My Camera Doesn’t Lie? Documentary Aesthetics in East AsiaApril 24, 2015
Transcribed by Hilary Chassé, edited by Berny Tan and Jane DeBevoise
John Rajchman (JR): My name is John Rajchman and I’m in the Department of Art History at Columbia University. The idea for this very interesting event and series of screenings came from a student in our program, Beatrice Grenier, and it’s she and Xiaofei Mo who have done a lot of the organization, both intellectual and practical, to make this event happen. The title of the event, My Camera Doesn’t Lie, is a phrase that was used by Chinese filmmakers and became a kind of catch phrase for what is called the Sixth Generation of Chinese filmmakers. They worked in the post-Tiananmen political climate in the 1990s where there was this enormous urbanization on a scale that had never been seen before. They started to work in different ways and to collaborate with artists, and so with this in mind, ‘My camera doesn’t lie’ became a catch phrase. There were hand-held cameras, cheap equipment, amateur actors, and many features that informed the sort of documentary aesthetic that we hope to explore in this discussion.
The camera itself looked at this new urbanization from a peculiar, sometimes outside angle that was integrated into the films. While this was a very interesting moment for art and for cinema in China, we decided that instead of simply focusing on that, we would look at a larger and maybe unwritten history of documentary and documentary aesthetics in East Asia. We also added a question mark to ‘My camera doesn’t lie’ in order to include skepticism about the role of the camera and the role of objectivity, to think a little bit about documentary and fiction—not as a simple opposition but as a way and regime in which the two are related and attempt to say something about the real, which is sometimes not seen and not part of the history, a ‘reality’ that can be revealed in the critical history of the film. Moving away from just Mainland China, we also wanted to look at a scope that involves the wider region, and in particular Taiwan as part of China. And finally, since this was a much broader way of looking at things, we wanted to follow-up with specific screenings. We’ll start tonight with a screening of a film by Toshio Matsumoto.
We will have a very open discussion, rather than a panel of constituted experts, and our partner in this is Jane DeBevoise, who is the Chair of Asia Art Archive in New York and Hong Kong. This is the third of our collaborations with Asia Art Archive (AAA). If you go to the AAA website you can see traces of our first two projects. So now let me turn things over to Jane who will introduce the speakers and explain the structure of the event.
Jane DeBevoise (JD): First of all, thank you very much John and the Department of Art History. I also want to thank my colleague Xiaofei Mo and Columbia University student Beatrice [Grenier] who did most of the heavy lifting on this event. We are pleased to be collaborating for the third year in a row, and think of these events as opportunities to launch some ideas out into the atmosphere in hopes that they will spur new conversations and new thinking, and that they will inspire students, as well as the many curators, critics, and writers in this room to think about art from Asia differently. For a long time conversations about Asia have revolved around a binary — Asia and the West, China in conflict with or response to the West. The same can be said for Japan. That seems to be the way information and discussions have flowed. But as we all know, interactions are actually more complicated than that. By contrast, we have structured this event today to privilege cross-regional comparisons, to put Asia in conversation with itself.
We have a lot to cover today; we have five great speakers and only two hours. We are deeply privileged to have you all here today, and to have this highly esteemed audience as well.
We’re going to start with a screening of a film that Glenn Phillips, from the Getty Institute, will introduce. It’s called Nishijin, and was created in 1961 by Toshio Matsumoto. It is 26 minutes long. After that, Glenn will continue to talk about some of the issues that are of interest to him and about early Japanese experimental video work. Then Barbara London, formerly at MoMA and now teaching at Yale, writing, and doing curatorial work, will take up on that, to speak about early developments in Japan and her experience there and in China. Next Eugene Wang, an art history professor at Harvard University will talk about some developments in China, including work that is not necessarily moving image in order to further expand our discussion of the documentary aesthetic. Christopher Phillips will then broaden it out even more to talk about Taiwan, a part of China and a place where there’s actually been a lot interesting work in this area. He will also touch on developments in Korea. And then in order to raise more questions and to put program and concept in a slightly more global context, we have invited Nico Baumbach, a professor of film here at Columbia. And finally we hope to have time for questions. So Glenn, you are now on. Thank you very much for coming all the way from California.
Glenn Phillips (GP): Thank you Jane. Over the next few weeks there are also going to be other screenings — I’m really impressed with the list that’s been put together. It’s a very thoughtful list that’s tackling a lot of different angles about the relationship of documentary and the avant-garde, and video art and East Asia. Most of those works are video art pieces, but what we’re going to see tonight, Nishijin by Toshio Matsumoto, is an avant-garde film from 1961, so it predates the birth of video art — although Matsumoto would become one of the pioneers of video art in Japan. [By the early 1970s] he had made a kind of transitional work using 16 mm cameras that were used to film television monitors and electronic video effects. This was a video-film hybrid that a few artists in Japan did before moving over more directly into video. He’s a pioneer in video but maybe even more importantly he’s a pioneer of the avant-garde documentary in Japan, and I think, quite importantly, he articulated this theory of the avant-garde in an essay [called 'A Theory of Avant-Garde Documentary'] that he wrote in 1958 and then revised in 1963. Nishijin is right in the middle of this. In this essay he talks about being very inspired and very struck by Alain Resnais’s Guernica documentary, which is a film about the Picasso painting where you never see the whole painting at once—the painting has been sliced into images, and the filmmaker had put himself and his own subjectivity as much into his object as Picasso did. That is the potential of documentary, that you can place the subjectivity of the filmmaker into the object, and there’s an interpretive side of engaging with the world, which he thinks is really important. And although he never says it, it’s heavily implied that it’s political.
So what we’ll see now is on one hand a documentary about weavers in Osaka, but I think there’s a couple things to pay attention to: one is this very dialectical mode of working that Matsumoto uses where you see these oppositions of old and new: old ways of weaving and new, more mechanized ways of weaving, between the older generation and the younger generation, between the aesthetics of these beautiful textiles and the business of selling them and commercializing them. All these things are put in stark opposition and play against each other in this really beautiful, fascinating, and quite political film.
Toshio Matsumoto, Nishijin, 1961. 35mm transferred to HD video, 26′, B/W, sound, Japanese with English subtitles. Distributed by Postwar Japan Moving Image Archive.
