Reality once again confronts us with the fallacy that “history” is a subject that concerns only those studying the humanities. Needless to say, to all without exception, our direct contact with “history” is when it is coopted into contingent state machineries as instrumental reasons to command compliance, for example, in the name of political correctness, for specific ends. Researcher Vennes Cheng takes us back to a more basic question that deems history the literacy of the contemporary global citizen, asking: what is the difference between historical reality and lived reality? 歷史是唸文科的人的事這想法或許有急切矯正的必要。先別說歷史成為政治操控的箭靶或被挪用為工具理性(因為已明顯不過而且屢見先例),歷史進入我們的日常知識領域,間接導引個人和社群行動的取決,或成為在位者下令的理據。退後一步,鄭秀慧問:歷史的現實與活在當下的現實有何不同?這是當代公民的基本道德素養罷。庫存牽引著的,一邊是可構築的歷史,另一端是歷史的翻新、平反以至再創造。作者提出了實例。

 

2020.05.22

What is historical reality? Is history a (re)presentation of reality?

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Both history and archive are constructed in the sense that they do not present reality, that is, direct experiences of past events.  The latter is created on the foundation of human-made specifications – appraisal, filling, cataloguing, indexing, and confidentiality – and in the context of institutional potency as such specifications often effectuate bureaucratic agenda.  The former, history, according to Paul Cohen, is basically narrative in form, while reality is not.  He assimilates the idea of a fundamental discontinuity between history and reality, and proposes that everyday realities and human existence are far more intricate than the historical narratives by historians; all histories or historical writings entail radical simplification of and compression of the past. [i]  (Cohen, 1997)

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Beyond the late fifties everything faded. When there were no external records that you could refer to, even the outline of your own life lost its sharpness. You remembered huge events which had quite probably not happened, you remembered the details of incidents without being able to recapture atmosphere, and there were long blank periods to which you could assign nothing.

                                                      Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell [ii]

 

The excerpt is taken from Book One Chapter Three of the well-known dystopian novel; it is about how the Big Brother controls and alters history and memory.  The chapter opens with Winston – the protagonist – dreaming his childhood as memorial recollection.  The recollection is struggling since traces of the past have been destroyed or altered; there were even no external records that one could refer to.   Despite its fictionality, the plot reveals relations, insofar as tensions between history and archive (the external record); the tensions lie in the alterable records and the reconstructable history.  It demonstrates how deftly records can be faded and made inaccessible, and history is therefore alterable. History and its evidential resources, namely archives, in this sense are both about contingencies.

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Significant potentiality of personal memories or accounts of past events is to deviate from the simplified and hegemonic historical narrative, and offer a flip to reconstruction.   The tension between history and memories, that is, individuals’ recollected experiences – corresponds to Cohen’s argument on the fundamental difference between history that is written by the historian and personal experience of past events, the former the historian’s creation, and the latter of and from the people. [iii] (Cohen, 1997)

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The past is often simplified by historian to become grand historical narratives; they comprise multitudinous experiences of individuals that are messy and chaotic to the posterity. A historian’s mission is to construct those complex and confused experiences into an account that is coherent and making sense.  Arranging, selecting, and rearranging archival materials are means to attain coherence of historiography.

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Ha Bik Chuen’s lifetime archival endeavour is the late artist’s personal memories – insofar as personal reflections – in the form of artistic assemblage [iv].   Collected materials were tailored, cobbled together, arranged and archived in eccentricity by Ha, his archive has a multi-temporal dimension that rejects commensurability with conventional (art) history.

 

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Cut and stowed were oft-used schemata of Ha.  The late artist would cut and group images in brown cartons or yellow Kodak Film boxes. [v]  The boxes were in obscure relativity and formed heterogeneity.  As of his heterogeneity, ‘Egyptian mural paintings’(古畫埃及壁畫), ‘Art 93’, ‘primitive art’ (原始藝術),  and ‘Fashion in Art’ were put in the same cluster while ‘modern sculpture’ (現代雕塑) was grouped with ‘The birds flew’ (鳥兒飛了) , ‘Fairy Tale’(童話世界), ‘Hong Kong’ (香港篇) and ‘Traces’ (痕跡) .

