Excessive Enthusiasm: Activating The Ha Bik Chuen Archive
Friday, October 28, 7pm
Asia Art Archive in America
Transcribed by Daisley Kramer and edited by Hilary Chassé and Jane DeBevoise
Hilary Chassé (HC): My name is Hilary Chassé. I am the manager here at Asia Art Archive in America. Our Chair Jane DeBevoise just left for Hong Kong for a month, so I have the delightful task of introducing our speaker for tonight, Michelle Wong, who is visiting from Hong Kong.
Just a little bit about our space for those of you who are visiting for the first time. This is the New York mini-hub of the main office in Hong Kong that focuses on contemporary art from and of Asia. We do lots of small programs here, where we have speakers like Michelle come and share their work. We try to be a space for conversations and debate about contemporary art coming out of Asia.
By way of introduction Michelle works as a researcher in the Hong Kong office of Asia Art Archive. Her research projects include the Ha Bik Chuen Archive which she will tell you more about tonight, along with the Hong Kong Art History Research Project, developed in conjunction with the Fine Arts Department at the University of Hong Kong. This past summer she was the assistant curator at the 11th Gwangju Biennale. But without much further ado, I’ll let Michelle take it away. We will leave time for questions at the end.
Michelle Wong (MW): Thank you Hilary and thank you all for coming on a Friday night. It is great to see so many familiar faces and to be in New York.
Let me give you a little bit of background on the video you were just watching. This is actually a video document, produced by a videographer named Luke Casey. Born in England, Luke Casey has been living in Hong Kong for last 3-4 years. We have worked very closely with him documenting the Ha Bik Chuen Archive. All of the images in this video come from the Ha Archive which I will speak about soon. This video is just one way of activating the materials that have been collected by this one artist. Now let me start from the beginning …
As Hilary mentioned in her introduction, the Ha Bik Chuen Archive is one of the projects that I run in Hong Kong. Ha—we can just call him ‘Ha’ which has a nice ring to it—was an artist who mainly practiced in Hong Kong. He passed away in 2009 and we started our project in 2013. In the following 20-25 minutes, I will speak in two parts; the first part will be on Ha as an artist and the second part will be on how we have been activating this archive. Ha Bik Chuen was an artist who was very knowingly modernist. While he worked a lot with media and collage techniques. he was mainly a sculptor and printmaker. This was one of the signature works that we in Hong Kong would know him by.
At the same time, Ha was a prolific photographer who photographed many things, including exhibitions, people, places, everyday life, and himself with his artwork. His photographic practices were not as recognized in Hong Kong as his printmaking and sculpture. When the Museum of Art in Hong Kong organized a retrospective [of his work] two years after he passed away, only two works of photography made it into the show of 82 works. We like to joke that these two works were included in the retrospective because they look a bit like ink painting, [laughter] as if they were smuggled in.
In 2013 we began a pilot project to map, assess, and selectively digitize Ha’s archive upon the invitation of the Ha family. It is the family’s wish that the entire archive becomes publicly available for use—not for display, but for use. I think this has different connotations. For us, the point of working on this project is not to restore [to the center] the photographic practice of this artist, but rather, we are in search of art history, and in particular, art exhibition history, which in many locations in Asia and in Hong Kong is very woefully thin. In a way this archive can offer different building blocks whereby we can write different art histories.
But, as good stories go, something else always happens instead. Now I’ll show you Ha’s studio … this is one of the rooms, just one … [laughter]
This is another one …
And this is the main room. This room is located in an apartment that takes up maybe 600 square feet. It’s on the top floor of a walk-up building in a very old part of Hong Kong. It is an eight floor walk-up. No elevator. It took 50 years to get everything in there. This was a very, very private place that even his widow, his family—he raised four kids— didn’t spend much time in.
Ha never taught in an art school, and while he sold some art [to help support the family], the Ha’s also ran a family-style factory, making plastic flowers. That is how they made a living. That is how they raised four kids. That is how this entire enterprise was financed. There is some other speculation, but that is what we think.