GP: Looking at early video art in Japan, I’m going to show you two different uses of documentary. The first is a piece that is in fact a documentary called Friends of Minamata Victims—Video Diary by Fujiko Nakaya and Hakudo Kobayashi. I’m just going to start by showing the first couple minutes, which will explain what the documentary is about better than I can.
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Nakaya Fujiko with Kobayashi Hakudō, Friends of Minamata Victims—Video Diary, 1971-72, 21′. Video courtesy of the artists.
GP: The video documents a day in the life of these protestors, starting with their morning routine of cleaning up, doing their exercises together around the block, distributing leaflets and explaining the protests, dealing with security guards at the company, giving speeches, and then their daily attempt to enter the company and get access to the executives. These are both protestors and some of the victims and their families. I’ll show you another clip related to trying to get inside.
As the clip moves through the end of the day there’s this sort of circularity that begins to happen. Nakaya and Kobayashi had set up a television monitor and fed the video back to the protestors. It’s this moment that simultaneously makes this piece become its most political and its most ‘video art,’ because showing the protestors on television is validating them—you can tell by their expressions that they’ve probably never seen themselves on TV before—and at the same time it’s placing the work into this video art tradition in Japan. There’s this strange situation where video art shares so many characteristics across the world but is also unique and peculiar to each place. In the United States and Europe, the most famous artists are most famous for turning the camera on themselves. In Japan, however, artists turn their cameras on the monitor; it happens over and over. And, strangely, this sort of performance work or body work that you see in the US and Europe often becomes quite political, and especially in Latin America, these are ways of making non-verbal political protest. In Japan that work doesn’t quite exist, and when it does it exist it’s almost never political. Instead, when you do find political work in Japan it’s almost always in some ways through documentary, and often it’s about environmental issues and pollution.
Another interesting example where documentary plays a role but the artists are taking more of a traditional conceptual art approach is Image of Image-Seeing by Tatsuo Kawaguchi, Saburo Muraoka, Keiji Uematsu. This was a work that was actually originally broadcast on television, on NHK, so let me show you a bit of the opening section.
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Kawaguchi Tatsuo, Muraoka Saburō, and Uematsu Keiji, Image of Image—Seeing, 1973. Video courtesy of the artists.
GP: People in Japan freaked out and thought something horrible was happening to their television. There are stories about all the phone calls NHK was getting. Here’s another section.
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GP: There are several other sections, including one where they throw a working monitor into the water. I think in some ways this may be the most radical early video art piece that was produced in Japan. But I also think there was a hidden message that people were maybe not getting and that is the documentary footage that was on the TV broadcast itself—footage about water and irrigation and plant life—all of their manipulations are ways of calling attention to this moving image but also taking control of, destroying, and revealing it to be a reflection. There was one section they made and cut out, and now won’t let be shown, but I’ll just say there was an important political figure that was giving a speech on the monitor and they threw it in a hole and buried it. But they decided that was too overt and took it out. What was playing on the monitor was carefully chosen, even though it was not footage they made, and it was another use of documentary, another way the documentary approach was appropriated and used by artists. I think if any of you come on Monday [an understanding of these works] will be relevant to what we’re looking at then.
JD: Thank you Glenn. Now we’ll move right onto Barbara.
Barbara London (BL): Thank you Jane for the introduction. I’d like to start with this early image of a media artist’s tool kit. In the late 1960s when the first portable video cameras and recording decks reached the consumer market, many young artists had long hair and were scruffy as in this drawing. The gear was heavy and clunky and awkward, because ½-inch videotape was available only in open reels (not cassettes). Once you had recorded a work, you threaded up the tape, and hit the play button. Afterwards, you rewound the tape, and repeated the painstaking threading process to look at the work again. Such a laborious system was not something museums could handle easily, especially for an ongoing exhibition in a white cube gallery with a limited staff. Back then institutions didn’t have technical or A/V crews. Interestingly, consumer video fit right in with an increasingly instant culture—instant soup, instant orange juice (Tang), instant Polaroid photography, and instantly accessible sound with the also recently released audio cassette.
Videofreex, Spaghetti City Video Manual, Praeger Publishers, Santa Barbara, CA, 1973, cover. Image courtesy of Videofreex.
When I joined MoMA’s ranks as a junior curator and started to focus on video in the early 1970s, artists approached the medium from many different disciplines. They had backgrounds in painting, sculpture, printmaking, experimental film, photography, design, dance, music, and the as yet to be defined form we know as performance. Some used video with an interest in technology, others out of documentary and political motives, while others were concerned with narrative. Many railed against powerful institutions, namely ones that controlled communications systems, especially broadcasters. Many of the artists from Japan whose work we just saw sought alternatives to television programming. They relished video’s immediacy and wanted to work with the medium in their own way.
When I started out, the medium had one main category—experimental. Work with very different approaches was lumped all together as one ball of wax. At MoMA, which has a diverse collection and covers over a century of art history, I thought about the new video work I was seeing in this context. For example, I thought about documentary video in relation to WPA photography, other work in the context of Shirley Clarke’s experimental films. I thought about how Nam June Paik’s Lindsay Tape (1967), for which he appropriated a live on-air clip from then Mayor John Lindsay speaking at a press conference, and manipulated this portrait-like excerpt with his image processor. To me, Paik’s video related to Andy Warhol’s silkscreened paintings of iconic Marilyn Monroe taken from popular media around the same time.
Satellite Video Exchange Society, Vancouver, founded 1973. Image courtesy of Satellite Video Exchange Society.
Very important to the history of video in Japan in the early 1970s was the Vancouver artist Michael Goldberg, who co-founded the Satellite Video Exchange Society. Much like ‘mail artists,’ Vancouverites created an international network of video makers and generated a directory. When Michael first went to Japan around 1972, he found it shocking that artists weren’t active with video; they had next to no support. He gave what we could call counter-culture leaning artists he met a big push. Satellite Video Exchange did bicycle around videotapes internationally among artists—it was easy to exchange videotapes by mail, especially once the videocassette came in. Many decades later in a similar fashion the artist Miranda July generated the Joanie 4 Jackie video exchange as a way to encourage young female artists in less urban places to work with the medium. In effect Miranda mentored many young women.
I had my own mentors. The artist Nam June Paik was one. We tend not to think about these video pioneers as inveterate travelers. However, they earned money by doing ‘gigs’ (lectures) at universities, and film and music clubs. Airfares were expensive and artists quite penniless, so an invitation to lecture or perform for a fee meant sharing ideas and information with peers in distant cities. Paik, who had gone to Germany in the 1950s ostensibly to study music, had many connections and did get around throughout his career.
