Photographer Vicky Do reviews “What Do You Want For Tomorrow” (2016.08.10-2016.09.26, HK Heritage Museum) curated by Wong Wo-bik and Stella Tang. She finds this 12-woman art event more than a photography show or one that tokenizes women.
“Mister, please don’t trespass the artwork.”
“Little friends, please stay out of the space.”
Two security ladies were there when I arrived at the exhibition room. They were to look after After Image 殘像, an installation by LAM Yuk-lin (LYL 林玉蓮). Their main duty, for the majority of time, was to stop and remind people not to enter Lam’s temple-like wooden and threads construction. Starting with the flag of HKSAR, a series of images were projected within the periphery of the wooden temple. Familiar images of torn-down public housings, an old tea restaurant, the ferry, or a neighborhood that resembles pre-1997 Hong Kong… Visitors are expected to view the projected images, which are distorted from a distance by thin red thread lines that mark the temple’s boundary. Space creates distance, and here, distance reshapes the spectators’ gaze.
There are two ideas of space that I learned from the exhibition: the personal space created by individual artists and the collective space that the group of artists and curators reclaim.
The majority of the artwork here use images to (re)create or expand personal space. In Tin Ha Tai Ping「天、下、太、平」, CHU Wing-man Zoe (ZC 朱穎文) visualizes her own countryside by using light paintings to reconstruct the game of her childhood on a series of landscape photographs. LAM Wai-kit (LWK 林慧潔) envisions how and where her internal conversations would take place. CHO Yeou-jui (CYJ 卓有瑞) relentlessly and silently embraces the organic in landscape art. The artist’s personal space can be recognized as the sky and the earth of great details. In her Upward, Downward Glances: Visions of the Earth and Sky 俯仰之間, contrast in brightness, colors and color temperature not only brings out textural details, but also indicates time. Personally, I am particularly drawn to the work’s unity of time and space, straightforward yet subtle.
The reclamation of personal space in this show is vigorous, yet non-confrontational. In Walking for the Sake of Discovery 行走使我發現了－, TANG Ying-mui Grace (GT 鄧凝梅) interweaves her personal space with other people’s private space as they all share the same public location.
Both Zoie SO (ZS 蘇慧怡) and WONG Lai-ching Fiona (FW 黃麗貞) utilize an enclosed space as a capsule of inner reflection. In ZS’s “Traffic of Thought 我望” (part 2 of Distortion 曲緒流觴), real space, i.e. Hong Kong traffic after the working hour, is embedded. The blurry footage is then screened through a distorted monitor to project back to the wall. Viewers are invited to come inside the half-private room to watch the black wall that is illuminated periodically by rays of color lights. Wong in Sculpting Image 雕塑影像, on the other hand, sculpts ideas, thoughts and memories into images, then turns them back to forms, and finally uses light to project the forms as images again. Both artists achieve self-preservation and assert authorship of their own memories by reclaiming and creating a physical, material space of their own. The space here can be considered as one’s existence formed and marked by one’s own concept of time.
Although the show’s curatorial statement suggests no explicit conceptual discourse, the two curators clearly assert their contribution via the design of the exhibition space. Michel Foucault discussed the idea of bio politics as disciplinary power that trains the actions of our bodies in space through different forms of institutions, such as schools, workplaces, hospitals, prisons, asylums, museums and so on. Spatial arrangement is also mechanisms of confinement and surveillance, asserting and producing power relations. To Foucault, the effect of the Panopticon (Jeremy Bentham) remains alive in many contemporary institutions, and museum is certainly one of them. The museum, in a way, can be considered an asylum of artifacts, which represent historical periods, or refer to specific cultures, phenomena, or ideologies. As free as democracy appears to be, the museum is an institution that cannot claim innocence to power relations by asserting what is valid as knowledge from the past. Power relation, according to Foucault, is part of every social nexus of life. It cannot be eliminated and can only be reproduced. In this light, the exhibition as a whole amazingly frees up space for each artists to preserve their own practice. Each artist has her own pocket of space to express herself without destroying other’s practice. I find this kind of double containment rather interesting: marked out personal space within an institutional space of objectification. If power relation is reproducible, it is also reproducible through spatial practices – according to Henri Lefebvre’s notion of production of space. Empowerment in this sense is possible, through deliberate counter-spatial practice. Based on this, I shall divide the exhibition space to two main parts.
Spatial practice: the set “walk” through the show
Part one comprises of a group of more emotionally charged artworks, mostly found at the beginning of the “walk” designed for the exhibition.
