Hou Lam Tsui reflects on her obsession with City Pop and Shōwa aesthetics, and their significance for her art practice.
People talk about love in the extremes—it’s either too beautiful to be true, or too hideous to bear.
We have been taught that love is too precious to be bought; even as the idea of romantic love is sold as a commodity—we desire it, own it, and ultimately consume it. The way we perceive intimacy and dating have evolved, the corny saying that “love is destined” isn’t very convincing these days, but deep down we still think there’s something about love we fail to explain or comprehend thoroughly. We sometimes label it as fate, meaning it can’t be controlled, like it’s an accident, happy or not.
When I was working on my solo exhibition Blind Curve at RNH Space earlier this year, I was thinking about City Pop, thriving again thanks to YouTube recommendation algorithms. A calculated destiny. Like love perhaps. The exhibition explores commodified love, emotions, and bodies amidst a capitalist society, examining the perversion of reality in contemporary romantic relationships as well as quotidian activities.
I often had trouble explaining my obsession with City Pop and Shōwa aesthetics, and how they have erupted in my art practice. There has to be some kind of legitimate answer as to why I wanted to talk about another culture that belongs neither to my generation nor my city. I have been thinking about this question more than I should, imagining how I might answer with as many attempts as I wish, in order to arrive at an insight that makes more sense.
Let me try again now. Japanese mass culture has influenced Hong Kong extensively, starting in the 1970s, in realms of entertainment, music, fashion, and even branches of Japanese department stores. In fact, countless then-popular Cantonese songs were adaptations of Japanese ones. From time to time, I’d discover numerous Anita Mui songs that were originally by Mariya Takeuchi, including her most famous hit “Plastic Love” (adapted as 尋愛). Japanese popular culture has shaped the perception of love and dating not only within its own country, but also of the Hong Kong public, grounding the vocabulary of expressing emotions through entertainment and beyond. The Shōwa aesthetic feels familiar to us because of its close proximity to Hong Kong’s own culture.
Hong Kong. Japan. A mirrored image of two places on the brink of boom and bust. But still, the 80s and 90s were glossy times for some; we often take them as reference points in spells of fantasy about how the past was always better. The hopeless infatuation of the 80s have been repackaged into romantic stories from the “good old days.” Perhaps, the past offers hope while the present and the future cannot.
Back to the exhibition. This exhibition, from my perspective, is less about capturing the Shōwa-City Pop aesthetic, and more about creating an anachronistic space: an exhibition title from a City Pop hit, a video work featuring numerous Shōwa adverts played with a CRT TV, a series of photography works referencing contemporary commercial and fashion photography aesthetics. On one hand, I attempt to drag the audience back to the present; on the other hand, I guess I’m hoping to present an alternative “truth,” and that truth is deluding the viewers and myself.
love is not destined, a single-channel video work in the exhibition, juxtaposing a compilation of Japanese Shōwa commercials with new monologues. I often intervene in found footage, found imagery, and found colours with new texts I wrote myself to make new video pieces. I find old advertisements both amusing and seducing, so much so that I want to mess around with their original quality—in other words, I am also being entrapped by the emotions expressed by the ads. Old adverts project exclusive heterosexual love and desire onto a consumer item from a customer, planting the idea that you must do whatever it takes (money) to have what you love. The commodity of “love” is the kind of love worth fighting for; love is calculated. These lines, coming out of an advert, can easily be mistaken as flirty or romantic without context. I don’t think that commercials, old or new, are powerful enough to mould modern romantic relationships, but they represent the awkward reality of neoliberalism and late capitalism in relation to how our idea of love is deeply intertwined with the consumer experience.
* * *
A young woman is sitting alone. She eats a hamburger and weeps. Transition to the ending scene of a McDonald’s branch located near the beachside in Japan. Here, this 2000s Japanese advert no longer adopts the same greasy old infatuated “love language” used in the 80s/90s advertisement industry; its creators understood that consumers were already demanding something more—deeper and more emotionally captivating—to be persuaded to fall for a thing (and purchase).
I came across another Hong Kong McDonald’s advert from the millennium period that consists of a food-ordering scene, except substituted with a conversation in a flirty tone found at an airport check-in counter.
“Your name, sir?”
“Surname Mak (Chinese surname and Mc’s Cantonese homophone), first name Donald.”
“Hamburg. (Cantonese homophone of hamburger)”
The two McDonald’s adverts can be read as a commodification of emotions amid a capitalist society—female sadness can be consumed like a hamburger, and ordering in a fast food shop can become a romantic encounter. The line between commodity and intimacy is blurred, forming a huge lump of something we can no longer distinguish, one from the other.