I was fortunate to first meet Paik in 1973. Over the years he and his wife Shigeko Kubota hosted many wild and wonderful dinners in their loft. Through them I met a diverse group of Japanese artists and musicians. So when Matsushita awarded MoMA a $5,000 grant in order for me to travel to Japan and organize a Japanese video show, I talked with everybody—Paik, Kubota, composer-writer Yasunao Tone, and MoMA curators such as William Lieberman, who advised me to bring stretch pants as I would be sitting on the floor. Before going I read the Tales of Genji, and watched Kurosawa’s The Bad Sleep Well. I tried to do my homework.
I went off to Japan under my own umbrella, knowing that in every culture you have factions, distinct groups who keep to themselves. Right away I met Fujiko Nakaya, who had worked with the short lived, loosely connected group Video Hiroba that came together around the time Michael Goldberg first visited Japan. Nakaya’s work has already been mentioned, Friends of Minamata Victims. Despite the fact that most of the consumer video equipment used in the U.S. was manufactured in Japan, video gear was not cheap. Japanese artists didn’t have a National Endowment for the Arts, Canada Council, or New York State Council on the Arts that supported media art. To own a portable camera and deck cost roughly $3,000, beyond most individuals’ means; therefore, Video Hiroba shared a camera. So when Hiroba members demonstrated in protest 24/7 against the Chisso chemical company on behalf of citizens perniciously poisoned by mercury in their drinking water, Nakaya used the Hiroba camera to make Friends of Minamata Victims. It should be noted that two years before in 1970 on the occasion of Osaka EXPO 70, Nakaya first presented her well-engineered fog sculpture at the Pepsi Pavilion organized by Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.).
Regarding Toshio Matsumoto, I don’t remember what organization funded that Nishijin film—perhaps it was a labor union that was forming, I’m not sure. Around this time artists in Japan were very practical about gaining access to sophisticated tools. Matsumoto, like Katsuhiro Yamaguchi, was part of another group engaged with new technology in the 1950s, Gikken Kobo. Both took on commercial work then, which gave them access to the latest tools. Interestingly, for those of you with an interest in interdisciplinary crossovers, Matsumoto was commissioned to do what we would call ‘light shows’ for jazz and underground music clubs in Tokyo in the late 1950s.
Back to my first trip to Japan. With the $5,000 grant from Matsushita, I stayed in the country three weeks. The grant went far as there were then 400 yen to the dollar. I was frugal, and for example stayed in a tiny $5/night minshuku (inn) in Kyoto. As I traveled around I kept my ear to the ground, and learned about Ko Nakajima, who had founded a collective that was committed to public access television. He is an important figure for community or citizens video. Ko Nakajima is still very active, and recently was featured in an exhibition that the freelance curator Kathy Rae Huffman organized for the Long Beach Museum of Art in California.
Back to the exhibition I organized with the grant from Matsushita. I selected fourteen single-channel videos and gave the show a simple title, Video Art from Tokyo to Fukui and Kyoto, now a kind of snapshot of video from Japan in the 1970s. The show went on the road to sixteen museums, and all of the videos entered MoMA’s collection. I featured many of the works that Glenn showed briefly, such as Mako Idemitsu’s Another Day of a Housewife. While fictional, the work is very much about how a woman’s position in Japan is tied to family and to being ‘housebound.’ Mako had gone through Jungian analysis, so in each section of the video you see a woman (Mako), and near her a monitor showing a watchful eye. The viewer asks whose eye? The woman’s inner self?
Mako Idemitsu, Another Day in the Life of a Housewife, 1975. Image courtesy of the artist.
And you never know what’s going to come back and bite you. Two years ago the young artist Ei Arakawa created an opera based on my show Video from Tokyo to Fukui and Kyoto, on my friendship with Paik, and on my connection to Japan. Performed at MoMA, the opera’s title was Paris and the Wizard, because I always calling Nam June the Wizard and he always called me Barbara Paris. I was luckily out of town the nights of the opera.
Through my position at MoMA, I was fortunate to have many different kinds of opportunities over the years. In the early 1980s I was in Japan for a conference, and the South Korean government awarded me a very modest grant to travel from Tokyo to Seoul. It was the time of the dictatorship. Moving around Seoul wasn’t easy. There were no taxis, like today, moreover there were very few cars on the street. You had to hail an ordinary citizen, who was basically driving a tin can. Then if you could communicate, he would drive you to your destination. I told my government handler that I wanted to meet a certain leftist journalist, and gave him the telephone number to call. (We didn’t have mobile phones then.) He couldn’t understand why I wanted to see this man, or why I wanted to meet a young experimental composer. Through another connection I met several Minjung artists—part of the socio-political art movement that emerged in 1980 after the Gwangju Massacre. At the time very few artists in South Korea had a video camera.
On a subsequent trip as part of my research into the next generation during Japan’s economic boom, I met a talented young art student in Kyoto, Teiji Furuhashi. The politely discrete, serious young artist made a concise short video, in which he performed gamine-like, stiff repetitive movements. The enigmatic background landscape turned out to be the local zoo’s monkey house. His family—curiously, since we just saw the weavers in Matsumoto’s film Nishijin—were kimono textile designers. From the start, Furuhashi really bucked conventions in Kyoto, a very traditional city. His teachers included the artist Yasumasa Morimura, who played with notions of Japonisme in tableau scale large format photo-based work, in which he assumes female characters from Manet’s famous paintings such as Olympia.
I realized that for young artists removed from the political and culture capital of Tokyo, living in traditional Kyoto that was entrenched in its cultural history, had freedom and were lucky to be overlooked. While still in art school, Furuhashi and fellow students Toru Koyamada, Yukihiro Hozumi, Shiro Takatani, Takayuki Fujimoto, and Hiromasa Tomari, all eager to move art beyond museum and gallery walls, founded Dumb Type, a collective of architects, designers, choreographers, actors, artists, and computer programmers. They were attracted to technology but suspicious of the information-age dream.
