Shortlist | The Dispute Over Art Criticism: Politics, Public Affairs, and the Search for Identity (Hong Kong)

Tang Siu Wa

Poet, writer, and cultural critic




This talk is based on the premise that the writing of art criticism is driven by the writer's desire to build through constructive criticism. This desire in turn plays a key role in starting rounds of heated debates about art, a subject that occupies a marginal position within the society of Hong Kong. Such critical writing is different from art writing that offers stable, calm reading of artworks. It harbours an acute urge to instigate change through which we can sense an energy that directs itself towards destabilising the status quo, and upsetting existing power relations. It often finds itself in an antagonistic position, and hence is keen to develop tactics that counter opposing opinions. While such art writing is indeed uncommon in Hong Kong’s art history, its occurrences are often leading and indicative of the changes of a milieu.

One must acknowledge/admit that these sharp exchanges, or what could be called "turning of the soil" in the writing field are not systematically organised; they scatter in and around various publications or in the silent corner of history, not yet discovered. While writing that gives a larger perspective of an art ecology is relatively rare, there is much more on individual artists, artistic phenomenon, and analysis on the relationship between art and its times. There are multiple intriguing points of views and turns in these writings, which are indeed rather interesting to explore. This essay tries to articulate the state and development of Hong Kong’s art criticism through a selection of significant publications of such writing.

The clashes between Chinese and non-Chinese cultures are in some ways framed by political legacies and Hong Kong's historical background as a former colony. Mui Chong Kee, one of the speakers of the talk, is such an example. Mui received training as an artist and practitioner in Mainland China, and left for Hong Kong [when the Chinese Cultural Revolution began]. His participation and provocations in Hong Kong's art ecology at the time focused on challenging tastes that favoured Western styles, stirring up considerable debates. In Visual Colours: Essays on the History of Hong Kong Visual Culture, Kwok Hei Lun’s text "On the Forgotten Camps of Art: The Cases of Fu Luo Fei and Huang Xin Po," and Jack Lee's "A Record of Renjian Art Group's Activities in Hong Kong" both inform readers on how artists who settled in Hong Kong from Mainland China held practices that emphasised the sympathies for and critique of reality, a literati tradition passed on from the May Fourth Movement [in earlier twentieth-century China]. Such practices indeed challenged the prominent attitude in the art scene, which distanced itself from politics. Eliza Lai Mei Lin's "Rickey Yeung Shau Cheuk's Early Life and Works" also laid out the extraordinary artist's critical and progressive practice, and the process of its formation.

Oscar Ho Hing Kay wrote in his essay "Out of Context: A Historical Exhibition" about the exhibition Out of Context, which included various artists returning from overseas education in the 1980s who gravitated towards each other to form an alternative force. The exhibition took place in an old house on Kennedy Road—a temporary, informal space for art—and responded to dominant aesthetics and artistic systems in various ways. When Oscar Ho revisited the debates and discourse that the exhibition ignited, he described it as a contention that began "in defense of individual artistic ideas, a result of refusing to compromise. It also reflected the high level of individualism and multiplicity in a new generation of artistic practitioners and practices." Art did stir up arguments in society at the time—does the heat and power of discussion of the time still continue in retrospect? The texts collated in [Visual Colours] are short in length, and hence would qualify more as "chronicles." The publication casts a gaze more towards visual culture, resulting in a broader collection of texts, covering areas from high/pure art to antiques, collectibles, postcards, catalogues, fashion, banknotes, architecture, film, etc. The horizon of this publication is broad and multiple, its scope of visual culture resonant with people’s livelihood; the publication thus effectively reflects and refracts the interaction between politics, society, and art.

Art criticism in Hong Kong seemed to be at its height in the 1990s, with ample space for writing in cultural pages of print media. The imminent 1997 handover also pushed art to delve into deep reflection, which in turn created a context that generated much energy for critique. The conference proceedings published by AICA's Hong Kong Chapter Hong Kong Art Review claimed "there was more discussion on Hong Kong's society than on art!" (preface by Eric Otto Wear). Articles in this publication illustrate clearly Hong Kong art community's search for a local identity, as well as their dissatisfaction of being framed as part of a larger Chinese nationalism (text by David Clarke). These sentiments were a key force behind a collective effort to simultaneously excavate and fabricate a local history (text by Oscar Ho), to remap Hong Kong art's history that grips between Chinese and Western cultures (text by Nigel Cameron). This publication also includes writing that reflected on how Hong Kong's cultural/racial identity could be based on a strategy of "being at home with homelessness" (text by Eric Otto Wear), as well as a critique on education policies around art (text by Kith Tsang Tak Ping). Most of the writing in this publication is still based on a western knowledge infrastructure, and marks the beginning of independent thinking concerning a "Hong Kong identity." The object of criticism focuses on power structures such as regime, government, and policy. Through the transformation of western-educated intellectuals, art practitioners turned their challenges from aesthetics to public issues of politics. This path towards a more public realm for discussion is still followed by many art writers today.

