Thinking Backwards: Notes on Art Tamed and Contained (in both Senses of the Term)

Author Bio

Yeung Yang shares selections from her essay on the complications of "public art" for the Chinese University Visual Arts Anthology 2007


When I accepted the invitation to write, my memory of the year 2007 was still robust, spilling over with joy and anger, fulfillment and frustration, curiosity and doubt, knowledge and uncertainties. . . . The year 2007 presented to me was an extremely rich one in terms of the production and communication of art. The scene was packed with big museum shows, small independent shows; big debates of whose histories, small controversies of curator-artist conflicts . . . I don't have any unified argument or thesis to propose, only hints, from peregrinations of thinking, that I hope would make it harder, yet again, for the temptation to label Hong Kong art as not trying hard enough to creep in.

In 2007, I experienced the most amusing moments art has ever offered to me. To celebrate the tenth anniversary of Hong Kong sovereignty change, the Hong Kong Museum of Art presented the exhibition The Pride of China: Masterpieces of Chinese Painting and Calligraphy of the Jin, Tang, Song and Yuan Dynasties from the Palace Museum (29 June to 11 August 2007), the highlight being the famous Along the River During the Qingming Festival. When I visited the exhibition, the hall was packed with a line of some 50 visitors waiting to pilgrim the Pride. The docent on duty was being kind: he was concerned we might expect too much from the waiting to be disappointed, not by the art, but by the limited time we could spend with it. He added humor to the crowd control measures. He said, "You will all have five minutes to see the scroll. You cannot stop in between because others would want to move forward as well. How do you make the most of these five minutes? Try to imagine being in a sushi restaurant with rotating belts. This is how you can get through the scroll. Once you finish, you will get a souvenir, a replica of the scroll." His effort was in the interest of good museum citizenship, which in this case, seems surprisingly contradictory to the interest of offering an experience of art as a meaning-making one.

Image: The site of the Star Ferry Pier and Clock Tower before the demolition.

In a related but less amusing occasion, art was similarly subjected to the demand of maximum reach in compressed time. In a forum organised by the Hong Kong Arts Development Council (HKADC), entitled "Arts in Commercial Premises" (March 2007), a representative from Sun Hung Kai Properties said the question of arts in commercial premises, and specifically shopping malls, is a question of who is serving who. Interestingly, in 1990, predecessor of HKADC, the Council for Performing Arts, organised a forum entitled Conference on Business Sponsorship of the Arts. The names of the forums are not neutral. They suggest the direction of advocacy—the more recent forum made ambiguous the nature of collaboration between the arts and commerce to render the unequal power relation between the two invisible, and the older forum named the concrete activity of how the collaboration must take place precisely by acknowledging the unequal power relation between the two. The shift from "business" to "commercial" is also noteworthy. While "business" is a more generic term designating "occupation" and "profession," the "commercial" designates trade and mercenary spirit that aim at profits. The reduction of business into commercial must be read as a deliberate policy and not inevitable reality.

Image: Map Office, The Parrot's Tale, 2007. From Star Fairy at the 52nd Venice Biennale.

The policy that art acquires exposure of the commercial kind was echoed tactfully and tacitly in the curatorial statement of Star Fairy, the exhibition that participated in the 52nd Venice Biennale (2007). In his curatorial statement, Norman Ford critiques city branding policies of the Hong Kong government on the one hand, while proposing (confessing?) that "Everyone wants to be a star" on the other. Stardom, whose standards are set by the international contemporary art scene, is profiled as one solution to the "isolationist mentality" from which he has long found local art suffering (23 August 2005, SCMP).

Image: HistoriCITY: Art Historical Writing in and on Hong Kong Roundtable Symposium.

By now, it is routine cultural critique to identify the above three anecdotes as indicating the liberalist corporate culture of the right. Some would find resistance to this culture that is no culture at all in gestures of historicisation. I am thinking of the HistoriCITY – Art historical Writing in and on Hong Kong Roundtable Symposium (29 Sept 2007), which advocated studies of "not who is going to write art history for Hong Kong but what kind of knowledge and interpretation of Hong Kong art history is presented in each publication"1 (my emphases). I am not sure how much the question of the quality of the public life of art can be entrusted to history as a project (of presentation and representation). My interest here is that the reduction of the public life of art into sheer quantity and scope of public attention as a perpetually unfinished project (is there such a thing as too much publicity?) has generated an exaggeration of the need for artists to work in separation from institutions powering and relying on publicity.

I recall here the relevance of John Dewey's visionary remark during his times, about how artists, in response to industrial conditions of mass production, an "esthetic 'individualism'" resulted. He says, "Artists find it incumbent upon them to betake themselves to their work as an isolated means of 'self-expression.' In order not to cater to the trend of economic forces, they often feel obliged to exaggerate their separateness to the point of eccentricity."2 In our contexts, the exaggeration is not only on self-expression as necessarily eccentric, but also on self-expression as an agent of social change that is profiled to be necessarily anti-institutional. In this battle, the ideals remain that there is still such a thing as art for art's sake, and that art for any other thing's sake is in opposition to its authenticity.

Image: Performance by We Are Society.

