Oscar Ho reflects on the challenges of curating exhibitions that speak to the distinctiveness and vibrancy of Hong Kong culture.
Part Four of a series of notes by Oscar Ho, written for an AAA public programme on Facebook that coincided with the launch of his archive. The bilingual posts and Facebook interactions are available here on IDEAS Journal: Parts One, Two, and Three.
First, I must clarify that “Good Art” does not necessarily mean “Beautiful Art.” Only pretentious and obtuse people would say: “It’s not art if it’s not beautiful.” In Cantonese, when we say something is or looks good, it’s not always “beautiful,” it could also be “exciting,” “scary,” “emotional,” “engaging,” etc. Those sensations could be prompted by the aesthetics of the arts, the artist’s sophisticated technique, through the evocation of an experience, or even through an association with collective/historical memory—these are all what makes art captivating.
A number of people have asked me what art I would consider to be good. My answer is, “This question doesn’t mean much to me, there are different standards and tastes of what is good and bad in regards to each era and culture. As long as I’m interested, that is meaningful art.”
This idea of “meaningful” art or “to have a meaning” indicates how a piece of work brings significance to you personally, and how it extends to your community, culture, and history. The creator’s technique, way of expression, as well as touch of sensitivity are important since these are effective tools of expression, but for both the creator and the viewer, there is so much more that is needed. To look at art from the perspective of “having a meaning,” one could refrain from relying solely on the author and their creation. Instead, we would find ourselves beginning to notice the environment in which the work and the viewer is placed, the atmosphere of the period, and the interaction between different cultural elements. Of course, the viewer’s own personal background and way of thinking can also influence such established “meanings,” but at least it would not merely start and end with the creator.
In other words, artistic appreciation should require not only admiring the creator’s individualism and that of the work, but deeper and broader reflection on the age, situation, culture, and even the viewer’s own perception. Some works have a stronger sense of the creator’s individuality, others are more political or community-focused. If we use such an extended and layered method to curate each exhibition, it would be extremely exhausting. Yet there are also certain simpler and focused ways to express such issues and epochs via small details.
Last time, we discussed how expanding the definition of art became a goal of mine after I was appointed the Exhibition Director at the HKAC. On one hand, in terms of the breadth of arts, it would be to place neglected mediums such as contemporary art, photography, architecture, and installation back into the mainstream. In terms of its depth, on the other hand, it would be to recognise and acknowledge popular culture such as comics, community art, and even works by people who “don’t know how to paint” as methods to encourage an alternative way of thinking and seeing. These types of exhibitions often touch upon a wider socio-historical background, and a curator’s breadth of knowledge is undeniably limited. If the exhibition were about a certain person or a specific group or movement such as Impressionism, then it would be easy.
However, to curate an exhibition about a period in time—I had my work cut out for me. To discuss the culture and art of a whole era doesn’t just include the visual arts, it also touches upon literature, pop culture, politics, historical background…even if I simplify the unavoidable, packaging everything into something that was convincing and rational was a Sisyphean task. In my career as a curator, there was only one time when I had the ambition to create such an exhibition; that was the 1994 show held at the Hong Kong Arts Centre, Hong Kong Sixties: Designing Identity.
As I mentioned before, the nineties were a time when Hong Kong was searching for its own identity, and the topic persisted through the whole decade. My friend Matthew Turner, a professor at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, thought that the sixties was the period when Hong Kong culture began to take form. After several discussions, I realised that we were like-minded, so I grew audacious and invited him to collaborate to create a “big bang” which subsequently became an exhibition about Hong Kong culture in the 1960s. The culture then was rather complicated; there was the inflow of western pop culture while local youth culture started to trend; Hong Kongers born and raised in the fifties were growing up at the same time as manufacturing industries in the city were beginning to change the shape of the economy. There was also the 1967 riots, which exposed the conflicts and contradictions within society and the aftermath of the government’s implementation of cultural policies, etc. It was a vibrant and vivid community, yet still a viciously complicated topic to deal with.
The two of us could not rely just on ourselves for this sort of convoluted and multilayered exhibition, of course. Luckily, there are many generous supporters within the cultural sector, such as Lu Kam, Yasi, and Yang Wei Pang. But most importantly, there were the colleagues who worked their fingers to the bone—many of the exhibited items came from their parents’ homes—alongside so many more people who had helped with the exhibition tirelessly. Topics in the exhibition included films, fashion, design, comics, toys, as well as trending fads such as bowling, working out, television culture, etc. The exhibition also showcased the confrontation between colonial culture and the 1967 riots, and the consequential mollification . I didn’t want this to be one of those “we show cute things and everyone has a laugh” kind of exhibition. I hoped that through a variety of different exhibited items, we could trace the cultural phenomena, trends, and the social, cultural, and political background of that era (those who are interested can read the exhibition catalogue at AAA), and encourage the audience to contemplate upon the current Hong Kong.
On opening night, we invited celebrities from the sixties such as Josephine Siao, Lily Leung, the first person to introduce Western beauty techniques on television, as well as Joe Junior, who performed local Western pop tunes that were growing popular in the 1960s. We also invited Lee Yin Ping, who was known for being the singer of the song “Handsome Man.” It was a blast and everyone had fun.
Hong Kong’s culture is so distinct and vibrant. If we were to only use a narrow and traditional way to think and see the city’s culture and art, of course we would be quick to say that it is a “cultural desert.” Only in Hong Kong is the visual culture so beautiful and diverse, there aren’t many places in the world that can compare. It is also because of this that M+ has fine-tuned its collecting focus to visual culture at large—when they announced this vision at the time, it had attracted the attention of the international museums sector. With the forthcoming opening of M+, let’s see how they will showcase Hong Kong’s one-of-a-kind visual culture.
[Screenshots of Oscar's post and interactions on Facebook]
Oscar Ho Hing Kay (b. 1956) is an artist, curator, art critic, and educator. He has held various prominent positions in established arts organisations and higher education institutions in Hong Kong and China since his return from the US in 1984. He has recently retired from his position as the Programme Director of the MA programme in Cultural Management at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He was appointed the Exhibition Director at the Hong Kong Arts Centre, the Senior Research Officer at the Home Affairs Bureau of the Hong Kong Government, Founding Director of Museum of Contemporary Art in Shanghai, and a member of the Museum Advisory Group for the West Kowloon Cultural District, just to name a few. His curatorial practice and writings advocate for an understanding of art in the broader context of visual culture, as well as art’s accessibility to the public, highlighting its role in the construction of Hong Kong’s cultural identities.