A Presentation by Michelle Wong: Navigating Art History in Hong Kong

April 9, 2014
AAA in A, '09-'21

43 Remsen St. Brooklyn, NY

Jane DeBevoise (JD): I’m really thrilled tonight to have the opportunity to introduce Michelle Wong. Michelle works with us at Asia Art Archive in Hong Kong, and is here for a symposium we’re co-sponsoring at NYU called Radical Archives. Tonight Michelle will talk about some research projects she is spearheading about Hong Kong art history.

Michelle Wong (MW): Thank you Jane, and thank you everyone for being here. I’m thrilled to finally be in AAA-A after hearing so much about it. In the next twenty minutes I’ll speak about some of the projects that AAA is currently undertaking in Hong Kong. These projects are all inter-connected to one another, and I think the way to look at them is to see them as tools to help us make sense of what materials we have in the Archive, how they can point us to materials we don’t have and help us identify new materials, and to find out what we can enable by making these materials available.

Jane started by saying that there’s little art history written in Hong Kong and that’s the common outcry of the city but I’m going to show you some images: we have art history books. This is one by David Clark who is British and [has been] teaching for many years at Hong Kong University. This is another one by Frank Vigeron, who is French, also based in Hong Kong for more than twenty years. And this is another one called Xianggang meishishu by Zhu Qi, a Mainland art historian. I actually find what Jane raised to be very interesting and something that people have reiterated: why have no Hong Kong Chinese written Hong Kong’s art history, [and I would ask] why does it have to be written by a Hong Kong Chinese? It is, in the end, an interrogation of what makes Hong Kong and what suffices as a voice from Hong Kong.

It’s not that we don’t have art historical resources. There are museum archives or what they call resource centers at the Hong Kong Museum of Art and also at the Hong Kong Heritage Museum, another museum dedicated to art and culture. These are resource centers that citizens can go to. You just make a phone appointment and you have access. There are also online databases where you can look up information. So it’s not an issue of not having books, not having art historians, or not having resources. The issue perhaps is the lack of circulation; the work that has been done and already exists doesn’t get the circulation or the visibility that enables it to accumulate in volume, in density, or to generate counter narratives.

Hong Kong Art History Research Pilot Project, published by Asia Art Archive & Hong Kong Museum of Art, 2013.

The project I’ll speak about tries to address this. (I’m passing around a little booklet that we produced for this project) so please take a look. This project, called Hong Kong Art History Research Pilot Project, is a collaboration between AAA and Hong Kong Museum of Art, which was Hong Kong’s first collecting institution, founded in 1962. This project is an endeavor to develop a shared platform that makes available materials that can facilitate research. First and foremost, it references the 1980s model that Jane has developed and championed in that it systematically carries out interviews and digitizes personal archives.

What this project looks at is Hong Kong’s art ecology in the 1960s and 1970s and follows several lines of enquiry. The first [line of enquiry] is institutionalization. Because Hong Kong’s first museum was founded in the 60s, we’re interested in asking the question:  ‘how has this major institution’s establishment affected the art ecology?’ Another line of enquiry is exhibitions, so we ask, ‘what was being shown at the time? Where were the sites of exhibitions and who was making exhibitions?’ Pedagogy is another, so we are thinking about how artists were being taught; was teaching art a way to make a living and was it able to sustain [artists’] lives? For art writing, we are researching what kind of art writing was being circulated at the time, and who was writing it. In Hong Kong language is a particularly relevant issue: what role did language play in this former British colony where the majority of people spoke Cantonese Chinese, and not Mandarin? And even now a large part of the art historical source materials in and on Hong Kong art are only in Chinese, so then where does the issue of translation come in and is this something that we can undertake?

In terms of exchanges, another issue we are looking at is how was this geography interacting with other geographies? Was it through exhibitions, via teaching posts, or via writing?  I’ll give you an example of one of these really interesting encounters also in the 1960s also between Hong Kong and Manila. It started around 1968, when there was this high visibility art group called Circle Art Group, Zhong Yuan Hua Hui [中元畫會]. They would have their annual show in Hong Kong and then the show would travel to Manila to an artist run gallery called Luz Gallery founded by Arturo Luz who is still alive and just had a solo show last year. This happened not only once but multiple times, so what happened to enable this? In 1982 Manila Metropolitan Museum had a show called ‘Hong Kong contemporary art,’ but apart from the exhibition name we haven’t been able to find any materials. So preparing timelines is a really helpful tool for [registering] this kind of information so that we can undertake future research.

