Claa Cheung and Gum Cheng Yee Man, Wedding Engagement at the Demonstration, performance, July 1, 2004.
In the years of radical change during late 1980s and early 1990s, Chinese artists found that the more they used political motifs in their paintings, the better they could attract foreign eyes. Political suppression can help artists to obtain attention, but art production under political suppression is not necessarily as critical as one would suspect. If we look carefully at the classic works of Chinese “Political Pop” (works by artists such as Li Shan and Yu Youhan), we now have to ask, Did that pink and yellow likeness of Mao say anything explicitly good or bad about politics? Of course, when Western viewers saw it, they knew exactly what to think: “See, this is how the Chinese people criticize their government!”
This is how the problem of contemporary art in China is often oversimplified. During the Cultural Revolution, for example, the influence of politics was so great that it permeated every aspect of people’s lives. In other words, when politics is not far across the ocean but surrounding you, it becomes impossible for the individual to gain any distance from it. It becomes you, such that you cannot tell if you actually love it or hate it. Therefore, the shocking thing about Chinese Political Pop is not how courageous its practitioners were to paint Mao in pink in yellow, but the fact that they were courageous to paint their own disasters in pink and yellow. At that moment, these artists could already foresee that the political situation was taking a 180-degree turn, and they used painting to present this in an effective way. The war that art fights against politics is a long-lasting one, and art always loses. Art can hardly change politics, but it can use its creativity to change people’s conception of and attitude toward political issues. As long as we trust this, our pessimism toward art can be reduced.
Lock Lo Chi Kit, work at the Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation (CPR) Conceptual Art Exhibition, May 2009.
C&G Artpartment is an independent art space founded in 2007 by two Hong Kong artists, Clara Cheung and Gum Cheng Yee Man. In their inaugural show Back to Basic (June 2007), they said, “This exhibit attempts to invite artists to make artworks based on their own understanding on the Basic Law, to use art to investigate its symbolic meanings, and to emotionally or rationally reveal the complex relationships between the Basic Law and themselves ever since the handover…Basically, the Basic Law will continue to rule over Hong Kong and let it remain 'unchanged' for another forty years.” (The "Basic Law" is the document which outlines how the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region is governed under the sovereignty of the People's Republic of China, a sort of post-handover constitution.) In this statement, it seems that C&G does not aim to fight against (not directly, at least) law or politicians, but more to show the response of art to social and political changes. In Carl Schmitt’s definition, politics is antagonism. It is the relationship of friends and foes. Classic political artists like Hans Haacke perfectly demonstrated how to use antagonistic methods to reveal the dark side of governments, large enterprises, and art institutions. As for C&G, although they also have intellectual consciousness and deep concern for social and political issues, I would say that they are using a new style that is completely different from Haacke’s. Let me elaborate this point with one of their representative works.
During the July 1st demonstrations of 2004 (annual demonstrations are held on July 1 in Hong Kong tocommemorate the territory's return to Chinese sovereignty), Clara and Gum put on traditional Chinese wedding gowns to join the march. They held their engagement ceremony during the demonstration. As a piece of performance art, this intervention served to overlay a historical moment of civil disobedience of Hong Kong people onto the most important chapter of their personal life. They did not only engage with each other, but with the whole society. Apart from this I think there is another point worth mentioning. When they talk about this act, they stress that to get engaged during the demonstration is to chongxi Hong Kong. “Chongxi” is a traditional Chinese concept. When bad things happen, like when a family member is seriously sick, a family might organize a happy event like a wedding to bring back joy and hope, as a way of getting rid of bad luck. Clara and Gum stressed the chongxi function of their act: on one hand it moderated the negative emotions in the demonstration and encouraged positive participation in this event. On the other hand, they used a Chinese family tradition rather than art theory to explain their act, thus blurring the boundaries between art, the personal, and society.
