Review of ‘Crossroads – Another Dimension. A Cross-Strait Four-Regions Artistic Exchange Project 2013’ exhibition at the City Hall, Hong Kong
韋一空 (Frank VIGNERON)
at 2:42pm on 14th April 2014
(原文以英文發表，評論「交叉口．異空間 — 兩岸四地藝術交流計劃2013」。)
Subtitled ‘A Cross-Strait Four-Regions Artistic Exchange Project 2013’ (兩岸四地藝術交流計劃), ‘Crossroad’ is the fourth installment of a project that started in 2008. The titles of the preceding exhibitions in this series of events programmed to ‘foster closer ties among the regions in the realm of contemporary art’ often included references to travel, communication (or lack thereof) and uncertainty (‘Departure’［出境］) in 2008, ‘The Butterfly Effect’［蝴蝶效應］in 2010, ‘1+1’ in 2011, and ‘It takes four sorts’ [四不像] in 2012). The choice of artists and artworks was made by four curators from the four regions（Ivy Lin 連美嬌 from Hong Kong, Wang Dong 王東 from the Mainland, Ng Fong-chao 吳方洲 from Macau and Iris Sie 謝宛真 from Taiwan), but the general strategy was devised by another Mainland curator, Feng Boyi 馮博一. The exhibition featured all kinds of media and installations, giving a varied and interesting panorama of contemporary art practices in the Chinese world, from artists of varying ages and fame. From Hong Kong, we could see works by Leung Chi-wo 梁志和, Kingsley Ng 伍韶勁, Kacey Wong 黃國才 and Samson Young 楊嘉輝; from the Mainland, works by Li Binyuan 厲檳源, Xu Bacheng 徐跋聘, Xu Bing 徐冰 and Yin Xiuzhen 尹秀珍; from Macau, works by Konstantin Bessmertny, Bianca Lei 李少莊, Peng Yun 彭韞 and Tong Chong 唐重; and from Taiwan, works by Chen Po-I 陳伯義, Tsui Kuang-yu 崔廣宇, Labay Eyong 林介文 and Lee Ming-tse 李明則. The exhibition was organized by the He Xiangning Art Museum [何香凝美術館], the Macao Museum of Art; the Kaohsiung Museum of Fine Arts, the art space at Oil Street, Oi!, and the Hong Kong Visual Arts Centre.
Many of the participants, and especially the curators were also involved in a symposium titled ‘Practice and Reappearance of Chineseness in Contemporary Art’ [中國性在當代藝術中的實踐和再現], organized by the Leisure and Cultural Services Department, HKSAR, which took place at the Visual Arts Center on January the 19th 2014. As I shall explain in this article, it seems that the theme of this exhibition was coherent enough to justify the choice of putting all these artists together in a single show, and it also appears that the curatorial project addressed a number of important questions related to the present situation of Greater China and the cultural and political relationship between these four places. There would be a lot to write about every single artwork on display in this very good show, but I will only focus on a handful of them in this review; choosing to comment only on the following works does not mean that I did not like the others, as a matter of fact very interesting things could be said about them all, and there is a very nice catalogue where readers will be able to find all that needs to be known about them.
The main hall was occupied, among other installations, by a large array of polyurethane objects with handles and wheels that made them look like pieces of luggage. The Mainland artist, Yin Xiuzhen had already engaged in a reflection on the idea of migration and population removal within Mainland China with works like Suitcase in 1995. It consisted of a large trunk filled with garments that were then covered with cement. The theme of this artwork was the forced evacuation of the inhabitants of the old city and the cement, a ubiquitous material in the Beijing of the 1990s, represented the perpetual state of reconstruction the city seemed to be living in. The array of polyurethane ‘luggage’ on display during this exhibition, titled Transfer Station [中轉站] from 2010, has connotations that would be very different for different people of the region: if they evoke the lightness and speed of globalization (and maybe even pollution in the forms of the tons of refuse generated by disposable polyurethane objects) for Mainland Chinese, it might trigger reminiscence of grey goods trading in Hong Kong and the millions of hand luggage on wheels carted through the streets of Hong Kong by Mainland tourists. This large installation could therefore be taken as an excellent example of what a cross strait exhibition can create in terms of meaning, and how meaning itself is always generated as an experience rooted in a cultural, political and social context: change the context and the perception of an artwork will necessarily change.
Globalization and some of its most surprising effects was also a theme approached by the Taiwanese artist Tsui Kuang-yu. In his video titled Invisible City: Taipari York [隱形的城市：臺巴黎 . 約克], the artist explored the imitation monuments that can be found in many places around the world. The title is a combination of three city’s names (Taipei, Paris and New York) and portrays the artist engaged in actions that turn out to be something else: in one scene, he is seen passionately kissing someone, but when he turns around, it appears that he was actually simply holding a dog. The backdrop of these misdirections are themselves misdirections: the Eiffel Tower or the Statue of Liberty are only cheap, small-scale imitations of the real things. The sort of hybrid city called Taipari York can therefore be seen as an exploration of the concept of simulacrum once formulated by the French writer Jean Baudrillard.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Jean Baudrillard, with Jean-François Lyotard, became some of the most active advocates of a ‘postmodern’ culture, and turned toward an extreme version of Marshal McLuhan's communications theory to do so. Baudrillard was interested in how the media affect our perception of reality and the world and concluded that in the postmodern media-laden condition, we experience something called ‘the death of the real’: we live our lives in the realm of hyperreality, connecting more and more deeply to things like television series, music videos, virtual reality games, or Disneyland, things that merely simulate reality. Baudrillard wrote an important essay titled The Precession of the Simulacra where he tells the story of imperial map makers in a book by Jorge Luis Borges. These map makers made a map so large and detailed that it covers the whole empire; existing in a one-to-one relationship with the territory underlying it, it is a perfect replica of the empire. After a while the map begins to fray and tatter, the citizens of the empire mourning its loss (having long taken the map - the simulacrum of the empire - for the real empire). Under the map the real territory has turned into a desert, a ‘desert of the real.’ In its place only remains a simulacrum of reality that takes the shape of objects like the imitation Eiffel Tower in the videos of Tsui Kuang-yu.