The archived images would become components of his image constellations, namely, the Modified Books.
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The value of fragments of thought is all the greater the less direct their relationship to the underlying idea, and the brilliance of the representation depends as much on this value as the brilliance of the mosaic does on the quality of the glass paste.  The relationship between the minute precision of the work and the proportions of the sculptural or intellectual whole demonstrates that truth-content is only to be grasped through immersion in the most minute details of subject-matter. [vi]

The Origin of German Tragic Drama Walter Benjamin

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Modified Books are hand-bound volumes by Ha Bik Chuen.  There are over 300 Modified Books in his archive.  Each volume is a constellation of fragmented images and also part of the entire 300-odds-volume-constellation. [vii]

 

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One of the 300 odds: The Great Ages of Man: Early Isalm

With its original cover concealed entirely by collage of Yue Minjun’s portraitures, the modified book was originally publication of Time-Life Book in 1967 and was about the connection and relation of Islam to global historical evolutions.  Ha turned the book into a collage – not just painting, but also historic photography – of portraitures; in the constellation of images of people, incoherent and arbitrary relevance of histories and humanity can be propounded.

Images, works and interviews of Chinese contemporary artist, Yu Minjun, are scattered in the modified book.  He is best known for his laughter man in late 1980s during the Cynical Realism art movement [viii] in China.  His contemporary, Zhang Xiaogang, who is known for his stylised portraits of Chinese people, usually with large, dark-pupiled eyes, posed in a stiff manner deliberately reminiscent of family portraits from the 1950s and 1960s.

Among the works of two contemporary Chinese artists, there are covers of various publications on Cold War; arrangements of the images construct an atlas of global ideological shift amidst the Cold War and its relevance to the contemporary.  The underpinned diachronic flow in the shift is peculiarly blasted by two collages of portraitures of historical figures in the middle pages of the book; the portraitures including Jesus, Abraham Lincoln, Vincent van Gogh, John F. Kennedy, Karl Marx, Napoleon Bonaparte, Tokugawa Ieyasu Genghis Khan, Winston Churchill, Gandhi, Walter Disney, Florence Nightingale, Franz Schubert, Alan Turing, etc.  Resembling to the work of German artist, Gerhard Richter’s For 48 Portraits (1971 and 1972) [ix], the assemblages of the black and white headshot of the historical figures in the middle pages of Ha’s collage book create disquieting effect and resonate the anxious ambiguity in other parts of the same modified book.

Ha selectively left some original pages of the book uncovered.  One of them is with an image of the ruins of Islam’s largest mosque in the 9th Century capital of Samarra, which shares the stepped forms of the ancient Babylonian ziggurat.  The reason of the late artist’s decision to leave the pages uncovered remains mysterious suspense.  However, the stepped forms of Babylonian ziggurat is usually a structure associated with representing the Tower of Babel in art, as Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s works.  The biblical myth tells a story about arrogance and egotism of human being.  Perhaps, this was the Ha’s intuitive decision to leave the image of ruined Islamic mosque uncovered, as to strike a metaphoric distance and dynamics between the portraits of human in various appropriations.

Collage of street scenes of Hong Kong during SARS in 2003 and a printed advertisement of goggles, sets amid the religious, cultural, historical, and political imagery.  It plunges history to the present and makes reflective and critical ambiguities on immediate socio-political phenomena plausible.

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There is always subjectivity in historical narratives.

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Notes & Annotations

[i] In the chapter ‘The Historically Reconstructed Past’ (p.3-13) in History in Three Keys: The Boxers as Event, Experience, and Myth, Cohen argues the history that the historian creates is fundamentally different from the history people make.  People’s direct experiences of past events are way complicated and diverse the hegemonic historical narrative.  Therefore, history is basically narratives in form, fabrication of sorts, but reality is not.  Historical fact, in this sense, is a rhetoric or mythicized belief.

