In and Out of the Streets: Man Mei-to and Enoch Cheng
at 5:55pm on 18th May 2017
1. Enoch Cheng, Artist in conversation with invited guest at A3, 2016. Photo Courtesy: Artist
2. Enoch Cheng, Projection of FearLess as part of from inside A3, 2016. Photo Courtesy: A Walk with A3
3. Man Mei-to, Installation view of The Laundry Shop, 2016. Photo Courtesy: Artist
4. Man Mei-to, Bringing the smell of field and garden back home, 2013. Photographer: Law Hoi Lok, Photo Courtesy: Artist
5. Man Mei-to, Where laundry was taken to dry in the sun, 2016. Photo Courtesy: Artist
A3 is the abbreviation of the street address of a two-by-twelve-foot space; it is known in Hong Kong as a “stairwell space.”1 It was a few days into my signing a rental contract for this space as founder of the non-profit A Walk with A3 when artist Enoch Cheng and I decided to meet and catch up after his recent graduation from a creative writing master’s program in London; before his studies in the UK, he had been a programmer and curator at Asia Art Archive, Hong Kong.
Enoch Cheng’s first reaction to A3 was that it is a “joyful space” in a “quiet back lane.” A3 is indeed relatively quiet compared to the shopping area around the Times Square Mall, which is five minutes away on foot. The entry point of the back lane is Sharp Street West, a small street connected to Morrison Hill Road, the main South-North division between the districts of Wanchai, to the west and Causeway Bay, to the east. Unlike most other streets in the vicinity, the back lane of A3 is not lit by public street lighting nor by lights from shop signs. During the day, it can easily go unnoticed as it occupies just another corner in the many gaps between buildings in the streets of Hong Kong. During the night, it blends into the darkness of the back lane. I came to the understanding that A3 was a space of joy for Enoch Cheng because of its ambiguous position within the urban fabric: it is located in the middle of the hustle and bustle of Hong Kong, but is compelled a space that can’t be compelled to do anything similar to the ordinary business of buying and selling around it.A3, in this context, sits as a latent reserve of open-ended potential.
My meeting with Enoch Cheng was at night. Standing outside of A3, he looked intently at how light from the neighbouring pharmacy—the neon sign and flashing LED advertising panels—was reflected on the mirrored-glass façade of the thirty-storey South Pacific Hotel, on the opposite side of the street. He began imagining how to change the function of the space by, in his words, “going further than the face value of things.”2
Shortly after this meeting, Enoch Cheng had to leave Hong Kong to attend to other projects, and he invited independent curator Jeff Leung to explore A3 in his absence. The first part of this collaboration involved Jeff Leung spending several hours each day at A3 in order to observe people passing by and hanging around in the vicinity. Enoch Cheng described A3’s shop front space for art as a site for “transactions”: “[What’s] crucial for an artist is to think of the shop as a medium (not just another ‘alternative site’) which is the mode of transaction between the audience and the artwork.”3 Jeff Leung’s presence at A3 served as a way to “collect the transaction.” By transaction, Cheng and Leung mean to address the more obvious transaction of goods and services that defines street life, but also want to point to the potential of other kinds of transaction: that of meanings, attention, desires, emotions, etc. At the time, however, neither of these two individuals articulated to one another what was or was not expected to be transacted. But, as a medium, A3 enabled speculation. While no work was yet on show, the process of art had already begun; Enoch Cheng was attempting to lay out as many possibilities as he could. Among these possibilities, he prioritized the impact of A3 on his self-reflection as an artist: “I’d like to open up a space, a gap even, for myself to be vulnerable in the sense that I cannot take complete control of my work at this stage.”4
The second part of Enoch Cheng’s exploration was directed to the colour blue. He spoke of how this single colour, like those colours representing the banks in this area at night, was prevalent and he wanted to reverse this branding during daytime. Posters of blue were mounted onto the windows at A3 so that they would gradually become dusty and sun-bleached. The posters covered the shop windows completely, except for one hole through which the colour blue was projected onto the opposite wall of the building facing A3. Whereas the windows of shop fronts conventionally function as mediators of consumerist desires and promise the fulfillment of these desires, A3’s windowpanes, covered in blue, interrupted the economy of these desires by reflecting back the light from passing traffic and from shops around A3—these blurry images took the place of objects with price tags. If onlookers are assumed to be predominantly potential consumers, A3 resisted this assumption and offered them a more open-ended social identity that was not pre-determined. Reflecting on A3 during his travel—and by this time it was around six months since his first encounter—Enoch Cheng, borrowing from Gaston Bachelard, described it as “a space of reticence”; “I begin to miss A3 like a person from a distance; it seems to have a life of its own.”5 His future inhabitation of A3 as an artist—of moving himself into the space—transformed into an attempt of coming to terms with the puzzle of himself as an artist: what else could be done besides showing?