The visitors will be first greeted with LYL’s After Image. Then they can either choose to go left for ZC’s Tin Ha Tai Ping or go right for Yesterday.Tomorrow 昨天、明天 by WONG Wo-bik (WWB 王禾璧). Either way, these are the first three as a group. After that, the visitors will have to visit ZS’s Distortion and LWK’s Confession告解 before entering part two of the exhibition.
Part two is designed to feel more like a garden. Visitors are free to explore although they are very likely going to visit GT’s Walking for the Sake of Discovery first due to the artwork’s eye-catching size. A long table and bench stand in the middle of the zone, in my view a counter-Panopticon device. The panopticon was originally designed for the modern prison, usually a cylindrical architectural structure, with the guards in the center and inmates in cells aligned against the walls, which allows all inmates to be watched without their knowledge of the surveillance. In the show in question, the utilization of walls and corners does give enumeration to privacy, which enhances the independent enclosure of the artwork. FW’s Sculpting Image and Listening to Family’s Faces 靜聽家人的樣子 by YIU Miu-lai Joe (JY 姚妙麗) would not fully exist to their potentials if they were to be exposed outside of the corners. 108 Ladies around Us 一百零八個在身邊的女子 by TANG Ying-chi Stella (ST 鄧凝姿) clashes with GT’s massive sculptures nearby. If they were to exchange positions, Going Beyond Collection 收集。其後 by LO Yuen-man Yvonne (YL 盧婉雯) and CYJ’s Upward, Downward Glances: Visions of the Earth and Sky would not have attracted the attention that they now have. And finally, the title of the exhibition, “What Do You Want For Tomorrow? 聽日你想點？”would not make sense if Ten Thousand Messages 萬千信息 by Gretchen SO (GS 蘇秀儀) did not serve as the work that ends visitors’ journey through the show.
The juxtaposition of works clearly, intended or not, complements the individual artists’ autonomy. Juxtaposition, according to Foucault, is a practice rather than a formal goal to achieve.
The production of images
One of the most important themes in the curatorial statement is to explore the “possibility of using images as a starting point.”
Starting point of what? What are the doubts and limitation that photographs might have to face? And how does the transcendence of photographic images contribute to the communication of knowledge between the image creators and the viewers?
To find the answers to the above questions, I shall review the nature of photography and its practice. Photography, according to Walter Benjamin, has developed alongside with the advancement of technology. Not only the photo-making machine, i.e. the camera and the lenses, has become more portable, it also has arrived to the period of technology that allows mechanical reproduction. Arts, therefore, underwent changes in spectatorship since it is possible for anyone to snap, own and reproduce a copy of an artwork. Benjamin identified reproducibility to be the cause of the photograph’s loss of aura.
For a long while, photography was considered mainly men’s playground. Throughout the history of human evolution from primitive society to monarchy to republics and federal governments, the development of science and the innovation of technology were associated with warfare, national defense and territorial discovery. Photography, cinema and machine-related activities are related to masculinity, and the creation of images prone to the making of spectacles.
Can image making be considered as human sensibilities without gender bias? As photography, like art practices in general, becomes increasingly interdisciplinary, I am more interested in the relationship between seeing and image making, and the journey from meaning making to meaning comprehension. In his book, Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes discusses the photographer’s “being-there” that he feels from an image. Punctumn, according to Barthes, is a a point in a photograph that fills the whole picture even as a detail. Punctumn arouses “great sympathy,” which Barthes describes as the moment he gives himself in to the photograph.
In Zoie So’s “Maladaptive Self 望我”, the first part of her Distortion, the viewers discover their own images in fragments, dimly and distortedly projected on the tawny rear-screen from multiple angles at the back. Inside the screening room of Traffic of Thought, the second part of So’s work, I lied down on the floor and watched colorful light rays passing by, second by second. I couldn’t help but feel a sense of anxiety filling my stomach — the unknown feeling that I often have in the evening when I was a little child. It was the feeling of standing by the balcony, and looking out to the street at twilight that filled up with yellow and red lights from the traffic. The feeling is almost empty, yet anxiety-stricken for no reason.
In Wong Wo-bik’s Yesterday.Tomorrow, two videos featuring the montage of images are shown in two separate rooms. One of them, a combination of still images of an old space with a moving fan, a music box and a man walking, gives me aesthetic pleasure. As I did not share the same memories with the artist about the old Central Police Station, all I could notice were the tiny details that Wong hinted, the time of the day according to the man’s shadow, or the movement of the tiny old fan in the middle of the huge room. Meanwhile, the other video, with the artist placing herself at the center of a suspected burglary during her student years, raises in me great empathy. Viewers of different background might have very different impressions about the same work; hence their attention might shift to different details. The meaning that I derived from the work might not be the same as that another person in the same room might get. WWB’s work does not promise synchronization of meanings among the viewers, nor with her own ideas for the same images.
