Retrospection for the future – Yang Hoi-mei, Szeto Chun-hei, and the Umbrella Movement
at 5:41pm on 23rd September 2015
1.-3. 楊海美，唯境，陶瓷，150 x 150 x 100厘米。
Yang Hoi Mei , No Man is an Island, Entire of Itself, ceramics, 150 x 150 x 100 cm.
Artist Statement: They are just ordinary objects. But the demands on the September of 2015 were unexpectedly high. Every vibration which generated by mobile phone would also terrified them. The thin shell of the porcelain objects seemed easy to crack as us, although they look strong enough. Using moulding as a method to explore the power of environment, plaster mould can change the shape of the objects. During firing, the porcelain objects will be further distorted. But I still think that they are kind naturally.
創作自述:人和字，頗為相似：同一根源，往往造就出千百萬種可能性。本作品由「家」字出發，選取部首為「宀」、或其他符合主題的的中文字，去改造成不同的、異樣的新字。新字大都是光怪陸離，感覺突兀，突顯了作品主題中的「異」。作品的靈感來自2014年於香港發生爭取真普選的雨傘運動。運動雖然展現了香港人的團結、和平本性，卻同時暴露社會前所未有的陰暗面 — 來自官方的抹黑和分化。這一切都令視香港為家的我們不寒而懍。本作品旨在透過一個又一個的改造字，去重新定義一些有關我們的家—香港—的核心價值，並藉以諷刺社會上的種種怪象。
Szeto Chun Hei, The Same Kind of Rice Provides for Different Kinds of People, Mixed Media (Typography Installation / Book Design ), 150 x 400 cm.
Artist Statement: As the old Chinese saying goes, “The same kind of rice provides for a hundred kinds of people.” Literally, it means everybody thinks a little differently regardless of their similar backgrounds. The nature of Chinese characters resembles that of people. Though having the same origin, their contents can be vastly different. Some even look strange and awkward. To echo with the theme of this work, Chinese characters beginning with the radical “宀” or being related to the theme are remade into new but strange ones. My work was inspired by last year Umbrella Movement that happened in Hong Kong fighting for a fair election. It had shown people’s solidarity and peacefulness. Nevertheless, dark, chilling sides – Government’s defamation and splitting up - had also been unveiled. In this work, I tried to redefine some of the key values of our home and through this, satirized ridiculous social phenomena.
Retrospection for the future – Yang Hoi-mei, Szeto Chun-hei, and the Umbrella Movement
By Yeung Yang
Can we trust the future? Are there good reasons to? I wonder if these might be some of the questions in which the citizens of Hong Kong dwell since living with the Umbrella Movement one year ago. The works by recent art graduates Yang Hoi-mei and Szeto Chun-hei contribute to keeping questions of the future alive. Here is what I think might be why.
Yang’s “No Man is an Island, Entire of Itself” is a set of black and white porcelain objects – water bottles, milk cartons, goggles, rolls of ribbon, lunch boxes, Kobayashi cooling gel sheets, bananas…. Placed in groups of the same kind on a square table, each object is slightly squeezed, slightly downsized, as if deflated. To further read them as presenting a sense of suppression or woundedness might risk sentimentalism, but the unease in the distortion of the objects is starkly present. The red grid lines on the black table formalize the objects under a certain schematic measure, perhaps an unknown system of coordinates, inviting an inspectional gaze. In intervals of around five minutes, the objects sound out in a uniform tone and rhythm. As a result, the objects gently vibrate. The sounding accentuates the fragility of their material presence.
How had this work come about? Yang told me she had always been interested in exploring her personal relation to ordinary objects. Her previous works include moulding a shoe that couldn’t be worn and knitting a scarf with human hair. The Umbrella Movement left Yang with a specific body-memory: vibration of the i-Phone in her hand. Every minute would pass during the nights out on the streets, with the imagination of the i-Phone sending shockwaves right into her palm with messages from the whatsapp groups she belonged, signaling emergency – Were the police approaching to clear the streets? Would tear gas be fired? Could it be something else yet to be named? Yang was quick to add that she had spent much less time on the streets than some of her schoolmates. Sometimes, she found herself at a distance, doubtful of how some participants reacted to violence with more violence, anger with more anger. It would be too easy therefore to simply make of her work as a personal memorabilia of the Movement on the streets. It is not the permanence of the objects she concerns herself with, but their transience and transience itself (in a process of natural decay and transformation) that she attempts to explore. I propose also, that the work presents a question Yang is yet to resolve – the loudness of all that which has happened. This loudness is at once literal – in the way it blows up the senses, and symbolic – in the way it cautions the imminence of emergencies. It is precisely this loudness, its power to silence, that might have prevented the possibility of Yang having a dialogue with herself and with others. Making “No Man is an Island, Entire of Itself” gives her a chance to live loudness in other ways.