One example of this exaggerated need began to culminate during the live art performances around the demolition of the Star Ferry Pier and Clock Tower in November 2006, and the Queen's Pier in August 2007. In the summer of 2006, a group of live artists, from such veterans as Tsang Tak-ping and Leung Po-shan to young emerging artists as Lee Chun Fung, Monique Yim, and Choi Tsz Kwan began a series of performances in protest against the urban development plans in the area. Since the initial performances, some of the young artists have formed an art group called We Are Society (WAS). On their blog, they describe themselves as "starting from the body, [we] extend individual identity into public space, during which the possibilities of public, art, and creative work are defined."3 Art critic Jaspar Lau celebrated these actions as enabling a kind of "home-coming" for the arts. He says, "The social movement tries to incorporate artistic input to give itself a form, the arts on the contrary gain a contemporaniety [sic] foothold via engaging with the society" and "help advance a local sense of belonging, a belated 'home-coming' (not in the private but) in the public sphere. In return, they join in the de-colonization process by tackling firstly, the de-politicization of art."4

Image: Opening of Talkover/Handover: Dialogues on Hong Kong Art 10 years after 1997.

Several months later, in the symposium held in conjunction with the Talkover/ Handover: Dialogues on Hong Kong Art 10 Years After 1997 exhibition (1a Space, July 2007), I sat in the audience listening to an artist speaking about her decision of not presenting her works in galleries anymore in favour of public spaces as the site of choice for her works. I also listened to another artist asking in a provocative tone how many of us (artists and audience) participated in the social movements. I am not sure if Talkover/ Handover is more or less public than the live art in public spaces, particularly in view of Patricia Phillips's insight that "public art is not public just because it is out of doors, or in some identifiable civic space, or because it is something that almost everyone can comprehend; it is public because it is a manifestation of art activities and strategies that take the idea of public as the genesis and subject for analysis. It is public because of the kinds of questions it chooses to ask or address, and not because of its accessibility or volume of viewers."5 While the artists' comments on the publicness of art in Hong Kong seem to render frequently quoted remarks by Johnson Chang published ten years ago obsolete, (I am thinking of his remarks about "Hong Kong art" being imbued with "experiences of an ephemeral and private nature," and that "like soliloquies, they are private projects that stay shy of the public"), they also risk justifying their publicness in an all-too rigid idea of such a thing as "public art."

I speak of the expression of the need for artists to work in separation from institutions as "exaggeration" not to devalue their conviction to distinguish the publicness of their art from the machine of publicity. I do have serious reservations about, first, the practical possibility and actual reality of working without and against institutionalisation in its entirety. It still puzzles me today why, for instance, a doctor trained in Western medicine was allowed to accompany the group of activists and so-called artivists during some of the Star Ferry Pier and Queen's Pier actions. I am not saying one has to sacrifice his/her life for a public cause. I am worried what was claimed to be radical challenges against institutional control of public spaces and public culture were not so intellectually radical after all by failing to recognise what the figure of the Western medical doctor represented—the discipline on the body was part and parcel of what the movements wanted to topple. I am also thinking of how I went through the mental struggle of whether or not to notify the mass media before any particular action during the Star Ferry protests. Was I being hypocritical? Was I participating in the hegemony of cultural control by calculating the public attention that the mass media would offer to the actions? Did I compromise the authenticity of the action by putting it under the measure of utilitarian considerations?

Image: View of 14QK: Art Responds to 14K - The Many People Show.

I also say "exaggeration" because there are reasons artists have to. When such a thing as "public art" is fixed as given and separated from processes of institutionalisation, it gives the sense that it is better protected. But does the separation of art in public spaces from art in institutions address the more fundamental problem of what is public about the public life of art? If anti-institution relies on the exaggeration of self-expression, would art not fall into another trap of rendering its own publicness equivocal? Indeed, it was very recent that a veteran journalist reprimanded me for having put out an "overly academic" curatorial direction (hence, one with limited public resonance) for the exhibition Art Responds to 14QK (November 2007, Para Site Art Space). He said the exhibition inappropriately gave artists not routinely doing political work the chance to "raise their profile." For this reason, he refused to write or report on the exhibition. He went as far as likening this mistaken curatorial direction to insurance company advertisements during the Sichuan earthquake in May 2008, in which purchases of insurance were encouraged in the name of charity for earthquake victims. This is a serious accusation and I will respond to this in our upcoming catalogue of the exhibition. For my purpose here, I register his comments as indicating yet again that desires of protecting art for art's sake, for hierarchising types of artists and works, of defending the idea that publicity undermines the art works' authenticity, are very much alive, all these in order that the autonomy of art as separation, even isolation, from positions of power (economic, political, cultural) could be asserted.

My interest in these anecdotes rests not so much with identifying new paradigms or art forms, but rather in why art and its publicness have been profiled as oppositional in the first place. In more recent happenings, I thought I found a clue. To tackle the question of the nature and quality of the public life of art, the other question of the relation between art and culture must be tackled first, for whatever public life art wants, it is always already conditioned by culture. In the following section, I point out the difficulties and tension art has been encountering in terms of the idea of culture. It has a different tone, and I have kept it that way. Among other things, it testifies to the different sensibilities of the years that remain lingering in the present.

It was as if
I was lying
under a low
sky breathing
through the eye
of a needle6


1. Cited from email invitation to the symposium.
2. John Dewey, Art as Experience (New York: Penguin, 1934/2005), 8.
3. on July 7, 2008).
4. (accessed on August 14, 2007 and July 7, 2008).
5. Patricia C. Phillips, 'Temporality and Public Art,' in Herriet F. Senie and Sally Webster ed., Critical Issues in Public Art. Content, Context, and Controversy (New York: Harper Collins, 1992), p. 298.
6. W.G. Sebald, For Years Now, Poems by W.G. Sebald, Images by Tess Jaray. London: Short Books, 2001, 57. 


Yeung Yang is an independent curator and Postdoctoral Fellow at the Department of Cultural and Religious Studies, CUHK. She is also the founder of soundpocket, an organisation promoting sound art and its cultural manifestations in Hong Kong.


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