Museums of the Imagination:
Doris Wong Wai Yin
TEXT BY Michael Lee Hong Hwee
ALL PHOTOS COURTESY OF Doris Wong Wai Yin
(280109 draft for Singapore Architect #249)
In shifting the emphasis from aesthetic and material concerns to ‘ideas’ and ‘intentions,’ conceptual art nonetheless developed along two trajectories. Since mid-1960s, the first tendency focuses on anti-commodification, institutional critique and the use of ‘concepts’ as materials. The second, a notable return to object-based practice, is exemplified by the Young British Artists since the Freeze exhibition that Damien Hirst curated in 1988. The split between these tendencies offers options, and dilemmas, for contemporary artists who investigate and imagine alternatives to existing institutions. In this regard, imaginary museum is a complex genre as a critique, a homage and an aesthetic transformation of available institutions of art. This is especially so in the case of Hong Kong.
The Hong Kong art scene has been characterized, as art critic John Batten observes, by “mixed fortunes.” The city has the world’s third-largest art market after New York and London in terms of auction turnover, but the local art scene “remains mostly unaffected by this newfound status” (Sunday Morning Post, 28 Dec 2008). Three common grievances about the Hong Kong Museum of Art are its bureaucratic structure, opaque acquisition policy, and weak curatorial programming. The Hong Kong Art Biennal Exhibition (this year renamed the Hong Kong Contemporary Art Biennal Awards) at its premises remains more a community-based festival than a showcase of international cutting-edged art, while its ongoing Hong Kong Art: Open Dialogue series, which invites external curators to curate shows here, occasionally looks promising. West Kowloon, a mega-scale cultural district project that includes a contemporary art museum called M+, still lacks a strong mission, vision and plan since its public announcement by the authorities in 2001. The unconducive art museum system in Hong Kong has inspired initiatives from ground up. Alternative art spaces like Para/Site Art Space (est. 1996) and 1a space (est. 1998) have sprung up to offer contemporary art offerings. Involving such spaces presenting programmes loosely linked by a theme, October Contemporary, the annual month-long art festival since 2007, remains a collection of fringe events to an absent biennale that it strives to be. What is Your Dream Museum? (2008), a project conceived by the Asia Art Archive to collect ideas from the community, had an earnest aim and sleek execution, but report of findings or proposal to better the city’s museum practices is still nonexistent. On the whole, developments that aim to foster ‘Hong Kong art’ ends up more protectionist than engaging with global practices, and serves to keep the city from engaging with the international contemporary art circuit. The vision for Hong Kong to be Asia’s World City remains ‘conceptual’ and ‘debatable.’
Among art museums of the imagination, those ongoingly dreamt up by Hong Kong artist Doris Wong Wai Yin are noteworthy. They are diverse in presentational form, medium and museological programming, with the artist asserting her idiosyncratic tastes in playing the roles of a make-believe curator, director, architect, planner and even arson of art institutions. Importantly, these imaginary museums reveal insights about and blind spots in the cultural scene.
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). In her work, Wong casts a critical eye on institutional processes, examines underlying ideological structures and reveals them by way of parody. Examples 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). The artist does not reproduce the ‘original’ literally, understandably, as she aligns her practice with the claim of postmodern thinkers like Jean Baudrillard and Roland Barthes, that the distinction between ‘real’ and ‘fake’ is neither possible nor meaningful. Jeff Leung, curator of the group exhibition, aWay (2006), says of Wong’s work: “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’.” Leung’s take on Wong’s practice is interesting, because he seems to suggest that good intentions are the valid reason or fair compensation for any shortfall in material crafting and choreography or the viewing experience. His view is also symptomatic of the broader ‘hermeneutic fetish’ in Hong Kong cultural scene whose particular demand on ‘intention’ and ‘meaning’ in a work, in my view, legitimizes, nurtures but also limits the development of conceptualist practice here.
