Curators Cosmin Costinas and Chantal Wong share their insights on art, sexuality and desire in Hong Kong.
The curators of “Ten Million Rooms of Yearning. Sex in Hong Kong”, currently on show at Para Site, talk to Art Radar about the concepts behind the exhibition, the multi-layered issues brought into discussion and the contribution of art to critical discourse around society in Hong Kong.
“Ten Million Rooms of Yearning. Sex in Hong Kong” was launched at Hong Kong’s influential nonprofit art space Para Site on 9 May 2014 and will run until 10 August 2014. Co-curated by in-house curator Cosmin Costinas and guest curator Chantal Wong, the multi-venue exhibition explores the connections between sex and sexuality, desire and the city’s social and historical contexts.
Sex and the city
Through various perspectives and a variety of media, the 39 artists in the exhibition examine the ways in which desire and sexuality are experienced, conceptualised, fantasised, altered and hidden. The works take into consideration factors such as family and class structure, power relations, issues of gender and identity, the city’s space and social uses, and the role of capitalism in shaping intimacy and contemporary sub-cultures.
Sexual drive in Hong Kong is one of the lowest in the world owing to a variety of conflictual events throughout its history, from the liberalism of colonial times and especially the 1980s to the growth in conservative views post-1997.
Artists included in the exhibition range from important local Hong Kong artists such as Luis Chan and Angela Su, to mainland Chinese artists such as Cao Fei and international artists like Yayoi Kusama, Danh Vo, Roee Rosen and Willem de Rooij.
The variety of works and perspectives in the exhibition enriches a localised discourse that is already underway in fields other than art, such as academia, social sciences and social administration.
Art Radar spoke with the curators of the exhibition to find out more about the significance of such a topic in Hong Kong at this time.
Sex as pretext: The concepts behind the exhibition
“Ten million rooms of yearning. Sex in Hong Kong” looks at the connections between sex, desire and the city in its historical context. Could you expand on the concept of the exhibition? What are these connections? What is the historical context?
Chantal Wong (CW): There are multiple entry points that we are trying to look at. From a historical perspective, we are trying to look at the changing visibility of sexuality in Hong Kong, but also at the changing roles of genders and the perceptions of gender and identity in Hong Kong. This is done in multiple ways, predominantly for artworks. There is also a section that’s documentary, with a kind of memorabilia on sexuality, but it’s also presented through a number of historical artworks.
So, [for example] there are artists like Irene Chou, who is an ink artist, and this would be an emancipation for her as a female artist working in ink and looking at ink as a form of [expression] and it’s very organic. Then, [there is] Hon Chi-fun and the way that he tackles sexuality and sensuality in his practice. Then there is also the looking at the existing context of sexuality in Hong Kong, as you said before, through the place of sexuality and how it’s actually dealt with, how it’s hidden, how it’s replayed, and so on.
Some of the areas that we tackle in this show range from the role of public space and how public space is dealt with in Hong Kong, to the pragmatic fact that these are very small spaces to the different types of value systems and belief systems, whether it’s Christianity that is left over from the colonial period, but I guess [which is] also seeing a revival at the moment. Public space, for example, is very controlled, like the public parks, every single square inch in Hong Kong is meant to be productive. Christianity, among a lot of government officials, is a powerful religion, it’s a religion that a lot of government officials have adopted, and I guess that’s making a huge influence on media and censorship. And also how that is negotiated with more traditional Chinese Confucian values. These are more of the historical aspects of the exhibition.
And then all the different types of identity and all of these touch on certain sociological aspects, economic aspects, socio-economic aspects and also political [ones]. Another aspect is identities from gender studies, so you’ll have one aspect looking at the changing role of the woman in Hong Kong for the last century or so, and then the place of homosexuality and how that’s perceived within this city, but also beyond the diasporic communities.
Cosmin Costinas (CC): This would be a good sum up of the exhibition. In many ways, you could say that we almost use sex as a pretext to explore other components from Hong Kong society and history.
Why have you chosen to present an exhibition on this theme now? What is the relevance of such a discussion today, in Hong Kong in particular?
