The First Sermon
Chan Kai Yin
May 21 – Jun 20, 1997
In reponse to Hello! Hong Kong - Part 7
Reinterpreting the Mandala of Tantric Buddhism in the painting style of Francis Bacon, this show raised the question of one’s immediate existence.
Indigenous Culture, History and Memories, Time:
Reflections on the Two Inaugural Exhibitions at Para Site
Edwin K. Lai
Para Site comes back at Po Yan Street, Sheung Wan with a viewer-friendly beginning. The titles of the two inaugural exhibitions - Tsang Tak-ping's Hello!Hong Kong: Part 7 and Chan Kai Yin's The First Sermon - are unpretentious and aptly chosen, much better than titles like From Beijing to Versailles - Arts Exchange between China and France. The press release is somewhat vainglorious, fortunately the motto "Emphasizing Communication" remains true and honest. I often think that an appropriate title is very important to an exhibition. It is just like the navigating ship outside Kap Shui Mun. It can either steer visitors nowhere or help them find the way into the harbor.
Detailed introductions by the two artists are placed on a small table at the corner of the exhibition venue. Chan Kai-yin even has specially designed and printed a handsome brochure, which records the ideas behind his exhibit as well as some other possible developments. A number of finely edited portfolios are also available for visitors who are not familiar with the themes and styles of their previous works, or the history of Para Site. These provide useful supplementary information on the background of the show. If a visitor happens to meet Tsang or Chan at the exhibition venue, s/he will find both artists cordial and sincere. They do not speak evasively like many other local artists, instead, they are willing to explain the meaning of their works and the issues the works touch upon. Certainly, words can never fully represent visual impressions, but still they can be used to exchange and deepen our visual experiences.
In Hong Kong, the relationship between visual artists and the critics is a love-hate one. On the one hand, the artists hope that they can receive favorable comments which serve to enshrine their names and to increase the market value of their works. On the other hand, they fear that negative remarks will tear the exhibits into pieces, and make them look inane in the future. As W. S. Maugham has piercingly remarked in Of Human Bondage, "People ask you for criticism, but they only want praise." However, I do not believe such a tense relationship between the artists and the critics is unavoidable. At least, unlike a judge a critic does not essentially decide what is right or wrong, s/he just expresses her/his views or provides certain ways of interpretations so as to encourage dialogues among artists, audience and even the arts and cultural institutions. After all, what we are working towards is a general social and cultural progress.
Back to the exhibition. After the previous six episodes of Hello! Hong Kong we of course cannot find Tsang Tak-ping's new work too unfamiliar. Since turning to installation art as his major mode of expression a few years ago, old objects of the lower class in the fifties and sixties have recurred in his works in the forms of simulation, regrouping, mismatching and collages. He also shows a deep concern for space and the exhibition site in his works. I think Tsang's project is not to establish an independent style for Hong Kong visual art, but to study what is the indigenous cultural identity and history of Hong Kong through the conception and production of his works. His approach is to reconstruct, analyze and reflect on his own childhood and growth in Hong Kong.
Perhaps alienation (ostranenie) is really not the artistic effect Tsang seeks to achieve in his works. The spaces he constructs and all the things he puts inside easily arouse in us the past and the recollections of our childhood. For those who are born and grow up during the fifties and the eighties, going inside Tsang's spaces constructed of bamboo and zinc sheets, and the seeing and touching of his old furniture, flowery crimson wall papers, faded old-fashioned clothes, railings, rubber balls, folded paper boats or dainty ornaments, is like the experience of an old woman who happens to pick up in the corner of the house an old photograph of herself taken over thirty years ago. Bits by bits the memories and colors of the long-gone days are brought back. When compared to those of the other visual artists in Hong Kong, Tsang's works are crude, primitive, plain, cheap and adaptive in terms of craftsmanship, materials employed and overall layout. These are exactly what endow his works with a strong sense of daily life. Although what he examines may just be certain personal experiences or imaginations, these too are paths we have trodden. It is then not difficult for us to become sympathetic with the secular anecdotes Tsang constructs.
Memory is undoubtedly the main theme of the present episode of Hello! Hong Kong Many components of the work are indented, buried, split, peeled off, wasted away or are disappearing. Some of them even dry up, collapse or vanish during the exhibition. We sigh on seeing such for what accompany our growth are fast disappearing with the passing of time and the modernization of the city. I think Tsang is reluctant to let the past being ruthlessly wiped off. What he tries to do is to establish the local secular history and cultural sensibilities through the reconstruction of his memories and imaginations.