The responses to Wong’s photographic triptych, Exhibitions On – Fire! (2007), demonstrates the limitation on hermeneutics. According to the artist, she was bombarded with questions of why she is so critical and ungrateful of art institutions to the extent of setting their models on fire, as captured on photographs. Such responses suggest the ignorance, or disregard, of the layered symbolisms of fire as not just for destruction but also in rituals like meal preparation and spiritual communion. For Wong Wai Wheel Art Space (2008), the artist plays the curator of an exhibition entitled Sun of Beach expressed as a miniature model of a mobile gallery 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,” as he claims. The particularity of Wong’s humour is that they are light and evasive, which allows her to produce new works that have relative strength in prolificacy, versatility and wit over rigour. A shortfall of the latter becomes especially evident when one examines her text-heavy pieces. 38 Things To Prepare for Guangzhou Triennial: Emerging Artist Version (2008), though full of wit and contextual appropriateness, needs rounds of copyediting and proofreading. In pieces that Wong veers towards idea-based conceptualism or relational aesthetics (Nicolas Bourriaud), the magic of imagination about her proposed museums is sacrificed in service of a meaningful cause or concept. As Susan Sontag has acutely remarked in her essay, Against Interpretation (1966), the overemphasis on intellectually constructed concepts among contemporary art critics downplays the spiritual dimensions of art as sources of defence against brute rationality and empiricism.
Her two strongest series of museum proposals to date, in my view, are pieces that operate on illusionism, even though they exist variously as paintings, models and posters. If You Have Money, Build HK a Museum (2007-8) comprises a set of eight model-cum-poster proposals for art museums conceived around mediums and expressions: P+ Hong Kong houses the city’s collection of paintings, and there are also others for sculpture, ink, performance, photography. There is even one called HK Brains Storm and another called Anti-Hong Kong Musee of Art.
For Hong Kong Artist Museum (2008), the artist uses acrylic to paint her impressions (or, imaginations) of proposed museums to house works by each of 25 local artists. This series sees the artist at her best as a free appropriator of key artists, works, painterly styles and also the Hockneyian perspective. Among the artists she pays homage to are veterans like Frog King and Chan Yuk Keung but also mid-career practitioners like Leung Chi Wo and Kacey Wong, and younger ones like her contemporaries Lee Kit and Kwan Sheung Chi. The artist takes appropriation to amusing 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 of references or practical suggestions of adaptive reuse of existing buildings into artist museums. This uncertainty in her intention and selection criteria, coupled with the use of macroscopic rather than inside views of all her museums, leaves much to the audience’s imagination and is the series’ strength.
The significance of Wong’s hypothetical museums is two-fold: Firstly, they reveal the lack of proper infrastructure for a contemporary art scene through which Hong Kong can engage with the world. They do this not simply by informal oral complaints but with an aesthetic transformation infused with humour, and in the better cases, triggering wonder and reflection. Ironically, such critiques could not have been possible without a respectful homage to art institutions and the artists as key archives and producers of knowledge about arts and culture. In mocking at existing art institutions and proposing new ones, she offers a series of visual primers on Hong Kong art and artists. Yet by focusing only on notable individual artists born and working in Hong Kong, she has left out a host of other artist-categories, such as Hong Kong-born artists based abroad (e.g., Suki Chan and Simon Leung), foreign artists based here (Andrew Guthrie), and art collectives (Map Office). It will be interesting to see how she fills up the rest of her 100 artist museums, or how she conceives her a new series of proposed Hong Kong Contemporary Art Museums, “until Hong Kong actually has one,” as she intends.
Secondly and paradoxically, Wong’s museum proposals have important implications in a realm beyond worldly endeavours, including the trials and tribulations of an emerging contemporary art scene like Hong Kong’s. Her museums are important precisely because they are infeasible. Along this line of thinking, Wong’s museum proposals retain their highest artistic value as images and objects referring to art museums rather than actually built projects. As Robert Harbison argues, “uselessness is the most sublime of all human constructs, and art fulfills itself in floating miles above every desperate human involvement” (The Built, the Unbuilt and the Unbuildable, 1991).
Seemingly in a dilemma between pursuing causes sometimes at the expense of rigour and pursuing an aesthetic experience whereby audiences can enter her proposed dream worlds of museums, Wong is caught between the first wave of concept-based conceptualism and the second, more object-based conceptual practice. Perhaps it is this in-betweenness that puts Wong in the best position to continue investigating more engaging, rigorous and experimental museological ideas for a cultural scene steeped in the fetishes of protectionism and hermeneutics, so that in the event that Hong Kong still does not get a proper contemporary art museum, which is not surprising, at least she succeeds in getting more people to more periodically think out the value of art and of imagination amidst the humdrum of everyday life.