Over the next few decades you could say I was a Dumb Type groupie. I was able to spend time in Kyoto with Furuhashi and Dumb Type members during two sabbaticals in Japan. At the end of a Kyoto day I would make my way up the stairs of a nondescript rundown building to their bustling office with posters lining the walls, books and LPs stacked everywhere. We talked over refined meals in small, out of the way places I’d never find on my own. I attended many of the workshops that became inter-media performances from Kyoto to Nagoya, or back to Tokyo. They were unique in combining technology and took out of everyday life something really critical of Japanese society. They worked with Japanese and English words, knowing that the only way to make it in the West was to incorporate some English.
Dumb Type, pH, 1991. Photo courtesy of Shiro Takatani.
This is an important performance work, pH. I wanted it to come to BAM, and kept discussing and discussing but they chose not to book. Fortunately Creative Time presented pH as part of their 1991 ‘Art in the Anchorage.’
Teiji Furuhashi, Lovers, 1994. Computer-controlled, five-channel video/sound installation with five video projectors, eight-channel sound system, and slide projectors. Image courtesy of MoMA.
I prominently featured Furuhashi’s installation Lovers (1994) in the 1995 exhibition I organized, ‘Video Spaces.’ Lovers is very soothing and hopelessly romantic. The installation is spartan. A metal tower with five synchronized projectors on rotating shelves occupies the center of an otherwise empty gallery. Technology operates as dutiful stagehand.
Produced by Canon ARTLAB, Lovers allows visitors to interact with life-size dancers projected onto the gallery’s black walls. The naked figures appear spectral, drained of life. After a while, their actions become familiar, so it is a surprise when two of the translucent bodies come together in a virtual embrace. It is about love in the time of AIDS.
When the installation is not crowded, one of the videotaped figures—Furuhashi—stops and seeks out a lone viewer, facing this person with arms outstretched. The gesture is not a beckoning one; rather, the artist assumes a beatific pose, vulnerable and exposed. Then, as if on a precipice, he falls backward into the unknown, accepting his fate. In reaching directly out to a single viewer, Furuhashi belies notions that technology necessarily overwhelms the human spirit.
At 35, Teiji Furuhashi had reached his prime, knowing he would never go farther than his last work. As the summation of his career, Lovers is magical and universal, a transcendent epithet for an extraordinary artist. Teiji died of AIDS a month after Video Spaces closed. Two years later MoMA acquired Lovers, the gift of Canon Art Lab.
In the 1980s I briefly made it to China. In Guangzhou I visited the art school and recognized how conservative it was. I went again a few years later, and met the documentarian Wu Wenguang, known to some of you. Wu studied journalism and started out as a writer. To me that meant he understood the process of research, how to conduct an interview, and ultimately how to edit. I included his Bumming in Beijing (1990) and 1966, My Time in the Red Guards (1993) in MoMA exhibitions a few years after they were made. [In 2000 Wu turned away from analog Betacam video to DV (digital video) and developed a kind of spontaneous realism. For his China Village Documentary Project, he put simple cameras in the hands of rural area farmers, and brought them to Beijing for workshops at his studio in Caochangdi. The villager project was featured in the 2015 Venice Biennial Chinese Pavilion.]
In the mid-1990s I was curious to know how contemporary art trends had reached China, particularly how these previously isolated artists were digesting information. With MoMA’s OK I applied to the Asian Cultural Council for a modest travel grant to research activity I’d heard about in China. I had a few leads and a few names. From New York it was very hard to know about artists working with media; my German colleagues had been and gave me names. At this point, the Internet was relatively new. I thought about past research trips, where information I accumulated sat for several years in file folders before ideas manifested in an exhibition. My idea was to do this research, but to compile the daily information and put it on-line right away so that people could follow me on the trip.
Within a couple of weeks before my departure I got MoMA to agree that I could generate a project in a new format that I called curatorial dispatches, with the title Stir Fry. Keep in mind this was pre-blog. I quickly called my colleague Benjamin Weil, who founded ada’web, a ‘video foundary’ that produced web projects with artists. They had a great designer Vivian Selbo, and she came up with a design of how to put information on the web.
To carry out the research and get it up online every day, I brought my husband, who had been a documentary filmmaker in another life. So in September of 1997, we left for China lugging a backpack stuffed with a laptop, camera, audio recorder, cables, and whatnot. (Now you could use a mobile phone.) The first day I met Wang Gongxin and Lin Tianmiao, who had me over for dinner with eight other artists. Slowly I infiltrated the network. From one city artists would make a call to the next city, and put me in touch with people there. Step by step I did studio visits during the day, and at night my husband and I would work in our hotel room processing everything we had recorded and then would write accompanying text. We then spent the rest of the night until 4 or 5 a.m. in the hotel business center sending the daily dispatch to New York, where the crew at ada’web assembled the material into an engaging form. At that point no artist in China knew what the Internet was. So from the hotel business center computer I showed them how we were putting information up online about their work. By the end of the trip, I met all 32 media artists in China.
There are many ways of characterizing this China site. One might call it an ‘Artalogue’ or ‘Art Travelogue.’ My purpose in meeting the artists, as I initially conceived it, was to continue doing what I had been doing for many years. Ever since my first research trip to Japan in the mid-1970s, I’ve traveled far and wide foraging for emerging artists. I’ve visited their studios, gathered documentation, and slotted the information in file folders. Through the years, I’ve followed the work of many artists as they matured.
A casual visitor to Stir Fry got a chance to travel with a curator on a research quest. I think it’s salutary to let people look in on the gestation phase of a museum exhibition.
While in Hangzhou during the trip, I met Zhang Peili, who had studied painting. He told me about going to a conference in 1988. At this time he begged, borrowed, and basically stole a camera. He was annoyed at his painting peers, who were expounding on all kinds of criticism from the West that they hadn’t really digested, although they could do ‘theory speak.’ Each of them attending that conference came from the different regions and was supposed to do a show and tell. So Peili made a very boring video, in which he is shown in close-up holding a standard mirror. He proceeded to break the mirror, glue it back together, and then break and again glue it back together. The process took about 90 minutes. At this conference he planned to ‘one up’ his colleagues. He planned to start the video, leave, and lock the door so that fellow participants couldn’t get out. But they were onto him.
When I made the studio visit with Peili, he showed his work and explained that artists in China had no idea what it meant to have a dealer in the West. We talked a lot about how not to denigrate what he was doing but to honor it.