David Clarke has continuously been concerned about Hong Kong art's quest for an identity. His monograph Hong Kong Art: Culture and Decolonization combines political society and art in an effort to comb through Hong Kong art's situation before and after the handover. The book proposes that Hong Kong artists need not aspire to qualify themselves as "international" by looking at other international cities like New York. Rather, in their quest for identity, they must look towards the local. Clarke's position not only questions nationalism, but also is one in the margins. In the post-handover context, Clarke noted the powerlessness felt by Hong Kong artists facing up to significant political and social issues, which resulted in personal and metaphysical retreats of some artists. He also noted on the lack of a common goal of lineage in Hong Kong's art practitioners, since various generations of Hong Kong artists developed in different cultural soils and knowledge infrastructures. This also explains the persistent difficulty in developing art criticism in Hong Kong: interlocutors are a rarity. Yet it is interesting to note how David Clark expands his "post-handover framework" to encompass and reflect on Hong Kong art's intervention into social activist issues as heritage preservation, universal suffrage, and human rights as a way of enriching the argument on Hong Kong art's subjectivity.

[Through the Transition and Over the Millennium: Self-Selected Visual Art Criticism Essays by Seven Critics] includes Chinese and English writing by seven art writers of different generations, and is the publication that captures most of the debates. Writing in this publication range from pieces on individual artists, exhibitions, to commentary on visual culture, art ecology, curatorial statements, etc., but are linked via several lines of focus. One focal point is the historical question of Hong Kong’s local identity before and after the handover—several art critics mapped out the development of local art history, and explored the possibility of decolonisation through art history. Parallel to this focus is an inquiry into how Hong Kong art’s local identity can be politically located beyond a Chinese nationalistic framework.

This link between a search for identity and political pressure was also opened up under the umbrella of public art (in particular through the relocation of Pillar of Shame). This emphasis towards the "public" was further extended in 2006, when artistic practices were dominantly present in activist movements related to preservation of heritage and public space. The sculpture The New Man also sparked much controversy—art, in the name of avant-garde, resisted the sexual conservatism of the apparatus that manages public space. In revisiting this book, I have also become aware of this line of focus and empathy that continue to feature today in Hong Kong's art criticism. I also see that art criticism since the 1990s has exceeded the struggles between stylistic factions in the earlier decades, and have turned its effort to shaping and articulating a public, civil society. Art writing after the 1990s focuses on critiquing the government's system and positions, the narrow-mindedness of official and mainstream positions on politics and sexuality in art. Such writing affirms what the official position would regard as "art that was not pure and genuine" as a means of injecting new thinking into a increasingly stringent artistic system. This indeed marks the conceptual beginning of socially-engaged and/or political art. The seven art critics also attempted to carve out their own spaces outside of the academy, reading and writing about social issues through the lens of art in a language without jargon and theory. The publication comprises of a selection by the writers themselves; it is the least focused of all publications introduced in this essay, but its content is the richest. This particular publication carries on the past and will impact writings to come. It significance will emerge and can be better articulated with critical distance in time.

Apart from the above publications, I also recommend Walter Benjamin, or Towards a Revolutionary Criticism by Terry Eagleton (such a recommendation necessarily shows my background in literature). This book uses the research into Benjamin's writing to push forward a fluidity by which writing on and about artworks simultaneously brings out a revolutionary progressiveness that the viewer embodies. Another book by Eagleton, The Ideology of the Aesthetic, questions the noble and safe position of art. These western theories take a long time to transfer and apply to Hong Kong's particular situation. Professor Leung Pingkwan in [Cultural Space and Literature of Hong Kong], which was written in the 1990s, brings the characteristics of Hong Kong's cultural space, for example, pragmatism and hybridity, to the fore. Wan Minan's [The Factory of Images], on the other hand, studies individual paintings under a framework that combines aesthetic imagination and theoretical analysis. The book also dares to point out absurdities in contemporary China. In cultural studies, writing art criticism often emphasises critical positions more than the artwork itself or aesthetic experience. I would very much like to see the same approach come to fruition in Hong Kong art criticism, which can only happen in a healthy and stable environment. Gao Shiming's [The Book of Action] presents an array of theoretical insights into contemporary curatorial practice. In a post-capitalistic society, curatorial practice has become an endeavour that mobilises people to regain experience and power of action, thus is inherently critical in nature. In response to local experience, [Woodstock in Spring: Art for the cause for Choi Yuen Village] is another important book, albeit non-conceptual and non-theoretical, that describes notions of art outside of auction houses—the hope for revolution.

