Hong Kong, 29 Mar 2008
Publication & Exhibition: Hong Kong Anarchitecture Bananas
Publishers: Artist Commune & Studio Bibliothèque
Title: Daze in the city: Curators' conversation about Hong Kong Anarchitecture Bananas
Text: Michael Lee & Lee Chun Fung
(Cite only from the printed publication which has been copyedited and proofread, not from the html text below which is a draft.)
Michael Lee: Earlier this year, you and I visited the Hong Kong component of the Hong Kong-Shenzhen Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism\Architecture held at Central Police Station. What were your observations?
Lee Chun Fung: The Architecture Biennale at Central Police Station excited me a little but also provoked me to think critically about space. Its overall utopist tone reminded me of actor Alex Fong’s promise in his TV role as a maverick architect: “Architecture can change the world.” I am not sure about that. You know, architects work by commission, mostly in accordance to the profit-driven logic of the developer. The architect-artist who regards architecture as an aesthetic pursuit or an agent for social change is not common in this region. I am grateful to the Biennale for providing a context for us, artists and other cultural practitioners, to identify its blind spots and those of global architectural practices, through an exhibition.
ML: Like you, I noted a prevalent sense of utopianism among the exhibitors, the tendency to claim that architecture can resolve problems of the day. A quick check back at the last century will yield major cases of utopist visions of single charismatic figures (e.g., Lenin, Hitler, Pol Pot) who prescribed and defended ‘one-size-fits-all’ solutions for the good of all of humankind, not without widespread sufferings and devastations. In place of universal utopias, might we be better off pursuing personal ones on small scales? In addition to utopianism is a sense of age-old binarism that ran along several lines in the Biennale: the hierarchised differentiation in the respective treatments of the core exhibition participants and the parallel exhibition participants, the latter of whom were initially invited to participate without a fee; and the lack of mutual contextualization between the two cities where the bi-city Biennale was meant to co-engage (e.g., the Hong Kong website hkszbiennale.asia hardly mentions its Shenzhen counterpart). Finally, like most biennales across the globe today, the Hong Kong Architecture Biennale was subject to the spectacle, favouring large-scale, hi-tech and visually dynamic presentations over smaller-scale, non-digital and quieter voices.
LCF: As artists, we speak from our perspective in the art circle. Every standpoint, including ours, has its blind spots, and I hope viewers will offer feedback and criticism in this regard. I have long been wondering about the meanings, functions and implications of holding an exhibition, and hope that such concerns may engage others who may be similarly stirred when they become aware of them.
ML: Perhaps this wish to jolt people off their comfort seats has led us to derive a rather provocative exhibition title. By prefixing ‘an’ to the word ‘architecture’ to form ‘anarchitecture’, we suggest an ‘anarchic’ slant of resisting corporate and official definitions and uses of public space. ‘Anarchitecture’ is of course a word coined by the late artist Gordon Matta-Clark in titling some of his 1970s photography of architectural ruins as well as in framing his broader critiques of architectural practices, the most notable of which include instances of cutting, sawing, smashing or sculpting away parts of physical buildings (e.g., Splitting, 1974). Matta-Clark’s ‘anarchitectural’ practice suggests a fluid framework of relating order and disorder, as do the London-based Space Hijackers (spacehijackers.co.uk) whenever they create pockets of space and time to let loose within the confines of pre-defined urban spaces. In this exhibition, we hope to foster refreshing ways of relating art and architecture, and seeking personalised pockets of space and time including ‘going bananas’ within pre-designed public spaces.
Public space is a battlefield
LCF: While ‘anarchitecture’ seems an Western concept, it is not alien to Hong Kong. Since the early 1970s, Frog King has been interrupting public space such as by throwing paper around amidst the formality of art museum openings. Recently, he made installations comprising potted plants as an in-joke on the Cattle Depot security guards who encourage plants but not artworks to be displayed in public areas for the sake of enhancing the environment. For the present exhibition, he will show a video featuring hundreds of photographs of these plant-artworks snapped in limited time, symbolic of the heavy surveillance we are subject to daily. Among the younger generation of artists concerned with reclaiming their rights in defining how to use public space, the street art collective Start From Zero and conceptual artist Tozer Pak Sheung Chuen are exemplary: Start From Zero regards its dual mission as firstly, regarding public space as a readymade canvas for self-expression, and secondly, treating low points in one’s life as opportunities for new beginnings. Pak’s 2006 performance, entitled Zebra for 5 Persons, with four fellow artists, of repeatedly walking besides one another in a horizontal line across the road is a case in point. By misusing the road in ways for which it is not designed, Pak highlights the domineering power of architecture (in this case, the zebra crossing) on human thought and actions. Architecture has the effect of mechanising human thought and action, leaving little space for wander.
