Focusing on HK's fractured identity dilemma

Updated: 2013-01-25 11:20

By Kelly Chung Dawson in New York (China Daily)

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Focusing on HK's fractured identity dilemma

Curator Helen Homan Wu watches footage from the Videotage Media Art Collection at New York's TEMP Art Space, which is hosting a two-part exhibition of video and new-media art from Hong Kong. Kelly Chung Dawson / China Daily

Although artists in China's mainland have garnered more international exposure in recent years, the scene in Hong Kong has produced a sizable amount of video and new-media art, much of it dealing with the city's conflicted identity as a self-proclaimed culture apart.

News reports of squabbles with mainland visitors have reinforced a sense of cultural separation between the former British colony and its motherland.

In an exhibition at New York's TEMP Art Space this month, a selection of video art from Hong Kong focuses on acts of social engagement tied to this fractured identity. The exhibition is presented by Videotage, a leading nonprofit Hong Kong arts organization founded in 1986, and includes both short and feature-length films that date back to 1997, the year of Hong Kong's return to China.

"The program we chose deals with society and current affairs in Hong Kong," said Ellen Pau, co-founder of Videotage. "We want to draw attention to how Hong Kong artists are trying to use this medium to really explore the city's identity after 1997. Activists and artists are creating both film and also high-quality art in the documentary style.

"If you are at all interested in Hong Kong, or how film and art have developed there, or the tradition of moving images in Asia, there is some really important material here."

Although Hong Kong has long had a tradition of being the "Eastern Hollywood," the city's video art scene is relatively small, she said.

"We don't have as many people participating, but we do make a lot of noise," she said. "There are very few organizations promoting new-media work in Hong Kong, so we try to nurture local artists. We are the avant-garde in Hong Kong."

The organization hosts exhibitions, workshops, and residence programs for local artists in Hong Kong.

Included in the films at TEMP are scenes of flag-raising and lowering, political protests, public art performances in public spaces and a singing "complaint choir" with a litany of grievances about life as a young urbanite.

In one of two sections, the exhibition presents shorter films selected from the Videotage Media Art Collection, an extensive archive that features more than 600 titles by more than 200 artists. This portion of the exhibition features specially designed viewing stations, with personal headphones.

Six longer films are also on display on a larger projection screen, including Lily Lau's Oil Friction; Sheung Chi Kwan's A Flags-Raising-Lowering Ceremony at My Home's Clothes Drying Rack; and Robert Iolini's The HK Agent: Vertical Narratives.

During the 1980s, a cultural revival developed in which local artists felt the need to define the city's culture, Pau said. After 1997, that sentiment only solidified, becoming a common theme in work produced by Hong Kong's video artists.

Helen Homan Wu, who curated the exhibition, noted that there has been a marked difference in the type of work produced before and after the handover.

"I think there's a really subtle message underlying this entire exhibition," she said. "There is a quiet tension. Artists making work now seem to be more politically engaged in what they try to express through their work."

The intersection between identity and politics is evident in at least half of the work on display at TEMP, Pau said.

"Many artists are dealing with it in an indirect way," she said. "They're writing the history of the land they live in. People talk about their home, the way they see the world, the way they see politics and how they are able to engage in public art space. The political meaning is not so direct. I don't think that these filmmakers are pushing for any particular political idea, but are instead trying to open space for a conversation about the way people think about things."

Those themes dovetail with Videotage's inclusion in a traveling exhibition called Living as Form, the Nomadic version, initiated by the arts nonprofit Creative Time. That project aims to gather socially engaged artists from around the world on a hard drive featuring 50 works added by various institutions and galleries; it now includes six films by Videotage, which are presented in the TEMP collection. That portion of the exhibition showed in Hong Kong in 2012, and will continue to travel on to other countries.

Nato Thompson, chief curator at Creative Time and curator of Living as Form, describes Living as Form as an aggregator of social and political practices across cultures.

"We are interested in groups of people doing stuff together with culture to make the world a better place," he said. "Videotage have such a wide range of projects that could be included, because no matter where you are in the world, there are everyday people using culture to challenge us and to produce new ways of being together. As people contribute more and more, the possibilities grow."

Projects included on the hard drive have touched on topics including urban development, education, and our memories of history, he said.

Video and new-media art play an important function by presenting new forms that aren't necessarily considered "art," he said. He pointed to the Complaint Choir piece, which has gone viral online.

"These aren't things you would see in a museum or gallery, but in fact it's good for young artists to see. They might say, 'I never would have thought you would call that art,'" he said. "This isn't for galleries, but I think it's really interesting. Those moments make the possible even more possible."

Also on display at TEMP are works from Matadero Madrid, CAC in Lithuania and Raw Material Company in Senegal, in a wider exhibition organized by US nonprofit Independent Curators International.

The exhibition closes on Sunday.