Museums of the Imagination:
Doris Wong Wai Yin
TEXT BY Michael Lee Hong Hwee
ALL PHOTOS COURTESY OF Doris Wong Wai Yin
(270109 draft for Singapore Architect #249)
Since the late1960s, in the many ways that conceptual artists sought to shift the emphasis from aesthetic and material concerns to ‘ideas’ and ‘intentions,’ two prominent tendencies emerged. The first was institutional critique, whereby artists investigated, questioned, commented on or revealed the underlying ideological, racial, gendered and sexual biases of art institutions, For example, Hans Haacke’s installation, Germania, at the Venice Biennale 1993, made explicit reference to the Biennale’s roots in fascist Italy. The other tendency was, rather ironically, more object-based than the first, as exemplified by the Young British Artists of the late 1990s, whose works ranged from Damien Hirst’s large sculptural pieces such as The Impossibility of Death in the Mind of the Living (1991) to the highly personal and emotional confessionals by Tracey Emin. The split between these two tendencies offers a range of options, and dilemmas, for contemporary artists in their practice.
The contemporary Hong Kong art scene is characterized, as art critic John Batten observes, by “mixed fortunes.” It is the world’s third-largest art market in terms of auction turnover, but the local art scene “remains mostly unaffected by this newfound status” (Sunday Morning Post, 28 Dec 2008). Two common complaints about the existing Hong Kong Museum of Art are: the rigidity of its bureaucratic structure, and the insularity of curatorial programming including the Hong Kong Biennale (this year renamed the Hong Kong Biennale Award 2009). The museum’s ongoing Hong Kong Art: Open Dialogue series, for which external curators have been invited to curate exhibitions, is an attempt to address such criticisms. The West Kowloon project, a mega-scale cultural district that includes a contemporary art museum called M+, still lacks any ambitious mission statement and concrete action plan since its public announcement by the authorities in 2001. October Contemporary, a month-long art festival involving local alternative art spaces loosely connected by a theme, and which has run for two consecutive years 2007 and 2008, remains a collection of fringe events to an absent biennale that it strove to be.
In this regard, ‘imaginary institutions’ constitutes a complex genre that engages the two seemingly distinct tendencies of conceptualism by being simultaneously a critique, a homage and an aesthetic transformation of existing institutions. The dismal state of art system in Hong Kong has inspired proposal from ground up. What is Your Dream Museum? was a project conceived by the Asia Art Archive to collate ideas from the community, but we still await how these ideas have been analysed and used towards the city’s ongoing museum practices. Among art museums of the imagination, those ongoingly dreamt up by Hong Kong artist Doris Wong Wai Yin are noteworthy in their variety of presentational form and medium and range of museological programming, whilst reflecting the artist’s idiosyncratic tastes. In her oeuvre, we sense different levels of struggles and success in addressing the apparent dilemmas between idea and form, artist’s intention and audience’s experience. Importantly, in Wong’s fantasy museums lie areas of unique strengths, blind spots and insights that illuminate the cultural scene’s present and future.
Wong’s artistic mission is steeped in the discourse of truth. She writes: “I desire to make an honest piece…. My longing is for an honest piece. I am unable to claim this without losing honesty.” (artist’s statement, 2005). Specifically, she refers to cultural theorist Roland Barthes’ book, Writing Degree Zero (1953), in which the author makes a distinction between derivation and creativity: the former associated with language and style, which appeal to conventions, while the latter linked to form, referring to specific ways an individual selects and manipulates conventions, styles and languages for a desired effect. The new is always a variant of the old. In all, Wong’s art is underpinned by a critical stance towards institutional processes, an earnest search for the truth and the acumen to perceive and produce irony. I say ‘critical’ rather than ‘self-critical’ as the artist’s observations and commentaries veers more towards the outside than inward.
The artist’s wit, prolificacy and versatility across subjects and mediums manifests well in her parody series in which she recreates artifacts of artistic canons using painting, printmaking and sculpture Among these are Matisse calender (2008), van Gogh acrylic tube paint (2008), a Phaidon monograph for Niyiaw Gnow (her name reversed) and an in-progress book, Being an Artist for Dummy (2008). She does not reproduce the original literally. “The roughness of the imitation quickly dispels any doubt that it is an ordinary object, and compels the viewers to explore the intention of the ‘work’,” says Jeff Leung (aWay exhibition catalogue, 2006). Leung’s take on Wong’s work is interesting, because he seems to be suggesting that good intentions are the valid reason or fair compensation for any shortfall (such as ‘roughness’) in material crafting. It is also suggestive of the tendency of Hong Kong conceptual art practice to remain at the early institutional critique of 1960s and 1970s conceptualism, rather than the re-embracement of the object as a portal of aesthetic experience in contemporary art from 1990s onward. I argue that it is the Hong Kong cultural scene’s particular demand on ‘intention’ and ‘meaning’ of an artwork that legitimizes, nurtures but also limits the development of conceptualist practice here, and Doris Wong’s imaginary museums are at the nexus of such hermeneutic and ideological struggles.