Someone visited Blind Curve and asked: so is this [the exhibition/video work love is not destined] about love, or commodification? I wondered if he understood. I tried to explain, and maybe he was then convinced, he was impressed by my “trick” to confuse the audience, but he did not understand that I was only trying to present a truth. I was sincere and serious.
Eva Illouz’s analysis on the politics of love forms the backbone of the exhibition. In The End of Love, Illouz illustrates the roles of consumer objects and practices in structuring intimacy, from physical appearances, dating leisure activities, anniversary presents, to the symbol of vows. She adds that sexual attractiveness depends heavily on the alignments of real persons with media-induced icons, images, and commodities. “If I am fully aware that my love for you is a mere projection of a romanticised image of you, I wonder if I can still count this as love.” The tricky thing is, how do we stop loving, especially when love can be blind?
The idea of “unloving,” Illouz claims, is not a plot with a clear structure, while the unmaking of intimate bonds means the unmaking of social bonds. In Work Won’t Love You Back, Sarah Jaffe rethinks love from an economic and sociopolitical perspective, stating that the need to be loved is a means to survive and receive care and support in society. To be able to unlove, then, is a privilege. Unlearning things that mass media and society have taught us, within a state of emotional capitalism, are worth sacrificing for, worth giving, worth pursuing, iterations of the thing we now call “love.” It also means rejecting the sociality where intimacy is confined by legal contracts, state approval, systemic welfare, and even heteronormativity.
Taken from Momoko Kikuchi’s 1984 song, the exhibition title “Blind Curve” is a metaphor alluding to the complexity and dark side of contemporary romantic relationships. “Blind curve” refers to a curve/bend in the road one fails to see when driving. Similar to other City Pop hits, “Blind Curve” is a song with a catchy, uplifting, cheerful melody, mismatched with depressing lyrics, telling another heartbroken love story—driving a BMW car on a highway for a Friday-night date, while struggling to decipher what’s on the lover’s mind. This enormous contrast is subtle, but for some reason, I can always feel a kind of sadness creeping in even before I know the meaning behind the Japanese lyrics.
What a time to be an idol in 1980s Japan—how does she feel when singing countless love songs composed and written by men, enacting the longing-for-love, vulnerable, and heartbroken voice fabricated by men’s own fantasies and stories? How does she feel when the lyrics align with her own experiences, or fail to do so? In so, so many works written by men, love is a chance to change and grow, or an obstacle to overcome for cis-straight male characters. To a male lyricist, a love song written for a female idol/singer is to reinforce how love makes a woman complete, or vice versa. Love is reduced to a tool that cannot be felt. Japan. Hong Kong.
As Illouz outlines the evolution of the idea of “love” throughout history—it was detached progressively from religious cosmology, and cultivated by aristocratic elites in search of a lifestyle—love is a carefully masked product. A product in the store window posing in order to attain a customer’s love and desire and hope, knowing it will be replaced soon by another bestseller. In GOLDEN☆BEST BEFORE THIS DATE, women are compressed as images and wrapped as consumables, and I wonder whether it would be some kind of distasteful humour to do an installation that makes use of the glass door/window of RNH Space inside Godfrey Centre. To what extent does this mimic a didactic irony on mutual emotional entrapment, and to what extent is it just a provocative situation packaged in the form of contemporary art?
I guess I don’t have an answer.
I got myself into hot water—for attempting to clarify and unfold these questions. Love, emotions, and romantic relationships are stuck in an ambiguous space that is both public and personal. Yet, we are trained to believe that love is an immensely personal thing and that obstacles can only be solved by either changing yourself, or the people you love / are romantically involved with. We thought we own this freedom—that we are “free” to quit this relationship and get into another one, and it’s all about your own decision, your choice. Love is thicker, stickier, a pack of melted gummy bears that still feels warm. Perhaps, the commodification of love is inevitable in a postmodern life that is scattered, fragmented; and attempting to unlove or break this link between love and commodification is throwing straws against the wind. For that, I got myself into hot water.
A big thank you to Yang Jiang for curating Blind Curve. I’m truly grateful for this collaboration. Thank you to everyone who made this exhibition possible.
Hou Lam Tsui lives and works in Hong Kong. Tsui received a BA in Fine Art and History of Art from the University of Leeds in 2018. Her practice centres around personal experience, gender politics, boundaries, and peripheral storytelling. Her recent exhibitions include Post-Human Narratives—In the Name of Scientific Witchery (Hong Kong Museum of Medical Sciences, 2022), Blind Curve (RNH Space, 2022), and Noble Rot (Para Site, 2021). She was formerly AAA’s Communications Coordinator.
- Thu, 22 Sep 2022