Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 6, 2002
David Clarke Hong Kong Art: Culture and Decolonization Duke University Press, 2002. 224 pp.; 35 color ills.; 100 b/w ills. Paper $27.95 (0822329204)
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Despite the proliferation of critical discussion accompanying the body of work known as contemporary Chinese art, there has been little, if any, attention accorded to art produced in Hong Kong. In David Clarke’s new survey, however, he attempts to remedy this situation by introducing a wide array of artists in Hong Kong who operate under what he asserts as “hybridity.” A professor of art history at Hong Kong University and an active scholar on Hong Kong art, Clarke has followed up on his previous work, Art and Place: Essays on Art from a Hong Kong Perspective (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 1996), which synthesizes much-needed formal analysis with an understanding of the relationship between art and the singular sociopolitical milieu of Hong Kong. In the first three chapters of Hong Kong Art: Culture and Decolonization, which comprise the most provocative part of the book, Clarke offers readings of various artists and their works, and Chapter 3 particularly focuses on the activities of Para/Site, an artists’ collective as well as one of the most prominent of Hong Kong’s alternative art spaces. In the Chapter 4, he presents an overview of various public-art works, while Chapter 5 ties visual art into an interdisciplinary matrix that includes fashion design, graphic design, and graffiti.

The book is accompanied by a lengthy bibliography that may be the most comprehensive English-language bibliography of Hong Kong visual art to date. One might be tempted to quibble with the almost total lack of references to Chinese-language sources, but this may be overlooked in light of the fact that there are no Chinese-language visual-arts publications (PS/1, the mini arts “magazine” published by Para/Site is a possible exception, but it only commenced publication in 1997) and the fact that many, if not most, exhibition catalogues published in Hong Kong are bilingual, with English and Chinese translations. One does wish, however, for a more thorough treatment of the role of language given the contrast of Cantonese to Mandarin, a keen reflection of the separation between Hong Kong and mainland China.

Clarke’s book introduces Hong Kong art under the subjectivity of the hybrid, a familiar trope long present in postcolonial studies and in configurations of contemporary Asian art. Here, however, the author deftly avoids conflating Hong Kong art into a seductively celebratory framing of the East-West dichotomy. In the first chapter, entitled “Varieties of Cultural Hybridity”—perhaps the strongest part of the book—Clarke points to the incompatibility of the hybrid through the works of painters Luis Chan and Wucius Wong and sculptor Antonio Mak. Clarke’s formal analysis is perceptive, especially in his description of Wong’s ink-brush works that seemingly adhere to notions of the East-West divide and which confirm the problematic tendency of hybridity to act in complicity with notions of “cultural essence” (18). In the subsequent text, the author elaborates further upon this complicity by connecting this manifestation of hybridity to the British colonial regime that privileged works such as Wong’s as a means of obscuring “the realities of colonial life” (37). The suggestion herein is an intriguing one: the figure of the apparent hybrid is less the evasive hero of the postcolonial realm and more the assimilationist dupe of the colonial regime intending to enlist the hybrid’s multinational variances into furthering the regime’s objectives.

This promising argument is set aside in order to introduce more conventional ideas of hybridity as an intersection between the local and the global. Clarke’s ensuing discussion of the hybrid is far less interesting than his convincing discussions of the local in Chapters 2 and 3, in which he actively engages in invoking the historicity of the works produced. By “historicity,” I refer specifically to the author’s invocation of temporality as a critical theme. In Chapter 2, “Living in the Shadow of the Future,” Clarke adopts a more reflective tone, choosing to configure works as premonitions of the future vis-à-vis a concurrent fear of the changes potentially accompanied by the handover of Hong Kong from Great Britain to China in 1997. He enumerates many well-taken examples, such as Lee Ka-sing’s Yellow Star (1995) and Kum Chi-keung’s iconic birdcage works, the latter of which are read as a response to the waves of emigrants fleeing Hong Kong just prior to the handover. While the author’s readings are thoughtful and indicative of a sincere commitment to presenting a balanced approach to Hong Kong art, there is a curious absence of urgency or a consideration of anxiety. His readings might have been enriched with a more explicit engagement with this anxiety as it has been read by other theorists on Hong Kong, such as Ackbar Abbas’s discussion on the politics of disappearance, which Clarke mentions but does not discuss.

Clarke does, however, address significant themes such as the presence of nostalgia as a symptom of mourning. This configuration of nostalgia, of course, has already been well expounded in relation to film (literary scholar Rey Chow’s reading of Stanley Kwan’s 1987 melodrama Rouge is an illustration) but has been seldom touched on with regard to visual art. Citing important artworks such as Oscar Ho’s series Stories Around Town (ca. 1991), which included actual news reports, Clarke makes an incisive point about the power of response, albeit embedded in the politics of loss and mourning: “Responding to a situation in which Hong Kong people felt they were being made the passive objects of history, these artists found a measure of subjecthood by commenting on their plight” (69). Unfortunately, these points are not as fully explored as one might have hoped.

Indeed, the book suffers somewhat from covering too many artists, a situation that tends to obscure some of the fascinating insights posited by the author. Ironically, however, the primary drawbacks of the book are its surprising omissions, among them gaps that undermine the value of the book as a comprehensive survey. Perhaps the most notable exclusion is the considerable body of video work produced during the period that Clarke surveys. While Clarke does make reference to Ellen Pau, a founder of the media-artists’ collective Videotage (52–53), as well as to Sara Wong’s Local Orientation (92–93), among other works, the citations are scarce in relation to the prominence of video in Hong Kong and especially weak given the importance of video as a means of alluding to the difficulties of the handover. It is further surprising that Clarke does not make specific mention of video in light of his discussion of photography and film, media that he argues are characterized by their roles as “a truthful witness with a concern for concrete particularities” (56).

Another significant omission is a concurrent discussion of alternative exhibition spaces or groups other than Para/Site. While Clarke does mention Oil Space and Videotage, he does not provide a substantial description of their activities that have also done much to sustain the contemporary art scene in Hong Kong. Further, his survey would have benefited from a more extensive discussion of artist-run and other alternative spaces that have played a crucial role in the development of contemporary Hong Kong art, especially given the dearth of institutional support and the general unwillingness of the gallery circuit to take risks on experimental works.

The later chapters do not equal the first three in quality, although they are effective in their review of the staggering number of events and influences that have shaped Hong Kong art. Ultimately, Clarke seems to diverge from his linear configuration of a Hong Kong art history, which, although rife with problems, poses an unusual and interesting attempt to consolidate art that—outside of the totalizing and much-fetishized handover—has frequently been seen as ahistorical.

Taken as a whole, Hong Kong Art persuasively illustrates the distinctiveness of Hong Kong art and its relation to Chinese culture. It is a worthwhile point from which to initiate discussion on a body of art that provokes multiple perspectives. While there are no conclusions to be derived, it is perhaps the point of the book to urge upon its readers the task of trying to come up with their own. One thus hopes that the book will further the discourse on the relationship of Hong Kong as a place to the production of visual art and, implicitly, on the need to problematize notions of China.

Joan Kee
Visiting Scholar, Centre for the Study of Globalization and Cultures, University of Hong Kong

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