The responses to Wong’s photographic triptych, Exhibitions On – Fire! (2007), attest to the prevalence of a hermeneutic tendency here. According to the artist, she was bombarded with questions of why she is so critical and ungrateful of art institutions till she has to set their models on fire, as captured on photographs. Such responses suggest the ignorance, or disregard, of the layered symbolisms of burning as not just for destruction but also in rituals like meal preparation and communion with the spirits. For Wong Wai Wheel Art Space (2008), the artist plays the curator of an exhibition entitled Sun of Beach expressed as a miniature model on wheels and tugged around in appeal for financial assistance of artists. I agree with curator Alvaro Rodriguez Fominaya’s observation that Wong’s work “reflect on the idea of how History of Art is constructed and how the system of art, as mechanism, works,” but I am unsure if “there is a deep sense of humour and levity….,” as he claims. The particularity of Wong’s humour is that they are light and evasive, which allows her to continually produce new works that have relative strength in prolificacy, versatility and wit over rigour. A shortfall of rigour becomes evident when one examines her text-heavy pieces. 38 Things To Prepare for Guangzhou Triennial: Emerging Artist Version (2008), calls for a few more rounds of copyediting and proofreading.
Her two strongest series to date, in my view, are proposals for new art museums based on art forms and for individual artists in Hong Kong. If You Have Money, Build HK a Museum (2007-8) comprises a set of eight proposals for art museums conceived around mediums and expressions: P+ Hong Kong to house the city’s collection of paintings, and also others for sculpture, ink, performance, photography. There is even one called HK Brains Storm and another called Anti-Hong Kong Musee of Art. This series showcases the artist’s identification of the lack of good art museums and museum practices, and also her finesse in beautifully crafting the architectural models, photographing them and finishing off through graphic design as posters.
For Hong Kong Artist Museum (2008), the artist used acrylic to paint impressions (or rather, her imaginations) of proposed museums to house works by each of 25 local artists. Among them are veterans like Frog King and Chan Yuk Keung but also mid-career practitioners like Leung Chi Wo and Kacey Wong, and younger artists like her contemporaries Lee Kit and Kwan Sheung Chi. The artist takes appropriation to inventive ends. The Chu Hing Wah Museum is a reference to the Swiss architect Le Corbusier’s seminal work, Villa Savoye (1929), at Poissy, France, while the Kwan Sheung Chi Museum is practically sited on the Observation Tower at The Peak at Central, Hong Kong. It is unclear if her proposal constitutes a postmodernist pastiche or practical suggestions of adaptive reuse of existing buildings. This uncertainty, which triggers wonder, is the series’ strength. For the one unfamiliar with these artists, Wong’s series of painted museums offers a visually engaging and humorous primer. One appraises het painting, starts wondering how she chooses her artists for this series, and then realizes that she is ‘quite right.’ This series sees the artist at her best as a free appropriator of key artists, signature works, painterly styles and also the Hockneyian perspective. It will be interesting to see how she continues this series till she has a collection of 100 museums , as she originally intended, or how she begins her a new series of proposed Hong Kong Contemporary Art Museums, “until Hong Kong actually has one,” which she shared during a chat. Wong’s practice tackles insularity in a half-absurd, half-meek manner: By referring to other artists, she gets outside of herself and contributes to a network of ideas about Hong Kong art. Yet by focusing only on notable solo artists born and working in Hong Kong, she has left out a host of other categories, such as Hong Kong-born artists based abroad, foreign artists based here, and art collectives. Overall, her paintings, models and posters may appear to be areas of her relative strength primarily due to the illusionist quality of these media, in which one can enter into alternate realities. In more interactive pieces such as books and textual ones like brochures, the magic of her propositions is shattered. There seems to be a dilemma, unbeknownst to her, about pursuing institutional critique without regard to material study and pursuing an aesthetic experience whereby audiences can walk into her imaginary world of art museums.
By playing the roles of urban planner, architect, museum director and exhibition curator for her imaginary art museum series, Doris Wong draws attention to the dismal state of museum system currently in place in Hong Kong. Ironically, such a critique also pays homage to the institution as an important archive and producer of knowledge about arts and culture. Currently, however, her prolific collection of imaginary museums is symptomatic not just of the fast pace of living and somewhat insular practices here, but also of the trappings of ‘intention’ and ‘meaning’ as taking precedence over innovation and the audience’s aesthetic experience.