Regarding the tools for the research, what did we develop? We conducted interviews, which are based [and built] on previous interviews. Therefore in order to prepare for a new interview you have to go through all of the older interviews that you can find and digest them and build upon them. This effort allows us to try to accumulate density [rather than to duplicate what already exists].  We also digitized a selection of archival materials from the people that we spoke to, created timelines, and bibliographies, which is actually a nod to a project that we’re undertaking in India. My colleagues in India over the past year went to different libraries in different regions of India and have made different entries of art writing in 13 vernacular languages. We now have more 10,000 entries on this India bibliography for which we have already launched the English, Hindi, and Marati sections; the rest will roll out soon. This [work] has informed our project and is on-going

The [Pilot Project’s] interviews are now all online, and in addition to being available on the little CDs you can see in the booklet, edited versions have bilingual translations, in English and Chinese, and have been posted on our website. The digital archival materials are from the AAA collection, the museum’s collection, as well as individuals. And in regards to timelines, I want to say that timelines sometimes get unfair treatment, because they are intrinsically incomplete. But timelines will never be complete; they can always be added to, so I think we should be a little more forgiving and  think of them as containers of information that can actually expand. In that way I think [timelines] can actually be very useful.

For this Pilot Project, we did five interviews. I’ll quickly go through a roster. The first one was with Sandra Walters, an American who moved to Hong Kong in 1969 from Chad, Africa. She started a gallery called Arts Promotion in 1973, but at the time mainly sold French lithographs. In the early 1980s she met a French banker who opened a bank in Central in the Landmark Building. The main bank was on the 24th floor but on the ground floor was a customer branch where people could come to get money, so he said why don’t you use that space and curate. That was one of the first galleries in Central, Hong Kong’s main business district. It was almost unimaginable then to even have a space, as early in the 70s, and one in Central no less.

The next interview was with Wucius Wong. He is an artist but he also has a little known past as a curator and had a huge hand in curating the first exhibitions in the newly established Hong Kong Museum of Art.

The next interview was with an art writer, Mui Chong Kee, who was born in Mainland China, fled to Hong Kong during the Cultural Revolution via Macao, and eventually settled in Hong Kong. He has close Mainland ties, his writing was published in the Mainland, but he also wrote for Taiwan and for Southeast Asia, so this circulation of writing is also something that we’re interested in.

Another interview was with Liu Kuo-sung, a Taiwanese abstract painter who moved to Hong Kong in 1973 to take up a teaching post [at the Chinese University of Hong Kong]. He’s the pedagogue and we’ll hear about why he moved.

JD: Liu Kuo-sung is an important artist who also spent time in Mainland China in the 1980s and had one of the first exhibitions of abstract painting, which at that point in time was a great revelation to the Chinese people who were just emerging from the Cultural Revolution. These are all very generous people who have been under the radar for many years.

MW: The interview with Liu Kuo-sung was four hours long. Then next is Ho Chi Fun, who is mainly chronicled as a painter. The first portion of the interview focused on the Ho Chi Fun’s paintings. Later the artist talked about his polaroid work , shown in a two part video: Part 1part 2. He’s 91, so it was really a privilege to spend time with him. When appropriate, we also try to work with guest interviewers — people who have an existing relationship with these individuals, who are able to tap into the way they’re thinking, and with whom the artists are comfortable.

This interviewer is Long Ting, a film critic. The relationship between Long Tin and Ho Chi Fun is that Long Tin’s father was very good friends with Hon Chi-fun and together they started a modern literature and art association. Hon was also the first Rockefeller grantee from Hong Kong. He came to the States, to New York, in 1969.

I also want to show some examples of the archival materials that institutions and individuals are willing to share. This is a photograph from a 1967 J W Turner exhibition at the Hong Kong Museum of Art. Xiaofei asked, ‘why is the audience all white and in uniform?’ I think this really raises the question of what kind of colonial legacy was going on and who the audiences were.

This is the bank space on the ground floor of the Landmark. It looks like a gallery. The owner had to put up a sign saying ‘A French Bank’ so that people didn’t get confused. This show is of the work of the Taiwanese painter Zhuang Zhe.