This place was not open to everyone. You had to be invited in. This was a fiercely private space. Only because of Ha’s passing were we able to work there. We have been digging in this archive now for about three odd years and the surprises have not stopped. I still get texts from my colleagues, saying ‘You won’t believe what we found today!’ We have to change our plans quite constantly, because when you find new things, your priorities may change (or may not) and you have to go through a process of discussing, deciding what to do, etcetera, etcetera.
Let’s look at what’s inside… Ha photographed exhibitions for 40-50 years and we did a little tally. He photographed over 1,500 exhibitions in Hong Kong and elsewhere, including New York and other parts of Asia, such as Manila and Malaysia…I don’ t think he went to Indonesia, but he went to a lot of places.
This image is of a show in 1963 at the City Hall in Hong Kong which was one of the first official exhibition spaces in Hong Kong.
Ha kept things in multiple formats, so there would be prints and there would be contact sheets. During the pilot project, we scanned over 3,500 contact sheets, and only those dated from 1982 – 1997. We chose to scan the contact sheets because mathematically, it was helpful. It helped us estimate how much material there actually was. Over seventeen years these were over 3,500 contact sheets. We did a little math; theoretically, over those 17 years there [would have been] over 100,000 prints if he had printed everything.
But it is impossible to tell when Ha started documenting the exhibitions. His own narrative, in available writing, was that he got his first camera in 1982. But how does that account for those photographs that were taken in the 1960s? We learned a lot by looking through some of the exhibition albums—he would develop the prints and put them into exhibition albums. These albums were annotated with masking tape, [denoting] the exhibition. The exhibition invitation card is usually stuck inside the album. In the envelope at the back, there might be more invitation cards or negatives, so it is like an entire set.
But back to the 1960s, he may have hired someone to take these photographs. Or maybe his wife took them. We don’t know, and it is difficult to know when he actually started photographing the exhibitions. For many of the exhibitions from the 1960s and 1970s, we don’t even know where to begin in identifying the participants, so we ask ourselves questions like: is it even necessary [for us] to identify these people? What does it actually bring you?
I like to show this picture because it shows a mixture of a cultural life and a family life. How do you distinguish the two or maybe you don’t?
The different forms of photographic documentation were also placed in different places inside his apartment.
This is Ha—he liked to photograph himself [laughter].
These are the rolls of film and they were usually in a top cupboard in the studio. Then there are contact sheets in these A4 folders, as you can see. These would be from the year 1995, including rolls 71-150, taken when he went to documenta10. Then there would be these photo albums which I was speaking about, and these are more accessible in custom-made shelves.
So some of the questions that we ask are: does the physical location of these albums suggest the value of their use, of the importance that Ha as an artist or an archivist had placed on them?
At the back of each photo, you usually find two numbers. [Take this one for example]. This is Johnson Chang, one of the major gallerists in Hong Kong, before he looks the way he does now. He dressed slightly differently then, compared to the way he does now. Have you see the two numbers…this would mean roll 76 in the year 1993. And usually every single photo would have their own numbers, so you can actually trace each print back to each contact sheet, back to each negative, if the negative did not decompose that is, because we do encounter those situations.
So the question is, why did he keep so many forms of this documentation? Does this system actually work? It has mostly worked for us so far, but it also fails for us sometimes. Is this the archival process itself resisting interpretation, articulation, and the editorial as a research process?
The photographic image also [captures] impressions of temporality and Ha’s contact sheets are interesting to us because they are as indexical as it gets. This is literally the order in time in which he photographed.
However, there would be moments when Ha’s own editorial decisions to annotate the contact sheets would complicate the picture. For example, while one row of film would contain documentation of multiple occasions, he would choose to name the sheet as one particular occasion in that role. In a way this implied that he perhaps found that instance more important than the other.
He also liked to frame images and re-photograph books just to make things even more complicated. This would be a typical example of him reframing images through little pieces of paper. Then he would develop these prints and make them into photo albums. This example happens to be of white male artists. For example, this is Miró. This would have been a frame. And this is a book he laid on a wooden table and then re-photographed as if he is re-composing these artists’ catalogue raisonnes. There are many Picassos, a few Mirós, a few Matisses, and then a few other artists, some of them Asian, most of them not.
