Regional Formation and the Postcolonial Question: Contemporary Art in Hong Kong and the PRD

Regional Formation and the Post-colonial Question: Contemporary Art in Hong Kong and the PRD
Author Bio

The question of the region in South China is a trans-historical subject because the southern coast is simultaneously the northern empire's historic, enduring "other"; its region of encounter with the world; and the world's globalising region in China. The opening of the People's Republic of China to the world economy re-inscribed the southern China coast as the Pearl River Delta (PRD): a multicultural Cantonese place whose contemporary economic significance is owed to absorbing the mass production apparatus of Hong Kong. In the process it turned the tides on regional significance by quickly becoming globally central and internationally indispensable. As for Hong Kong—an out port of the Pearl River estuary, a colonial territory, a world city, or a special administrative region (SAR)—in the world of travelling ideas and globalising political economy, its condition remains enduringly significant, not least because it resists ready conceptualisation by prevailing trends in critical social thought.

Image: Takashi Murakami and his work Panda at Louis Vuitton: A Passion for Creation.

Among representations of this regional cultural economy, the idea of the region has emerged in the global imagination as the PRD and "Brand PRD™."1 In an era of world cities, creative industries, and urban development based on commercial culture, the region's symbolic power resonates with brandable iconicity. Such "signing" of the region, in an essay by the Guangzhou-based Vitamin Creative Space Co-Founder Hu Fang, anticipates questioning what is art and culture in an era of globalising capitalism, including debates over the development of the West Kowloon Cultural District project and the imperative to conserve historic places, as well the current exhibition at the Hong Kong Museum of Art, "Louis Vuitton: A Passion for Creation."2 The exhibition claims Vuitton's historic connection between art, architecture, fashion, and design, yet such intermediality represents the merging of corporate marketing with cultural forms—the idea of mixing and collapsing of genres is a celebrated condition of postmodern aesthetics.3 Its human social counterpart emphasises individual identity and difference, thus the cultural-economic equation is complete when the individual reproduces desire through increased consumption of ever more distinctive goods, i.e., shops for the latest LV bag. Indeed the LV-bag-in-the-museum model, i.e., direct shopping in the middle of the exhibition, was introduced in 2007 at © MURAKAMI, a major retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. At another double-branding event in Hong Kong this year, works by Murakami and other Japanese artists could be found at the W Hotel, at the exhibition Superflat Summer.4 The recent "liquidated logos" action in Central—placing an out-sized Chanel double-C logo on Chater House in dripping paint—by the French artist Zevs, is part of this conversation. Such events characterise the contemporary entrepreneurial world city. So then let us turn to some intellectual trends.

After a strong run since the 1970s and 1980s, the so-called post-theories, namely postmodern and postcolonial theory, have entered a period of questioning. Certainly practices in contemporary and alternative art, whose critical business is to make people rethink, have spurred the debate. Yet what is being questioned and towards what end? We can only sketch the thinnest outline here, while the problem remains that these theoretical shifts are uneven among different fields and have particular contexts in the different academies. For example, in the literature on world cities, postmodern theory has declined in significance because its assumption of a temporal break between modernity and "postmodern" conditions has proven untenable, while postmodern "identity politics" serves consumer capitalism, as above. Yet in the Chinese academy we find a version of postmodern theory that advocates recovering "Chineseness" via the critique of Western modernity and a conjoining of postmodern and postcolonial theoretical perspectives that is not common elsewhere.5 As co-curator of the Third Guangzhou Triennial, Gao Shiming writes, "postcolonial discourse has 'anti-oppression' connotations in the European and American intellectual worlds, but becomes an enemy of the cultural left in China."6 Thus, part of the problem of placing Hong Kong and the PRD in the same cultural region, and their considerable intersections with the world of travelling ideas is that different interpretations of major philosophical ideas are at stake. Here, we also encounter the problem of the "West" since, especially in postcolonial theory, many of the field's key scholars and their subjects of inquiry do not necessarily represent the West. For example, in Provincializing Europe, an enduring treatment of postcolonial thought, Dipesh Chakrabarty explains the priority of countering universalising histories, both "East" and "West," with concerns for social justice and histories of human diversity, including people's economic differences.7 These are the "anti-oppression connotations" of postcolonial theory that Gao identifies, yet finding them is not, or need not be, unique to the West.