The aim of discussing art criticism, theories, and cultural criticism as well as activist art in one shortlist is to consolidate and promote critical writings on art, which I hope will deepen and expand local art criticism since Hong Kong has experienced considerable development before and after handover. I would like to extend my gratitude towards Asia Art Archive for granting me the chance to learn from this experience.


Note: This shortlist is a translated text, produced in conjunction with Hong Kong Conversations, an ongoing talk series focusing on Hong Kong's cultural ecology within a social and political framework that is part of AAA's Teaching Labs programme. The following shortlist, prepared by poet, writer, and cultural critic Tang Siu Wa, accompanies the panel "Constructive Contention: Hot Spots in Hong Kong Art Criticism" held 26 April 2014. The panel invited art writers from different backgrounds and generations to share their experiences and discuss changes in the environment, audience, and methods of art writing in Hong Kong since the 1970s.

Recommended Readings


Clarke, David. Hong Kong Art: Culture and Decolonization. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2001. [English] REF.CLD

Eagleton, Terry. Walter Benjamin, or Towards a Revolutionary Criticism. London: Verso, 2009. [English] REF.EAT2

Eagleton, Terry. The Ideology of the Aesthetic. Malden: Blackwell, 1990. [English] REF.EAT2

Gao Shiming. The Book of Action. Beijing: Gold Wall Press, 2012. [Simplified Chinese]
高士明,《行動的書:關於策展寫作》,金城出版社,北京,2012 REF.BPU

Lai Kin Keung Edwin. Visual Colours: Essays on the History of Hong Kong Visual Culture. Hong Kong: Joint Publishing, 2002. [Traditional Chinese]
黎健強編,《形彩風流—香港視覺文化史話》,三聯書店,香港,2002 REF.LKK

Lai Kin Keung, and Leung Po Shan, eds. Cong guodu kuayue qianxi: qiren shiyi pinglun zixuan wenji (Through the Transition and Over the Millennium: Self-Selected Visual Art Criticism Essays by Seven Critics). Hong Kong: Hong Kong Arts Centre, 2002. [Traditional Chinese]
黎健強、梁寶山編,《從過渡跨越千禧:七人視藝評論自選文集》,香港藝術中心,香港,2002 REF.LKK

Leung Ping Kwan. Xianggang wenhua kongjian yu wenxue (Cultural Space and Literature of Hong Kong). Hong Kong: Youth Literary Book Store, 1996. [Traditional Chinese]
也斯,《香港文化空間與文學》,青文書屋,香港,1996 REF.LPK

Tse Ngo Sheung, and Tse Chi Tak Ducky, eds. Xinchun hushituo. Caiyuan yishu kuaile kangzheng (Woodstock in Spring: Art for the Cause for Choi Yuen Village). Hong Kong: Kubrick, 2012. [Traditional Chinese]
謝傲霜、謝至德編,《新春糊士托.菜園藝術快樂抗爭》,KUBRICK,香港,2012 REF.TSD2

Wang Minan. The Factory of Images. Nanjing University Press, 2009. [Simplified Chinese]
汪民安,《形象工廠:如何去看一幅畫》,南京大學出版社,南京,2009 REF.WMA

Wear, Eric, and Oscar Ho, eds. Hong Kong Art Review. Hong Kong: The International Association of Art Critics, 1999. [Traditional Chinese & English]
華立強、何慶基編,《香港藝術概覽》,國際藝評人協會,香港,1999 REF.BIH


Relevant resources

Shortlist | Diminishing Gaps? Public (Art) Museums in Hong Kong
Shortlist | Diminishing Gaps? Public (Art) Museums in Hong Kong
Resources | Contemporary context

Shortlist | Diminishing Gaps? Public (Art) Museums in Hong Kong

Eva Man Kit-wah, Professor in the Department of Humanities and Creative Writing, Hong Kong Baptist University

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