This is his piece called Eating, which came into the MoMA collection in 1998, when we first presented it adjacent to a major Jackson Pollock exhibition. The top monitor is a document of a man’s cheek as he’s chewing. The video on the second monitor was recorded with a surveillance camera strapped to the man’s arm and focuses on his fork moving the food from the plate to the mouth. The monitor on the bottom shows him using a knife and fork to eat a tomato, a hardboiled egg, and a gooey cake. The irony is that it’s like a sentence parsed: subject, object, verb. It’s also about how we in the West can eat with chopsticks, and how the Chinese can eat with a knife and fork. I’ll end there.
JD: Thank you very much Barbara. Now it’s Eugene’s turn. Thank you so much Eugene, for coming down from Boston.
Eugene Wang (EW): Thank you Jane. I want to start with a painting that is really about the camera. With any narrative about the documentary aesthetics and any retrospective reflection on contemporary Chinese art having covered so much ground over the decades, we might say that finally Chinese contemporary art has a history. This history starts with the Cultural Revolution in 1976, which also marked the beginning of the post-war era of form and interpretation.
Cheng Conglin, Snow on a certain day and certain month in 1968, 1979. Image courtesy of the artist.
This painting, done by a young Sichuan artist in 1979, is really a fitting beginning for us to reflect on this whole story of how the camera and documentary aesthetics got started. This scene depicts the Red Guards embroiled in fighting. One side won over the other, and the young woman is one of the captives who was victimized. Why is this important to us? If you notice the Red Guard on the right behind the third figure, he’s using a camera. This to me is one of the most significant details, because this painting itself still partakes in the Cultural Revolution-style grandstanding, the theater convention. You can see that even though the victimized woman is captive, she’s still this grand figure occupying the center of the stage, and the whole scene is very staged. What’s interesting is there’s already an initial impulse of knowing that this is not enough to represent, something has to be done in alternative mode, and that this visual convention cannot be continued. Therefore, sticking a cameraman there trying to capture the scene was a beginning of the debate that was going to rage in the 1980s. The contention at the time was that there should be some kind of divorce of the film medium from theater. But why a divorce between these two mediums? They’ve always been used together, particularly in China. One thing that was felt strongly at that moment was that the whole visual convention had been too caught up in the staging effect, and with that staging effect there’s also some strong sense of artificiality, not getting to the real truth of the matter. Some feel that the candid camera is the way out. If you go through the staging, maybe the camera can sneak a little snapshot that can reveal details.
It was around that time that there was a re-reading of film theory. One of the theories that caught on was the Siegfried Kracauer film theory of realism, especially its notion of ‘flow of life.’ Kracauer’s realism contained this theory that somehow life had its own flow that’s beyond our manipulative control so it’s better to capture the ‘flow of life’ as it is. It was therefore for good reason that around that time, this ‘flow of life’ became one of the prevailing theories in terms of camera and aesthetic systems. So then people started sneaking in cameras that were not staged. Now we think it’s very conventional but back then it was a big deal, because up until that moment a lot of films were produced in the studio. One of the most remarkable examples is this film called Five Golden Flowers set in southern China, but it wasn’t shot there. They were looking for this pond, which is where a young man and woman first meet and fall in love with each other and sing a love song. But in order to find the Chinese equivalent of On Golden Pond with all the butterflies flying and the beautiful landscape, the environmental conditions were such that they couldn’t find it in South China. So they had to move back into the studio in North China and stage the whole film there. So around this time in the 1980s, to take a camera out of a studio into the flow of life was a big deal. I still remember one of the scenes that was shot, in the film The Smile of a Troubled Man. It was so exciting for the Chinese to see the actual flow of pedestrians on the street, and inserting this processional into that flow without a real sense of directing the scene. It was remarkable to see on screen. All of the other people in the shot were not aware of this film being produced so I think that is the real beginning of documentary aesthetics.
In the meantime, artists were thinking hard about what happened in the Cultural Revolution and how to find a fitting way to capture the real dynamics of the Cultural Revolution. It took a long time and needed distance. There’s this artist, who’s always my favorite, Luo Zhongli from Sichuan. I wrote one of my first published essays in English on him. He saw a lot during the Cultural Revolution, and some of the violent fighting and horrible scenes haunted him. This one sketch he did involved two factions of Red Guards fighting each other. A lot died in one faction, and their bodies were kept in a cemetery. The parents of the dead came. Their children’s side had won the fight and captured members from the other faction, who were held responsible for the deaths. The parents are showing them, ‘look what you’ve done to my son, my daughter.’ Luo recalled that the scene was horrifying. The parents were crying and the captured Red Guards were saying, ‘I want to be your daughter, please forgive me, I’ve done wrong.’ The parents started to grab their hair and in the meantime the bodies are festering. South China is very hot, so there were flies in the air and there was dust everywhere. These scenes haunt Luo and he tried to sketch them. He’s a great storyteller, if you get him at the dinner table, he’ll talk the whole night; he has so many stories. But the thing is, none of these stories can really do it for him. He ended up not telling stories, and in contemporary Chinese art this is the first photorealist work, which is really about the camera. He had heard about Chuck Close and American photorealism and he heard about this amazing device where you can capture this image without having to spell out what’s really going on, and to keep that level of indifference. But as a matter of fact he never saw a single Chuck Close. He only read about American photorealism from Japanese art critics’ articles, which described the works in great detail. He imagined what it was like, and he went to buy a pair of binoculars and looked at his own skin, and studied its texture and tried to imagine what it’s like just to depict the image without telling a story. But in fact, that withdrawal from the storyteller’s role ended up being more powerful because it is not staged (even though it is). Many people cried in front of this fictive portrait because they felt it really captured all the years of hardship China went through, without really knowing what’s going on in this portrait.
I think that’s a good reference point to track what John called the documentary aesthetic. I think the counterpoint is this photograph by a Beijing-based photographer that documents the people from the provinces who have grievances, and who then bring their grievances to Beijing and try to present what they went through to the authorities.
When it first came out in the early 1980s, it was very powerful. There’s this camera or documentary effect that does not assume the all-knowing or omniscient point-of-view. It’s the Other who all of a sudden comes into the camera’s scope and is captured. This man eludes any ready-made categories because his face is nondescript. And the man lived in a time warp, out of touch with what was going on in the post-Mao China, because it’s already the post-Mao era and he’s still wearing a Mao button, like a Rip Van Winkle coming out of a time warp. The image is very charged, and this then started a whole documentary tradition and developed a genre called Shangfang, referring to the act of going to Beijing to report grievances.