When Enoch Cheng returned to Hong Kong from his travels, he followed Jeff Leung’s approach of spending time in the space, but decided on a more selective approach by inviting one person at time to A3 for conversations about their experience of the space of A3. This marked the third stage of his exploration of A3—instead of covering the windows with blue posters as he previously had done, he turned to a different kind of interface with the surroundings, seeking to engage others with him in the space and bringing the idea of “transaction” into a more intimate and personal context. My observation is that Enoch Cheng changed his approach in engaging with A3 not because he was guided by the goal of what to show in the space, but because he was choosing between making a critique of the city in general through visual art (or understanding his reaction to A3 as both a citizen and artist participating in public life) and his role as an artist caught within the daily rhythm of street life, something foreign to his previous practice. The latter turned out to be of more interest for him. His struggle with the meaning of being an artist was his primary and immediate reality; it was journey of self-reflection, and any social critique would, if at all, come later.
Many of those who participated in the conversations with the artist became the audience of his film that was shown in an A3 now stripped bare of the blue posters. Shown in situ as Untitled but later named FearLess,6 the film is narrated by a female protagonist walking through the streets around A3 at night, taking a tunnel bus across the harbour, and telling the viewers about her fear—a fear she said she could only name but not understand.
Enoch Cheng describes the film as:
. . . loosely structured, with very little narrative, yet hopefully the rhythm, the senses, would flow well. The audience is likely to have a feeling: What the fuck am I watching? Why am I here? What''s this? And so on and so forth. I think this space of unknown is very important to me. And I like to give my audience the space of that unknown, almost like nothingness, in exchange for their time.”7
He was starting to share the impact A3 had on him with others, “Unlike a characterless white cube, once you start putting things in A3, it talks back to you with the real condition from the environment, and then I''d have to respond accordingly. Trying my best by thinking with my hands, getting there.8
The final part of Enoch Cheng’s project—by now named Yet to be titled (not titled)—was to invite a group of around twelve people back to A3. At the start of this event, he was not present in person. Participants could hear his voice speaking through a walkie-talkie. The acoustic gesture was both evocative and functional: he greeted us and declared the event open, while also giving instructions for us to take a tunnel bus across the harbour, eventually arriving at the Hong Kong Coliseum in Hunghom, where he was waiting. His solo dance in the dark set off the beginning of the end of the project, with a final group chat in the empty public space outside of the Hong Kong Coliseum. Enoch Cheng transformed A3 from an empty space to be filled to a place to considerhis displacement and dislocation as a struggling and thinking artist.
In thinking about the idea of leadership within the artistic process, I would like to note several significant moments in Enoch Cheng’s project. He first engaged with A3 as a cultural critic, contesting and responding to the polemics already in place in terms of how art is shown—the overly determined profit-making initiatives (sidelining the value of experimentation and exploration), the overly directed imperatives to popularize art (sidelining the value of the seclusion and otherworldliness of art), and the focus on artists’ signature styles (sidelining creative processes and their failures as essential to art, too). The turn came, as he recalled in an interview,9 when he expressed to me his feeling of anxiety about A3, which generated long periods of doubt. Part of the anxiety came from the character of A3: how close it was to the busy streets nearby, while failing to attract the attention that the other streets were capable of. The tension that created this anxiety was between his desire to exhibit in a relatively public context compared to an art gallery that exists for a select few, and hiding himself and his art away from what might be scrutinizing or apathetic gazes from anonymous members of the public.
In hindsight, I found his anxiety productive not only because it became a motif of his film work, but also because it contributed to an understanding the leadership role art plays in public life. To lead, in his case, is not to draw upon the qualities of leadership that are often acknowledged to be part of political and business leadership,10 but to be sufficiently withdrawn—but not so much as to become isolated—and to resist the temptation to make art in a context where everything is under his control. In so doing, he made a choice to be claimed by something larger than himself, something that affects him within the realm of the social. This social is not social in the interpersonal way, but social in that he is opening himself up to the possibilities of the street and its culture—it is in this space that he submits to and works within a space of open-endedness and uncertainty. As engaged retreat, it is a step toward freeing the potential of the individual, the contextual space, and art.