C&G Artpartment has so far organized eleven exhibitions, all of which are group shows. On average, six or seven artists participate in each show. Clara and Gum participate in every exhibition, but they try not to invite repeat artists (Chow Chun Fai is the exceptional case, having participated in two shows). To date, more than fifty Hong Kong artists have shown in C&G. I think this strategy has produced an interesting effect: as the exhibition themes of C&G always have a clear public sense, whenever more individualistic artists (there are a lot of this kind in Hong Kong) participate, the feeling is quite awkward. For example, how do you put an artist who loves to tell love stories in a show titled To Donald Tsang? To solve this problem, I think we have to focus on interpretation. Like Althusser says, consciousness delays, and the materialistic dialectic can wake up this delayed consciousness. This is to say ideology hides within an artwork. If an artwork is a cultural product, it is inherently a social product, and thus it is no longer about purely artistic issues, but conceptual issues. Art is a profound reference to social reality.
Are we taking the risk of misinterpretation? Luckily we have proof, in the clearness of the exhibition themes set by C&G. They ensure that the artists have no doubt in understanding what they are being asked to talk about. And therefore, I would presume that the more out of tune an artist is, the bigger the possibility we can discover new concepts, new viewpoints in his or her intervention at C&G. Of course these are fine words, the truth is that Clara and Gum have already forced many artists to rethink social reality.
Invitation card for Greedy? Conceptual Art Exhibition, November 2008.
Before founding the C&G Artpartment, Gum worked in a non-for-profit art organization for many years, taking care of both administrative and curatorial tasks. Such a workload is actually unbearable for a human. Through this job he saw the bureaucratism and self-censorship of the so-called “independent” art spaces. In the Greedy show (November 2008), Gum’s work To a Greedy Art Organization very clearly highlighted these issues. When Gum founded the Artpartment with his wife Clara, they decided not to apply for funding from the Hong Kong Arts Development Council. Instead they cover all their own costs by holding painting classes, allowing them to focus on making exhibitions free of external concerns. They are thus able to have the advantages of running an independent art space, the main one being immediacy. With less to worry about, they can organize exhibitions quickly, responding to new social issues as they arise. Obviously it is not easy to ask artists to make good and responsive works in such short time, but given these constraints, many Hong Kong artists actually are able to do produce simple but playful pieces. Take for example the Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation (CPR) Conceptual Art Exhibition (May 2009), and within it the piece “Stock Price Fitness Device” by Lock Lo Chi Kit. This piece (above) aligns audience participation, art appreciation, and stock-market fluctuation in a single moment. Even if you don’t see the humor in it, you at least can do some exercises.
The second advantage of running an independent art space is, of course, freedom. One great thing about C&G is that they are always very open in terms of the topics of their exhibitions. To be exact, it means that they dare to base their exhibitions on all sorts of offbeat topics. I find this very admirable, and these weird topics are always very attractive to me. For example, without getting into the difference in context between Hong Kong's Prince Edward neighborhood (the area C&G calls home) and Venice, let's just compare the exhibition themes Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation Conceptual Art Exhibition and Making Worlds; the former is definitely more attractive to me. How can you imagine what weird things are showing in this CPR exhibition? From this point we can again see how C&G insists on the pleasure of art even when discussing about social issues. Compared to many places, the political problems in Hong Kong are actually not that disastrous, but there are certainly enough problems to produce discontent among the people. But honestly, no matter how you curse Donald Tsang, he will still sleep well. You’re just wasting your own time; if you keep thinking about the HKD $6,000,000 that the Hong Kong Museum of Art spent on the Louis Vuitton: A Passion for Creation exhibition when you actually need to figure out how to gather that HKD $2,000 for your next exhibition, then you will definitely go crazy. So the solutions to these problems actually lie in a simple twist of concept. To do that, humor is very important. And with cultural events in Hong Kong today, the funnier the event, the more the public gets involved.
Doris Wong Wai Yin, Free Chinese Medical Advice for Art Workers, poster for a performance, 2009.
In the Sick Leave exhibition (April 2008), Doris Wong Wai Yin did a piece entitled Free Chinese Medical Advice for Art Workers. She invited two doctors of traditional Chinese medicine to help people in the exhibition to check their health. Doris's work seems to say that we people taking part in this art event are all potentially sick. Of course it's not swine flu but something mental. Everyone in Hong Kong, especially those who came to see the C&G show, all have some problems, some knots in their mind. Art can reduce our anxiety. By turning the art space into a Chinese medical clinic, Doris’s work seemed to suggest that the belief and mission of C&G Artpartment is to provide healing to those whose spirits are suppressed and distorted.
Doris Wong Wai Yin, Free Chinese Medical Advice for Art Workers, photo documentation, 2009.
