Sunday, 1 February 2009

Museums of the Imagination: Doris Wong Wai Yin

TEXT BY Michael Lee Hong Hwee

PHOTO BY Kwan Sheung Chi

Singapore Architect #249


A museum is an institution that serves the society by collecting, studying, caring for and exhibiting artworks and artifacts of lasting value or interest, for the purposes of education and enjoyment. Not just an archive of history and memory, it is also a generator of continually updated knowledge about humanity’s past, present and future. What if a museum or an art system is deemed deficient? The Hong Kong art scene responds with ground-up initiatives and vivid imagination.

The Hong Kong art scene is 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. These weaknesses translate to a year-round of mostly uninspiring programmes. Since 1975, the Hong Kong Art Biennal Exhibition (this year renamed the Hong Kong Contemporary Art Biennal Awards) at its premises remains more a community-based art competition than a showcase of international cutting-edged art, while its ongoing Hong Kong Art: Open Dialogue series, which invites external curators to curate shows, with a focus on local art, only occasionally looks promising. Projects that expressly foster ‘Hong Kong art’ (often featuring only Hong Kong practitioners) are self-defeating by, ironically, limiting dialogues with the global art circuit. 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. Though involving such spaces presenting programmes loosely linked by a theme, October Contemporary, the annual month-long art festival since 2007, remains a string 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 key findings or proposal to better the city’s museum practices is still nonexistent. Perhaps the art scene’s saving grace is its participation in the Venice Biennale since 2001, which has so far supported the city’s top artists such as anothermountainman and Map Office to engage with the world. On the whole, the vision for Hong Kong to be Asia’s World City remains at the levels of concept, debate and teacup storm.

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 and playing the roles of a make-believe curator, director, architect, planner and even arsonist of art institutions. Importantly, her imaginary museums reveal insights on and blind spots in the cultural scene.

            In shifting the emphasis from aesthetic and material concerns to ‘ideas’ and ‘intentions,’ conceptual art in the West 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 placement of a chair, the photograph of the chair and an enlarged definition of a chair in Joseph Kosuth’s One and Three Chairs (1965), and Lawrence Weiner’s Declaration of an Intent (1968) series consisting only of words bearing the principles or instructions about art-making and doing away with physical crafting of art objects, are typical of this first tendency. The second, a notable return to object-based practice, is exemplified by the work of Young British Artists since the Freeze exhibition that Damien Hirst curated in 1988, and may range from the latter’s large sculptures such as The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of the Living (1991) to intimate confessionals by Tracey Emin. The split between these tendencies offers options, and dilemmas, for contemporary artists who investigate and imagine alternatives to existing institutions. This is especially so in the case of Doris Wong.

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 their underlying ideological structures and reveals them by way of parody. Examples are The Contribution of Modern Art (2007), a painted copy of the book Collage; a mock-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; 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 a valid reason or fair compensation for any shortfall in material crafting and choreography of viewing experience. His view is also symptomatic of a broader ‘hermeneutic fetish’ in Hong Kong’s 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 Exhibitions On – Fire! (2007) demonstrate the limits of hermeneutics. This triptych comprises sequential photographs of several Hong Kong-based cultural institutions first moulded into massing scale models, then set on fire and left to burn. According to the artist, she was bombarded with questions of why she is so ungrateful of Osage Gallery, John Batten Gallery and Hong Kong Museum of Art as to play an ‘arsonist,’ albeit imaginarily, of these art institutions. Such responses suggest the ignorance, or disregard, of the layered symbolisms and uses of fire as not just for malicious 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 it reflects “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 work 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 Get Ready For Guangzhou Triennial: Emerging Artist Version (2008), though witty and contextually appropriate, begs rounds of copyediting and proofreading. In pieces that Wong veers towards idea-based conceptualism or relational aesthetics (Nicolas Bourriaud), such as when her parody pieces are touchable by audience or tugged around, the magic of imagining her proposed museums is sacrificed in the service of a meaningful cause or concept. This calls to mind Susan Sontag’s observation, in Against Interpretation (1966), of the overemphasis on intellectually constructed concepts among contemporary art critics, which downplays the spiritual dimensions of art as sources of defence against brute rationality and empiricism.

The artist’s two strongest series of museum proposals to date 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 is meant to house the city’s collection of paintings, and others are for sculpture, ink, performance, photography. The wordplay in HK Brain Storm and Anti-Hong Kong Musee of Art reveals the artist’s awareness of and capacity in harnessing language’s complexity.

For Hong Kong Artist Museum (2008), the artist uses acrylic to paint her impressions of proposed museums to house works by local artists. Currently she is at 25 of her aim of 100 museums. This series sees the artist at her best as a freestyle remixer of key artists’ work, architectural canons, painterly styles all based on a Hockneyian (i.e., non-linear) perspective. Among the artists she pays homage to in this series 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 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 Peak Tower in Central, Hong Kong. It is unclear if her proposals constitute postmodernist pastiches of visual references or practical suggestions of adaptive reuse of existing buildings into artist museums. This uncertainty in intention and selection criteria of artists, coupled with the use of external rather than inside views of all her museums, leaves much to the audience’s imagination rather than dictate their viewing experience.

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 grouses but with an aesthetic transformation of the existing with alternatives infused with humour, and in the better cases, triggering wonder and reflection on the value of art. Ironically, such critiques could not have been possible without a respectful homage to art institutions and artists as key recorders and producers of knowledge about arts and culture. In mocking at existing art institutions and proposing new ones, Wong 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 who are or have based here (e.g., Andrew Guthrie), and art collectives (e.g., Map Office). It will be interesting to see how she fills up the rest of her 100 artist museums in this series, and 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 ideas and sentiments about art museums rather than actually built or buildable projects. Her proposal of Leung Chi Wo Museum to be at the Rietveld Schröder House (1924), in Utrecht, includes positioning his work desk in a dark field, under an equally gloomy sky except for portions of it, in a way similar to Leung’s signature photographic series of bottom-up views of the sky left over from high-rise buildings. It is as if a hole in the shape of Leung’s piece of the sky has opened up, no matter by serendipitous cloud formation, laser light projection or a depleted ozone layer; or, her proposal could well have smacked the museum in the midst of an urban jungle. At once painful and poetic, Wong’s proposal borders on the apocalyptic, absurd and useless, thereby drawing us away from our everyday realities. 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 meaningful causes sometimes at the expense of material rigour and pursuing an aesthetic experience whereby audiences can enter her proposed dream worlds of art museums, Wong is ‘caught’ between the first wave of concept-based conceptualism and the second, more object-based practice. Perhaps it is this in-betweenness that puts Wong in the best position to continue investigating more engaging and experimental museological ideas to shake up a cultural scene tightly embalmed in protectionism and hermeneutics. In this way, in the event that Hong Kong still does not get a proper contemporary art museum in the short or long term, which will not be surprising, at least the artist has better success rate in stirring more people to more periodically think about the value of art and of imagination amidst the humdrum of everyday life.


More information on the artist is available on

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