by 約翰百德 (John BATTEN)
at 4:33pm on 23rd April 2018
Caption: Inside the Cattle Depot at Tokwawan, with gasometers in the distance.
(Please scroll down for English version.)
1999年，政府宣佈前政府物料供應處將出售作發展用途，用地最終售予長江，而該公司的龐大發展項目已接近竣工。油街一片興盛的景況也隨之結束；儘管當時所有租約本來都屬於短期，但也一併告終。當時很多對油街義不容辭的藝術家與藝術團體均大聲疾呼、努力爭取。最後， 土瓜灣屠場舊址和其歷史悠久的百年老建築用來作為替代藝術場地。一些個人藝術家，還有錄映太奇、1a空間和藝術公社等都把展覽空間轉往牛棚。進念．二十面體只取用辦公室／排練空間。藝術公社後來結業，原來使用的空間是牛棚裡最大的建築物，現在已被進一步翻新，用來舉辦臨時展覽。其中最引人注目的，是由M+ 用作臨時場地，展出前衛美國藝術家 John Cage的大型音效裝置，以及展出2013年威尼斯雙年展香港代表李傑的作品。
香港非牟利藝術空間景貌 1990年代以來便幾乎沒有改變，非牟利藝術空間出現有時、結業有時，而1990年代百花齊放的草根藝術景貌已慢慢式微。在過去12個月，多個獨立藝術空間相繼結束，好像咩事藝術空間、Spring工作室、Holy Motors、百呎公園和Neptune。草根藝術組織的動力一直不假外求，很多時都借助義工幫忙，相繼結業是無可避免的結果。在未來，這個循環將會改變，新的藝術團體也會出現，我們將可看到新的草根藝術時期蓬勃發展！
The Origins of Hong Kong’s Independent Art Spaces
by John Batten
Parasite, the non-profit art space, founded in 1996, moved from its original Sheung Wan spaces into its present, much larger North Point premises in 2015. This was one of the smart decisions that has ensured its longevity. Its wisest decision was in the early 2000s when a professionally-trained art curator and staff were employed to lead its exhibition programming, backed by a volunteer board of supporters that assisted in fund-raising and promotion.
Parasite was originally founded by a group of like-minded, determined and organised artists that applied for some of the first arts funding available from the then newly established Hong Kong Arts Development Council (HKADC) in the mid-1990s. The original funding was meager; however, on a tight budget and proudly proclaiming its independence as an “artist-run space”, Parasite was able to have its rent, exhibition installation and administrative staffing costs publicly-funded through the HKADC.
At around the same time in 1998, the recently-vacated former Government Supplies Depot warehouses in Oil Street, North Point were advertised for rent on very affordable short-term leases. Word quickly spread around Hong Kong’s arts community that these Oil Street spaces were ideal for studio and gallery accommodation. Over a frantic few weeks, established arts groups Zuni Icosahedron and Videotage and new groups Artist Commune and 1aspace took space and started organising their own art exhibitions. Throughout the many Oil Street buildings, other artists - including Kwok Mang-ho and Kacey Wong – also rented spaces, as did a mixture of commercial businesses, including: transport companies and architecture, design and photography studios. Oil Street was Hong Kong’s first arts community. It was vibrant, organic and successful. All of these groups and some artists received HKADC grants – but the crux of its success was cheap rent and a flexible-use policy e.g. artists could paint and construct and make their spaces dirty. Since the 1990s, many artists have since moved into the industrial areas of Fotan and San Po Kong, building a similar artistic camaraderie as seen at Oil Street.
Oil Street unofficially ‘opened’ with a late-night weekend arts event. If it had actually been organized, it would have been - certainly nowadays - promoted as a ‘festival’ with posters, internet advertising and sponsors. But, Oil Street was just organic, there was no central organiser – so, in the days prior to Oil Street’s opening, word-of-mouth was intense: fax messages, telephone calls and invitations to films screenings and BBQs ensured a strong turnout. A range of people came, many from what is now identified as the “creative industries” and their friends, wandering around the abandoned high-ceilinged rooms of the former Government Supply Depot, visiting exhibitions and installations in the rented spaces. It was the beginning of a short, intense and heady time for Hong Kong’s art scene.
Over a period of eighteen months, Oil Street saw countless visual arts, theatre, music, performance and film events held in and around its many spaces. Parasite, new to its own Sheung Wan space, was also very active. Parasite had a policy of only hosting art installation and performance events – they intentionally had no conventional painting or wall-based exhibitions. In the early days, Parasite’s primary focus were installations done by its own artist members and friends, with Hong Kong itself as the main topic. At the time of Hong Kong’s return to the mainland, the young artists who exhibited in Parasite explored a range of issues around ‘Hong Kong’, its colonial and Chinese heritage and the personal, often confusing, identity of Hong Kong people.
These independent art spaces of the 1990s were exciting because the established museums and most commercial galleries were incredibly conservative in their exhibition programming and attitude towards contemporary art, political, social and aesthetic issues and rarely exhibited the work of Hong Kong artists. Urgent calls for a contemporary art museum began in these years, and West Kowloon Cultural District’s M+ has its origins from this time.
The vibrancy of Oil Street ended in 1999 when the government announced that the former Government Supply Depot would be sold for development (eventually to Cheung Kong, whose enormous development is now nearing completion) and all leases, albeit short-term, would end. There was an outcry from many of the incumbent Oil Street artists and arts group. Eventually, the former To Kwa Wan abattoir with its historic century-old buildings was offered as a replacement arts venue. Some individual artists and Videotage, 1aspace and Artist Commune transferred their exhibition spaces to the Cattle Depot. Zuni Icosahedron took only office/rehearsal space. Artist Commune has since closed and their venue, the largest building at the Cattle Depot, has been further renovated and now holds temporary exhibitions, of which the most significant have been by M+ using it as a temporary venue for a large sound installation by the avant-garde American artist John Cage and to exhibit the work of Lee Kit, Hong Kong’s 2013 Venice Biennale representative.
The Hong Kong non-profit arts space landscape has largely remained unchanged since the 1990s. Non-profit art spaces have come and gone and the grass-roots art vibrancy seen in the 1990s has waned. In the last twelve months, independent art spaces Things that can happen, Spring Workshop, Holy Motors, 100ft PARK and Neptune have all recently closed. This is inevitable for grass-roots arts organisations reliant on their own, mostly volunteer, labour. In the future, the cycle will turn and new art groups will emerge, as will a new period of grass-roots art vibrancy!
In the meantime, I must check the rumour that the Cattle Depot will be handed to the Leisure & Cultural Services Department to manage! The Cattle Depot needs revamping, but Hong Kong needs a diverse range of affordable spaces for independent arts and community groups – we already have enough government-run venues!
This article was originally published in Ming Pao Weekly, 16 April 2018.
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