the absence of hong kong art

Yan at Glutter got stuck into the abysmal state of contemporary arts in Hong Kong today, with My HK Contemporary Art Scene Challenge: Name ONE good show... So I immediately thought … Hong Kong … Art … good … In 18 months of writing here and 3 1/2 years of trawling through Southern China, I had some complimentary things to say about n + n corsino, and the 國際藝術家交流工作坊(香港) Hong Hong International Artists’ Workshop. I’ve also written fairly regularly about contemporary dance in the city.

The two problems there are firstly the art has been from overseas artists and not locals, and secondly much of what I write on contemporary dance is out of obligation. The majority of performances I see or hear about make me despair for the artform, and in any other country I spend time in I would simply ignore it. China and Hong Kong, and much of Asia (with the notable exception of Japan) are exceptions in that contemporary dance is still relatively new and needs all the support it can get. That along with the relative paucity of available information on it in English media means I write about it out of genuine interest.

As for Yan’s challenge, it’s not stupid or upsetting to remind a bunch of arts administrators that without artists they effectively have no purpose in existing, and perhaps some of their salaries and budgets could be better spent on art and artists in Hong Kong, instead of the verbal diarrhoea of arts marketing, where endless strings of words like ‘international’, ‘European’, ‘innovative’ are used to cover the gaping lack of support for the very people making Hong Kong art. Artist and journalist Norman Ford responded to Yan’s post too, and his article from last month on the Hong Kong scene is worth a read.

If we are to improve art in Hong Kong we must realize that blaming the government, as the former Hong Kong Arts Centre curator Oscar Ho and many others have repeatedly done, only puts us in the position of victims –powerless in the face of misguided bureaucrats. This is not only a simple-minded view but misses the point. It is now time to acknowledge that funding and policy are not the only issues. Part of the problem also lies with the underachievement of our own artists and galleries –when we expect too little, we generally get little in return.

— Norman Jackson Ford

What Have We Done To Deserve This?*

Norman Ford – 18.08.05

It’s often said you can only usefully critique that which you love. With that in mind, this article is a brief exploration of a Hong Kong visual arts community I have been fortunate enough to be a part of for many years. Looking at exhibitions, galleries and curatorial practice Hong Kong certainly has its share of talented, dedicated individuals and groups. Yet, it is hard not to feel that the arts community has reached a certain level of stagnation, with its general quality, intensity and professionalism lagging behind those of Beijing, Seoul, Taipei and many others in the region. Why? And what might be done?

The following is a set of what I feel are key concerns, culled from conversations and public forums with various members of the arts community (and follows a number of other more detailed, critical essays by John Batten). They are not intended to be comprehensive, particularly objective or free of exceptions. Overall, the arts scene is very fragmented with little connection between traditional and contemporary arts, museums and artists-run spaces, or even from one contemporary arts space to the next. This fragmentation can be associated with a tendency to avoid positioning in relation to particular issues. This results in organizations that, while deeply committed, are rarely willing to take a stance and defend it. Even when positions are taken, the lack of consistent, critical discourse hampers community dialogue, in turn denying a sense of accountability or agency.

Curators, arts groups and artists also have a tendency to be less than professional, due in part to material or bureaucratic restrictions but also to low expectations and indifference towards international contemporary art. Consequently, local arts suffer from a kind of isolationist, “island mentality”despite valiant efforts to the contrary.

A useful strategy in reaction to Hong Kong’s isolation is sending more artists overseas and to bring international artists here. While I am in complete agreement with this notion generally, doing so in the current climate may not accomplish what we hope for. Bringing international artists here requires an art scene that is ready, willing and curious enough to engage with what these artists have to say and show. Though local students, artists and educators infrequently attend local seminars, the dismal participation in events by visiting international artists is still difficult to comprehend.

And what of Hong Kong’s international efforts like the Venice Biennale projects? Upon critical examination we find well-intentioned exhibitions with talented artists, but shortsighted planning and a lack of support for artists –all combined with uneven artwork and weak curatorial tactics. This is not to suggest we should avoid the Biennale but we should do it more professionally, for example, by planning further ahead and being open to more sophisticated curatorial strategies.

The mediocrity in Venice has much to do with the general attitude towards curating in Hong Kong. Although we have scores of ‘curated’projects, there is little understanding or respect for curatorial work –especially in the major museums. There is simply no consistent support for its practice and only one full-time curator outside the museum system (Tobias Berger at the artists-run space Para/Site, now attempting to address these problems through a major reorganization). Professional curatorial practice, and the dialogue between artists and curators, can enhance a project’s intellectual and cultural content, relevancy and intensity. Therefore, we should support confrontational and provocative curatorial premises, understanding that curators are not here to force their ideas on artists but to support and complement their efforts.

Unfortunately, part of these structural problems come from unrealistic, naive guidelines imposed upon artists and arts groups by the Hong Kong Arts Development Council (ADC), the sole funding body for the arts. Through a checklist of requirements, for example that shows need an educational or outreach aspect, governmental policies tie their hands. It is now time to convince the ADC that “check-list exhibitions”do not work and allow the arts groups to make their own decisions, without denying the importance of community outreach.

In order to convince the government to change policy we must take responsibility for our actions, demonstrating that artists-run spaces have the vision and maturity to control their own projects. Complicating matters, however, is a lack of consequences for bad shows and, conversely, no recognition for very good ones. Therefore, shouldn’t the community itself be setting the standards, making qualitative judgments in an open and critical forum, in dialogue with governmental bodies?

But is there a forum for critical discourse where a show, curator or artist can be taken to task for the quality of their work? Sure, we have publications like PS Magazine, AM Post and the occasional article like this in the dailies, but none offer regular critical input. This does not come without a cost –no responsibility and no positioning tends to equal inconsistent, inconsequential art. So, perhaps we could form our own editorial committee and pursue matching public and private support for an independent, local/international arts periodical?

If we can engender a stronger discourse, perhaps we can refocus, emphasizing the art more than documentation or education. For example, look at the recent, well intended cross-cultural project Re:Wanchai –excessively documented and full of outreach tactics but resulting in banal work overall. Or consider this summer’s HK$3 million Box exhibition in Langham Place –ambitious and privately funded but based on a painfully conservative premise, with much of the work pedestrian at best. Were these problems a result of government policy, lack of focus or uninspired artistic and curatorial performance? (From my position, policy had little impact on either.)

If we are to improve art in Hong Kong we must realize that blaming the government, as the former Hong Kong Arts Centre curator Oscar Ho and many others have repeatedly done, only puts us in the position of victims –powerless in the face of misguided bureaucrats. This is not only a simple-minded view but misses the point. It is now time to acknowledge that funding and policy are not the only issues. Part of the problem also lies with the underachievement of our own artists and galleries –when we expect too little, we generally get little in return.

In the end, it’s important to recognize that these are complex and systemic problems, without simple solutions. That the various parts of the visual arts community are either disconnected (little intra-arts group dialogue), dysfunctional (the ADC and funding) or almost non-existent (critical discourse and curatorial practice) and improving one while ignoring others will not work. It’s time we raise our expectations and demand more from ourselves – the artists, critics, art spaces and curators –or, regardless of governmental action or inaction, we may continue to get what we deserve.

*This is the orignal draft on an article published in the South China Morning Post, City Section, 23.08.05