ML: Order numbs the mind. But it can create anxiety too. Almond Chu’s Parade (2006) is a series of four photographs depicting thousands of people in the same uniform making their way orderly along public bridges. Their uniformity refers to the lack of individuality in an Orwellian world of complete surveillance and subjugation, but just as powerfully, it appears like a return of the abject through the amassment of miniscule organic-like forms. Buildings come with specific narratives of use by their designers, but that does not stop the end-users from undermining these rules, whether consciously or accidentally. Andrew S Guthrie’s multi-video installation of happenings behind the windows of high-rise residences at night may easily be labeled indulgent ‘voyeurism’. However, in jam-packed areas like Hong Kong’s downtown, residents may only have a palm’s distance away from their neighbours’ windows. In this regard, investigating into what goes on behind home windows is a way of extending one’s space beyond its physical limits.
LCF: Another notable instance of artists staking their claim on the use of public space is their diverse takes on the demolition of Star Ferry pier and clock tower. The art collective WAS made a sound performance by using the recorder to churn out the melody of the clock tower’s familiar alarm. Betraying their anxiety about the erasure of ‘collective memory’ of the tower, this work could be read as an attempt to extend a story that has been suddenly put to a premature end. Ducky Tse Chi Tak’s photographic diptych records a man against the background of the Queen’s Pier protest, whose identity hovers between a homeless person and an activist. The figure of this man in one photograph and that of Chinese junk in the other are two possible identity positions for Hong Kongers: from the grounds and as defined by the authorities. Yeung Yang projected texts onto the tower, one of which read (Barbara Kruger-style): “I am not your problem.” Her action is a reminder that the Star Ferry demolition should not be regarded an isolated problem but a symptom of deeper and more complex issues relating urban redevelopment, corporate interests, cultural conversation and democratic processes.
Nostalgia of Nowhere
ML: Architects and planners today regard their primary mission as one of ordering chaos, or ‘taming the wild’. Their discomfort with chaos is also evident in the tendency to arrest the passing of time as recorded on architecture. As soon as a building shows signs of age, dirt or mess, there is an immediate, perhaps maternal, instinct to spruce, clean or tidy things up, to upgrade, and in numerous cases, to replace with something new. We are not wishful thinkers that buildings can stand up forever. They cannot. We only wish to stir discussions on what constitutes value in architecture, planning and design and what principles are useful in making decisions about urban redevelopment and heritage conservation. In the context of developmentalism, architectural ruins have the effect of slowing things down, by letting forgotten spaces exist at their own time. Perhaps this is why they are distressing to developers and redevelopers alike. In the photographic works of Galen Tse and Lau Chi Chung, architectural spaces, structures, fittings and fixtures of yesteryears assume a haunting beauty, having been lovingly composed in ways that return them a sense of dignity. Suki Chan plays with scale to conflate different contexts of memory. Her installation of small black houses strewn across the floor appeals to our childhood memory of playing toys as much as to recent recollections of scenes of devastation in ongoing disasters both natural (e.g., Tsunami) and manmade (e.g., war). Li Loi Yau’s 1:12 miniature of a wood woodshop depicts the ruin with which artists are most familiar – the mess in the creative space. The fine detailing of every piece of furniture, tool and material in the miniature is a homage to creative process as much as a testament to time and labour expended at handcrafting.
LCF: Once we become receptive to the idea that there are aesthetic, cultural, historical and emotive values in the ruin, we will be less anxious about dealing with it, not to mention getting rid of it right away. For example, the juvenile writings at the back of bus seats or toilet doors, often dubbed ‘vandalism’ by the officials, could be read as intimate records of human communication and relationships. Away from official scrutiny, such spaces play host to creative reclamation by ‘anarchitects’ who use public furniture as their canvases or chat rooms, as Yeung Hok Tak’s comics suggest.
ML: Yeung’s work turns our attention to sites of collective memory other than the publicly visible civic structures and buildings.
