We may never know, but it is worth trying

The recent withdrawal of the artwork by Sampson Wong and Jason Lam from the exhibition Human Vibrations in “The 5th Large-Scale Public Media Art Exhibition (2016)” offers a valuable opportunity for learning how to debate competing common goods: in this case, with art being staked out to find its place in society. I hope to join others who have initiated the discussion with a few paths of simple-minded thinking.

A public statement co-signed by chairman of the visual arts committee of the Hong Kong Arts Development Council (presenter of the exhibition) Ellen Pau and curator Caroline Ha Tuc, and a subsequent personal statement by Pau which she made public state that the withdrawal results from the artists’ violation of an ‘original agreement’ based on ‘confidence’, ‘respect, and ‘trust’. This is framed as a violation of professionalism, consequential to the future of ‘our profession’, putting it “at risk [of] any future possibility to work further in the public space.”

Who is this “our” in “our profession? One interpretation could be the signatories bound by contract with the exhibiting artists in this particular project. Another interpretation could be everyone in the profession of art. The choice we make in how to read the ‘our’ affects how we understand the reason the statement gives for the withdrawal: “After the opening ceremony of the Exhibition held on 18 May 2016, the artists changed the title and statement of their work, and publicized these changes, without consulting the curator nor HKADC.”

If read firstly as a violation of the contractual conditions, the statement presents two puzzles – 1) with regard to how an art work and its scope are defined, and 2) with regard to the working relation between the contracting parties:

1)    What are the terms in the contract that set out which ‘changes’ of the art work are bound by it and which ones are not? This question relates to how the contract defines the duration and scope of the art work. Do the contractual conditions apply to the art work insofar as it is fixated in the form for display in the exhibition, or beyond? Given that the art work had been declared open and shown in the agreed venue, how far were the artists bound by the contract to interpret and communicate what they had done outside of the exhibition? In the contract, is the artists’ interpretation of their work regarded as part of or a continuation of the work or as separate from it? Artists may not be the best interpreters of their own works (hence a supporting system including curators and writers to do so), but could artists be prohibited from doing so by contract? To say that the interpretation of a work is a mis-interpretation (which could take the forms of reduction, distortion, factual error, etc.) is one thing; to say that it is damaging in a general way and therefore justifies prohibition is another. The latter opens a door to the additional regulation of free artistic expression that is already regulated by law, for instance libel. What information do we need to make good judgment on how far the institution could regulate the understanding of an art work through interpretation and communication in public?

2)    While the contract binds the contracting parties to ‘work together’, how far could it ensure that they work together well? The earlier statement points to the artists’ failure to consult the curator and presenter as a violation of the agreement to work together. Subsequently, Pau mentions in her statement that the presenters had tried to communicate with the artists, but because of the lack of time, had to make the decision to withdraw. What limits the time for making good communication? What goal is being directed by time as a source of pressure, prompting response as if there were an emergency? What is the lack of time for? Decisiveness can be a virtue, but decisions presented as a necessity without good reasons beg questions about whether judgments on perceived risks are well guided and not prompted, for instance, by institutional self-censorship, or whether judgments on the propriety of deeds are matched by proportionate response. Common sense tells us that good communication is a crucial part of working together. The failure of communication can be consequential to the integrity of the project – in terms of its mandate and artistic quality. However, communication is always mutual. Are there compelling reasons in this case to burden the artists as the only parties responsible for communication failure?

It is not clear what exactly happened between the contracting parties with regard to the terms of the contract, leaving many questions unanswered. Emergencies may demand swift action, but swift action does not have to call thinking to a stop. What is required of emergencies is composure to consider competing principles the decisions are intended to uphold. If professionalism and artistic expression are competing principles in this case, both having the potential to contribute to a viable future for art, what have been the considerations that lead to the conclusion that the former should override the latter?

The absence of the language of art in the statements is puzzling. As challenging as it may be to defend bad art, it is part of professional life of all those who work in art and part of ordinary civic life. Even when a work has gone bad, the parties presenting it and arguably the curator in a primary way have the duty to explain to the public the stakes on all sides – the artistic aspects included. Would public understanding have been facilitated if the curator had given artistic reasons for not being able to work with the artists as the circumstances changed? Would the negotiations have been different if other artists involved in the exhibition were brought into the decision-making process of withdrawal so that they were offered the chance to be accountable to the project as a community? This relates to the second reading of the ‘our’ in ‘our profession’ as all those who have declared to be in the profession of art. I wonder if our profession is at stake because of the art work, the violation of the contractual agreement and the violation of trust as claimed, the withdrawal itself, or many other things that have happened along the way. I wonder if our profession is at stake at all, or is this case but one of the many ordinary occurrences with an ordinary degree of risk arising out of the way artists work.

How are trust and ‘our profession’ as a profession related? The statements portray trust as a component of professionalism; they claim that the violation of trust puts our profession at risk. I am not sure if this communicates what our profession is and its risks. Trust as a messy human affair is a slippery term. No one can deny its worth in public life, but everyone is aware that it is only in the perfect world that there is unconditional trust. It is arguably for this reason that contracts are made, and trust, managed in the profession in particular ways. Trust is also a norm in civic society, but not the only one nor the over-riding one. For a society that values the individual’s freedom of expression, a degree of distrust is in fact needed towards, for instance, government interference to ensure that trust will not become overly secure to make us inactive to govern, so that the activity of building and maintaining trust remains ongoing and formative. The party may be offended by not being trusted, does offence justify regulation? [1] In some societies, necessary dissent to ensure freedom of expression is routinely regarded by those in power as disrespect. If someone feeling offended starts to become a reason for regulating what artworks can or cannot show, what are the implications on the possible future of the art profession and its place in public?