This is a snapshot of the exhibition documentation that Mui Chong Kee had. This was his first solo show. He had his portrait done by another artist, Shui Wo Tin [水禾田].

Our project also tries to address narratives and practices that aren’t circulating. This is Hon Chi-fun again. Although he is mainly a painter, this is his photographic work. These are Polaroids. Hon does these kind of circle gestures that get interpreted as of being very spiritual, but circles I think can be very erotic, something that hasn’t been discussed in the Hong Kong narrative. There’s also a technique involving the application of paint directly onto photographs that was quite interesting at that time.

This is another series of [Hon’s] photographic work, travel photography where he was annotating these slides. What is interesting about this is that these photos were taken in the late 70s, right after the doors reopened in China, and Hong Kong artists, a lot of them who had fled from China, were able to return. So an interesting question would be, ‘how has this opening of doors affected artistic practices and the way these artists identify with China?’

As far as art writing, this was the modern literature and art association’s manifesto. This group had closer ties with Taiwan.

Manifesto of The Modern Literature and Art Association Hong Kong, 1959.

On 9 November 2013, we launched this pilot project with a day of panel discussions in an attempt to bring the discussion into a discursive realm. It was very well attended and took place in the Hong Kong Museum of Art lobby. All of these materials are available online.

Essentially this is how the project works, or how we hope it works: these are the five interviews, which point to selected personal collections, which point to existing collections in AAA such as the Nigel Cameron collection, which point to discursive platforms like Hong Kong Conversations and to new projects that we’re starting. Nigel Cameron is an art critic based in Hong Kong. He’s 94 now and donated his collection of typescripts and clippings to us. He wrote art criticism for the South China Morning Post for forty years. We are finding links in his writing to the interviews and exhibitions that we are collecting. This project also points to the institutional archives. We are not just about accessing materials for ourselves, but we also want to be able to point users to existing resources outside of AAA.

JD: We can’t and don’t want to do it all, so mapping the geography of the existing resources is important. But when you say the local art archive at the Chinese University, what does that mean?

MW: I didn’t know it existed until last year, but apparently it’s a dedicated section to ‘local art’ in the Chinese University library. In universities, what academics often try to do is use their short-term research money to create initiatives and collect materials which is great but the problem with that is when the funding runs out these initiatives stop. And after a certain amount of time, you can’t even figure out what they are or where the material is kept.

JD: Creating these maps of what is available and where, and making these maps available to students and researchers when they come to AAA is helpful. In a way, what we are saying is, ‘we’ve done this, but there are all these other places you can look for information too.’

Audience Member: Another thing that you’re doing is you’re teasing out components of the interviews and linking them to documents that you’ve digitized, so is it their relationships that you’re trying to foreground?

MW: Yes, I think that we imagine [ourselves] creating a tool for research and generating curiosity and providing leads to what we think might be interesting connections or lines of enquiry. I think that for this project, and in Hong Kong in particular, narratives can be built collaboratively. Our project doesn’t necessarily have to deliver a narrative. Rather it can deliver multiple propositions that interested parties can take forward. In a way, it is expediting voices and narratives. It doesn’t have to come from one person alone. We can dig wells and drill for oil. If something spurts out, great. If something doesn’t, we’ll leave it, but at least there’s something already done and people can reference it.

Sites of Construction, 21-23 October 2013.

So one of the discursive platforms that the Hong Kong Pilot Project points to is Hong Kong Conversations, which is an annual series of talks specifically on Hong Kong that we started last year. This is also something that we want to develop into a teaching resource to support teachers in Hong Kong that are facing teaching requirements with very little support in art history and art criticism. Hong Kong was also present at the  Sites of Construction [21-23 October 2013] symposium that discussed the role of exhibitions in making art history…

For that symposium we had two practitioners situated in Hong Kong speaking [about] their practices as well. This is Nigel Cameron’s writing on Sandra’s exhibition. Nigel also wrote about Frog King, a performance artist who spent time in New York in fact. His Chinese name is Kwok Mang Ho.