After evaluating what he had done, Enoch Cheng told me in an interview, “As an artist, I am exercising my right to imagine and reconfigure existing terminology. To call this lucid dreaming may be an exaggeration but I am taking ownership of life.”11 I think he has done more. He confronted his fear by trying to understand it through inviting others to be its witness and discovering opportunities for fear to be transformed. “I care how I enable the conditions for art to happen. Everyone is so busy in Hong Kong. There is no time to understand myself, others, and art. So this is the condition. I didn’t know this was the condition until I [encountered A3].”12
The second artist I would like to discuss is Mei-to Man, who created The Laundry Shop in May 2016 at A3. This installation consisted of a light box placed on the ground that emitted a white light. Several piles of clean laundry appeared to be undulating in this light, which extended upward onto the white wall. The aesthetic of white on white alluded to the idea of blandness, a stark contrast to the dominating presence of light in the surrounding shopping district that is centred on the competition of colours, the augmentation of Chinese characters, and the naming of brands and goods. To borrow Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly’s idea of how poets see things shining,13 Mei-to Man directly challenges the way other objects that inhabit the street rely on external lighting to shine by letting the objects she has installed shine from within: literally for having absorbed sunlight, hence metaphorically shining, just as one says a person metaphorically radiates from within when joyful, and teleolgically, borrowing from Aristotle’s philosophy of ethics, how living beings shine when they flourish according to their own characteristic activity; for human beings, it is the use of reason to seek the good for a complete lifetime that enables us to flourish. In the case of Man’s laundry, one could see dignity out of the quality she attempts to restore onto essential objects and processes of ordinary human life.
The Laundry Shop is also an extension of Mei-to Man’s previous works that she performed on the streets of Hong Kong. She has had a consistent interest in wandering through the city with no particular purpose and deferring and defying the imperative to keep time, count time, and maximize the monetary value of time. In 2013, she brought a pail full of mud from Ping Che, a district in the northwestern part of Hong Kong (subject to large-scale property development that residents protested against), to a zebra traffic crossing in the middle of the city in Kwai Fong, spreading a thin layer of the mud onto the stripes. The resulting smell of field and garden in the city centre made those crossing the street and stepping into the mud complicit in bringing nature back to the city. The mud lives and decays as it is picked up by a range of differing bodily rhythms of passing pedestrians and transplanted to other parts of the city. It complicates the way the city propels us to move through it—she asks and shows what, instead, could be moved. In 2015, at a damaged and unused highway near Hong Kong’s old Kai Tak Airport, she made House on the ground, in which thin, grid-shaped layers of wax were laid on the asphalt, depicting a house being composed brick by brick. After twenty-six days in the midsummer heat, the wax completely melted, as if a mirage were borne out of the ongoing construction of the cruise terminal that would replace the former runway. Mei-to Man’s interest in the passing of time is fully bound up with her imagination of nature and the traces of human bodies, both in and as nature, which began to show in her graduation work at the Hong Kong Art School in 2015. Her installation of three works—To be a Hill, Mao.Lake, and Little Island—was a sketch of a landscape. To be a Hill, for example, consisted of a row of triangular-shaped objects of wax, and Little Island consisted of embroidery hoops with silk stockings stretched over them, impregnated with undulating wax and suspended in the air. Both works could be read as imitating ridges and the crests of mountains. The reference to the shapes of specific components of the natural landscape is consistent with her interest in bridging rapid urban development with elements of nature that have been sidelined in the process. Alternatively, instead of a figurative reading, her graduation work could also be understood as a juxtaposition between the softness of wax and the sharpness of fishing lines, safety pins, and needles, some of the materials she employs, hence alluding to the tension between the blandness that can be represented by serenity and the eccentricity of punctuating blandness itself. At A3, The Laundry Shop brings the fluidity of her materials and practice into the social realm. Mei-to Man huddled in A3 for five hours each day, four days a week, to wait for any passers-by to inquire about the laundry service she offered and to collect and distribute laundry from those who had signed up for the service. For the rest of the week, she went to the edge of the city to wash the laundry and then dried it in the sun and wind. The clean laundry would then be brought back to the shop to be collected by visitors.
While at A3, Mei-to Man received comments she hadn’t expected, such as “Is this really free?” or “Show me your hands to prove that you work with your hands like a worker.” People were confused as to whether The Laundry Shopwas a trick or a scam. This ambivalence might be the challenge the artist is proposing with the work—when the laundry is inspected like a specimen by the public, calling for us to check whether nature had touched it and given it life, it revealed the negating structures of purification established in the city, where the life-giving processes of sun and wind are rendered irrelevant to human life. Mei-to Man refuted the way the city is currently organized by introducing what should be an ordinary experience in the streets of Hong Kong. I must emphasize the streets because that is the scale she chooses to work with: the streets that are overly determined by clock-time (e.g., by timetables of public transport, opening and closing hours of spaces for consumption, the repetition of construction signboards with project start and end dates determined by contracts, etc.). Mei-to Man, instead, produces an experience of time that is not reducible to the above, but, rather, lived in its diversity, perplexity, and complexity—as lifetimes, ecological time, and time of hope for the future. Streets are no longer mere passages. Her project offered time for strangers on the streets to stop and greet her, ask questions, and imagine and share meanings with her about their shared presence and possible futures. Her proposition that a free service such as this could actually happen in the street was a firm provocation, however humble.
