in time, a conversation
at 7:14pm on 15th June 2014
in time, a conversation
*The page numbers of Torrent Issue No. 1 (2013), to which this writing responds, are given in brackets.
To begin a conversation is challenging; to keep it going, even more so, for it unfolds beyond the most elaborate planning, just as a sudden downpour splashes over all that is audible. Some things are louder in specific conditions, as I learn from the conversation “Enoch Hong-Sang Cheung, Choi Yan Chi, Cally Yuek-Mui Yu/ What We Talk About When We Talk About Practice”. I am particularly interested in the way two bodies of facts are brought into the conversation. I wonder how a change of facts and shift of attention might give the conversation a different contour.
First, the ‘gender perspective’ (28). From the unequal opportunity of the female artist and her visibility, the conversation moves into the absence of artists who ‘actively claim to be a feminist’ (28) It is presented as a problem, and a particular one of our times; two decades ago, the situation was different (28). Somewhere, the figure of the artist fades out and ‘successful and powerful Asian women’ come in (31). While Hong Kong women are said to be better off in social status relative to men’s and that of women in other Chinese societies (30), polygamy as in the case of tycoon Stanley Ho (31) is coined as conflicting evidence. The artist who encourages the sharing of the ‘happiest sexual experience’ is cited to make an intervention, though quickly explained away as an anomaly under the domination of British colonial power and a ‘male-dominated, conservative Chinese culture.’ (31) How fast the facts jump from one to the other, culminating into a conclusion on where we were then and how we are now - in Hong Kong, ‘feminism as an artistic strategy is quite unknown’ (29). Is this conclusion justified? Consider, for instance, where and when Stanley Ho registered for marriage. We can also investigate the institutionalization of polygamy across cultures, bring the kind of monogamy that establishes the institution of compulsory heterosexuality into question, just as polygamy has been. Consider further, for instance, how artistic endeavors in the recent past do or do not produce any gendered perspectives in name or otherwise. In 1996, Phoebe Man began her installation Sanitary Napkin Series to question representations of the sexed body. In 2001, Ellen Pau’s video piece Recyling Cinema responded to Bill Viola’s idea that there is no love in closed circuit television. Her work undermines the monolithic power of linear time and surveillance on the one hand and presents the desolation of the CCTV moving image on the other. In 2003, Leung Po-shan conceived Girl Play for the Women’s Theatre Festival with artists Vivian Leong, Voila, Leung Po-shan, Ho Seeman, Lau Leelee Lily. Then in 2004, Leung curated Manmade – a project about Masculinity and Art, with artists Chun Hauching, Kam Manfai, Pak Sheungchuen Tozer, Pang Kawing Steven, and Yung Hoisun. The exhibition catalogue carries contributions from the artists and additional essays by Pang Laikwan, Man Waikwang, and Kith Tsang Tak-ping. Around the time, Isaac Leung’s presented The Impossibility of Having Sex with 500 men in a Month (2003) and has since, continuously engaged critically and artistically with issues of sexualities and their mediation by social, mechanical, and internet means. In 2005, Ivy Ma curated If Hong Kong, A Woman / Traveller and Schema: a Traveller's approach with artists Amy Cheung, Lam Waikit, Pauline Yuklin Lam, Leung Meeping, Au Hoilam, Shek Mingwai Zoe, and Tang Yingchi Stella, and a public talk by Griselda Pollock, author of the sequential essay “Why have there been no great women artists?” In 2006, Stella Fong, Shek Mingwai Zoe, and Sashan Suling Welland curated Cruel/ Loving Bodies. In 2008, Osage Art Foundation presented Women’s Work. Artist and scholar Katrien Jacobs continues her study of pornography in activist cultures and erotic art in technology-mediated experience in Hong Kong and China, addressing their intellectual relevance in making sense of art-making. In more recent years, the eroticism in Jaffa Lam’s sculptures and social sculptures that conjure up microeconomies, and Monti Lai’s gestures of the hand in grinding leaves, making shades of green as materials for printing and drawing also carry the potential of eco-feminist critique.