Image: Farewell to Post-Colonialism, Third Guangzhou Triennial.

How does contemporary art in the region resonate with these perspectives? In the PRD, the outstanding commentary on the "posts" debate emerged in the theme of the Third Guangzhou Triennial, Farewell to Post-Colonialism, and the triennial's associated "forums in motion." In Hong Kong, at the Sixth Station, "Anxiety of Creativity and Possible Worlds," programme materials defined the postcolonial through "socio-political issues surrounding identity, race, gender and class"; "discourses . . . guarded by 'political correctness'"; and the concern that "concepts of identity, multiplicity and difference are now slowly losing their edge to become new restrictions for artistic practice."Yet if the topic is recognisably postcolonial, à la Chakrabarty, whose artistic practice is restricted by social justice? These materials define the triennial theme in terms of questioning diversity and difference; yet, without further definition, these signal both postmodern and postcolonial positions while eliding their distinctions.9

As an alternative to theoretical readings of postcolonialism, consider the postcolonial potentially being mapped on to space and time. The problem of "the postcolonial world" gives rise to assumptions about a set of former colonies, now independent nation-states, and a postcolonial period, which is necessarily a time of national identity formation. In such a world, however, the PRD and Hong Kong as space-time constructs cannot fit: even as Hong Kong participates directly in some international forums, the Hong Kong SAR cannot become an entity in the nation-state system—it has no model for postcolonialism. Guangzhou was a partial semi-colony as a treaty port while Hong Kong cannot transition to locally-based nationalism. Instead, however, we see many artistic and cultural projects in Hong Kong devoted to questions of local identity and its retrieval, especially in the context of continuing rapid development across the wider PRD. Indeed, this space-time problem about the postcolonial world in south China is the strongest rationale for the curatorial position of the Third Guangzhou Triennial. But the intellectual dissonance between assumptions about the postcolonial world and the political geographic reality of Hong Kong and the PRD is qualitatively and materially different from the theoretical and political project of postcolonial theory. Postcolonial theory is not a presupposed space-time continuum: theoretically, the postcolonial world exists wherever matters of social justice need to be revealed. Thus in Hong Kong it is possible to deploy an analytic that displaces universalising narratives in favour of recovering local histories and contested positions of cultural meaning, where culture is not a set of traits, resources, or creative industries, but where culture is understood as dynamic ways of life and art as critical cultural processes.

Image: Performance by Morgan O'Hara in collaboration with the Chinese ink painter Chui Tze-hung at From May Fourth to June Fourth, Jockey Club Creative Arts Centre.

Certainly some artworks at the Guangzhou Triennial addressed such sensibilities, as have many contemporary artworks and cultural projects in Hong Kong over the past decade. These include installation, performance, and video artworks dealing with questions of local identity; Hong Kong-PRC relations and the handover; impacts of redevelopment on local places and daily life, such as the performance art actions at the Star Ferry and Queen's Pier demonstrations; and economic problems and social justice. Hong Kong has more independent and not-for-profit art spaces than any city in the PRC and they reliably support exhibitions on critical social issues, especially 1a Space, Para Site, Videotage, and the relatively new hybrid space C&G Artpartment in Mongkok. The city's performance artists have also regularly participated in the 1 July marches and memorialised important events that cannot be addressed in the PRC. This year the month-long international performance art exchange project From May Fourth to June Fourth took place at the Jockey Club Creative Arts Centre in Shek Kip Mei and other community locations. In portraying such issues, the works are sometimes mimetic representations of social concerns in the city and region, yet, unlike Brand PRD™, they are works that represent humanistic values and ethics, meanings of places irretrievably lost to hurtling development, and projects that reach to establish connections between people from different places, times, and walks of life. They are also, reflecting some local Hong Kong style, often quite humorous. In the words of Nicholas Bourriaud, such "relational aesthetics" produces art concerned with making connections between people, and is driven in part by the upheaval of intensified trans-national urbanism, including urban consumerism—Bourriaud's "society of extras"—and increased mobility with decreased human connectivity.10

