In her on-going doctoral research, Vennes Cheng (Cheng Sau-wai) explores an alternative historiographic perspective that asserts the productiveness of histories deemed incomplete as they keep the door open for constant revision. THINK-PAD is a series of Cheng’s thinking notes in search of an entry point to revitalize our critical understanding of art in Hong Kong.
**feature image: the oval reading room of Warburg in Hamburg, where Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas was conceived and displayed (Image: Warburg Haus, Hamburg)

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THINK-PAD (1) 2020.05.10
Notes with expanded annotations

Why archived art?

In regard to Hong Kong’s art histories, I am investigating the revisionist impulses in the Ha Bik Chuen archive [1] to study the contingent capacity of archival art practices. My on-going research was ignited by Aby Warburg’s last project, Der Bilderatlas Mnemosyne (Mnemosyne Atlas), [2] which is a monumental project of imagery constellation.  By staging and re-staging heterogeneous images —  research materials, historical archives, digital evidences – as a cognitive tool, the Mnemosyne Atlas identifies deeper social and political logic as a specific mode of transmission of cultural memory.  Manifesting a similar eccentric feature of Warburg’s Atlas, the Ha Bik Chuen Archive renders an artistic site to probe the linear historical narrative of Hong Kong obsolescence.


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Art objects are detours forcing open new historical narratives…

Walter Benjamin’s concept of Detour is paradoxical: in forms of aberration and anomie, it is experienced as nuisance, deviation, resistance, or even punishment. However, the discursive space in which invention and thought can thrive unencumbered is precisely constituted in Detour (Carlo Jacobs 2013). [3] In this sense, artist archive and archival art practice in my research serve as detours that dismantle the shelter of accomplished historical narrative of Hong Kong.


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The archival turn of art objects…

The archival turn or impulse in art covers a wide spectrum of forms and materials of such practices.  Assemblage [4] is one of the forms in archival art practice, which addresses the acceleration of time and space in the contemporary.  In the assemblage process of archival art, not solely historical materials are collected, but also daily objects are assembled to critique contemporary-capitalist excess.


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An image embodies temporal multiplicity.

“Image as archival material renders time capsule in art wherein memory is constantly metamorphosed anew and charged with transmission dynamics through the encounter with a new time (Agamben, 1999). [5] Image encapsulates mnemonic proximity to arouse and awake memories of same sorts.”

A collage of Ha Bik Chuen’s modified books by Vennes Cheng (courtesy of Asia Art Archive)


[1] The late Hong Kong artist HA Bik Chuen (1925 – 2009) was a self-taught artist; he spent his whole life to collect images from magazines, books and other printed sources.  He would cut and arranged the images and assembled them as his learning materials based on his intuitive logics.  Ha was enthusiastic in recording exhibitions with his camera and collecting ephemeral materials of exhibitions.  His 700 square feet rooftop studio was packed with his lifetime archival manoeuvre.  Ha passed away in 2009. In 2013, his family invited Asia Art Archive (AAA) to launch a pilot project to map, assess, and selectively digitise Ha’s archive.  In 2016, Ha’s collection was relocated to a space in Fotan by AAA.

[2] Conceived in 1924 and left unfinished when the German art historian passed away in 1929, Aby Warburg’s Der Bilderatlas Mnemonsyne (Mnemosyne Atlas) is his final project of picture atlas consisting forty (– now seventy-nine) wooden panels covered with black cloth, on which were pinned nearly a thousand pictures from books, magazines, newspaper, reproduced images of antiquity and Renaissance, and other daily life sources. The images are Warburg’s lifetime archival endeavour.  Placing the images at the centre of the cognitive process enabled the art historian to deploy a mode of thinking that worked through staging, channels, and combination. Warburg was intrigued by the gestural expressions of images of Classical bodies and their survival into the art of the Renaissance and beyond.  Each image is possessed by a particular ‘pathos formula’, which gives it a specific allure and is resurrected centuries later in similar attitudes and expressions. Warburg called it nachlaben, the afterlife of image.

[3] In The Origin of German Tragic Drama, Walter Benjamin probes historical modernity through the study of German baroque dramas in 16th and 17th century. (Benjamin 1928/2009) He sees ‘history as trauerspiel’ 歷史作為悲劇 to be the condition and subject of modern allegory for its inscription of the abyssal.  In Benjamin’s dictum Method is a detour, Representation as detour (‘Methode ist Umweg. Darstellung als Umweg.’) (1998), detour is the treatise of representing the truth; it is an allegorical-subversive structure – in literal expression and plastic form – that deviates from historical knowledge.  Detour is a constant process of thinking and beginning renewal.  In detour, claims on historical finality and decisiveness thrust invalid.  In his keynote titled Umwege: Detours in German Thought and Literature, Carlo Jacobs, Professor Emeritus of German Studies at Yale University, compares Benjamin’s notion of detour 繞道 as a dimension to generate thoughts anew. (Jacobs 2013)

[4] The notion of Assemblage in my research is derived from DeLanda’s Assemblage Theory (2016).  DeLanda appropriates Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of assemblage and investigates heterogeneous multiplicity by capturing the French term agencement 佈局 – a term that refers to the action of matching or fitting together a set of components (agencer) and the result of such action: an ensemble of parts that mesh together well.  The agencement, insofar as it is an arranged combination, is not a mere result or object of heterogeneity; rather it is both the process of amalgamation and the result of it.  Artworks of Ha Bik Chuen are results of the agencement.  The found objects, various stylistic techniques and inheritance of masters were brought and meshed together, then transformed into artistic integrates by his creativity.  The parts or components in Ha’s works do not encompass intrinsic sameness, nature or origins, such as tool, appliance, natural material, but they form ambiguous relativity in the piece of work.

[5] Giorgio Agamben characterizes the energetic conception of images in Warburg’s project as the crystallization of an energetic charge and an emotional experience that survive as an inheritance transmitted by social memory […].   Each symbol or image constitutes a ‘dynamogram’, delivering a charge that varies in accordance with the context in which it is situated (Agamben, 1975/1999)



Agamben, Giorgio 1975/1999: “Aby Warburg and the Nameless Science,” Potentialities: Collected Essays in Philosophy; trans./ed. Daniel Heller-Roazen. Stanford University Press. 89-103.

Benjamin, Walter 1928/2009: The Origin of German Tragic Drama;  trans. John Osbourne. Verso; Reprint edition.

DeLanda, Manuel 2006: A New Philosophy of Society: Assemblage Theory and Social Complexity. Continuum; Annotated edition edition.

Jacobs, Carlo 2013: “Umwege: Detours in German Thought and Literature,” keynote speech for German Studies Graduate Student Conference, Brown University on 12-13 April.


About the author: Vennes Cheng (CHENG Sau-wai 鄭秀慧), independent curator, researcher, and writer based in Hong Kong.  Cheng is currently a Ph.D. candidate of Fine Arts Department at The Chinese University of Hong Kong; her research areas include Hong Kong art archive, archival art practices, and historical and mnemonic contingency.  Cheng received her MA in Cultural Studies from Goldsmiths (UK), she is former RTHK producer of art and cultural programmes.


Related Reading: Vennes Cheng: <THINK-PAD series>