The list could go on and vary, and each of these initiatives warrants rigor of inquiry. What interests me is not only the oblivion of the conversation of what choices it has made in admitting which facts for what purposes, but also its oblivion of the struggles it is going through - is it the ‘bodies don’t lie’ position (which I hesitate to generalize as feminist at all), or is it the stickier, more nuanced, and more complex theoretical positions that bring thinking and social solidarity together in one stroke, that the conversation wants but fails to refer to? Has the conversation been adequately aware of itself as being rightly guided by a sense of urgency to make sense of the past and present on the one hand, only to forget the patience required to put urgency on guard on the other, so that thinking and deliberation are received in concomitant measure? What could have become an inquiry on the intellectual aspects of artistic practices (28) - at times as critiques of social control, an inquiry that may not be exhausted by established theoretical positions safe for scholarship, risks becoming reproducing cliches and master narratives. What drives the haste in thinking and the imperative for certainty?
The conversation steers the idea of ‘Hong Kong culture’ (33) by similar means. As a colony with a government that chooses not to introduce ‘cultural and historical studies’ (33) in the school system and ‘neglects “cultural education”’ (34), Hong Kong has come a long way from a ‘tradition of suppression’ (35). As ‘an entreport serving others’ (37), ‘Hong Kong culture’ ends up having a public (‘including the middle class’) that understands ‘art and cultural education’ as ‘something rather ‘backward’.” (35) An explanation of why we are where we are is proposed. I have many questions to ask regarding this body of facts: what particular procedures at schools when Hong Kong was a colony and no longer now, configure a particular kind of cultural imaginary? How does this lack relate to the fact that many art practitioners active in the art community today - Hong Kong and elsewhere, did grow up in such schools under such slanted policies? What ground supports the claim that ‘cultural education’ and the lack of it in schools rather than in other social institutions such as religious organizations and families is more consequential? Is the meaning of ‘to serve’ the same in serving an illegitimate power as slaves and serving each other as a way of acknowledging dependence? Is culture the opponent of trade? Above all, an overriding question lingers: can such a thing as ‘Hong Kong culture’ be addressed as an atemporal, ahistorical, collective, unified, and stable entity that is a victim of an equally fixed monolithic power - the colonial government? Where and how is this monolithic power now in a Hong Kong whose sovereign power is Beijing rather than the people? Oppression as systematized material and symbolic violence must continue to be identified and interrogated. But narratives of traumatic experience and selfvictimization, powered by theoretical perspectives on Hong Kong’s disappearance in time and re-appearance, or forced appearance in such state apparatuses as passport control, are powerful only for being familiar, perhaps convenient, too. They leave questions of how we relate to these processes at present and in future untouched, the tension they embody neutralized: for instance, how have artists come from and come through such systems? How do they see themselves in this society and across cultures, geographies, communities (lived and imagined) in relation to these systems of power? How is experimentalism coined as if it is value-free to critique such processes of institutionalization as ‘professionalism’? How is this conversation conducted in the colonizer’s language itself part of the complexity in the articulation and communication of artistic practice ? If a set of power relations only produces winners and losers, victims and benefactors, how can we name ourselves cultural workers or ‘cultural practitioners’ (27) engaged in particular kinds of cultural politics that aim for change and transformation? How can we address the wide range of politically and socially engaged art produced in the recent past, vibrant and visible as they are, in Hong Kong and elsewhere?
Culture is perpetually ongoing meaning-making activities, and are, at any moment, never complete. It is an idea taken for granted and seldom consciously questioned, for we already live in and live culture. As meaningmaking activities, culture is everyone’s. No one makes more or less, better or worse, meanings than others. In the conversation, the idea not of meaning but of ‘meaningfulness’ (40) comes up. I am not sure how the conversants intend it to mean, considering how meaninglessness is also a legitimate goal of art. I am also not sure if they would justify what is suggested but not elaborated on in the conversation that artists, or some of them, make more ‘meaningfulness’ than others. I speculate that what awaits jumping out from the lines is an ethical question - how are we to be who we are, and how are we to understand the value of how and who we are, how do we choose and understand the good of what we do and its limits. These are obviously questions that art cannot monopolize; what art can do is to take them up as core questions of their practice, for without this self-reflexivity, we cannot start recognizing ourselves in each other, deliberating the value of that which bring us together in exigencies and contingencies. This reflexivity is precisely the premise for encounters such as this one, the conversation that has come a long way to become printed material, and in particular, this conversation that makes its goal the inquiry of the ‘what-about’ of artistic practice. Without this reflexivity, how could we talk about ‘practice’ as having an object, and its potential to be objective as communicable, as a body of activities and meanings that comes down from traditions in their consistencies and conflicts, comes about in circumstances made and unmade, comes up as trajectories for the future larger than our selves? The entitlement that artists may desire to claim risks conferring authority upon itself, casting them farther away than the cultural work they on the outset intend. All kinds of pressure may be upon us, at any moment, to become full; fuller than we can be full - of self, of all that the other is not, of all that may not even matter but for some reason, try to be. In face of attention, we may be tempted to become full as an object for attention. Who is the ‘you’ that is full between you? With whom are you speaking and drawing on that wants to be full? I do not see any better way in confronting the demand for the excessive and over-representation of ‘Hong Kong culture’ but intellectual caution and curiosity, so that it remains a perpetual riddle.