These collecting practices also extend to ephemera. They are often found in these very beautiful Kodak boxes. The labels are indicative of what is found inside, but sometimes, they are not, so it is a little hit and miss, but usually it is right. You can see [on this one] ‘Hong Kong, art camera, nude’. There are a lot of nude images in there. These are usually from earlier, from the ‘70s and ‘60s when his documentation practice and the collecting practice are intertwined.
Ha Bik Chuen studio detail, 2016.
This is us opening some of the boxes.
Ha hardly spoke any English and he, definitely didn’t read Korean, nor Japanese. But in the ephemera that he collected there were Japanese magazines, Korean magazines, lots of Illustrated London News and entire Life magazines. In interviews that we did with his wife and his son, we learned that Ha had befriended magazine sellers, so they would save up these visual materials for him to buy at a very cheap price.
Leaflet published by Wen Wei Pao during the 1967 Leftist Riots, 1967.
There were also political images. This was a leaflet from 1967, when pro-communists started a riot in an attempt to bring the Cultural Revolution to Hong Kong. It failed and this started a very long stigmatization of the left in Hong Kong – a stigmatization that continues until today. This leaflet was published by the pro-communist newspaper and we found it (coincidentally) at a time when the Umbrella Movement was emerging in Hong Kong. This of course begs a re-reading of these materials.
Ha also collected a lot of artist portraits and you can find these across many different mediums, in these bound magazines, or in books, in his own photography, and in slides. You will see that it extends through many many years; he did this throughout his entire lifetime.
We like to ask, is he teaching himself to be an artist by referencing how other artists position themselves and how they were posing with their work? It also made us ask questions about art lineages. Was Ha trying to insert himself into an art historical canon? Or was he demanding that it be written differently? This kind of posing with his artwork may be one way of doing that.
This willfulness to alter the art historical canon also is visible in the collage books that he made, by pasting and recomposing images in cut-outs. Some of these books are actually interior design books. He would paste cutouts from different times. You can clearly see that some of them are from art magazines, some of them are originally from cultural materials from contemporary times, as if he really hated these interior spaces and needed to re-hang the images.
There is one collage book that we think is an art historical proposition. This particular one is a modified book based on a Sotheby’s auction catalogue from the year 2000. The cover image says ‘Ink Revelations.’ For the perhaps less art-historically acute eye, this work could pass as an Asian ink painting, but if you look more carefully, this is in fact a painting by an Italian artist, Giuseppe Capogrossi which he pasted onto the cover. If you look inside, you see more juxtapositions of what we know as Western art with Asian ink.
This is Miró with Zhang Daqian 張大千, one of the major Asian ink painters in China. Here is Matisse with Ding Yanyong 丁衍庸, another major Asian ink painter in China. And this is a Hong Kong modern ink artist. Sometimes, these images just seem to be visual play, as if he got distracted and was just kind of composing images. Some of them really work. This is one of our favorites.
Page from a Ha Bik Chuen collage book titled Ink Revelations 水墨啟示錄, circa 2009.
Here, he inserted himself in with something that was clearly from the 90s or maybe 2000. For us seeing this on a daily basis, we were constantly reminded that this artist and archivist not only experienced and saw the world by collecting and re-appropriating images, but he also created new worlds. As we access his worlds, we should feel liberated to create our own as well.
Now I will shift gears to look at what we have done so far. In 2015, we organized a small exhibition in our space in Hong Kong that is primarily a library space.
This is the view from our library; it looks onto more buildings, because that is how Hong Kong is. The exhibition was an invitation for the public to come and engage with the materials and for us to show what we had found. The show was titled ‘Excessive Enthusiasm: Ha Bik Chuen and the Archive as Practice.’
What you are looking now at is a video of a book being flipped; it is one of the collage books that we found in Ha’s archive. At the time we found maybe 15 collage books, and we scanned all of them and you can view them from the iPad. Some objects were placed in a vitrine. We included some of the original materials and also reproduced some of the contact sheets. The contact sheets were selected very carefully; we kind of knew some of the people who would come to see the show, so we tried to find in the contact sheets [with pictures of] these people. During the exhibition were situations where people said, ‘Oh that was me from 30 years ago!’ and we would say, ‘Yes! There is a reason [we showed that image!] We want to know about what you did at that time. Tell us!’ I think there is something about the contact sheets that draws you in and asks you to look for more.
