Leung Chi Wo’s “This is My Song” runs at London’s Rokeby gallery until 11 November 2016.
Taking as its starting point Hong Kong’s 1967 riots, Leung Chi Wo has created a body of work that moves a subtle critique towards the political mechanisms controlling contemporary China and Hong Kong.
“It’s just the same old story/Through all eternity,” sings Petula Clark on a 7’ recording of This is My Song, whose title Leung Chi Wo’s borrows for his set of installations that are currently on view at Rokeby Gallery in London. The Hong Kong-born artist fixates on glimpses of the historical past, excavating through cultural history, personal recollections and archives to present objects whose apparent dissonance cohere to form commentary on contemporary political issues in Hong Kong.
Leung Chi Wo was born in 1968, when the aftermath anti-colonial sentiment against the British was still keenly felt in Hong Kong, despite a nominal return to peace from the previous year’s violent riots and protests. 1967 becomes the point of departure for his work Silent Music Plane (2016), a kinetic installation constructed materially of a paper airplane from that year’s June LIFE magazine cover partially held together by five-cent Hong Kong coins, also from 1967. The plane is set in motion by the kinetic machine and orbits the gallery at variable speeds to the accompaniment of two songs, The Beatles’ Yesterday (1965) and Long Life Chairman Mao (1966).
Each of these selections is deliberate and careful; Leung found the coins and magazine by scouring the Internet on sites like e-bay. The cover of the magazine depicts Ma Siton, China’s ‘King of Violinists’ who gained notoriety for escaping the country during the outbreak of the Cultural Revolution. Leung refers back to this momentous event through the choice of the two songs: when the anti-colonial riots erupted in Hong Kong in 1967, Communist sympathisers played music in praise of Chairman Mao from the Bank of China Building, and in retaliation, the Hong Kong government blasted Western music and jazz from the nearby Government Information Services building through large military speakers.
Ed Greenacre, who co-directs Rokeby Gallery with his wife Beth, says that Leung Chi Wo’s use of the music, “which seems very dated and distant”, is more than simple accompaniment, but reveals how the protests “were a battle of identity […]. They were using military speakers, but it becomes a battle of sound without a physical background.”
The haunting affect of music arches continuously in the artist’s installation A Countess from Hong Kong (2016), which takes its name from the last film directed by Charlie Chaplin, released just before the riots in Hong Kong began, and takes place in the throes of the Chinese Cultural Revolution and Vietnam War. The installation, also powered by a motor, comprises a bright teal schoolgirl uniform from the Hong Kong Belilios Public School hung from a hanger attached to a vinyl recording of Petula Clark’s This is My Song.
On a thin silver chain around the collar of the uniform hang two 50-cent Hong Kong coins. Here, Leung plants references to the arrest of 14 schoolchildren who, in November 1967, protested the expulsion of a fellow student and were subsequently arrested and sentenced to either pay a fine of HKD100 or spend a month in jail. The students were not allowed on the premises of the school with more than HKD1 – hence the two coins.
Through archival research, Leung traces the story of one of these students, Janet Tsang, who refused to pay the fine and spent a month in jail. Years later, Tsang would move to the United Kingdom and write a book: All Round Tactics to Get Into the Best British Schools. This allusion lies beneath his work entitled Extremely Recalcitrant (2016), a set of two framed archival ink prints. The photos depict the same scene, reversed, of the hockey team of the King’s School, Bruton in 1919.
Etched onto the Plexiglass of the framed photographs are the words “extremely” and “recalcitrant”, respectively, referring to the statement made by Magistrate Enoch Light describing the schoolgirls’ protests and juxtaposing their history with the history of the King’s School, the alma mater of Sir Michael Gass, who was the Acting Governor of Hong Kong during the 1967 riots.
Leung Chi Wo’s practice is rooted in this brand of self-referential meta-commentary on history and its inert presence in the life of seemingly inert objects. Each of the materials that the artist incorporates and transforms is carefully selected on the basis of its provenance; everyday materials such as records, coins and uniforms, are all reinvigorated with significance by the weight of their histories. In this way, Leung functions as much as a curator, archivist and documentarian as he does an artist; the selection of works in “This is My Song” reflect a deep attention to historical detail and nuance so as to spark a conversation.
The artist, who has exhibited at the Tate Modern and was featured in the first Hong Kong pavilion of the 2001 Venice Biennale, says, of his research in his artist statement:
History before my birth appears as a remote combination of events and judgements. It seems there is no flesh, but only pieces of information that are reduced to data for analysis. Historical figures only hold meaning for history, nothing else…Perhaps we crave an authentic history, which unfortunately is not necessarily reality. Or, to be fair, we never achieve a full picture of reality, which is often presented or interpreted in fragments, or sections.
Indeed, it is the fragmented exhibition of materials sourced from painstaking research that Leung uses to his advantage in his body of work generally. Working through photography, video, performance, text and installation, he allows for viewers to substantiate their claim to objects in order to bring new meanings and contemporary relevance to historical events, often events that have personal significance to the artist and his identity. Says Greenacre:
[The works] allow you to look at identity through the objects to understand the complex history and geography of Hong Kong.
Complexity is both a key feature and limitation of Leung’s work; it is often not readily apparent how rich the histories of his individual materials are by merely examining them, but the interaction between the works opens a space for dialogue to investigate how history has impacted contemporary life. “It’s more than just a process,” says Greenacre. “It’s important to the understanding of the show and the personal connections allows for a broader discussion.”
Leung’s interpretation and depiction of the events in Hong Kong in 1967 – censorship and riots against an oppressive government – subtly critique less obvious mechanisms of control in contemporary China and Hong Kong. His fastidious devotion to history is an attempt to negotiate the present.
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