“All of a sudden” (26), one chirping bird arrives.
To read a conversation in print is a different experience from listening to it. The ‘grain of a voice’, to borrow Roland Barthes’ phrase, when left out of a situation, makes interpretation harder. I mean not just the audible voice, but the grain it comes into, the grain by which the voice lingers, even when having quieted. In this relation, the voice and its grain are of each other.
A conversation is porous. It takes in all that we bring into it, and in time, the obvious becomes not so obvious any more. If the purpose of any conversation is such that the received boundary of our individual self is placed at the stake of others, or least one other person, perhaps an awareness of shifting boundaries would offer some help in preventing the familiar from substituting the potential, and beauty, of irrelevance , its force.
A good conversation is a continuous horizon that is infinite but not totalizing. It is continuous not for keeping the ball rolling and keeping the dead air away, but when active intervals of silence, of unknowing, and recognition of limits are made for, precisely for the continuation of the conversation. The ambition of identifying historical reality, abstracting it with theoretical tools that offer multiple and conflicting interpretations, aligning social solidarity, and developing a critical language from an artistic one is possible and valuable, but it is a long-term endeavor that no single conversation in a particular time-space could be burdened with; the primary responsibility it does have is the particular space-time it intends for.
A conversation ends well not when the selves in the conversation become so full that defy translation, as if complete, but when it is manifested fully to await for the next beginning. “The difference that is untranslatable is not a fixed and essential thing: it is itself a product of translation and is itself always in motion. I think the only way in which people who are different can come to constitute a common conversation is by recognizing the inadequacy of each of our positions as well as what is not translatable.” 
I Think It Rains opened on a night of pouring summer rain. Pouring and pouring until the dripping of sweat and all else didn’t care to bother anymore. It isn’t the sky that rains, but the leaf weighing itself against the measure of rain, the tip of that umbrella elbowing its way through bodies, a strand of silver hair, a stone bulging out from the weary facade, the occasional wind...that rain. I am curious: Has the conversation not rained?
Tucked away in my memory has been a compactly beautiful expression from a compilation of K.D. Lang’s music: “In her lies an invincible summer.” What is not translatable does not stay in its origin, holding onto itself; it disperses and distributes, lets itself be regarded and transmitted. There, it lies invincible. May seasons help keep conversations going.
Feb 12, 2014
 Rey Chow, “Between Colonizers: Hong Kong’s Postcolonial Self-writing in the 1990s” in Ethics after Idealism: Theory, Culture, Ethnicity, Reading (1998)
 Gaburo, Kenneth, “The Beauty of Irrelevant Music” (1976)
 Sarat Maharaj cited in Sanjay Sharma, “The Sounds of Alterity”, in The Auditory Culture Reader (2004)
Eagleton, Terry, After Theory (2003)
Gaburo, Kenneth, “The Beauty of Irrelevant Music” in http://eamusic.dartmouth.edu/~larry/scores/other_peoples_scores/gaburo/Gaburo_Beauty.pdf (1976)
Jeanette Winterson, “The fight for culture” in http://www.jeanettewinterson.com/journalism/the-fight-forculture/ (2007)
I would like to thank the Asian Cultural Council for the 2013-2014 fellowship, which opened up space and time for me to work on this writing while I was in residency in the US. I would also like to thank the Chinese University of Hong Kong General Education Foundation Program for granting me the leave.
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