LCF: Similarly Yuen Kin Leung, in his performance in RE: Wanchai Hong Kong Artist-in-Residence programme, he wriggled on the floor like a snail, the graffiti on the floor and the shell on his back becoming a merged space under our surveillance. For this present exhibition, three years after making that work, he will re-construct the floor which he safekept from the now demolished old building in Wan Chai. Memory is not easy to reconstruct but that does not stop artists from trying anyway. Ceramicist Annie Wan Lai Kuen’s work has long been attempts to arrest memory of physical reality through handmoulding. In her new work, she takes photographs of ‘twin shops’, adjacent shop fronts with the exact same name, stirring the uncanny aesthetic experience not unlike the fascination with encountering human twins.ML: Such ambivalence continues in the ruins of Max Tsoi, who makes scale models of objects, which he then burns and then photographs. An invitation into an uncanny world (much like the intrigue of Thomas Demand’s photographs of models) and then a barrage against entry (just as the burning ritual delineates the living from the dead), Tsoi’s work reminds us of the paradox of life and death: The two are not mutually exclusive but constantly present and interactive terms. Buildings, like people, begin dying the moment they are born.
LCF: Perhaps the best instance of the coexistence of life and death, expression and suppression, is in the joke.
ML: Indeed, beyond serving entertainment and socialising ends, humour is a powerful tool for criticism. For Freud, the witty joke, likened to a dream which fosters “the disguised fulfillment of repressed wishes”, provides a channel through which dangerous ideas may be safely communicated without the possible repercussions. Humour figures prominently in your (Lee Chun Fung’s) practice. Sometimes it exists as a twist (e.g., an intricately handmade model of a warship which turns out to be a nail filer), othertimes in parody (e.g., in you proposal to build a slanted bamboo scaffolding that mocks at its cliché prevalence in various exhibitions in Hong Kong). This connects your practice with Justin Wong’s, whose animations depicting relationships between small-size and large-size people are often mediated through For physical objects including buildings. They are satires of our usual way of perceiving the relationships among people and space, and are a call to reactivate our imagination somewhat., art institutions themselves are in ruins. She reflects this in her layered representations of imaginary art institutions first by model-making, then photography of these models before finally graphic design. For this exhibition, Doris Wong Wai Yin will devise a system to raise funds for artists in biennales – a task that organizers and host institutions ought to take up but often shy away from. Wong’s work is a power critique that behind institutions that expressly support the local art scene could be a structural ruin that call for urgent attention.
LCF: Humour takes some time, effort and commitment from the perceiver. If the audiences just spend five seconds closely studying your (Michael Lee’s) assemblage of buildings cut out from a book, they will soon realize, as your artwork title suggests, that “every architecture is a banana.” Reality can be so ridiculously obvious and in-your-face that people are blind to it.
ML: To be sure, such interpretation of architecture as a phallic enterprise is heavily informed by Freudian psychoanalysis, which regards most of human endeavours as attempts to assuage some perceived lack (for Freud, men’s fear of losing his penis). Through poetic turns, artists are able to offer fresh takes on iconic architectures whose meanings have become deeply entrenched. In this regard, the IFC (International Financial Centre), the tallest and most iconic structure in Hong Kong’s downtown area, appears to recur as a subject of investigation by various artists. In his comic spreads, Chihoi imagines a scenario in the future when IFC, now derelict and abandoned, starts to find new meanings and destinies for the continued existence of itself and Hong Kong people.
LFC: Au Wah Yan’s work weaves issues of development and environmental problem with personal issues, as evident in her photographic fragments of IFC made by casting parts of mineral water bottles. Clara Cheung’s interactive piece, The Teaching Material of Administrative Officer, where the cutout of Queen’s Pier springs up upon viewer’s activation. This work suggests an engineering system of collapsing and resurrecting Queen’s Pier, much like a popup card – the artist’s parody of the tendency of the authorities to prescribe easy solutions to complex issues.
ML: To many, the artist’s life is an unbelievable joke, of forsaking financial and emotional stability for some higher order. Warren Leung Chi-wo’s model-and-video shows him building a town from electrical parts and kangaroo skin. He is seen attentively shampooing, combing and then shaving the skin as part of the process. Adrian Wong returns to the most primal of architecture: the human body. He inserts a camera into his body through his mouth recording its path through his interior spaces, in a way not unlike how doctors do it for certain diagnostic processes. The line between humour, masochism and the pursuit of an aesthetic is a fine one that artists willingly or helplessly tread.
Wealth and Other Freedoms
ML: Low-tech, low-budget exhibitions such as the present one we are curating: What do you think are their relative advantages and disadvantages in relation to the blockbusters?