One experiences a variety of operations on the photographic image — photo manipulation, montage, making images move, virtual reality and installation – which transforms a photography exhibition into an image-centric exhibition. The photographic image is a common point of departure among the artists. The common assumption that images necessarily generate spectacle is challenged. The artworks strive for more than just pleasing the viewers visually. They reckon the vulnerability of human beings, documenting the living environment and people’s everyday life, and raise questions of the present and convey doubts and hopes for the future, which most viewers will share regardless of their background.
ZS and WWB exposed their vulnerability more outwardly using texts and moving images while ZC draws the viewers to her childhood by recreating the look of the popular Tin Ha Tai Ping game in actual places. GT projects small images of the urban space alongside her monotone wired sculptures that take up larger space to portray the idea of overlapping encounters and feelings in time and space within the urban context. LWK and JY both raise the questions regarding our contemporary existence by using dialogues next to images. I especially notice JY’s Listen to Family’s Faces. Every photograph is neatly staged, with two family members sitting side by side, studying each other’s face. Yet there is a distance between them. The arrangement of the picture frames that resembles a family’s living room wall even emphasizes the desperate to fill up the hole that most modern family would have. I couldn’t help but feel melancholy, the feeling of being powerless when facing the passing away of time.
Yvonne Lo spends time researching on the special education community and talking to individual subjects. She, the artist, plays double roles as researcher and mother. The artwork becomes more of a presentation of her photo-centric research. Both CYJ and ST document the city, each in her own way, according to their own sensitivity. It was great, to me, to see their works placed next to each other’s. While Cho redeems the value of landscape art by focusing on nature’s contrasting elements (earth and sky, warmth and cold) and their organic texture, Tang plays the role of a documenter. Her work, 108 Ladies around Us, gives me an overall picture of Hong Kong’s working class with views on their fashion and posture. The option to view the images of the ladies as virtual reality might appear to be the experiment of applied technology but well serves Tang’s purpose.
GS’s use of QR codes next to her images of the streets of Hong Kong reforms the dictating role of the image-maker, and the passive role of the image viewers. In her piece, the burden of meaning making shifts from the artist to somewhere amidst the artist-audience spectrum. The viewers and the artists now are in a common zone, an open-ended platform the artists created for discovery and discussion. The sharing of knowledge here strives to break through the conventional way of the institution, as there is no absolute method, fixed answer or authoritative view.
It is tempting to label the exhibition as a manifesto of female artists. But I’m glad the curators and artists decided to break through the delimiting constraints of a fixed gender identity. I believe, too, “a photography exhibition” is too much of a decadent label for an art event with such rich layering. As a photography practitioner myself, I always ask why I take picture of a certain object. It was easier for me in my early 20s to feel entitled to the belief that photography should stand on its own. As my photography experiences accumulate, I have become more irritated at how a certain photograph was judged by the use of the machine, i.e. the camera and the lenses, and begin to consider more the pure intention of the photographer. I began to notice details and seek for the details that I wanted to capture. When I first moved to Hong Kong, I used photography to get acquainted with the city. I captured British colonial buildings, Hong Kong rural areas, the protests, the people I encountered, and my romantic partners. It came to the point where I forwent my identity as a foreigner to totally project the city to myself and express myself through my images. Not until then did I realize images have become something that only belongs to me.
The artists here made me feel the same way. As I studied the artworks, I completely let go of the fact that the exhibition is a part of the Hong Kong International Photo Festival. In the curatorial statement, Wong Wo-bik and Stella Tang note that one of their objectives in the show is to show the hybridization of Hong Kong as a metropolitan that faces changes and gentrification in order to progress, a belief held by many economists and the city’s residents. A place of hybridization, then, becomes a part of Hong Kong’s identity.
What Do You Want For Tomorrow? This is a question that every Hong Kong citizen might ask, given the social and political uncertainty of the city. Can we find the answer within the context of this exhibition or should we look back to our needs and find the answer somewhere else within ourselves? Again, there is no absolute answer. The exhibition, in my opinion, doesn’t provide such solution for tomorrow. Indeed, it shows how this group of Hong Kong people deals with the current situation and leaves room, or provides different alternative ways, for the viewers to see and seek for their own answer.
We were born, we grow up, we gain something, and we lose something in exchange. We might go through wars, or revolutions. We might live under democracy or authoritarian rule. We might face racism, or sexism. All this adds up to our own definition of identity. The exhibition, in a non-confrontational way, reminds us of a question, which some might think is a banal question. What do you want next? Tomorrow can be an unforeseen future. How do we achieve unity? If we can’t, in what way can differences co-exist? (2016.09.24)