What do Daniel Defoe, a deadly bacterium and a Cantopop icon have to do with Hong Kong contemporary art?

On 16 May 2013 Para Site, Hong Kong, opens “A Journal of the Plague Year. Fear, ghosts rebels. SARS, Leslie and the Hong Kong story”. Exhibition co-curator Cosmin Costinas sat down with Art Radar to trace the history of the city through its contemporary art.

Adrian Wong, 'Sak Gai (Chicken Kiss)', 2007, digital print. Image courtesy the artist and Para Site.

Adrian Wong, ‘Sak Gai (Chicken Kiss)’, 2007, digital print. Image courtesy the artist and Para Site.

The exhibition, which runs from 16 May to 20 July 2013, explores Hong Kong’s complex political, social, pop cultural and epidemiological history through the the work of 27 artists, the majority of whom are based in the city. Ranging over three separate spaces and comprising diverse media, “A Journal of the Plague Year” includes the work of artists such as Ai Weiwei, Bernd Behr and Moe Satt.

Drawing on implicit commonalities between historic outbreaks of disease in the city and the SARS crisis of 2003, the exhibition examines notions of fear, Other and the creation of Hong Kong identity. Cosmin Costinas, co-curator of “A Journal of the Plague Year” along with Inti Guerrero, points out that while the story told is that of Hong Kong, the themes are universal, and discusses whether communal fear and exclusion may actually work to unite a city rather than divide it.

Bernd Behr, 'Amoy Gardens', 2003-2007, 35mm slide projection and audio. Image courtesy the artist and Para Site.

Bernd Behr, ‘Amoy Gardens’, 2003-2007, 35mm slide projection and audio. Image courtesy the artist and Para Site.

Is this the first time you and fellow “Journal” curator Inti Guerrero have worked together? How did you find the experience?

Yes it’s the first time. It was an enriching experience, it went very well. We work well as a team.

As incomers to the island, how would you describe the experience of putting together an exhibition dealing with Hong Kong identity and issues of Otherness?

There are very different types of Other in Hong Kong; there are many ways of being an Other. I think it’s important to remember there is not only one experience of being an outsider in the city. But beyond that point, this exhibition was primarily done in dialogue with the artists in the show, and most of them have very strong bonds either with Hong Kong, or with the experiences and events we present in the exhibition. Ultimately, the city is being discussed through their perspectives and not through ours as curators.

The exhibition title is interesting. “A Journal of the Plague Year” references a Daniel Defoe novel of the same name, which tells the story of the plague sweeping through eighteenth century London. Why refer to this work?

We had the map of the exhibition and the association with [Hong Kong singer-actor] Leslie Cheung in mind, and we discussed these ideas with a local journalist who was to eventually become an artist in the exhibition, we produced an interview with her which is included as an art piece in the show, Fionnuala McHugh. She’s the one who pointed out the many similarities between things that happened in Hong Kong during the SARS crisis and events in Daniel Defoe’s book. And this led us to assume the universality and general recurrence of certain patterns of behaviour during an epidemic and during moments of fear. There’s an uncanny connection between the description in A Journal, Defoe’s Journal, and in Hong Kong in 2003: there is a looming war, the Anglo-Dutch war while the epidemic took over London, and of course SARS was happening in the same weeks as the invasion of Iraq in 2003. It’s very powerful to look at the front pages of Hong Kong newspapers at the beginning of the war, the headlines were always about Iraq with stories about SARS at the bottom of the page. But after only two or three weeks, despite the outbreak of war, SARS had completely taken over as the major catastrophe of the day. What we were interested in was the development of fear. And this was very strongly present in the work of Defoe: fear on an individual level but also fear overtaking a city, fear on a collective level.

The subtitle is an interesting counterpoint to Defoe, referencing science and pop culture, the 2003 SARS epidemic and Leslie Cheung, a Cantopop icon. Can you explain these disparate associations?