A number of documentary filmmakers started and kept friendships with these visitors to Beijing, because these visitors tend to stay in these sheds and they had a world of their own. One of the ablest filmmakers was Zhao Liang, who befriended these petitioners. One of the documentaries he made was truly powerful—there was a woman in her 60s or 70s who habitually went to Beijing to report on a grievance she had with a local village leader and she never got anywhere. She got very frustrated but she kept going, almost to the point that going to Beijing became the point itself. Her entire life is driven by this grievance even though she’s repeatedly brought back. Her daughter’s life, stuck in this mobile existence, was so disoriented that eventually the daughter snapped and decided to leave. The documentary filmmaker was able to capture this very powerful moment—the daughter, who had gotten married and had a child, wanted her child to meet the grandmother. Zhao Liang captured the reunion scene on camera. We see this most wrenching moment, which is a whole un-staged drama. My point is that this genre had this unexpected drama. I asked him, ‘How were you able to capture that?’ and Liang said, ‘I had kept a good relationship with them, I befriended them, and whenever things happened they called me and I would go.’ Nothing in a fictional film can match that intensity, if you have a chance to see it I recommend it. It’s very powerful.
Another work that is very interesting is that Zhao snuck a camera into North Korea and used the hidden camera to capture what he saw. This is a very unsettling documentary. He said he wanted to go to North Korea, because he grew up in Northeast China, across the river from North Korea. China had changed so much that going back he couldn’t find or recognize his old town because it’s so commercialized and so different. Ironically, North Korea became his main memory reference point so in order to somehow relive his memories, he needed to go across the river to North Korea to refresh his memory. That program itself is very unsettling because you see the grand, clean Pyongyang, with high rises and well-ordered life, and he didn’t mean to show you that North Korea is that orderly and that grand, so he keeps reminding you not to be fooled by the cleanliness of the streets, and by the skyscrapers because actually they can only operate the elevators for six hours a day. Nonetheless, this voiceover and what is shown on the camera are in such disparity that it’s very hard to sort it all out.
Barbara already talked about this but Zhang Peili asked a woman who is a news anchor to read the dictionary, and the point was to show that the camera shows you but doesn’t reveal anything. Here’s another very interesting work by Song Dong, in which the camera actually shows us his personal life. His hand is shown projected on his father, which is a very personal thing. You are excluded, because even though you see the image and the camera captures it, you don’t know about his relationship with his father. The camera captures but it cannot tell. And I’ll end on this video of Song Dong, who went to Tibet and repeatedly stamped a seal on water. What is being stamped on water is ephemeral; you see this through the camera but it doesn’t reveal anything, and the camera shows without revealing.
JD: Great. Thank you. Now Christopher….
Christopher Phillips: What I’m going to present this evening is probably best regarded as a prologue to the presentation that Jane will make in a few weeks when she introduces the recent film work by the Taiwanese artist Chen Chieh-jen. I’m pleased that this evening no one has tried to raise the fundamental question, ‘What is documentary?’ because the leading experts in the field are entirely in disagreement about what kind of definition could possibly suffice to cover what is today an extraordinarily wide range of documentary protocols and practices. I will offer what I think is still one of the most applicable definitions of documentary, from the founding British documentarian John Grierson, who in the 1930s said, ‘Documentary is the creative treatment of actuality.’ I think that definition points toward a host of artistic activities. It certainly covers the work that I will show this evening, which traces the trajectory of Chen Chieh-jen from his 1990s photomontage works to his film works in the early 2000s.
Today, an extraordinarily wide range of artists around the world regularly draw on what could be described as archival materials or documentary materials to create videos, photographic series, installations, artists’ books, and other works. They approach these materials not in a naive but in a self-consciously critical way. Recently the Japanese-German artist Hito Steyerl, who is one of the leading figures in the creative use of documentary protocols in her artworks, offered the following observation about the essential distrust many artists feel toward documentary materials. She says,
‘The perpetual doubt, the nagging insecurity about whether what we see is true, real, factual, and so on, accompanies contemporary documentary reception like a shadow. Let me suggest that this uncertainty is not some shameful lack that has to be hidden. In fact, it constitutes a core quality of contemporary documentary modes as such. The only thing we can say for sure about the documentary mode in our times is, we always already doubt if it is true.’
I’ll start by showing two images that are stills from longer-form video works, as a way to evoke the variety of attitudes toward documentary materials that you can find among contemporary Asian artists.
Kimsooja, film still from the installation Mumbai: A Laundry Field, 2007. Image courtesy of the artist.
First is a still from a 2007 installation by the Korean artist Kimsooja called Mumbai: A Laundry Field. The title already suggests a link to the documentary by Toshio Matsumoto that we saw earlier this evening, Nishijin, which looks at the process of kimono production. Much of Kimsooja’s work also bears upon the place of textiles and fabrics in Asian culture. On each of the four gallery walls of the Mumbai installation there is a documentary-style video showing the role that brilliantly colored fabrics play in everyday life in Mumbai. This video segment simply shows train after train arriving in the city in the morning, bearing loads of brightly clad commuting workers. The effectiveness of this kind of use of documentary video footage depends on our belief that what the camera is showing us is a reliable report of what we would have seen ourselves if we had been standing in the same position as that camera.
Yeondoo Jung, Documentary Nostalgia, 2007. Video courtesy of the artist.
A more skeptical contemporary Asian reflection on documentary practice is that of the Korean artist Yeondoo Jung. In 2007 he produced a feature length film called Documentary Nostalgia. It was shot entirely in the studio, and it follows a crew of young men in bright orange jumpsuits as they construct and then dismantle realistic-looking settings which range from gritty urban locales to mysterious, fog-filled forest glades. What Yeondoo Jung is suggesting is that more and more, the world we live in is already pre-styled to prepare its best face for the camera, so to speak. Less and less is there an untouched reality that’s just waiting to be discovered and recorded by the camera.
Since the 1990s, scores of artists have drawn on different kinds of archival and documentary material to fashion complex and hard-to-classify works. A key moment in the emergence of this tendency can be found in documenta X in 1997, when curator Catherine David decided to highlight the documentary side of contemporary art production, as a response to her feeling that much contemporary artwork had lost touch with every day realities. The next documenta five years later, which was organized by Okwui Enwezor, concentrated on more politically engaged but equally documentary-tinged work from around the planet.
