise in today’s China and metaphors for the gap between those who availed themselves of the “opening” of the Chinese economy, those who are left out, etc.
The piece also deals with his own linguistic usage and plays on local Guangzhou (Cantonese) dialect and global Western (English) art market economies, relating to such projects as international triennials and the implications/issues they present for local and international audiences.
Simon Leung's on-going and compelling video works re-connect to the notion of cultural and political nationalism and the "residual spaces," inhabited by outsiders or ethnic groups. The squatting projects are also to do with what he terms "improper occupations" and the myriad of demoralising social struggles, and inequalities faced by refugees, guest workers, or migrant labourers, for whom the process of adapting to or belonging within a host country is often fraught with trauma and humiliation.
We can momentarily share the silent voices of displaced individuals worldwide, the sense of separation and longing for home and, at the same time, for Leung, resistance through the performative act of squatting, in specific spaces, and places, to highlight political or social restrictions on the use and occupation of space. Through the use of multiple images of the singular male squatting figure (that the artist had printed and posted onto buildings, at bus-stops and other public thoroughfares), throughout various European cities, we can engage in this “act of resistance to colonial powers." The artist also comments upon the notion of "Asian Bodies" to evoke and awaken the conflicts and discourse in the West over memories and residual spaces of the Vietnam War, and of the refugee experiences of Vietnamese boat-people in Hong Kong’s "closed camps" during the 1970s and 1980s.
The effect for Leung of the "habitual position" of the squatter and why they squat had, though, its seeds sewn years earlier, from an encounter at a bus stop between him and his younger brother, which remained with him long after the bus journey from the stop in San Jose, California. Here, they encountered people (who it emerged were Vietnamese migrants) resting on their heels whilst waiting for their ride.
Such personal journeys and insights, as Simon Leung experiences, are ones that, at certain moments, like Paul Chan’s projections, allow us to see window’s onto other peoples worlds and have, at times, led to great changes or significant alterations in our thoughts, and in the art we produce.
It is what initially drew me to this discourse on the notion of flows, as it relates to Hong Kong artists of the Diaspora, and now closes with returning to the implications of the increasing "burden of interconnectedness" that network societies have made between individuals. It is also to contemplate the importance of striving towards a re-connectedness between communities, many of whom have experienced separation, loss, fragmentation, or abandonment during times of political or social unrest.
For the sociologist, Manuel Castells, "the self," and in turn our sense of social identity, are opposing forces to information networks, or what he terms the "Net." For it is here we also encounter what he coined the "space of flows" in regard to global information networks in regulating economies.
As I reflect upon Suki Chan’s setting of the Hakka dwellings in Fujian for Interval, and the myriad of notions of "belonging" for Paul Chan, Simon Leung, and John Young, all now working in different spaces and cities around the world, Castell’s words appear an equally fitting moment to pause and reflect upon local and global flows and the interconnectedness of our world to one another.
[I]t is the part of each which is connected to an analogous part in each of the others. The global city is a distributed phenomenon. There is only one global city, and it floats on top of the others like lace.
Pamela Kember is an independent curator and art historian. She is currently based in London and is a PhD Candidate at the University of the Arts London, writing on transnational identity and Hong Kong artists of the Diaspora. She was a former lecturer in Art History & Theory and Art Writing at The Academy of Visual Arts, Baptist University, Hong Kong. She has contributed to a host of publications and catalogues, on contemporary art including, Asian Art News, World Sculpture News, and Art Asia Pacific, and continues to write on artists from Asia and Europe.
- Collection Spotlight
- Mon, 1 Mar 2010