Leslie Cheung was really one of the first figures of the 1980s who helped Hong Kong define itself culturally, both within Asia and internationally. So he became in many ways associated with Hong Kong and a metaphor for Hong Kong. But it’s very interesting to note that as much as he was a popular hero, he was in fact a very unlikely hero. This was both because he was gay in a very conservative society, which meant he was part of the mainstream but outside mainstream expectations, and he was also somebody suffering from depression who committed suicide in a highly symbolic manner, by throwing himself from the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in the centre of the city. His death at the height of the SARS epidemic shocked Hong Kong as much as SARS itself, because he played a major role in defining to Hong Kongers who they are and he had decided to end his life in this spectacular fashion. So we’re trying to trace how his persona and public life reflect the changing identity of Hong Kong across the last thirty years, from a British colony within Asia, to a place of uncertainty and transition.

Ricky Yeung Sau-churk, 'Man and Cage', 1987. Image courtesy the artist and Para Site.

Ricky Yeung Sau-churk, ‘Man and Cage’, 1987. Image courtesy the artist and Para Site.

The exhibition traces historical events, cultural trends, contemporary politics and narrative and involves 27 artists. Can you explain more concretely what the show looks like?

There are three venues plus another work which takes place outside, and they look quite different from each other. Para Site is the main space and the majority of the artworks are here. We built new walls here, so there’s a very particular architecture to the exhibition space and a very precise navigation from artwork to artwork, from room to room, and therefore from feeling to feeling.

“A Journal of the Plague Year” concentrates on 2003, a year which saw the city experience the SARS crisis, as well as civil unrest in the form of street protests. While obviously a seminal time for the people of Hong Kong, why does that year matter for people outside the island?

I think that the main relevance of the stories we tell is their universality: fear, exclusion, the Other. These stories have been happening and are still happening around the world every day. They’re urgent and contemporary everywhere today, in Britain, in the States, in Hong Kong, and we try to reflect that quite strongly in the exhibition. Of course, we have works that deal with the way in which the Chinese were singled out and stereotyped. For example, there is a work by Ming Wong which is a collection of movie posters representing the Chinese in a very stereotypical way. And we have the work of Samson Young, which captures sound along the border of Hong Kong and mainland China. But we also have the work of a Taiwanese artist that deals with the fear of the United States being over-run by Mexican immigrants. So you can see from that example that we start from a very particular story, Hong Kong’s, but we give it this international relevance. The Hong Kong story is quite provocative because it is actually a universal story. We want this to be obvious to someone coming to the exhibition: whenever there is a local issue we associate it with an artwork which places it within a wider context. This is part of the curatorial strategy.

Moe Satt 'F n' F (Face & Fingers)', 2009, 8 black and white photographs with text. Image courtesy the artist and Para Site.

Moe Satt, ‘F n’ F (Face & Fingers)’, 2009, 8 black and white photographs with text. Image courtesy the artist and Para Site.

How did you select the 27 artists featured in “A Journal of the Plague Year”?

In different ways. Really it was a process of research with Inti [Guerrero], a process of clarifying both the concept and the different narratives, and along this process different artists or artworks entered our conversation. Then the inclusion of these artists opened conversations in their turn. I think this is the general way in which we like to curate, by opening dialogue with artists or artworks. And as part of this process some of the artists produced new works for the exhibition – Lee Kit, Ai Weiwei, Ming Wong and James T. Hong – which again opened different implications and opened new paths for the show.

I want to add that we tried to expand and enlarge the group on show beyond the usual suspects of the Hong Kong visual art scene. We tried to work with people from Hong Kong theatre like Zuni Icosahedron, and we included in the exhibition as an art piece one of the most interesting contemporary writers in Hong Kong, Dung Kai-cheung. So we did this exhibition through the gaze of Hong Kongers, and beyond the visual art scene. I think that’s something that’s been growing and we’ve been refining, and this project was the sharpest manifestation of it, and if it works out this will have a major impact on the way in which we’re imagining our work here.