For this exhibition, we also worked with students from a local architecture school. We were working with some architects to design a [modular, reusable] display system and when we asked them how they wanted to do use these materials, they said they wanted to work with their students. So, together with their students, they re-created one of the exhibitions that Ha documented in detail, in a miniature architectural model. There was enough documentation to actually identify each and every individual work, and even though the building [in which the exhibition was held] [had been] knocked down, [they re-created the space too.] We did a little bit of detective work. We went to a service apartment building or hotel to look for an archive of the former St John’s ambulance building and we actually found the footprint, and this is what the students created.
There was a lot of Photoshop work to make the work look as it should and then we hung the works in the model. Ha of course photographed himself in that exhibition. And the students did an amazing job of putting him in.
This is a great example of what can happen when you open materials up to others; they will surprise you.
This is one of the most unusual objects that we found in Ha’s archive; it’s a Koran of some sort. This leads me to talk about some of the artistic collaborations that we have begun with some of the artists in Ha’s archive.
Page from Ha Bik Chuen collage book titled At Home with Art , circa 2004.
Actually, we ourselves didn’t find the collage books; Walid Raad did. We had invited Walid to come to Hong Kong for a short residency, and it was at that time that we brought him over to see the Ha Archive. There was a 2,500 volume reference book library in Ha’s archive which we decided not to process because we didn’t think it was exhibition documentation and hence not our priority. We didn’t look at these books at all. Then Walid Raad came in and looked at one [of the “reference” books] and said, ‘This is actually a collage book. You guys better change your entire way of working!’ So we had to change our plan [to recognize] that we are working with something much more complex. Since then we have been working with Raad and this is one of the works that he created, in response to Ha’s archive.
Raad turned one of the pages of Ha’s collage books into a 3-D form. There is so much resonance in Ha’s practice with Walid’s fictional character, Suha Traboulsi, that Walid has spun a story that they were long-term collaborators. This is an image is of the boxes that were installed in our library a few months ago. They were all based on Ha’s actual collages and then Walid inserted his little interventions here and there. The story was that Suha and Ha became such good friends that they began collaborating and Suha would paint these little fragments of lost Arab modern paintings into these collage books. As our research team opened each and every book, we began to find these little fragments that we began to piece together, so this is what you can see.
This was the condition of Ha’s studio a couple of years back. The ceiling began to fall in, because it is a very old [and under-maintained] building; it is almost 60 years old. So we were at a tipping point where if we didn’t do something, we might risk a total loss. We are now very lucky to be fully funded for the next three years by the Hong Kong Jockey Club, the biggest charity in Hong Kong. So one fine July day in the middle of the summer, we decided to move the archive. We decided [on this time] because it is right before the rainy season and we didn’t want risk the roof further deteriorating because of the rain. It was a challenge because the studio is small and the free space even smaller. In the studio the passageway that was only a foot wide and everything had to be packed, so that it would be moved through it. We had to shuffle to get around in the tiny space. We did a little mathematical calculation with the architect that we worked with who then hand-drew the entire architectural plan of the studio itself. This is how many boxes we thought we needed.
The entire staff of AAA—all our amazing colleagues—jumped in to help with the move. But we didn’t even move everything. There was a lot of art inside the apartment and because we are not equipped to conserve or process the art, we didn’t move that. What we were doing was packing all of the archival material and any published material. And there was no air-con. [Remember Hong Kong is extremely hot in the summer.] But the ventilation was ok—we brought in a few fans. We were packing in two teams of three with a very detailed architectural drawing that was labeled, noting where the material came from, who packed it, when, and what was inside. And along the way, we found lots of funny things. The art that is left is currently being evaluated by museums in Hong Kong for possibility of collection.
This is Mrs. Ha, Ha’s widow who still lives across [the hallway] alone. Then there was this really laborious, crazy process of moving. Eight flights of stairs. We filled a 5.5-ton truck three times. It was a bit like playing Lego; the studio is so small that while you could fit things into boxes, as soon as you did, you filled up the space such that the studio was completely full, so full, you couldn’t do anything more. So we had to have the workers come and move the boxes before we could start again. We did that three or four times.
After we packed one whole layer of material, we found this.