CC: You could say that on the one hand it is always relevant, because it’s such an important component of life, both on a personal and cultural level. I think that as an institution, Para Site has shown over the last year that it’s interested in using art to explore issues that are relevant to society and to the overall culture of Hong Kong. And looking at the issue of sex, the exhibition tries to look at it from a clear historical perspective, which also takes into account the current situation of sexuality, desire and the city. What we notice is that rather than being in a kind of logic of opening out as time progresses – as one usually understands the issue of progressiveness about sexual and moral issues – in the case of Hong Kong, there has been a rather conservative turn over the last ten, fifteen, twenty years. So if you look at popular culture and the general discussions in the public space in the 1980s, let’s say, we realise that from a certain point of view at least, there was much more openness in discussing issues of sex, and sex was simply more present in these [public] areas than it is now.
There has been an overlap between this kind of [liberalism] and the conservative turn in terms of sex related issues – a general political conservative turn that’s happened in Hong Kong after the handover. So in that sense, there is actually an urgency or a relevance in the current moment for discussing the issues of sex.
Attitudes to sex and sexuality in Hong Kong
Are there any particular laws in Hong Kong that repress sexuality or certain aspects of social relationships?
CC: Yes, well, there was a law passed…towards the end of the 1980s, in the second part of that decade, which imposed for the first time a rating system for cinema, for films, and that definitely had an effect of layering the presence of sexuality at least in cinemas in Hong Kong. There was that specific moment and several people that we talked to recognise that as a soft turning point in the whole history of the presence of sex in Hong Kong. But nevertheless, related to what I have mentioned earlier, I think it’s more about the combination of factors, and it’s more about the general turn in the mood of society and the overall situation rather than specific laws that would censor it, or that would make it taboo. It’s still possible to have sex in the public sphere and in culture, to a certain extent, and the laws aren’t necessarily much more restrictive than they were in the 1980s. But something else has happened in society.
CW: I don’t think it necessarily has to do with legality around it. Actually, certain policies would in fact liberate. For instance, I think in the last few years, transgender people can now marry the opposite sex, as there is an understanding of this as a “medical condition” and then there is more of an acceptance of this legally. But, in fact, I would say that because of Hong Kong’s dominant capitalist form or aggressive capitalism, students in high schools are expected to commit themselves completely to their studies, and increasingly they’re trying to suppress forms of dating and intersexual relationships. Teachers and principals will implement systems where boys and girls cannot start dating. So it’s not necessarily a government policy, but it is an implementation within smaller forms of micro-spawns of government.
Is there any form of sex education in school?
CW: There is, but in a very sort of conservative methodology, [like] how to use a condom, and it’s very technical and has nothing to do with it in terms of teaching about relationships.
So, generally speaking, is it taboo to talk with family – and perhaps friends to a certain extent – about relationships and sexuality?
CW: Yes, I think families generally prioritise. One of the areas of the exhibition also covered the family unit: the Confucian value is that there is a very solid family unit. For instance, in Europe, the 1968 protests would have sort of broken down these structures. Here, it is extremely frowned upon to have any relationship outside of the family unit. The mother is seen as this kind of charmed idealised figure, and she is there to bear children and take care of the family unit. So I think that anything that steers away from these very solid notions of family structures is misunderstood and seen as something that deviates – as deviant behaviour. And this is not even to talk about homosexuality, etc. This is simply [about] different forms of relationships, you know, that is, love relationships.
You have mentioned how there has been a conservative turn at the official, government level and the educational level. How about the people, at a more social level? You are young people in Hong Kong; do you also feel that your peers have turned more conservative? And what role do you think art is seeking to play in terms of changing attitudes towards sexuality?
CC: I don’t know if we could really say that each and every individual has by him or herself become more conservative. But I think that because of the entire society becoming somewhat more conservative and less open, many of the individuals, even from the young generation, have a different relationship to sex. The presence of sex, the natural and healthy presence of sex in their attitude and public persona, is the primary issue that we wanted to discuss. I think art has the potential to open the discussion about many fields, it’s not just about sexuality or desire, but I think art has this incredible potential in general to look at especially those areas that are maybe more difficult to tackle with other means or where there is a kind of ambiguity or complexity that cannot be discussed in terms of black and white or in terms of scientific accuracy. And especially in these fields, having a topic being tackled and received by the audience through art, is generally constructive.
CW: I also think that, especially in the context of this exhibition, there is a lot of sensuality and these certain sensibilities that don’t necessarily need to be communicated in terms of representational [art]. There are works that are very sensual and erotic, like I said, Irene Chou’s ink paintings, where she deals with [the] organicism of ink touching water and what kind of visuality that produces. There is Zhou Tao, who depicts people turning into animals, picking up animalistic gestures and movements, and there are certain things that cannot be clearly communicated. But it really can be titillating and enticing and sensuous. And I think that’s a really important part of the show.