Image: Wu Shanzhuan, The Yellow Flight, 2008, installation, Third Guangzhou Triennial.
Image: Wu Shanzhuan, The Yellow Flight, 2008, installation, Third Guangzhou Triennial.
Image: Bundith Phunsombatlert, Sham Shui Po: Retelling Stories from the Past, 2008, installation, Third Guangzhou Triennial.
Image: Bundith Phunsombatlert, Sham Shui Po: Retelling Stories from the Past, 2008, installation, Third Guangzhou Triennial.

Among artworks at the Guangzhou Triennial that engaged the curatorial challenge via a relational aesthetics were Wu Shanzhuan's The Yellow Flight and Bundith Phunsombatlert's Sham Shui Po: Retelling Stories from the Past. Neither artist is from Hong Kong or the PRD. Rather, in each case, the artwork concerns meanings about the elusive yet critically significant Hong Kong condition: Wu's project explores Hong Kong's political, geographical status as some uncategorisable space between domestic and international, while Bundith's project reveals shifting identities and fragile connections among people in old Hong Kong neighbourhoods facing redevelopment, in a city where the future collective identity is inherently unstable. At the centre of Wu's mixed-media project was a large, useable airport smoking lounge which drew shrieks of interest from visitors and immediate social experimentation. The Sham Shui Po artwork included a video of local residents singing "Yesterday," set up as if in a classroom, as well as people's individual stories on tape. Viewers at this multi-media work stayed for long periods, wearing the headphones and settling in chairs. In making connections between otherwise disconnected worlds, the Sham Shui Po project indeed originated in a different project, in the Hong Kong International Artists' workshop "Creativity Exchange X Community Experiment in Sham Shui Po," organised and curated by the Hong Kong-based group AiR and artist Jaffa Lam, who has returned with considerable experience in international artists' workshops to develop art in the city's community.

Image: Pak Sheung Chuen, The Yellow Ribbons: A Present to the Central Government, 2004, performance.
Image: Yuenjie’s performance.
Image: Yuenjie’s performance.

The centrality and distinction of the Hong Kong condition registers most fundamentally in the political possibilities that distinguish the SAR within the PRC. Since the handover in 1997, the 1 July march has become a forum for democratic practice and social issues, and arts and culture groups have frequently joined the event. Pak Sheung Chuen, the Hong Kong artist with a solo exhibit at the 2009 Venice Biennale, enacted his performance project, The Yellow Ribbons: A Present to the Central Government, at the 1 July march in 2004. For July 2007, Tobias Berger, the previous curator of Para Site Art Space, organised "Among Others" for Hong Kong and PRC artists who jointly designed and carried political banners. This year, a performance by Yuenjie addressed impacts of the West Kowloon–Guangzhou Express Rail Link. Yuenjie wears a bird cage, symbolising Hong Kong's containment by the PRC, and plays a flute while a woman tends to a small gridded structure on the ground, perhaps a field, hung with Chinese cabbages wrapped in paper which she attentively burns as if a ritual offering. Another member of the group stands by holding an open umbrella marked prominently with the character 拆 (chai, to tear down), which is also used to mark buildings designated for imminent destruction in Mainland cities. In a second part, a man lies on the ground, as if cast aside, with rail tracks across his chest and a large tire wrapped in red fabric on his body. A large banner reads "oppose the express rail." The performance draws attention to the project's impacts: the only two intermediary stops are in Shenzhen, while the facility on the Hong Kong side is an emergency exit at Shek Kong, requiring the removal of local residents to public housing and bringing an end to their livelihoods. Later in July, at the first Hong Kong–PRD cities cooperation meeting, a Hong Kong official noted that development of the West Kowloon Cultural District should be considered in relation to the PRD since the last station of the rail link would be next to the arts hub.11