We did not know this existed until we actually packed up the first layer. We were like, ‘Okay!’ Most of these were actually magazines. It was amazing. So, we did that a few more times, and moved it over to the new project space. This is how we left the studio:
The studio doesn’t look as full as before, but it is definitely not empty. We now have a dedicated project space which is over 2000 square foot [in total], which is huge, but it is still barely enough space. We also have a dedicated working team of three people, including myself. We work there now to process these materials, but also to identify collaborators to work with us. It is always better to work together. We just started opening these boxes and we are already finding new things. What is this? [laughter]
This is from 1958. It is bound magazine materials of what Ha thought was beauty from abroad. There is another volume on modern art—we have to look into what that is [laughter].
But since we are in New York, I want to show you some things from New York. Ha came to New York in 1983. I believe this might have been Ming Fei’s studio.
Audience member: … Ming Fei’s studio…on Broadway?
MW: This is the Kwok gallery, in Chinatown.
And this I don’t know where it is… In 1983 Ha came to the US for a show in Minnesota and then traveled around the country, mostly on the East coast. He went to the MoMA, the Guggenheim. He photographed in these museums and it, will be quite interesting to see what he photographed.
Now let me backtrack a little. Ha’s archive was one man’s effort, but that one man’s effort inspired us to say we should do something different; we should be working collectively because it is impossible and a little foolish to be working alone on this. It is necessary to have multiple entry points into an archive as rich and complex, and as generous as this one, and as such we should be sharing this [resource] with equally excessive enthusiasm and veracious curiosity. In the next 2 years, what we are going to do is to host a series of projects as well as residencies, fellowships, and workshops that are both internal and public, to figure out what we can do with this body of material. We only hold this collection of material for three years, so one of the important things to do is to find it a permanent home with the right institution. AAA in Hong Kong cannot hold this forever. If the collection gets housed in a museum or creatively in a university library, it could be very interesting. With that I’m going to end and take questions.
Audience member: To what extent are you digitizing as you go along?
MW: We hope to digitize maybe around 15% of what there is. In our proposals, we said that the first two years we would digitize maybe 3%, but these were made up numbers. At the moment, instead of carpet scanning or digitizing everything we are having the digitization be driven by research inquiries. For example, if one of the research fellows decides to develop something on New York, then we would scan the material on New York. We definitely have an interest in the collage books, so we are going to look for those and scan them. Then of course, there are copyright issues. Some people might be interested in the newspaper clippings, but does it actually make sense to scan newspaper clippings that will go online? There are these things that are in play.
Audience member: What did Ha read, because I know he was looking a lot toward European modernists…but since he didn’t read English…?
MW: Our proposition was that he read visually and he read widely. We found catalogues of South Asian artists, huge monographs and catalogues of the British Museum’s collection, on Persia, a lot of Life Magazines… He seems to have read a lot [but as of yet] we haven’t gone through his library, so my answer to your question is I don’t know. But from the books in his collection, he must have read a lot of different images from ancient history to contemporary times. But maybe not text; we didn’t find theory books, or philosophy books. Mostly books with good images.
Audience member: Do you have an oral history or something from his family to give you an idea of 1925 on…?
MW: We interviewed his son and his wife. Unfortunately, his wife is extremely camera-shy and quite old. So whether these interviews could be included in an oral historical testimony I am not sure. And in a way that is also a bit liberating. There is this lightness, because in a way we have the liberty to imagine alternative possibilities.
Audience member: You said there were photographs of about 1500 exhibitions. Do you have a breakdown of how many were in Hong Kong, how many were elsewhere? And have you started collating them with known exhibitions?
MW: Most of the exhibitions are from Hong Kong, at least those that we have tallied. I don’t think we have tallied everything yet, but for the field in Hong Kong this material is extremely useful. But then there are also exhibitions from elsewhere, mostly China, after China opened its doors in the 1980s.
And we have started correlating and matching. Ha’s collection contains photographs of some important exhibitions that we have identified, for which we have found additional information in AAA’s larger collection of material, including material donated to us by other people. It has actually been possible to connect the different documentations.
We in fact have done that by identifying these different [types of] documentation and then using them as the teaching material in a course we co-organized with Hong Kong University, as a way to encourage students to read across primary and secondary source material.