During the late 1990s, the Taiwanese artist Chen Chieh-jen was making a very interesting transition from large-scale photomontage works to film works, often relying on historical photographs or historical newsreel footage for his inspiration. From the mid-1990s to around 2000 he produced photomontage works that were based on actual historical photographs that portrayed moments of extreme horror from the Asian wars of the 20th century. In each of these works, Chen Chieh-jen inserted his own anguished face in place of the face of one or more of the original figures in the photograph. Using the Photoshop software that was then becoming widely available, he sometimes multiplied these figures in a thoroughly unsettling way. Here is an installation shot that gives you a sense of the large scale at which these photomontage works were produced. These works were made during the period when attention to the body was at its height in the art world, and certainly the theme of the agonies through which the human body can pass was a central motif in Chen Chieh-Jen’s photomontages.
Chen Chieh-jen, Lingchi—Echoes of a Historical Photograph, 2002. Image courtesy of the artist.
In 2002, Chen Chieh-jen produced his first video work, Lingchi—Echoes of a Historical Photograph. His source material was a series of historic photographs well known in the West, originally made in early 20th century Beijing by a Westerner who happened to be on the scene to witness and photographically record the public execution of a young man. This is one of the rare examples of the photographic recording of the Chinese practice called lingchi, popularly known as ‘the death by a thousand cuts.’ These gruesome photographs were reproduced widely in the West and have continued to attract commentary into the present. The French writer Georges Bataille, in particular, wrote eloquently about these photographs in regard to what he saw as the close relation of horror and ecstasy. The video work made by Chen Chieh-jen in effect brings this episode to life, restaging it for the camera, but also imaginatively expanding on the documentary notion to flash backward to scenes recalling the 19th century Opium Wars in China, and also to flash forward to images that refer to occupational mutilations in Asian factories in the post-WWII period. In its multi-screen presentations in galleries and exhibitions, Lingchi’s back-and-forth point of view expands in other ways as well. It simultaneously shows the viewer not only what is supposedly being seen by the unfortunate young man who, under the anesthesia of opium, becomes the dazed witness of his own dismemberment, but also what is being seen by the crowd of spectators surrounding him.
Chen Chieh-jen has described this work as an example of the theme ‘those who cannot flee,’ and that theme carries over into his 2003 work Factory, this time jumping to Taiwan in the last decade of the 20th century. This is a still from the film, and I’ll see if we can start a video excerpt here. In Factory, Chen Chieh-jen employed both historical documentary footage shot in Taiwan in the 1960s and 1970s, at the moment when the Taiwan textile industry was a major international exporter, and what might be called ‘directed documentary’ footage that he shot later. The excerpt that we’re seeing now shows newsreel footage of the new factories and living facilities built for young women textile workers who were recruited from all over Taiwan. What led Chen Chieh-jen to make Factory? In the early years of the 21st century, thanks to the wonders of globalization, Taiwanese textile manufacturers increasingly moved their operations overseas, to locations where they could find lower-wage workers. Local Taiwanese textile manufacturing collapsed at that time, and most of the workers in the factories were abruptly laid off, setting off continuing protests and demands for compensation by the women who had spent their lives in these factories. While making Factory, Chen Chieh-jen invited a large group of women who had been laid off from a specific textile factory to revisit their former workplace. That factory was almost empty at that point, and littered with the debris of the last days of its operation. Chen Chieh-Jen asked the women workers to silently reenact their work routines and work techniques for the camera; then they collectively marched out the factory door, piled onto a bus, and rode off into an uncertain future.
In his gallery and museum installations, Chen Chieh-jen has also creatively mixed a variety of documentary materials within quasi-fictional narrative structures. I will close by showing you a few photos of Chen Chieh-jen’s presentation at the 2014 Shanghai Biennial. There, he filled a large gallery space with excerpts and fragments from his works of the last ten years, beginning with Factory. These photographs and videos and sculptural components of installation works were all accompanied by lengthy text panels explaining the historical moment to which each of the works referred. All of this amounted to a creative remix of the earlier projects by Chen Chieh-jen within a narrative framework divided into what he called chapters.
I think that these examples should give you a sense of the distinctive artistic method used by Chen Chieh-jen, which he shares with a whole generation of artists working today in Asia. They have found a way to start with research-based documentary materials and, without depending excessively on the factuality, accuracy, and verifiability of those materials, place the documentary fragments with invented discursive networks. The result is to encourage the viewer to take part in an imaginative and self-conscious re-creation of the situation from which those materials arose.
JD: Thank you again Christopher and now I think it’s appropriate to have a Columbia professor close this event. Unfortunately I don’t think we’re going to have time for questions, but we have a number of screenings coming up, so we can all meet again at the screenings and take the conversation further. Nico, thank you very much.
Nico Baumbach: I know we’re going long tonight so I’m going to be relatively brief and bring things back full circle and address the film we watched at the beginning as a way to finish up. I would like to thank Beatrice and Jane for asking me to participate in this event. I was a little hesitant because I’m not an expert in East Asian cinema so I’ll emphasize that very strongly, but this was ultimately a great opportunity for me to discover some new work and to learn a great deal from the presentations that preceded me. While I don’t often have the occasion to work directly on East Asian cinema and have a great deal more to discover as a cinephile, a film scholar, and an amateur observer, I think I’m not alone in being under the impression that a lot of the most interesting film and video work in the last couple decades in particular is coming out of East Asia. And the screening series that follows tonight’s panel looks at more contemporary video works—one from Mainland China, one from Taiwan, one from Korea—but I thought it was interesting that we started with this 1961 film from Japan. This really terrific film by Matsumoto, Nishijin, was a real discovery for me, and I thought I’d devote my thoughts today to thinking about this era of film in the early 1960s in relation to contemporary forms of documentary.
In the 1950s and 1960s, we see the emergence of new forms of independent documentaries, which are now seeing an interesting resurgence globally in the contemporary digital age. I will mention today just two central forms that I think are having a resurgence, and which I think came to fruition during this period. Those forms are direct cinema and the essay film.