To artistically communicate loudness is obviously not a matter of turning the volume up. To the artist, as a bodily experience, loudness is emotionally charged; it touches off fear. How and how much the artist is receptive to the sheer weight of loudness in general, and how urgent it is to communicate it, presents serious choices to be made. In Yang’s work, there is much to work on with sound as a material to communicate loudness. But she has certainly taken up the challenge of struggling with (and presenting it, too) the tension between making sense with material and meaning, and responding to demands of the formal and demands of the narrative loaded with history, emotion, personal conviction, and more.
The work by Szeto Chun-hei is entirely different in form and material, but similarly inspired by the Umbrella Movement and the desire to engage with it. Szeto’s “The Same Kind of Rice Provides for Different Kinds of People” is part installation, part graphic work. In his artist statement, Szeto says the work aims at engaging with the “dark, chilling sides” of society, revealed by the Umbrella Movement.
Walking into the installation, one’s attention is first directed to the Chinese radical “宀”. Drawn in pencil on the wall, the radical is the size of a person’s two arms stretched all the way to the left and right. As the viewer walks closer, the radical incorporates her literally under its roof. The viewer then finds two sets of cardboards placed on a slanted, viewing surface. On the verso, a Chinese character written in the form of its conventional usage is printed, with a short passage explaining its meaning. On the recto, a character Szeto derives from the original is printed. For instance, for the character 實, meaning solid or true, the artist replaces one part of it with the TVB logo, to mock the truth status of mass media messages. In the character 家, meaning home, the artist changes the down stroke on the right into the bending stroke on the right of another character 死, meaning death, to communicate the precariousness of home. Most of the thirty some characters he makes are of this radical, though with several exceptions, including the character 傘, meaning umbrella. Here, he takes away the radical of 人, meaning human, and replaces it with his chosen radical “宀”. to form a new character. In all of these gestures of mutilation, displacement, transplantation, and parodying, Szeto has effectively emptied out the sound of the characters, to render them not enunciable, or in the first instance, trapped in the tension between speech and speechlessness. The result is an open-ended topography of issues, questions, concerns…that the Movement compels us to live with.
6. Szeto Chun Hei, The Same Kind of Rice Provides for Different Kinds of People, Mixed Media (Typography Installation / Book Design ), 150 x 400 cm.
Considering how heavily the gestures of disturbing, at times demonizing the characters rely on reading rather than seeing, the work requires both understanding of the conventional meaning of the character and the cultural contexts of the object of transplantation to make sense. As a result, the attention to how characters are distributed in space and their relation to each other in the distribution is compromised. Szeto is conscious of not turning the characters into drawings, which he believes would take him away from the project as a typographical experiment. I wonder whether this conviction in typography has turned out to limit the potential of the work. Suppose it has precisely been the conventional syntax he is trying to satirize and empty out via gestures of shaping and figuring the characters to attain a certain failure of reading, how well could this failure be communicated by means of the current classification scheme of “politics”, “livelihood”, and “housing”, all of which are based on the characters’ conventional meanings? Could his inventions be led by a different set of propositions, for instance, of seeing them as objects, shapes, lines, and spaces in between? There remains a lot of potential for development in terms of the relation between the characters, which might also be consequential to the material conditions the work is currently set: Is the linear, page-by-page form of the book the best way to present the absurdity of this new heteroglossia, emerging out of the estrangement of the word, language in general, and our lives?
In general, Yang and Szeto’s works, in the way they consciously and unconsciously hold onto the weight of the complexity of the Umbrella Movement and all the discursive and support systems taking place around and beyond the streets, are gestures of defamiliarization. To sound out the Movement not as rigid political stances, but as moments of incertitude, caught between speech and silence, is to keep questions about the future of the Movement alive. In their attempts to communicate this ongoing and entangled experience, with such artistic media they may not have fully mastered but are curious about, I propose that both Yang and Szeto are doing what Ghassan Hage calls the distribution of hope. Hage’s analysis of societies as “mechanisms for the distribution of hope” does not regard hope as either positive or negative. Rather, it is a matter of investigating what kind of hope our society encourages and discourages. If society routinely distributes the kind of hope that hinges on optimism with the status quo, fortified by the distribution of fear that the status quo would be troubled, Yang and Szeto are distributing another kind of hope that first, for themselves, is a method for “apprehending a present moment of knowing,” to borrow Hirokazu Miyazaki’s idea in The Method of Hope: Anthropology, Philosophy, and Fijian Knowledge. In addition, they also distribute hope for art in general – not that making art promises gains or losses, or that art always carries positive values, but that in their gestures of un-naming, un-learning, un-doing societies’ stronghold on what there is to know about the Movement and art, they shake things up.
First published in issue 116 (Sep 2015) of a.m.post:, Hong Kong.