LCF :I have mentioned to you that I’ve been immensely influenced and inspired by Gum (of C&G), for his ‘street-fighter-aesthetics’ in curating exhibitions. He may not have a strong theoretical background, and yet the shows he curated never failed to have huge impacts for artists, their audiences and the world in general. For instance, Chow Chun-fai’s now immensely popular paintings of local film stills were developed from a lo-fi animation (Repainting Infernal Affairs) he made for the Primitive Contemporary exhibition curated by Gum in early 2007. Another example is Yeung Yang’s 14QK: Artists respond to 14K. This kind of exhibition stands apart from the seemingly academic, intelligent and emotionally detached shows that lack energy and tend to be ‘too safe’. I feel that an exhibition needs to have a Nietzschean mix of Dionysian and Apollonian forces, and that there should be different approaches to curating instead of just one ‘correct’ school.
ML: I suppose there are pros and cons of financial backing. With money comes possibly the extended time and space to develop one’s art to the next level. But the lack of funds can also push artists to devise new ways of working. Yet much of official and corporate definitions of architecture equate financial wealth with bigger, better spaces and an enriched life.
LCF: Indeed, when the Biennale bombarded me with hundreds of ‘beautiful’ architectural images and models, it was as if promising me that if I have tastes good enough to appreciate architecture as art, I must be a middle-class individual free of worldly woes and attuned to the finer things in life. Reality for most Hong Kongers is, of course, a stark contrast to such ideals: The majority of people work hard at pouring half their salary into paying rent to keep their 400 square-feet flat for a household of five or more. Despite, or because of, simple living conditions and needs, community spirit reigns in these neighbourhoods. But such personalised social bonding is increasingly threatened by the replacement of open parks with shopping malls, to the extent that I start questioning if more, newer, bigger, taller and better-equipped buildings necessarily lead to a better quality of life. A typical case is the advertisements of private property, which present images of boundless gardens, which are in fact figments of imagination. The works of Homan Ho Man-chong, Kady Fung Ka-yee, Yentl Tong Ying-tung and Kwan Sheung Chi mock at such an irony. Ho’s parody is a huge chimney-shaped tower of hundreds of residential units each containing an individual set of sun, beach and sea., highlighting the lie behind the ‘individualism’ rhetoric of much of advertising today. Fung’s and Tong’s critiques are pursued by unfinished aesthetics in their depiction of middle class residences and institutional spaces. Kwan’s mock-advertisement depicts a homeless person lugging around his personal condominium made out of corrugated board. Though it, too, suggests the desire for upward mobility among the poor, it points to the possibility that because these wanderers (perhaps in ways similar to Walter Benjamin’s flaneur) do not have fixed stable homes, everywhere is now home.
ML: In that regard, Cornelia Erdmann’s echoes Kwan’s perspective, in her collection of architectural squatters, cushions of buildings whose ‘legs’ can clamp onto railings and adaptable to any physical context. Stability in architecture, her work seems to suggest, can be overrated and pursued at the expense of mobility and adaptability. One institution of human civilization that promises spatial stability is marriage, in which couples are expected to live together till death tears them apart. Kacey Wong’s wall sculpture engages this dilemma in its depiction of a middle-age couple backfacing the audience and staring blankly into their respective spaces separated by channels and corridors. The order that institutions like architecture and marriage provide can also be simultaneously constraining of disorder, which is part and parcel of growth, so that the decision to defy them (e.g., in not remaining in a permanent coupling) may be one way to regain personal freedom. One alternative to the permanent coupling is suggested in Jeff Leung’s model of art-making in which he collaborates with a different artist on each project. For this exhibition, he works with Cheung Wai Lok who has been investigating the relation between the new and the old, the collection and the trash, by using photography.
LCF: Speaking of freedom, the kinetic sound piece by Roy Ng Ting Ho suggests the reclamation of personal space not necessarily tied to physical arrival and departure. By looking through the transparency of his material and listening to the subtle sounds emitted from it, the audience is invited to find their own spiritual spaces and moments within the hustle and bustle of the city.
ML: Hopefully, through these numerous ways suggested by the artists in this exhibition, visitors can be motivated to rediscover the personal in the public and to find their own mode of relating order and chaos, by way of becoming artists or ‘anarchitects’ themselves. May art and architecture regularly and meaningfully meet on the same platform.
LCF: Finally, I should also add that each work in this exhibition has layers of meanings and implications beyond our discussion here today. May the artists’ concerns for the development of the city reach and touch the hearts of its inhabitants, to begin thinking critically about their roles in the urban environment.