Direct cinema relates to what was mentioned earlier about Siegfried Kracauer’s conception of the flow of life. It is essentially a documentary form that eschewed script, narration, reenactment, and talking heads for any documentary that was ethically committed to capturing events as they unfold in their contingency. It is often thought that this documentary form is unsuited to post-modernity, since we are all hyper-conscious of the effects of media and images that purport to show us actuality. I think this is a rather limited way of looking at what direct cinema was about, and it also misses the new forms of direct cinema that have been made possible by inexpensive forms of digital technology in recent decades. In particular, the influence of direct cinema in the vital documentary scene in the People’s Republic of China in the last 25 years seems like an excellent example of the short-sightedness of certain Western commentators, who think we’re in a post-documentary moment in which observational forms predicated on the camera’s indexicality are somehow no longer adequate in our hyper-mediated age. From Bumming in Beijing from 1989, which we saw in Barbara’s presentation, to Wang Bing’s remarkable West of the Tracks from 2009, I think we see, not only in China but also in the West, that there’s the sense in which the revolutionary potential of direct cinema is developing in all kinds of new ways as a kind of counter to the ultra-kinetic filmmaking and multimedia forms of sensory overload that we find in a lot of mainstream work.
The films and videos in the series are perhaps situated in a more elusive and perhaps equally revolutionary tradition that starts to come to fruition in the same era, that is to say the essay film or video. It’s a form that used to seem marginal and obscure, but in recent years has started to seem ubiquitous in certain ways, merging vernacular forms of online video production with gallery installation work and forms of contemporary cinema that may not find a home in a movie theater, but instead may in museums or on computer screens. To return to Matsumoto, in a series of texts in the 1960s he coined this term ‘neo-documentary’ to refer to a new form that merged histories of both avant-garde and documentary traditions. And this, he claimed, would be a kind of break from the liberal-social issue documentary with a clear agenda. As he put it, he was looking for a new form that was ‘simultaneous documentation of the actual substantial reality of facts as facts,’ but also ‘a corresponding inner reality.’ So Matsumoto looked for precedents for this merging of inner and outer reality in a new form and found, as was mentioned at the very beginning tonight, his strongest example in the work of Alain Resnais, specifically this 1950 film Guernica about Picasso’s painting. Matsumoto uses this term ‘cine-poem,’ but I think the tradition in many ways that he could be situated in is the ‘cine-essay,’ which is not strictly poetic nor is it strictly discursive, but somehow fuses the two. It refers to a type of film that sought to explore the relation between words and images, to say something about the world not in a didactic or expository fashion. We see the origins of this concept in Hans Richter, the German artist and filmmaker, who wrote in 1940 about a new form of documentary that he called the film essay, which was not interesting in beautiful vistas but rather in representing intellectual content. This was not a type of film that would show things simply as they are but would shape ideas on the screen. In writing about the written essay, Theodor Adorno put it as such: ‘The thinker does not actually think but rather makes himself an arena for intellectual experience without unraveling it.’ And though it didn’t occur to Adorno writing in 1958, I think this arena of intellectual experience seemed somehow very suited to film, which in reference to the film we watched today, could weave together words and images without unraveling them.
If essay films have narration, it is then used as another montage element that is not in a relationship of hierarchy with the image, as opposed to a traditional expository documentary with the voice-of-God narration. The narration should not explain but be, as Andre Bazin put it in 1958, in ‘a horizontal relation to the image.’ And as Bazin was writing about Chris Marker’s Letter from Siberia (Marker was closely associated with Resnais), he referred to Marker’s film as ‘an essay documented by film.’ He said, ‘The important word is essay, understood in the same sense as it is understood in literature; an essay at once historical and political, written by a poet.’ This strikes me as a fine description of the film we watched today, and it resonates strongly with a lot of contemporary video art that has been discussed today as well. We must think of it then as a poetry of images and sounds, not just language. The connection between language and sound is one of the many striking things in the Matsumoto film.
I’ll just highlight one interesting technique in the film that doesn’t have any precedent in Resnais or Marker, which is to say the looping of the spoken word as if it’s run through a machine in the film, dis-individuated, and put into circulation. I’m referring to these looped words in the film such as ‘commodify’ and ‘negotiate.’ These are of course words about the very desire for circulation and profit, and the film is providing a very powerful montage of images and sounds that work to both link and dissociate the hands we see at work and the overarching economic forces.
To conclude, I think there’s a great line in the film that I would end with, which is when the narrator tells us that children also live in this neighborhood in Kyoto. He tells us, and I’m relying on the translation from the subtitles, that they ‘do not understand the invisible forces at work, yet they can see them.’ This strikes me as a wonderful description for what we can hope for documentary film today: not merely understanding, which is perhaps never adequate, but rather seeing, giving form to, making visible and audible that which we can sense but not fully understand, which is to say, the invisible forces at work.
JD: Thank you again Nico, and John, and all of you for coming to speak and to listen. Please note that the next screening will be on Monday. Glenn Phillips will be introducing the work of Sung Huan Kim. We look forward to seeing you all there.
The relationship between art and documentary is complex and evolving. Focusing on the rich history of art in East Asia, this informal panel and screening series will attempt to open a larger discussion, by inviting scholars across disciplines to examine a selection of works and to consider the series of questions.
These questions will address the relationship between truth and fiction in exposing ‘the real’, the position of ‘documentation’ in art, artists’ access to tools, the particular social and political conditions from which this work emerges, and the way this hybrid work may challenge official narratives and the history of art in the region. Consideration will also be given to issues of institutional collection and display.
The screening program will include selections by Toshio MATSUMOTO (b. 1932, Japan), WANG Jianwei (b. 1958, China), CHEN Chieh-jen (b. 1960, Taiwan), Sung Hwan KIM (b. 1975, Korea), and ZHOU Tao (b. 1976, China). Acknowledging the concept of truth as a construct, these works are far from indexical representations of reality. Rather, they fluidly traverse multiple media and creative practices — video, photography, performance, conceptual art and documentary modes — to question the relationship between fact and fiction, art and society, and to investigate history, politics, and the economy.
Nico Baumbach (Assistant Professor of Film, Columbia University)
Barbara London (Independent curator, writer, and critic, Yale University, formerly Associate Curator at the Museum of Modern Art)
Christopher Phillips (Curator, International Center for Photography)
Glenn Phillips (Curator, Modern and Contemporary Collections, Getty Research Institute)
Eugene Wang (Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Professor of Asian Art, Harvard University)
Introduced by John Rajchman (Adjunct Professor, Department of Art History and Archaeology, Columbia University), and moderated by Jane DeBevoise (Chair, Asia Art Archive, Hong Kong and New York)