Audience Member: Yes, I knew him in New York. He was totally unknown at the time, doing calligraphy on the streets for white people. He went to Korea and people in Korea discovered what an amazing personality he is and [he] became famous. That’s where he got married. Then he settled in Hong Kong, bought a place, represented Hong Kong in the Venice Biennale… but before that he was a crazy guy. He had a tiny little space on the ground floor in New York. That was his gallery in the 70s, and his bed was up there close to the ceiling; it was a platform up there hidden among the stuff in the gallery. Quite a crazy scene. That was before we opened the Art Center, in 1982/83. He also performed with Pabo, who was even crazier…

Frog King performing at Gallery 456, New York, 8 October 1992.

MW: Frog King was based in New York in the 90s for 15 years and recently participated in a show at e-flux. This is Frog King in 1979 performing in front of the Tiananmen Square, which brings us back to our 1980s China project. Could this be the earliest documentation of performance art in China? From this you can see the global circulations.

Audience Member: We have a picture of him hanging plastic bags on the great wall. He quit his teaching job in Hong Kong to start his art career as I understand, and from there he came to the States.

MW: The Frog King Collection of images at AAA is now being processed and will be made available later. Now I am going to speak about another project related to exhibition history in Hong Kong. This is the studio of the late artist, Ha Bik Chuen who passed away in 2009. His studio is an 8th floor walk-up so you have to make this physical journey of walking up eight [flights] of stairs to see it. He was mainly a printmaker and a sculptor, but he was also known as the guy who photographed every exhibition he attended as an audience member for 40 years.

His studio has not been touched since he passed away because it was in his will that his family make it publicly available as a resource for research. We’re extremely excited to start this project that [will begin] with a mapping process to determine what is actually there.

He was an amazing ‘archivist’ in that he not only kept prints but also negatives. The humid climate of Hong Kong, however, means that we need to think about how to bring in the appropriate people to handle their preservation. When you enter his studio —…this part would be the naughts, and the room literally goes back in time — the 00s, 90s, 80s, 70s, 60s, so you can literally see how the space was being filled up.

These are samples of his exhibition documentation that were kept in photo albums that are all customized and labeled. Theoretically every exhibition that you find in Nigel Cameron’s writing, Ha Bik Chuen visited, and photos documentation will be stored in these albums. And then there are these boxes. These date from earlier in the 1970s. This box doesn’t tell you what things are inside, so it might be his research materials such as clippings, or it might be exhibition documentation. If you open one of the boxes it can look like this — negatives, photographs, slides, a totally unmediated experience; it’s all just there. This is a contact sheet that he developed from which you can see his own work, which was part of the biennial awards or the Urban Council awards.

At best, we can think about these research tools as fuel for practice, and one of the best examples at the moment would be our current artists in residence C&G, Clara and Gum.

They are a couple, a curator/artist collective, and for the past few months they have been using our tools to research information on art history and contemporary art in Hong Kong, and this is going to culminate in a quiz, where four highly competitive teams are going to fight it out in a live event at the Hong Kong Convention Center in parallel with Art Basel, for a mysterious grand prize! We are all really looking forward to this event.

Finally, I’m going to end with something that came up in conversation with C&G, this notion of Chong Ha Dai [床下底], something that lacks space or is forgotten, or is very sentimental. Chong Ha Dai literally means ‘Under the Bed’ which has special significance in Hong Kong because [the city is] such a compact place that [most people] don’t really have storage [and they] shove things under their beds. [The term] has a second layer of meaning because it is also a place where things that you don’t really want to throw away go. I think this is an accurate description [of] what art history is for some people in Hong Kong, but not for C&G and not for Asia Art Archive. That’s one of the reasons we’re developing these tools, hoping that they can come out from ‘under the bed’ and become reference points for not only Hong Kong but also for other ecologies [where] we are hoping that they will translate across context.

JD: I think we will stop here. Thank you so much Michelle. I know personally that I look forward to following your research and to C&G’s project during Art Basel Hong Kong on May 17.

Michelle Wong is a researcher at Asia Art Archive. Based in Hong Kong, she drives the Archive’s research projects in the city, including the recently launched Hong Kong art history research pilot project, in collaboration with the Hong Kong Museum of Art. Prior to joining AAA, she received her education in music and philosophy at Wellesley College, Massachusetts, USA and in art history at the Courtauld Institute of Art, London, United Kingdom. Her research interests include mapping, magazines, and the intersections of sound, space, and technology.

Transcribed by Hilary Chassé and edited by Jane DeBevoise.