In an interview, Mei-to Man spoke of the process of art making as a way of challenging herself.14 She refuses the “self” as constituted by the city and she seeks to convey the partially known potential of imagining herself to appear otherwise. This act of refusal enables other alignments of meaning within established public culture. She specifically coined the phrase “self-recognizing-self” to describe how the ‘self’ is often the kernel of the struggle of an idea that is brewing in relation to the city she is fully immersed in every day. The power of the city is strong, and her mistrust of it is just as strong. While the city takes away her ability to recognize herself, something she could not articulate in language, her artworks show the systematic displacement of the creative processes that nature never fails to show. When she decides to speak out, it’s a matter of necessity, reason, and will—art becomes an opportunity for her to recognize herself as she is and as she could be.
What have Enoch Cheng and Mei-to Man done to inform the question of how artists can be leaders? Both of their experiences show that they flourish as artists not only through what they make, but, perhaps more importantly, through how they make it, a process in which self-relation is a vital part. The idea of self-relation has both modern and ancient origins. Aristotle has alluded to the self-to-self relation in Nicomachean Ethics when discussing the perfect kind of friendship as being that of self-lovers, and, primarily, belonging to oneself:
For it is said that we must love most the friend who is most a friend; and one person is a friend to another most of all if he wishes good to the other for the other’s sake, even if no one will know about it. But these are features most of all of one’s relation to oneself; and so too are all the other defining features of a friend, since we have said that all the features of friendship extend from oneself to others.15
For Aristotle, the self-lover is one who does not have internal conflict, the result of applying the principle of reason that is able to win over other parts of the soul given that habits of doing so could be developed.
Both Enoch Cheng and Mei-to Man present many struggles within the mind. The application of reason in their processes enables them to choose what is good about making art in the streets, but, prior to this, they employed imagination that informedtheir thinking, eventually making it possible for reason to function. Their tendency of holding onto the imagination and thinking about what may appear unplanned in their work affects the way they work in the streets and demonstrates the potential of how we, too, can think of public culture consisting of more or other than its already established meanings.
What made their work possible included the process of losing the “self” that both Enoch Cheng and Mei-to Man experienced. This is not to say they do not have a sense of self, but that recognition of that self is a durational and ongoing process. The self is not necessarily apparent to them at all times, but it is something they continue to think about. In the relationship of the self to art making, they do not have a defined plan that reason serves to find answers or commensurability. Instead, they leave that relationship open. There is nothing to know, but a certain yet-to-be-known that interests them about their self-relation and their relation to the world.
In The Life of the Mind, (1978) Hannah Arendt proposes that thinking is different from knowing. “Knowing certainly aims at truth, even if this truth, as in the sciences, is never an abiding truth but a provisional verity that we expect to exchange against other, more accurate verities as knowledge progress. To expect truth to come from thinking signifies that we mistake the need to think with the urge to know. Thinking can and must be employed in the attempt to know, but in the exercise of this function it is never itself. . . .”16 While knowing is more an activity that serves a prescribed end, where the mind follows the parameters it sets up for itself, thinking is open-ended.
What makes this kind of thinking possible? Arendt brings in the idea of imagination. She makes a case for the imagination, regarding meaning, being a primary function in the thought process, of it being before the thought process. Mental activities, she says, can only “come into being . . . through a deliberate withdrawal from appearances” in which this withdrawal is not so much “from the world” as “from the world’s being present to the senses.”17 It is the mind’s faculty of making present what is absent that we can “constitute a past for ourselves” and “get ready for a future.”18 This process that Arendt calls “de-sensing” enables the mind to move from handling the presence of the particulars to handling the abstract and the general.
Arendt’s articulation of how imagination makes thinking happen provides insight into what artists do as contributors to—as leaders in—public culture. “Not sense perception, in which we experience things directly and close at hand, but imagination, coming after it, prepares the objects of our thought.”19 Arendt’s approach to understanding the mind helps us see the limits of the language of politics—which is productive, useful, and essential at times, but not always capable of adequately informing the reality of an artist’s experience in making art. Arguments for civility and the deliberation of rights and common good in political philosophy may have been overly determined by reason and the use of language (in particular, speech) so that the role of imagination, the freedom of the mind, has received little concomitant discussion in public culture, something about which artists have much to say.