Have you got any responses from the media and the citizens as well? What kind of responses, criticisms, comments have you heard so far?
CC: Yes, there was quite a strong media presence at the exhibition, something we were very happy about, and then there were very serious audience numbers, again something that we are certainly happy about. I guess that to a certain extent, there is visibility and there is presence of the audience that is having the effect that we wanted. You know, naturally these things are getting more and more discussed. There aren’t specific responses or specific reactions that I would pinpoint.
Is there a particular demographic that you have seen at the exhibition, in terms of nationality and age?
CC: The vast majority of the people in Hong Kong are Hong Kong Chinese of course, so as a very Hong Kong-based and Hong Kong-concerned institution, that’s being replicated in the audience, and the vast majority of our audience is from Hong Kong. In terms of age, we try to ensure diversity and as in many other places, there is more interest in art and visiting exhibitions for a younger demographic. So it’s primarily local and somewhat young.
Sex: a ‘trend’ in art?
Recently, Sotheby’s has also had an exhibition of Erotic Art. Do you think that sex as a topic in art now is becoming a ‘trend’ of sorts?
CW: I think that ‘trend’ is really not [the right word]…I mean, there are two exhibitions and Sotheby’s exhibition is very historic. It’s really ceramics from the Ming dynasty [or other periods], and when you historicise, there is something very important about being able to place people within a context and almost remind them that sensuality and sexuality have always been present within our civilisation and from within Chinese culture. Even though people see this elsewhere – and I think that seeing this elsewhere is an important part of this exhibition in Hong Kong as well – because so much of “sexuality” is actually taking place in, for instance, Guangzhou or Shenzhen. In the 1990s, a lot of middle class men would go to Shenzhen to seek their mistresses. Pornography is watched in Japan, and (I am going on a bit of a tangent), but this historical aspect, you can always historicise something and it becomes less urgent.
We also have the documentary section, but that’s just more of a reminder of the context in which we are placed. But there is the sense of urgency, in what to respond to and what’s happening now, which helps contemporary artists to contextualise and place existing subjectivities now and to question why we are in this place. I don’t think that there are other exhibitions that are looking at this particularly, and I definitely don’t think it is a ‘trend’, which is why raising this topic is critical.
I mean, there are other people looking into this, there are researchers. One of the important figures that we spoke to is Man Leung, who is in the Family Planning Association of Hong Kong. There is Petula Ho Sek Ying, who wrote a book called Sex and Desire in Hong Kong, so there are a number activists/academics looking at this, but not a trend per se. But I think a number of people see the urgency of bringing this to the fore.
Sexuality through diverse lenses
The roster of artists in the exhibition is extensive (39). Are there a lot of native Hong Kong artists? Are there any artists in the show that you think stand out and whose works are more poignant and significant in some ways with regards to others?
CC: There’s a significant presence of Hong Kong artists, but there are also a number of international artists that we are featuring in the show as well, from Israel to Japan.
CW: There is an important section of artists [who] are diasporic artists and [who] left Hong Kong or left Asia. I guess that as a diasporic artist, their sense of identity of being elsewhere can be enhanced, so they play quite an important role in the exhibition. There is William Yang, who is in Australia, and he was taking photographs of some men that he was sleeping with in the 1960s. They’re very intimate, he writes sort of stories about how he had these relationships with these men on the photographs.
[There's] Danh Vo who is a Vietnamese by descent and a photographer. He was given a set of photographs by an American GI [and] homosexual [who] took photographs of landscapes, just generally travel photographs. There are a few of them, and you’ll see the intimate relationship that can be interpreted as homoerotic from the lens of an American, but actually it’s probably a completely platonic relationship between two boys or two men. So there are these diasporic artists, and then you have artists from Israel or from Japan, which has so much pornography that is looked at in Hong Kong – but these Japanese artists don’t necessarily need to relate to this factor. But I think it is important to be related to an East Asian country, and there are sort of similarities and relationships there.
What does the Israeli artist, Roee Rosen, bring to the discussion in Hong Kong?
CW: It’s kind of complicated to explain the work… it’s kind of a performance, media and performance between two women and the dominant person is kind of a left wing liberal – not economically liberal, but progressive – and then you have the subject, and she comes from a very right wing family. And the whole performance is that she is being exorcised of her ‘right-wingness’ and so she is quoting Lieberman [an extreme right-wing politician] throughout the process.