Ai Weiwei’s installation deals with the very current issue of milk powder and its links to xenophobia against mainland Chinese. What is it like curating the work of an artist who is not only so well-known, but also so vocal about his art and his politics?

I think several artists in the exhibition are actually quite vocal about their political position, and their principles from a more general perspective. There are several that have strong personalities and a strongly recognisable position, and it’s a very challenging and interesting process because when people have these positions and when we have an assertive framework for the exhibition, this means there’s a constant dialogue and a negotiation between ourselves and the artists. And that’s what makes it challenging and an interesting curatorial process, this is what makes it more than just selecting works and putting them together but makes it a constant delicate political process of negotiation. This is the case not only with Ai Weiwei but with several artists in the exhibition. Especially with those who have produced new works in dialogue with our proposals, we have accepted some of the propositions of the artists but not others, it’s a complex landscape.

Adrian Wong also reacts to issues of contamination linked to corruption on the mainland of China. Can you tell Art Radar more about the work?

It’s a large scale photograph of Wong dressed in the typical suit of a politician or businessman, holding and kissing a chicken. It’s a work with a strong and direct visual impact. I think the irony is very obvious, I think the visual strategy has a very immediate impact and is communicable to people whether they are familiar with all the implications of the work or not, the whole discussion around corruption in China, or whether they just approach the issues of the exhibition in China and bird flu scare from a general perspective. I think it works for everyone.

Why is Lygia Pape’s Divisor, a public performance piece originally performed in 1968 in Brazil, a suitable inclusion in the exhibition?

I think it’s a perfect representation of a kind of tension we have in the exhibition. Because you have a group of people divided from each other by this cloth but at the same time they’re united in one physical organism, a clumsy body moving together, and in a way this is a perfect image. These people are divided from each other by fear and paranoia in a quarantine or isolation situation, but there’s also an awareness of belonging together in a community. This cloth functions very paradoxically, dividing people into individuals but also creating a community.

Ming Wong, Photo: Carlos Vasquez. Publicity still, After Chinatown, 2012 Video, Duration: 7:09 min. Image courtesy the artist and Para Site.

Ming Wong, ‘After Chinatown’, 2012, video (duration: 7:09 min), photographic print by Carlos Vasquez. Image courtesy the artist and Para Site.

To end where we began, back with Leslie Cheung, can you talk about Lee Kit’s exploration of what Cheung meant and perhaps still means to Hong Kongers?

This is one of the works produced specially for the exhibition. It’s a karaoke video that comes with a whole karaoke room built for it at Para Site, so it’s quite a striking presence. The karaoke video is attached to a Cheung song, quite a sad song from one of his movies. I think that this whole situation, this song, is one of the sharpest illustrations of a very Hong Kong spirit of the moment. In the video there are images of the whole street protest from 2003, together with images of Leslie. It’s an acute analysis of both the fears which were sparked in that year, but also the hopes which emerged within that year and all the disappointments that came along the way, and the ways in which they changed and mutated. Everybody in this story got a little older and little bit more bitter in the last ten years. So in that sense it’s a sharp but also melancholic way of talking about Hong Kong. And I think the room that he has built has a lot of the ambiguity that karaoke has of bringing people together but also a something of a melancholic sense of solitude. And it also explicitly brings together the different stories of 2003: it talks about Leslie, SARS, the July protests, you could even say it talks about the relationship with China and all the things which have affected Hong Kong in the last 10 years and made it the strangely mutating metropolis that it is at the moment.


Related Topics: Hong Kong artists, curatorial practice, interviews with curators, Hong Kong exhibitions

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By Brittney

Brittney is a writer, curator and contemporary art gallerist. Born in Singapore and based in New York City, Brittney maintains a deep interest in the contemporary art landscape of Southeast Asia. This is combined with an equally strong interest in contemporary art from the Asian diasporas, alongside the issues of identity, transmigration and global relations.

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