Left: Cover of Dennis Oppenheim, Public Projects, 2009. Right: Dennis Oppenheim, Garden of Evidence, 2008, water-jet-cut aluminum sheet, prefinished diamond-plate aluminum sheets, acrylic, translucent fiberglass, fiberglass grating, galvanized bar
A pioneer of Earthworks in the late 1960s, Dennis Oppenheim has pursued an adventurous career in sculpture and installation, film and video, and body and performance art, but he never stopped making outdoor work. For the past ten years, Oppenheim has concentrated almost exclusively on public art, which is documented in a new book published by Charta this month.
SOME PEOPLE WOULD SAY the age of experimentation in art has ended, but if it has, it’s also created an opening for a new camaraderie of artists working in architecture and public space, making work with people in mind. Functionality and design—once problematic for fine artists—are now where exciting things are happening. It’s a natural progression, but there’s still some resistance. I have fond memories of operating in a studio as a pure scientist, with absolutely no agenda other than to brainstorm art theory and develop new methods. I miss that. My public art does demand similar responses on my behalf to make it successful, but not at the level of penetration that studio work offers: what art can, should, and can’t be—all these heavy questions.
Public work has to be different; it has to be more like architecture. Public art also has to be fairly durable, and artists have to deal with certain characteristics, such as the democratic way the art is selected. That was never true with body art and Land art, which were often fragile, distributed randomly, and created without an audience. For me, venturing onto this new terrain, I’m often on unsteady ground.
Another reason I’m doing public art is to make a distinction between permanent work and the art I come from, which is partly installation art or ephemeral work. That period wore down, and I intentionally moved to the other extreme. Public art is still a frontier, like Alaska.
Working in public art has made me interested in architecture. Young architects, and those not so young, are doing extraordinary work in the built environment, and somehow they are getting away with it. Aaron Betsky, who directed the 2008 Venice Biennale of Architecture, said all the entries were temporary installations—no one will build a building. If you think about it, how else could it be? But that brings to mind installation art, which occurred more in the ’70s. Architects are looking very much like installation artists from thirty years ago. It’s also interesting how architects working with ephemerality, like those in the biennale, are growing in number, and they’re operating with many different kinds of social attitudes. I have a less social attitude than most of them.
Public art, in many cases, is not as structurally and theoretically advanced as contemporary architecture. Vito Acconci says that architects are more interesting to him than artists. There are sculptors out there who are pushing things, people like Thomas Hirschhorn, with all the masking tape—it’s perverse and wonderful. But there are probably more outrageous architects. Even as they take their cues from artists, architects don’t always need us.
Many of my commissions, such as Jump and Twist, 1999, Wave Forms, 2007, and Flying Gardens, 2005, have an opportunity to integrate closely to the site, which is what panels and municipalities want. In New York City, you can’t really do permanent work. That’s why funding agencies like the Public Art Fund sponsor temporary pieces, but work like that is a hybrid. Real public art is like architecture because it will be there for a while.
Public-art commissions, though, generally have a 20 percent success rate, and projects that get rejected are often shelved because they are site-specific. But you can still use them, present them, and keep them alive by talking about them—it depends on how good they are. Sometimes the best work is not accepted because it’s too radical or ambitious—that’s a paradox of public art. In the past, I’ve sometimes taken elements from a commission and shown them in a gallery—like I did with Garden of Evidence, 2008, a work for Scottsdale, Arizona—before installing them in a site. Funding for an exhibition is sometimes hard to get, so use your public-art commission to construct the work and then show it momentarily in a gallery. Cities don’t always like that.
Device to Root Out Evil, 1997, appears on the cover of the new book, which is partly a decision to retain a singular image because the disparity in my work makes it hard to rest on anything particular. When there is an opportunity to create a signature image, I do, and Device has been on the cover of a few books. But the work has since become discomforting. I donated one of three versions to Stanford University, where I went to graduate school, but after a controversy they gave it back. This upside-down church has been chased around the continent for several years. After Vancouver took it down, it moved to an obscure site in Calgary.
What people don’t realize is how acceptance of permanent work takes time. People have grown to love Antony Gormley’s Angel of the North, 1994–98, in Gateshead, in the northeast of England. I haven’t yet heard that about my work.