This is just a simple summary of a very complex process of research, and it’s something that’s very dark and complicated. I guess the urgency of putting this into the exhibition around sexuality is, from my perspective, the relationships or the potential of anybody to be dogmatised and everybody has the potential to become very violent and be dogmatised by xenophobia. In Hong Kong, there is a certain urgency because of our relationship to mainland China or mainland Chinese. And while so much of it is seen as a form of self-preservation, the victim can actually become the perpetrator.
So you are including international artists to bring in different perspectives from around the world?
CC: Different international artists perform differently. Either, like Chantal mentioned before, the group of diasporic artists were bringing in different perspectives, but at the end of the day it’s the same kind of major issue of how Chinese culture deals with these issues in contemporary times from different angles. So, this is not necessarily a different perspective altogether, it’s the same but from slightly different angles. Whereas in the case of other artists, it is more about entering a different singularity altogether that would shed a light on the issue of Hong Kong through its status of being different.
What other approaches to the theme of sex and the city are taken by the different artists?
CC: In terms of pieces, we don’t really want to give the idea of highlights. As Chantal has mentioned before, there are several clusters in the show, so there is the art historical cluster that includes Luis Chan, a very important modernist in Hong Kong. The younger artists are speaking more openly about the definition of sexual desire in Hong Kong at the current moment, like Trevor Yang, Wong Wai-yin, or Au Shek-yan. Then there are various international artists whose work is not directly related to Hong Kong, but we wanted to bring it for this effect of comparing and contrasting, so Hito Steyerl and Roee Rosen from Israel, Ines Doujak from Austria, Yayoi Kusama, Willem de Rooij, and so on.
Are there any quite explicit works?
CC: It is very important to know that we obviously didn’t want to make an exhibition that would just be provocative for the sake of being provocative. And there were so many other issues that we wanted to discuss, rather than just to provoke. So I guess that the vast majority of works are actually not at all explicit. But there are works where there is exposure of genitalia or exposure of sexual acts as well. But it’s certainly quite a minority of works. And even those works are not primarily based on this component of showing genitals or sexual acts.
Would all the works be understood within this concept of sexuality even outside of the exhibition?
CC: The majority of artists don’t necessarily have this as their primary concern for their work, so they either deal with this in one or a couple of their works and we chose those ones for the exhibition. Some of the works [in the exhibition] don’t directly deal with sexuality at all, and they perform their function in the exhibition as they are based in a particular position in the show, in order to speak about one of the issues that we wanted to bring up.
A curatorial vision
How did you approach the curation of such an extensive and apparently sensitive show such as this one? Have you encountered problems with censorship, for example?
CC: Nothing significant as one might expect; we had one work that was installed in a public space, and we had to make sure that it did not contain any curse words or foul language. We placed a warning at the entrance of the show that we recommend people under 18 not to see the show because of those works.
CW: The idea was not to shock people and to discourage people from visiting the exhibition, so like Cosmin said, there were very few works that were explicit. We had warning signs and from the outside one could see the more subtle works, so there aren’t family-unfriendly environments. We want this to be a comfortable space for people and maybe only some ten percent of works will have some sort of genitalia or a sexual act being performed. So these were very clearly stipulated.
What is your hope from this exhibition? Do you hope that it will highlight attitudes towards sex in the city of Hong Kong, relieve taboos, make it easier to approach the subject or bring about any change in attitudes?
CC: Yes, the main reason why we did it is to start this discussion and to contribute… to bring our modest contribution through the means of art to a discussion that is already being pushed through and carried out by other people that Chantal has mentioned already, to continue this public discussion.
Will you have other exhibitions on this topic in the future?
CC: We are working on a number of different projects within the exhibition that continue and enrich the discussion in different directions, so I don’t think we will have another full-fledged exhibition on this particular topic – and there are also other topics that have urgency.
CW: And, I think that there are so many crossovers in the exhibitions…you’ll have questions of identity etc., so there are nice overlaps with other exhibitions that don’t need to just feature sex in Hong Kong.
C. A. Xuan Mai Ardia
Related Topics: art and identity, art and the community, art about society, contemporary art as soft power, curatorial practice, Chinese artists, Hong Kong artists, Japanese artists, Israeli artists, European artists, nonprofit spaces, gallery exhibitions, curators, interviews, events in Hong Kong
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