I have yet to find evidence that artists are encouraged to become leaders with what they are already doing for themselves. I have yet to see artists interested in regarding themselves as leaders. There is much self-perception and regulation of the self, and even forgoing it in the capacity of one’s role as a citizen, which seemingly presents a better and nobler moral choice. I think this is a false choice. Artists, just like other citizens, have the double capacity of being themselves as well as members of civil society. One capacity does not need to override the other in order to articulate the value of art in public life.
Those who interpret the value of art have a choice in interpreting the artist’s way of being—whether viewing the artist as a self-centred kind of contingent existence with a doubtful contribution to public culture or acknowledging precisely how this care for the self might be timely and vital to an expanding “ideology of needlessness”20 that continues to undermine our human and historical need for self-development and understanding our Being in our experience. If we are willing to open up our choices of interpretation and, more importantly, activate our capacity for empathy, we have a chance of seeing artists as visionary beings21 who perhaps have a vulnerable voice and who may not necessarily be forthcoming or eloquent about what they do but who are already participating in public life as full human beings. This choice does not immediately make artists leaders in society, just as this does not make any other member of our citizenery leaders. My point is that equal attention is owed to what leaders do for themselves as to what they do for others as an essential component of good leadership. When artists themselves are encouraged to bring this self-governing capacity to consciousness, to recognize this as a moral capacity that they too can flourish in, there is a chance that the process of the valuing of art may look different from its market value and its instrumentalized function for social, cultural, and political change. Our shared public life can present more layers of meaning that are yet unresolved but are full of potential to be engaged with, and this may lead to a different way of distributing the authority of art—from goods determined by systems of valuation after they are made to a constituent element of the well-being of humanity. There are always honour and glory to be distributed, but so, too, the vulnerability and incommensurability of human life and how uncertainties and self-doubt are but a vital part of human expression.
The last question then becomes: Can artists be motivated to regard themselves as leaders? I don''t know. But if society cannot shake up the way it one-sidedly encourages only some, rather than all citizens, to lead and to aspire to lead, I would say, what an awfulwaste!
1 “Stairwell spaces” are located under the stairwells of three- to ten-storey buildings,commonly known as tong lau. They are crucial components of the cultural fabric of Hong Kong and are undergoing urban transformation. Efforts to document or recall memories of them have been made in recent years in such projects as “Kwun Tong Culture and Histories,” an online “participatory, web-based, interactive, and locative archive” on community history, founded in 2009 by artist Anson Mak and currently supported by twenty contributors in response to the Hong Kong SAR government’s urban renewal plan of the district of Kwun Tong: http://www.kwuntongculture.hk/en/home.php?op=cat&id=22
2 E-mail conversation between the author and Enoch Cheng, October 11, 2015.
5 E-mail conversation between the author and Enoch Cheng, January 4, 2016.
6 The duration of FearLess is 17 mins., 49 secs.
7 E-mail conversation between the author and Enoch Cheng, March 7, 2016.
8 E-mail conversation between the author and Enoch Cheng, March 3, 2016.
9 Skype conversation between the author and Enoch Cheng, October 10, 2016.
10 See Timothy Fuller, ed., Leading and Leadership (Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2000); Richard Hall, David Grant, and Joseph Raelin eds., Leadership Development and Practice, vols. 1 and 4 (London: Sage, 2015); Martin Gerner, Lead Agency: UNESCO’s Global Leadership and Co-ordination Role of the United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (2005–2014) (Frankfurt: Peter Lang Academic Research, 2015). A different but relatively rare emphasis on the importance of “how we are within ourselves” as a quality of leadership is recognized in Tony Humphreys’ Leadership with Consciousness (Cork, Ireland: Attic Press, 2011).
11 Skype conversation between the author and Enoch Cheng, October 10, 2016.
13 Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance, All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age (New York: Free Press, 2011).
14 Interview with Man Mei-to, Café Ceres, Kowloon City, October 31, 2016.
15 Terence Irwin, trans. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, second edition
, (Indianapolis/ Cambridge: Hackett Publishing, 1999), 1168b5.
16 Hannah Arendt, Life of the Mind (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1981), 60.
17 Ibid., 75.
18 Ibid., 76.
19 Ibid., 86–7.
20 David Michael Levin, The Opening of Vision: Nihilism and the Postmodern Situation (New York: Routledge, 1988), 468.
21 Ibid., 3.
This article was first published in the May/June 2017 issue of Yishu: Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art