Debate over planning the West Kowloon Cultural District has occupied the public interest in Hong Kong for the past decade, not least because its central location and size—a mega-development project on Hong Kong harbour—presupposes a spectacular, successful outcome. While efficiency pundits declaim its delay, public debate over West Kowloon has shifted outlooks on culture in the city from cultural infrastructure to meanings of cultural production, public space, and the role of an engaged public in the urban process. Yet West Kowloon also symbolises the complexities of Hong Kong in a postcolonial world: demands on its functions and iconicity simultaneously index local, regional, national, and international scales of interest. The express train planned on its doorstep is a fundamental link to the PRD and beyond, rather than to local or global worlds. West Kowloon also represents the state-capital alliance and not the innovative, independent arts organisations in Hong Kong, which are situated in out-of-the-way places. After years of planning for such infrastructure-based economic integration across the region, several cultural institutions and events are increasingly drawing together the Hong Kong–PRD relationship, including the Guangzhou Triennial, the Hong Kong Arts Development Council, and other institutional interests.12 Still, significant differences exist across the Hong Kong–PRD zone of transition, while cultural organisations are likely better positioned to negotiate the fundamental conditions of human meaning in this complex regional world.



1. Hu Fang, "PRD™ as a global brand," Yishu: Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art, 3(1): 5–6, 2004.
2. Helen Grace, "B for business (as usual)," C for Culture, no. 14 (June): 40–41, 2009.
3. Hal Foster, Design and Crime (and Other Diatribes). New York: Verso, 2002.
4. Murakami is responsible for the redesign of the Louis Vuitton bag in white with bright colors.
5. Xu Ben, "Post-modern - Post-colonial Criticism and Pro-Democracy Enlightenment," Modern China, 27(1): 117–147, 2001.
6. Gao Shiming, "Observations and presentiments after post-colonialism," in Farewell to Post-Colonialism: The Third Guangzhou Triennial. Hangzhou: The China Academy of Art Press, 34–51, 2008.
7. Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Post-colonial Thought and Historical Difference, new edition, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007. In a related project, Prasenjit Duara's Rescuing History from the Nation: Questioning Narratives of Modern China, 1995, questions linear, evolutionary accounts of nation formation.
8. The Third Guangzhou Triennial 2008, The 6th Station of Programme in Motion: Hong Kong Conference, "Anxiety of Creation and Possible Worlds," July 5–8, Hong Kong. Mimeo, Hong Kong: Asia Art Archive, 6–7.
9. See Xu Ben, ibid., for discussion of combined postmodern/postcolonial theory in the PRC.
10. Nicholas Bourriaud (trans., S. Pleasance and F. Woods), Relational Aesthetics. Dijon: Les Presses du Réel, 2002.
11. Eva Wu and Celine Sun, "Details of delta co-operation to be unveiled next month," South China Morning Post, July 22, 2009.
12. See "珠三角文化中心—香港," C for Culture, no. 15 (July): 11–32.


Carolyn Cartier is Professor of Human Geography and China Studies in the China Research Centre at the University of Technology, Sydney. She is author of
Globalizing South China (Blackwell, 2001), and her essays on contemporary art and the city in Hong Kong have appeared in The China Review, China Information, and will appear in Post-1997 Hong Kong Culture: Word and Image (Kam Louie, ed.), soon to be published with Hong Kong University Press. She was a Fulbright Scholar at Hong Kong Baptist University from 2004 to 2005.


Sat, 1 Aug 2009
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