Audience member: Can you talk a little but more about this Hong Kong University course or syllabus?
MW: Sure. It came out of another project, in collaboration with the Hong Kong Museum of Art. For that project we invited Hong Kong University lecturers who teach art history or art related courses to participate in a day-long workshop; we sort of locked them in a room and brainstormed about what could be done [about teaching Hong Kong art history], and what the syllabus could look like. Afterwards The University of Hong Kong suggested a collaboration to develop a course as action research to see how our materials could be used and how the method of art history could be interrogated.
Audience member: I have two questions: Was all the exhibition documentation solely for his personal use? Is there any record that he was ever hired to take photographs, that his photographs were ever re-published in magazines? And then the second question is: you mentioned that he probably financed his life through the plastic flower business that his family ran; what was his commercial career like as an artist?
MW: The first question about whether or not they were for his personal use… yes and no. Yes, because he kept it in his personal archive but what I forgot to mention was that he would develop prints for people that he photographed and give them to them the next time he saw them. There are shoe boxes of single prints in envelopes with people’s names on them. Some people claim that he would ask them for money, and some people would say that they have always gotten their prints for free. I don’t know how viable that would have been as a financial means of supporting the family. [laughter]
Then the second question…about his commercial career. He sold pretty well in Hong Kong to commercial galleries as well as to museums. We have found records of that; there are binders full of receipts and deeds. He was a commercially successful artist. I think he also sold in New York but I haven’t found which gallery.
HC: Other questions for Michelle?
MW: I was reminded of a conversation that we had with another artist when we were in Hong Kong who said that] the most exciting thing about working with this archive is the [question] of how you invoke the infinite (or idea/experience of infinite) by doing something finite, by opening a box, by working with a group of students to build an architectural model. This really moved me and has stayed with me, because it allowed me to imagine the fine balance between doing something small but imagining something big. It made me think about you can activate an archive in a sustainable and creative way.
I think one of the things we really want to organize is collage parties. Because that might be quite fun. The project space that we have is not close to the AAA office on Hong Kong Island, so for us it is a new challenge to have a satellite site, but it is also much bigger. It is close to artists’ studios. It is also close to an art school so I think that just by that physical shift of the site, we are reimagining what we could be doing.
Audience member: I have a question. When you go through and decide what to digitize, you said you were going to prioritize research requests, but you [also] said you had specific interests, like the collage books or a project about New York. In this case would you just take out a section of the materials, let’s say a section about New York, by going through the whole archive, selecting the different parts that are about NY…which means you are not really prioritizing his way of archiving, rather you are taking pieces out and altering the way that he saw the material holistically as an archive.
MW: For this particular inquiry, about New York, he had grouped the material on New York together. We have found over 200 slides of just New York. And I think the New York inquiry is also overlapping with some other [material] that AAA has, say from the Frog King Collection, which is another archive that we have collected. So the Ha project is really this amazing socket or hub into which you can plug anything and everything and you will find [a connecting link]. We found Pakistan in there. We have found India in there. We have found Vietnam. Actually there was this one particular show that included Vivan Sundaram, whose archive has been digitized by AAA researchers based in India, and Vu Dan Tan, a Vietnamese artist who used to run a space called Salon Natasha in Hanoi, another project that has been digitized by AAA, and a Hong Kong British artist Robert O’brien who lived in Hong Kong since 1976. They were all in the same show, and Ha documented it. The show was called ‘Being Minorities.’
Audience member: Where was it?
MW: It was in Hong Kong in Hong Kong Arts Centre … so you have these amazing points of convergence.
Audience member: Do you know at what point Ha started making those collage books?
MW: This [Beauty Abroad] was 1958. The ink one was 2009, the year he passed away.
Audience member: Is this just an art world related archive? Did he also take pictures of his personal life and aspects of his social life?
MW: This seems to be more of an art focused archive, but ask me again in six months. I may have a different answer. Most of the material so far is art related. Maybe one could speculate that earlier on in the 1950s and 1960s it was more a mixture. Perhaps one can read this as a practice that develops over time and takes different forms. Take for example, the boxes. He might have decided that they were more suitable for one thing than another. That is also a possible way of reading it.
Audience member: Did you notice any other instances of collage making among Hong Kong artists in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s?