Tsang pays a lot of attention to the site of the exhibition. It so happens that he once lived near the new address of Para Site when he was a boy, and this arouses plenty of childhood memories in his work. He takes it so seriously that he organizes a "Common People's Hide and Seek" tour, guiding the viewers to visit the playgrounds he often hovered around thirty years ago. He also brings up that it is here the British army first landed in Hong Kong, and the colonial government has done something disreputable in the vicinity. From this perspective, can we see his emphasis on writing the local history from the common people's viewpoint a political resistance against those people in power who seek to institute some official histories of Hong Kong?
Memories and history come from the lost as well as from the preserved, just like a partly-buried old drawer can be seen as a partly-protruded old drawer. The British colonial government has for its own interests oppressed some discourses of the history of Hong Kong, but also because of its own interests has influenced the budding and development of the consciousness of our local cultural identity. We may perhaps notice that the sixties during which Tsang was growing up, are also the years when the colonial government started to promote the ideas of localization.(1) After the handover of 1997 the government of the Special Administrative Region as well as the Chinese government, likely will also try to bury part of the past and restate/cultivate some other histories. By keeping and displaying certain old objects Tsang narrates the memories and history of certain district and class, but it is also through this method he neglects the building of other cultural identities. For examples, he has not mentioned how he has transformed himself from a boy of lower class origins into a petit bourgeois (from an exploited to an exploiter?), or how he has developed his sexual identity and sexual orientations. Surely, Tsang has no ambitions whatsoever to monopolize the artistic writing of the secular history of Hong Kong: in fact earlier we have seen similar and impressive works by VC&KH and Yeung Chun-kie. There are also more artists who are concerned about the Hong Kong cultural identity. On the other hand, an exhibition has its sites and parameters and therefore its limitations, and what is not said in the past or the present does not mean that it will not be mentioned in the future. I raise these questions because what forces upon me by Tsang's series of Hello! Hong Kong (especially Part 7), is the complex relationship between identification, history and memory, and the power structure of society.
The memory and history of identity are closed related with social power, the recent reflections upon local cultural identity in the local art and cultural milieu is not something natural either. I think we can temporarily put aside that this is trendy in the humanities and art institutions, what we should pay special attention is the dialectical meaning of the search for local identity in cultural activities. In view of 1997 and the transition of sovereignty to the strong-handed Chinese government, the importance of establishing an indigenous cultural history and memory is undoubtedly "a strategy against the impending China-centered version of history"(2) more than against the faded glory of the waning British colonial rule. Otherwise we would not have reacted so strongly when Pun Sing-lui took his red paint and hammer to raid the Queen Victoria's statue. But this consciousness is only retrospective, and is the diasporic melancholy of our generation. Those who are born after the eighties probably do not share the same feelings with us. In a recent article published in City Entertainment, Lam Tung points out: "The real questions are: what changes will happen, culturally speaking, to Hong Kong when it is returned to China? What impact will China's culture and arts make upon us? How should we behave? What can Hong Kong intellectuals do, and what should they do? And what kind of challenge Hong Kong intellectuals can bring forth to the Chinese culture in general?"(3) I do not totally agree with all his criticisms and views, but the appeal for future as implied in the above quotation is something we cannot but must consider very seriously now.
In the following I will discuss The First Sermon by Chan Kai-yin, a work produced in response to Hello! Hong Kong - Part 7. Tsang Tak-ping refers to the realist aesthetics put forward by the famous French film critic Andre Bazin, and seeks to preserve history through the collection of objects in daily life. This kind of memory is summarized by the old saying "Recalling our old acquaintances by seeing their belongings." Chan notes the paradox between memories and time, and takes this as the focus of his response. Certainly enough, memories are closely connected with time: many years later, we will still remember the film Days of Being Wild by Wong Kar-wai and the one minute before three o'clock in the afternoon of 16 April 1960. This is a matter of fact, it is completed, and cannot be changed.