[ii] The dystopian novel by English novelist George Orwell was published on 8 June 1949.  The story takes place in an imagined future, the year 1984, when much of the world has fallen victim to perpetual war, omnipresent government surveillance, historical negationism, and propaganda.  It is a repressive regimentation of every aspects of life of people within society.  In the Part I Chapter 3 of the novel, it is about ‘Reality Control’.  The Party manipulates the past by altering or evening erasing historical records. It is a way of the Party turns lie into truth.  “And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed – if all records told the same tale – then the lie passed into history and became truth. ‘Who controls the past’ ran the Party slogan, ‘controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.’”  (Orwell, 1949, 2003)

[iii] In the same chapter of note (1), Cohen continues his argument on the difference between history and reality by using the Boxer Movement in China as case.  History is fabricated narrative but reality is the direct experiences.  Numerous individuals are involved in a past event; their experienced past are often messy, complicated and opaque.  The role of historian is to bring order and clarity to historiography.  In this sense, history is always a construct.   It is because of the gap between history and reality that makes personal experienced past so important.  Personal experienced past thrusts the tidy and decisive history invalid.

[iv] Before Ha’s collection was relocated to its current space at Fotan and under the custody of Asia Art Archive, it was located at the rooftop of Ha’s resident in To Kwa Wan.  The 700 square feet studio and library of the late artist was filled with books, magazines, cut-out images, boxes, binders, sketches, materials, etc.  In an interview with Michelle Wong, researcher of Asia Art Archive, Mrs. Ha recalled Ha regarded his archive a thought space (思考工作室).  It resonates with the notion of detour as a discursive space for thought and invention to engender.

[v] One of Ha’s archival enthusiasms was to collect cut-outs of all sizes and pages from magazines and publication.  He then put and titled as different groups.  These boxes of cut-outs occupied major space of this studio.  They were time capsule and reflections of Ha’s intuitive perceptions on visuality, images, forms, and phenomena.  The collected cut-outs were materials for assembling his Modified Books

[vi] In ‘Epistemo-Critical Prologue’, Benjamin asserts the emblematic-allegoric potency of German Trauerspiel with its counter-transcendental feature.  It is grounded in history and earth-bound.  Trauserspiel is representation of truth, but not path to acquire historical knowledge.  Therefore, it is a multi-presence, but not singularity.  Truth, for Benjamin, is an intentionaless state of being, and made up of ideas, the made-up of idea is a form of constellation and laden with symbolic aspects.  The truth, insofar as history, can only be grasp through cluster of fragments and their relativity within.

[vii] According to Asia Art Archive, there are more than 300 volumes of Modified Books.  They are constructed in various ways, including collaging directly on to pages of existing publications, assembling various issues of magazine into a single volume, and placing of loose-leaf inserts between pages.  (Asia Art Archive, 2019)  I regarded the Modified Books as Ha’s artwork rather than simply teaching resources for the artist.

[viii] Cynical realism is a contemporary movement in Chinese art that began in the 1990s at Beijing.  After nearly decade of Open Door Policy, ideologies, theories, concepts, and ideas flooded into China; Pursuit of individual expression of Chinese artists was therefore ignited.  They broke away from the collective mindset and perceived the socio-political circumstances in China through their humorous yet realistic approaches.  Painting is often the art form during the movement.  Artists associated with Cynical Realism include Fang Lijun and Yue Minjun.

[ix] Gerhard Richter’s 48 Portraits is a series of forty-eight black and white photographs arranged in a uniform order. Subjects of the portraits include, amongst others, Albert Einstein, Ilich Tchaikovsky, Oscar Wilde, Thomas Mann, and Franz Kafka. The subjects, all born between 1824 and 1904, are white central European and North American males prominent in the fields of literature, science, philosophy, and music.   The artwork gave rise to various interpretations, it was associated as critique of masculinity in the west-white world; as the subjects of the portraits are mostly Jew, critics speculated relations with Richter’s family story.  However, Richter reminds reserve in explaining his work, but only stresses his interest in speechless language and anonymity. 

 

Citation:

  1. Cohen, Paul A., and American Council of Learned Societies. History in Three Keys: The Boxers as Event, Experience, and Myth. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997.
  2. Orwell, George. Nineteen Eighty-four. London: Penguin Books, 2003.
  3. Benjamin, Walter. The Origin of German Tragic Drama. London: Verso, 1998.
  4. Ha Bik Chuen Archive. Hong Kong: Asia Art Archive, 2019.

 

RELATED READING:

Vennes Cheng: THINK-PAD series 01: archived art objects are time-capsules 「書寫作為思考」筆記系列一:封存的藝術物件,時間囊  (2020.05.12)

Vennes Cheng: <THINK-PAD series>