HONG KONG ART SPACES COMMUNITY ART
Hong Kong art space Wan Chai Visual Archive is different from other Hong Kong galleries in three ways: it is non-profit, community-focused, and will cease to exist in two or three years. We look at the history and development of this unique organisation.
Situated on the northern shore of Hong Kong Island with a mix of old and new buildings, Wan Chai is an important art and cultural district in Hong Kong. The Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Center, where the Hong Kong International Art Fair (ART HK) is held every year, is an example of the region’s newest architecture, and many of the old but historic buildings and shops are also undergoing or are scheduled to undergo redevelopment.
The Wan Chai Visual Archive sits on the first floor of an old tenement building which is earmarked for restoration and serves as an opportunity for Carl Gouw, the archive director and owner of Goldig Investment Group to “spare a little space for something interesting.” Gouw bought the building with the idea of turning it into a boutique hotel within the next two to three years and it currently houses serviced apartments.
Gouw’s idea for the visual archive grew from his design background. He is a board member of Ambassadors of Design Hong Kong, and his company Goldig Investment Group is also a design-focused business. Through community art projects developed under the umbrella of the Wan Chai Visual Archive, he seeks to promote cultural sustainability and engage the local community in the process of urban change.
Art Radar attended the inauguration show of the Archive in July 2011 and spoke to Gouw and the Archive’s curator, Alvin Yip. In addition to his role with the Wan Chai Visual Archive, Yip is a board member of Ambassadors of Design Hong Kong and an assistant professor at Hong Kong Polytechnic University’s School of Design. In the interview, the organisation’s mission and its development were explored, as well as some issues related to the Hong Kong contemporary art scene.
Beyond visual art
Yip and Gouw see the concept of a “visual archive” as a new art exhibition model for Hong Kong. The organisation is different from a traditional art gallery in that it does not just display art pieces, but also provides facilities to showcase other visual forms: Polaroid photographs, light paintings and iPhone applications. “It is not a historical archive and not a visual art archive,” says Yip. Instead, it is a laboratory for “contemporary visual culture,” a term Yip uses to define the contemporary practice of turning ideas or concepts into visual forms.
I do not want to call it a visual art archive [in order to avoid] people saying things like, Oh, I know about visual art, you should consult me. The name ‘visual archive’ helps to create some ambiguity so that people will ask, What are they up to? [It implies that there] is something valuable here and also something that we have not yet fully developed.
Traditional meets contemporary
While contemporary visual culture is the central focus of the archive, the organisation is also interested in exploring how new cultural developments interact with the visual experiences traditional to the Wan Chai district.
Pinhole Workshop, displayed at the inauguration show, is an example of an artwork in which the traditional meets the contemporary. During the Lunar New Year in January 2011, when the Archive was being renovated, pinhole photographer Martin Cheung invited twenty Wan Chai tenants to come to the space and there he taught them how to make a pinhole camera. The workshop wrapped up with Cheung taking photographs of the tenants and their families in the style of family portraits. The taking of family portraits was popular in Hong Kong during the Sixties and Seventies and through the project Cheung aimed to revive and reflect upon the fad.
Another project, Urban Narratives, also presented at the inauguration show, involved 35 postgraduate students from the Strelka Institute of Media, Architecture and Design in Russia. The aim of the project was to create iPhone application proposals that were specific to the needs of the Wan Chai community and responded to the architecture and landscapes of the district. The students were taken on a ten day tour of Hong Kong after which they drew lots to decide the area of Wan Chai they would be focusing on. One of the applications developed reveals to users the various spots in the district that are best for kite flying.
So far, all of the works produced at the Wan Chai Visual Archive have been co-authored by members of the Hong Kong and Wan Chai communities, whom the Archive contacts through the charity St. James Settlement, and professional artists. Yip places a high value on the role of the community in the art creation process.
Without community participation the works themselves lose their essence. [While] the method of collaboration varies from one piece to another and we are still learning about the kinds of methods we can use, our goal is clear: we must deeply engage the community. They own a part of the authorship of a piece.
Also shown in the inauguration show was Mute Works, a project that demonstrates just how deeply the public can be engaged in art production. It was co-created by a group of hearing-impaired elderly people associated with the St. James Settlement and artists Thomas Tsang and Beatrix Pang. The community participants wore LEDs on their hands and were photographed using a long exposure setting as they communicated with each other in sign language.
Government misunderstands community art
The Wan Chai Visual Archive hopes to redefine community art in Hong Kong as Yip believes that the government does not fully understand the concepts behind the art form. “The government thinks of community art as a kind of leisure [product],” he explains. “Community art is an art profession and a process of art production, but with a focus on the community. There are a lot of cultural elements to it.”
To Yip, community art means something more than a work that “you take home and then forget.” Instead, work created in this way should be seen as “an art piece in its own right” and as an art form that “empowers” the public. “What they create [through the Wan Chai Visual Archive] is not just something that they take home for their families to see, but something that they show to the public,” he says.
More community interactivity anticipated
Gouw and Yip express hope that the archive will encourage Wan Chai and other Hong Kong residents to interact more with local artists, leading to an increase in community-initiated ideas. “At the moment, we are the key initiator. We discuss first, then we find an artist and discuss again and finally we invite the community to join the project,” they explain. Many of the building’s tenants have breakfast at the Archive each morning, where they are encouraged to make themselves at home, and Gouw and Yip even met one of their current project participants, also a tenant of the building, in a downstairs pub.
Hong Kong too commercial
In Gouw’s eyes, Hong Kong fails to develop any fertile ground for art because the society is too materialistic. There is a lack of “contemporary spirit” in Hong Kong, he says, referring to the creative spirit needed in a society that acts as a catalyst for changes and new trends. While under British rule, the city enjoyed the advantage of being a free information centre. After the handover, political uncertainties led to a “copycat” culture. This has resulted in a decline in Hong Kong’s art development when compared to its neighbours.
Hong Kong is losing the game when it comes to new media art. … One very good example would be the field of contemporary Chinese calligraphy, in which artists and designers are trying to integrate modern typefaces with traditional ink painting. Substantial results have been exhibited in Shenzhen already but Hong Kong is falling behind…. I can only think of a few artists who are working [in this field] and they have to visit the mainland for resources and knowledge exchange.
Hong Kong’s Wan Chai Visual Archive is located at 5-9 Hing Wan Street, Wan Chai, Hong Kong, and is open to visitors.
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