After Tsui Kuang-yu’s humorous take on simulacrum, the idea that superficiality has become depth (and we cannot make any value judgment about that: the superficial is not worse than the deep, and depth was for the longest time only given more importance because of the domination of idealist tendencies in continental philosophy) could also be seen in the two works of Xu Bing chosen for the exhibition. The fact that language is metonymic and relates to reality only through choices made by large numbers of people over long periods of time – and therefore subject to frequent changes – has been central to Xu Bing’s works. One of Xu Bing’s works on display here, Telephone [轉話], was a good example of the artist’s exercise in the failed practice of universality for languages. ‘Telephone’ is a game I even played when I was a child (in France, it is called ‘téléphone arabe’): the first player whispers a sentence in the ear of the next player, who has to repeat it to the next player and so on. The last player has to repeat the sentence and, after being misunderstood several times, it always comes out being entirely different from the initial statement made by the first player. In this work, Xu Bing took an original text about translation written by a Chinese specialist of the subject. This text was then translated into English, the resulting translation was then translated into French, and the process was repeated through Russian, German, Spanish, Japanese, Thai, and then back to Chinese. This project revealed brilliantly how translation is never a transparent process, it is always based on reinterpretation that have as much to do with the structures of different languages, as with the choices made consciously and unconsciously by the translators. This work reminded me of another one made by a group of Hong Kong artists a few years back. Solomon Yu余迪文, Eddie Cheung 張煒森 and Yu-Wo Chan陳宇和 once used the curatorial statement of an exhibition made by Lee Kit李傑and tried to define the ‘essence’ of this show by translating the text using all the languages of Google Translate. Only the words that were left unchanged in all these mechanical translations were identified by these three artists as being the ‘essence’ of Lee Kit’s exhibition. Not surprisingly in an exhibition dedicated to Greater China, language and its ambiguities occupied a central place; even though most people probably preferred to focus on what all these artists have in common (the vague and unstable notion of Chineseness), it was just as logical to look at what they precisely do not have in common.
This review is already long enough, but I would like to write a few words about the beautiful narrative cum video created by Kingsley Ng: a series of video projections looking like the windows of a train was accompanied by a very lyrical text comparing life to a train journey. Sorry if this short description sounds trite, the work was anything but. It was however a bit spoiled by the sound coming from Samson Young’s work. An extremely interesting reflection on music and repetition, it consisted of many people humming the famous ‘Tristan chord’ from Wagner’s opera with words of their own making. Accompanied by interviews of the participants on a series of screens with earphones, the main projection of giant faces (the majority of them very familiar faces for those who are interested in art in Hong Kong) could be heard in the main hall: whiny voices singing absurd lyrics on the very short chord from Wagner. That was the whole point of Samson Young’s brilliant work – the nature of sound or words – but, because the two works were too close, it did interfere with the visitors appreciation of Kinglsey Ng’s videos whose words needed to be heard in silence. But that is a minor critic for a very interesting show made of very interesting individual works.
One of the questions left unanswered I believe in the creation of this series of ‘cross-strait’ events is the choice to represent these ‘regions’ with such an incredibly unbalanced number of artists. It would be, and please keep your sense of humor here (these comparisons are not supposed to mean anything culturally – even though one could argue that French, Spanish, Sicilian and Corsican are just as closely related than Cantonese, Shanghainese, Fujianese and Mandarin – it is only a comment on the population ratio between these places and how many artists would ‘represent’ them), like organizing a ‘cross-Mediterranean’ exhibition with works from four artists of the European Union (around 500 million people in 2013), four artists from the Canary Islands (around 2 million people; part of Spain), four artists from Sicily (around 5 million people; part of Italy) and four artists from Corsica (around 300,000 people; part of France). Needless to say then, that this exhibition has nothing to do with a desire to be ‘representative’ of art practices in these four different places, the only common link being a certain idea of ‘Greater China’ and how they might link four very different curators choosing very different artists. The project was however rendered more subtle by the inclusion of two non-Chinese, the Russian Macao resident Constantin Besmertny and the Taiwanese aborigine Labay Eyong (her Chinese name is Lin Jiewen林介文), of the Seediq nation (a group having an extremely interesting history in Taiwan, where they have become over the last four or five decades one of the most important tools for legitimating the idea of a nativist culture in Taiwan; the recent international success of the 2011 movie Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale, being the latest event in the history of this group and how they have come to represent a certain form of cultural resistance to the idea of an all-inclusive Han culture in greater China). As far as I am concerned, choosing four artists to ‘represent’ Mainland China is ludicrous and also ignores the fact that Mainland China is made up of different regions with widely different cultures, languages and lifestyles. I am convinced that it was not Feng Boyi’s intention to use only four artists to illustrate art practices in Mainland China, but it was clearly the impression many visitors of this show would be left with.