MW: Not in this way. Most [artists at that time were using] ink, at least the ones that are visible now, the ones we now know. I am sure there are many undiscovered artists. But the ones that we know were mostly ink painters. And that goes back to the institutional structure [in Hong Kong], what most of the museums were collecting, what they valued and all that.
Audience member: Is there any record of him exhibiting any of his collage books or anything like that?
MW: No. They were never shown until 2015. When we found the first one, one of the first things we did was we call his gallerist and ask if he had ever seen these things and he said, ‘What are you talking about?’. So no, actually never. His son has said that these were his thinking processes, but I think now these are really interesting and they blur the line between the document and art works. I think as the materials begin to circulate more in exhibitions and even in biennials—actually part of Ha’s archive will be part of the Shanghai Biennale opening in a couple of weeks—we will see many interpretations; the challenge we have is how does one keep the project open to allow for the multiple manifestations without it getting lost in the contemporary art world.
Audience member: Was there a pattern to his exhibition-going?
MW: Yes. He liked ink [laughter].
Audience member: Also, when he travelled abroad, did he [just go see] whatever [exhibitions] were shown or did he go to places in particular? You mentioned Minneapolis, Minnesota?
MW: He went to documenta10. He went to Venice in 1993 which was a very important event for China because it was one of the first times after 1989, after Tiananmen, that Chinese contemporary art was shown outside China. Other overseas exhibitions. He went to Manila in 1982 because apparently Hong Kong artists used to show quite consistently in Manila since the 1960s. Perhaps instead of saying he had a pattern, he was also an artist who traveled to the shows that he was part of. So it is also a way of tracking what he did as an artist in his career.
HC: I think we have time for one more question…
Audience member: This might be an annoying question, but I will ask it anyway. I first saw your show about Ha in Hong Kong; you actually gave me a tour about three years ago… Has your point of view about this archive changed now that you have really dug into these materials? You seem to know it so well; you looked at this cover and know this is from 1958, for example. Is it becoming some sort of life commitment… And I’d like to know what future you are planning for this archive? Do you have a space in mind? When dealing with such a huge amount of materials, has your concept of the archive changed? Has your definition or your thoughts about the archive changed?
MW: Ha’s archive was his life work and it will take many more people’s life’s work to work on this. It is exciting… There are artists who will feed you, there are artists who will choke you (because they smoke around you), and then there are artists who will haunt you. I think Ha is one who will haunt, and I think the hauntings will be multiple. As for me, I have a personal connection to this archive because I visited it when I was a young person. My father is an artist and Ha and he were friends, so I remember visiting this place as a kid. Coming back to work on this can of course be very emotional, but how I approach it is [to think that] this is not ours to begin with. As custodians, we are just here at the right place at the right time. You can’t complete something like this, but maybe it doesn’t need to be completed, because it will [allow for] the next person to come in…
But you are definitely right. The archive oscillates between moments of clarity and moments of complete opacity and abstraction, because at one moment you will think, yes I have an understanding of how we should organize this, how we should budget this, how many people we should hire, how big a space we should have, and then you realize actually, we know very little. But that shouldn’t stop us from acting. So far, what has been proven right is that if you take that leap of faith, things usually happen and we will be fine. We have the funding. We have amazing people working on it. It is a gift that keeps giving, and we should have faith in that.
HC: Well, I think that is a great note to end on. Thank you all for coming. And Michelle and thank you very much for your talk. I am sure we all look forward to seeing how your and Ha’s journey continues to evolve and intertwine. And please come to Hong Kong to use the archive. We would love your help!
Michelle Wong is a Researcher at Asia Art Archive. Based in Hong Kong, she leads the Archive’s research projects in the city, including the Hong Kong Art History Research Project, the Ha Bik Chuen Archive Project, and the undergraduate course developed in collaboration with Fine Arts Department, The University of Hong Kong. Wong is part of “Ambitious Alignments: New Histories of Southeast Asian Art,”a research program funded through the Getty Foundation’s Connecting Art Histories initiative. She is also Assistant Curator for the eleventh edition Gwangju Biennale, South Korea.
Video and images courtesy of Asia Art Archive and the Ha Family.
This program is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, in partnership with the City Council.