But the concept of time as expressed in The First Sermon is quite ambiguous. Chan says that he is probing into the difference between how the East and the West have viewed time, and reflecting on the births and deaths of life. There are a number of clocks and a sundial fixed on the ceiling, probably symbolizing the Western scientific approach of calculating time. The clocks are showing the same time, pointing likely to the absolute time theory developed from Galileo to Newton. I recall the lines of the famous song by the dinosaur band Pink Floyd:
And you run and you run to catch up with the sun, but it's sinking
And racing around to come up behind you again
The sun is the same in the relative way, but you are older
Shorter of breath and one day closer to death(4)
However, the light cast upon the sundial among the clocks is fixed, so the shadow the sundial creates remains unchanged from dawn till dark. This brings the relativity of time into question. If it happens one day when the advanced state of technology fosters the invention of a machine that travels faster than light, then the young boy in light purple underwear will really go back to the time before he is born, and causes changes to his parents' and his own fate. Then what is the meaning of time, history and memory? Will there still be true and false? I think The First Sermon is quite deconstructive, and Chan is asking questions about insistence and persistence.
On the dark floor perpendicular to the clocks and the sundial is a line of small rectangular mirrors that go to both ends and fade into two small and uncovered coffins on the wall. This design seems to highlight the Eastern, Buddhist concept of samsara, but at the same time the burning candles on the mirror road are getting shorter and shorter. It will be a perfunctory reading if we generalize the view of "gone are the dead without leaving" as the concept of time in the East (no matter what that means), because at least in ancient China, there were already timing machines such as the copper clepsydra, and the soundings of night watches were heard until as late as the end of the Qing Dynasty. So I feel I should no longer go on with my words, for The First Sermon is after all a place for visitors to meditate. Truth is not taught by the others, it is to be realized within us.
Switching to the form of the works one also notes a lot of relatedness between The First Sermon and Hello! Hong Kong - Part 7. For example, the space Chan constructs also asks the viewers to get inside and look and think carefully - though the atmosphere created by the brightly colored drawings on the low ceiling, the angry expression of Kalachakra (Ming Wang), the dagger-like sundial hanging on the ceiling, the round of clocks and the flickering flames of the white candles are much more menacing. The conception of the two coffins disappearing into the wall must have come from Tsang's semi-buried drawers beneath the staircase, but what do the uncovered coffins imply? The road to nirvana, or the opening of Pandora's box? As to the coffins and the religious touch of the work, it is obvious that Chan has taken considerations of the land-uses of the exhibition venue's neighboring vicinity.
Another thing that attracts me in The First Sermon is the intermingling of the Eastern and Western cultures and styles. It is at this level that Chan seems to be trying to respond to Tsang's emphasis on constructing an indigenous secular history and identity for Hong Kong people. The Eastern and Western concepts of time are at certain points diametrically opposite, and the figures of Kalachakra and the monsters at the ceiling are drawn in two very different styles that do not complement each other. These remind me of the over-generalized eastern-western theory of cultural traditions, and the fact that different cultures may not work with one another harmoniously. A second look at the form of the ceiling painting, however, seems that certain references have been drawn from the experiences of Catholic churches in the West. The recent emergence of installation art in Hong Kong is beyond doubt influenced by art trends in the West, and many works that talk about locally cultural identities are actually exported rather than consumed in Hong Kong. Looking from this angle, The First Sermon is really quite "post-colonial" in employing the form of installation as a means to investigate, in a rather "Eastern" way of thinking, into the spiritual aspects of life.
I would like to close with a short discussion on the exchanges or dialogues between the two exhibitions. Chan states explicitly in his brochure that he does not want to get involved in Tsang's self-developed series of work, rather, what he wants to maintain is a multiplicity in creation processes. In general viewers also feel that there is not adequate dialogue between the two exhibits. My friend, Shum Long-tin, even points out that this reflects the characteristic of self-centeredness prevailing in the local visual arts production. I find observations of this kind very rewarding, they point to the problem we need to actively encounter and improve. However, since the two works are exhibited side by side in terms of both time and space, we as viewers will but try to establish certain relationships between them. After all, the authors are not the ultimate spokespersons on the meanings of the works.
(Translation by Cheng Pik-yee)
1 Matthew Turner, "60's/90's: Dissolving the People", Hong Kong Sixties: Designing Identity, Hong Kong Arts Centre, Hong Kong, 1995, pp. 13-34.
2 Leung Ping-kwan, "Critiques on Popular and Elite Culture," from Wong Suk-han (ed.), On the Many Facets of Hong Kong Culture, Hong Kong Arts Centre, Hong Kong, 1997, p.12.
3 Lam Tung, "Where Shall Hong Kong Culture Go? - from the Experience of a Cultural Activity," City Entertainment, No. 472, May 1997, p. 109.
4 Pink Floyd, 'Time', from Dark Side of the Moon, 1973. Lyrics by Roger Waters.