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.

Nadim Abbas, 'Tetracycline,' 2013, video loop (still). Image courtesy the artist

Nadim Abbas, ‘Tetracycline,’ 2013, video loop (still). Image courtesy the artist. 

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, “Contemporary Art in Hong Kong” explores the links between the city and its artists.

MAP Office, 'Back Home with Baudelaire, No. 5', 2005, print on metallic paper, 100 x 200cm. Image courtesy of the artists.

MAP Office, ‘Back Home with Baudelaire, No. 5’, 2005, print on metallic paper, 100 x 200cm. Image courtesy of the 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.”

Lee Kit, 'Nivea-Night Pack', 2011, acrylic, emulsion paint, enamel paint, inkjet ink and tape on cardboard, 109cm x 103cm. Image courtesy Osage Gallery

Lee Kit, ‘Nivea-Night Pack’, 2011, acrylic, emulsion paint, enamel paint, inkjet ink and tape on cardboard, 109cm x 103 cm. Image courtesy Osage Gallery.

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.

Kwan Sheung Chi, 'One Million (RMB)', 2013, single channel video, HD, colour, mono sound, 1h 20 min. 24 sec. Image courtesy the artist and RAM.

Kwan Sheung Chi, ‘One Million (RMB)’, 2013, single channel video, HD, colour, mono sound, 1h 20 min. 24 sec. Image courtesy the artist and RAM.

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.”

Kingsley Ng, 'musical wheel', 2008, new media installation. Image courtesy the artist.

Kingsley Ng, ‘musical wheel’, 2008, new media installation. Image courtesy the artist.

Another China

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.

Magdalen Wong, Chains, 2010, Safety door chain lock and old necklaces

Magdalen Wong, ‘Chains’, 2010, safety door chain lock and old necklaces. Image courtesy the artist.

Hong Kong artists on

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

Related Topics: Hong Kong art and artistsart trendsbook reviews, the art of identity

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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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