Art writer Caroline Ha Thuc explains how Hong Kong’s contemporary art builds bridges between a place and its people.
Hong Kong art is, according to art writer Caroline Ha Thuc, in a state of “continuous reinvention”. In her newly released book “Contemporary art in Hong Kong”, Thuc examines the city’s visual cultural production since the turn of the millennium, a period which epitomises that never-ending reinvention.
Hong Kong is one of the fastest changing cities in the world. Similarly, says French-born, Hong Kong based writer Caroline Ha Thuc, the city’s art scene is in perpetual flux. Opening her new book “Contemporary Art in Hong Kong” with a whistlestop run through the changes of the previous decade – erstwhile cultural desert, the arrival of blue-chip galleries, the rise of art fairs, the competition between auction houses, the genesis of M+ Museum – Thuc claims that native Hong Kong artists have responded with similar dynamism, creating “a profusion of works and a hive of creativity”.
Released in tandem with an exhibition curated by Thuc exhibited online on Artshare.com, “Contemporary Art in Hong Kong” explores the links between the city and its artists.
Art can build bridges
Through a mingling of bite-size artist profiles and examination of Hong Kong’s unique social circumstances, Thuc makes explicit connections between art and society. Hong Kong’s contemporary artists, says Thuc, both shape and are shaped by the city and its fluctuations: art is “a vital bridge between a place and its people”.
Thuc divides her book into four main sections:
Mapping Hong Kong: (re)defining the territory
Hong Kong identity, writes Thuc, is “fragile and precarious and affects artists in different ways.” The islands’ complex history and shifting national status is examined in the work of artists such as Amy Cheung, Lee Kit (both of whom have used the theme of the handover in their practice), Wong Wai Yin and Adrian Wong.
In addressing Hong Kong’s history either implicitly or explicitly in their work the artists “create threads between themselves and the recent past,” claims Thuc; their history, like their identity, is “fluctuating and uncertain.”
Art and liberalism
The fiscal liberalism of Hong Kong is, according to Thuc, “ultra-liberal”. This raises questions for the city’s arts practitioners:
- Should artists live outside the art market system to maintain their freedom?
- Does the pressure created by the market and the lure of gain corrupt the quality of a work?
- Is it possible to compromise between creation and business?
Thuc profiles several artists to illustrate the coexisting approaches to profit and creativity in Hong Kong art. Kwan Sheung Chi’s “One Million” series and MAP Office’s burning bamboo Ferrari are provided as examples of art critiquing acquisition; Suitman, with his “art is business” mantra, and Stanley Wong’s personal conflation of artist and designer are examples of acceptance of Hong Kong’s ultra-liberalism.
The ascendance of Hong Kong reality
Hong Kong art relies on “real experiences, direct encounters with the public and a permanent search for new possibilities”, Thuc writes. Artists such as Nadim Abbas, Leung Chi Wo, Magdalen Wong, Lee Kit and Sarah Lai are all inspired by daily life and mundane objects. Their apparent fascination with objects and the relative unpopularity of self-portraiture in Hong Kong art underline, according to Thuc, an attempt to work”in the gap between art and life.”
What do the contemporary art of Hong Kong and China have in common? To the naked eye not much, suggests Thuc: Chinese artists can create monumental works thanks to the availability of studio space, unlike their Hong Kong counterparts; Hong Kong artists do not have the access to cheap industrial materials enjoyed by the Chinese; mainland artists benefit from a huge supply of cheap labour in the form of art students, whereas Hong Kong artists make much of their work themselves, from scratch.
But, says Thuc, these differences mask a fundamental commonality. Thanks to history, migration and tradition, “there is a continuous relationship between the two worlds.” Thus analyses how this interconnectedness affects Hong Kong’s contemporary artists.
- Many Hong Kong artists are deeply aware of and affected by the constrained freedom of expression experienced by their Chinese counterparts. Wilson Shieh, Chow Chun Fai, Kacey Wong and collector Uli Sigg have drawn attention to this dichotomy.
- But freedom is relative. Thuc claims some Hong Kong artists self-censor in an effort not to anger the Chinese cultural watchdogs.
- As the border becomes more porous, interaction between artists increases. The synergistic projects of MAP Office and southern Chinese artists and Lee Kit’s subtle appropriation of Communist Party iconography are examples cited by Thuc.
- The absence of a clear identity, at least to outside observers, is damaging to Hong Kong artists in terms of marketability, but benefits their creative freedoms.
- Many Hong Kong artists make profound use of traditional Chinese techniques. From Wilson Shieh’s gongbi to Sunny Wang’s “gestural calligraphy”, Chinese influence is palpable.
- Taoism, Confusian principles and Buddhism all necessarily inform the work of both sets of artists, as do canonical works of Chinese literature.
In contextualising Hong Kong art, Thuc reveals her conviction that Hong Kong art “acts as a vital bridge between a place and its people”, not merely reflecting society but also moulding it.
Hong Kong artists on Artshare.com
Caroline Ha Thuc’s curated exhibition on Artshare, titled “Resistance”, was the site’s first show dedicated to Hong Kong artists. The 15 artists still on view on the site are:
- Chow Chun Fai
- Almond Chu
- Kwan Sheung Chi
- Sarah Lai
- Lam Tung-pang
- Carol Lee
- Leung Chi Wo
- Ivy Ma
- MAP Office
- Tsang Kin-wah
- Adrian Wong
- Stanley Wong
- 5 fictional characters who inspired my art practice – Nadim Abbas, Hong Kong artist – August 2013 – installation artist Abbas tells us about his literary inspirations
- Hong Kong Eye: New narratives in Hong Kong contemporary art – May 2013 – a landmark show puts the city’s art front and centre
- Hong Kong artist Hung Keung’s digital art in a “yellow box” – Schoeni video interview – April 2013 – East versus West? Media artist Keung weighs in
- Hong Kong Artists/ 20 Portraits book: Must-read for newcomers to Hong Kong art scene – February 2013 – brush up your Hong Kong knowledge with this informed overview
- Top 10 Hong Kong art gallery picks – The Guardian – July 2012 – The Guardian’s top ten picks in the Hong Kong gallery scene
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