AAA's Enoch Cheng speaks to Cheng Yee-man (aka Gum) and Clara Cheung, the founders of the art collective and alternative art space C&G Artpartment.
AAA: Let us start with the performance series you did during the July 1st protest in Hong Kong, in 2004. You dressed up in traditional Chinese wedding outfits and marched with 500,000 people in a protest against the government. You marched again the following year, this time with life-size photographs of your 2004 performance printed on cardboard cut-outs and hanging off your backs—you handed out postcards to other protesters so that they could write their complaints to the government. What were your issues with the government at the time?
Clara & Gum (C&G): We are usually concerned with policies about culture and education, since we work in these fields. But we will definitely speak up when we see social injustice, such as issues about public space, and how public life is affected by rapid development or redevelopment. We think that the [Hong Kong] government is not really interested in "improving" itself in order to earn popularity. Instead, the government is attempting to change the mindset of Hong Kong people—and make them love their leadership. Yet such an attempt actually fails: it ends up being the other way around!
AAA: Since then, you have received media attention with the exhibitions you organise at C&G Artpartment. Yet I know you are very cautious about how you are portrayed in the media, so much so that you did a series of works where you painted newspaper articles about yourselves onto canvas. What are your reflections of the media?
C&G: Information from the mass media crashes into us without boundaries. Information bombs us, and yet it can also disappear all of a sudden, under the assault of the media. The role of the media is very important, and yet it is ambiguous. The power of the media cannot be neglected, since it definitely has the ability to turn "black" into "white." And after the filtration and digestion of the media: what is the relationship between the self-images documented by the media and the real self? By re-painting the reports of ourselves in the media, with our own impressions, we can re-examine our interviews with the media at that moment in time, and also reconcile how the media consequently portrayed us. More importantly, we want to understand how the media (the Other) sees us. This is a reinterpretation of the concept of the self-portrait.
AAA: Running an alternative gallery, as a platform for artistic expression, is a huge challenge. Why did you decide to take up the risk of opening this space? And how has your experience been in running C&G Artpartment?
C&G: One of the main reasons for opening C&G Artpartment was that we had artistic ideas that we wanted to realise and visualise, and we didn’t want to depend on a third party which sometimes can be a constraint. That’s why we decided to use our own knowledge and strength in art administration, curating, and art education to run this alternative gallery. We planned for a long time before opening the space: we took about three years. We do believe that careful planning means less risk. And Kowloon really needed some accessible art spaces, especially after the declaration of the development of the West Kowloon Cultural District. After almost three years, we have proved to ourselves that it is feasible to run an alternative gallery without relying on any long-term funding from a third-party. It is very encouraging to us, and also to other artists and arts organisations in Hong Kong.
AAA: You both have a strong vision of using art to examine socio-political issues—whether through performance or exhibitions. What do you think can be achieved by art when it is often the last thing on people's minds, especially in a place like Hong Kong?
C&G: We believe that a good piece of art can deeply affect one’s thinking for a long time, sometimes even for a lifetime. We have both had such experiences with particular art pieces, and would love to share these experiences with the people around us—through hosting various art shows, exhibiting our art, and through teaching. Of course, if we only did this as a one-off show, it probably would not make any noise. Sustainable development is very important if we are to have any impact on our audience. We are interested in a long-term engagement with the public.
AAA: Apart from your art background, you both have had other types of training; Ar Gum—you were a social worker and art administrator; and Clara—you studied cultural studies and computer science. How do these disciplines inform your practice?
C&G: The knowledge we have earned from our different backgrounds is certainly affecting our approaches toward our artworks and exhibitions. A background in social work and cultural studies encourages us to keep an independent and critical stance towards many current issues.
AAA: You work as a two-person collective these days, but before that you belonged to the group Project 226. What is the difference between working in a larger group and as a married couple? Have you had any serious conflicts?
C&G: It is probably more efficient to work as a couple. We sometimes come up with ideas when we have meals together—or right before bed! With a larger group, scheduling a meeting is difficult. However, it is also fun to work within a bigger group of individuals, where people may have very different experiences to inspire you, and vice versa. Of course, sometimes we disagree with each other. Mostly the disagreements are not over major ideas, but the execution process. So far we have luckily been able to work out everything without any big fights.
AAA: You have taken your performances to the Venice Biennale, the Gwangju Biennale, and the Shanghai Biennale—although each was uninvited. Out of all these different places, where did you enjoy performing the most? And where would you like to develop a project next—beyond your own gallery?
C&G: Yes, the earlier performance projects were all "uninvited," and were initiated by ourselves. The whole "uninvited" idea (踩場) was one of the major agendas in our performance pieces: of being a critical party on the boundary. We had a very nice experience in Gwangju; the work was well received by the audience at the Gwangju Biennale, and we also made some Korean friends. We went to Gwangju this time not as a larger group, but just as C&G. Most importantly, we did not have to write any proposals and report to anyone afterwards.
For the near future, we are interested in collaborating with other "third world countries of art." Recently, we did some art projects with Polish artists. We believe that Hong Kong is also a "third world" region of art. In these countries or regions, contemporary art is not well received by the public, and not strongly supported by the government. Let's compare the case in France and Hong Kong - because I have just discussed this with Christophe [Jean-Christophe Scolari] from France who is currently exhibiting at C&G Artpartment. According to Christophe, it is much easier to be an artist in France than in Hong Kong. One of the reasons is that it is easier for French artists to find funding from different institutes and there are more opportunities to show their artworks. The environment in France is more encouraging. In contrast, in Hong Kong—the third world region—it is difficult to just find the audience or to find someone to take a look at your work. The public here, for some reason, is always too busy and has no time for art. No Time For Art vs. No Money For Art was the subtitle of one of our previous shows in which we invited both Polish and Hong Kong artists to participate. When it comes to complaints about the art ecology of Hong Kong, we have loads to talk about.