What about professionalism as an ethics? Professionalism is maintained not only by temporary and project-based contractual terms, nor by trust. Professionalism depends on an account of enduring codes of conduct with ethical bearings that members of the profession agree to continuously abide by, to self-regulate with, and to deliberate collectively in response to change, for the sake of not only ensuring the profession’s survival, but also its contribution to society, for if there is no society as context from which and for which the profession acts, there would be no object for this professionalism to apply to; professionalism can give itself to nothing. A complex situation requires complex response; it is precisely from the standpoint of the profession that complexity can find articulation to contribute to public understanding of the truth and challenges of the profession. To choose not to do so is to exercise the kind of power already established, and to invite the public to hope for a future that is overly determined by what is already in place – as signaled by the silence of the venue partner and the curator in this case. Are we to hope for art that would align with the narrow window of trust the presenting parties could offer, or could there be negotiations on how much the presenters could take risks with the artists together, as a professional community with everyone having equal power, with trust being generously given for the dilemmas, failures, risks etc. that art is always already?

Art distributes a different kind of hope for its potential to ask questions about reality (if not always, at least with a more resilient potential to be able to). This is what is precious about art as a human endeavor. Artists can give life to this kind of philosophical work when they are honest with the way they succumb to anxiety and self-doubt. In this current case, the artists have done precisely this: because a particular public space and the opportunity to show art there is regarded as precarious, the artists take the risk and treat the chance as now-or-never. What about the institutions? On what principles have they negotiated for the project? How have they prioritized and wrestled with a hierarchy of values in the negotiation? I am not sure by reading the statements, but it is clear that the institutions, in the silence of those with one-sided control over public space, are in a better position to determine what can and cannot show by exercising power rather than by making a convincing argument. Is this unequal relation of power a choice worthy future for art and society?

What would a vision of future with all art sharing equal aesthetic right (to borrow Boris Groys’ idea) look like? I imagine beginning from a different evaluation of privatized and one-sidedly commercialized public space: if it had not been the exaggeration of the value of placing art in such places as the ICC or equivalently spectacular and iconic places as if they were frontiers to be conquered, would there have been less fretting about losing the opportunity as if guarding some treasure chest? If such places are not seen as exalted, but one part of many that contributes to the long-term project of the equal aesthetic right of all art forms to be not only present in but making and inhabiting all public spaces, would there have been a higher chance that the hierarchy of values currently circulated could be opened up and re-negotiated? When we start thinking through enduring values for the future of art, we nurture a kind of responsiveness that aim for understanding rather than measuring. It is also a kind of responsiveness immune to undue insecurity and knee-jerk actions, which could be as unprofessional as what the artists in this case are opined to be. To build trust for the future, putting trust or the lack of it on public trial offers little help.

In Hope, new philosophies for change, Mary Zournazi speaks of hope as “what sustains life in the face of despair.” It is “not simply the desire for things to come, or the betterment of life. It is the drive or energy that embeds us in the world – in the ecology of life, ethics and politics.” This is distinguished from the kind of hope worked out in a negative frame based on fear. This negative kind of hope “masquerades as a vision”; it is “a kind of future nostalgia […] charged by a static vision of life and the exclusion of difference.” [2] As a feeble voice in the profession, I am asking of the institutions and curators to be in tune with the kind of hope that artists have always been conjuring in a dynamic realm of practices and processes. Hope begins now and not in the future, just as public well-being begins with every gesture arising from the present; it is not perpetually delayed. (This is often how hope and optimism are distinguished.) The language of professionalism for art is not isolated from the language of all that art is; the latter does not aspire to a kind of professionalism that focuses only on what to make, but also on how and why to make it. No policy could be damage-proof, but we could work for one that seeks adequately deliberated common goods.


[1] This idea is inspired by Jeremy Waldron’s The Harm in Hate Speech (Harvard University Press, 2012).

[2] See Zournazi, 15.

Work Cited

Zournazi, Mary. Hope, new philosophies for change. Annandale, NSW: Pluto Press Australia, 2002. Print.




Edwin Lo

Sea Wall by Edwin Lo* consists of two sets of the same objects – one video with sound accessed via headphones and one pair of drawings. All components are placed horizontally along a straight line, inviting an act of reading from left to right, from right to left, or from somewhere in the middle with a gaze that extends sideways. The drawings are set apart from the video by the wiring of the post-card-sized monitor, constituting a rupture between the graphic iteration and the moving image.

One video frames a body of water along the shore where several ships are docked. A hill lies at the background, its slope dotted by electricity pylons. Blocks of residential buildings on the side contest the height of the hill. Occasionally, small boats of various kinds effortlessly cruise past in the foreground; otherwise, the undulating sea surface is the only moving element in view. Shaped like a cascade, the scene is uneventful, extracted from an ordinary day of grey. Once the headphones are put on, however, the viewer’s reality completely changes. Crisping and crackling, rolling and rumbling, clinking and clacking… Sounds with a glazy texture bustle about continuously, at times in a crescendo, at times gathering intensity, but no one instant presents the same rhythm as the other. According to Lo, the recording was made with a DIY hydrophone submerged about one meter underwater. The experience of listening to the invisible world is at once intimate and mysterious.

The other video also shows a scene with the sea in the foreground, while the facade of the first few storeys of a residential building lies at the back. This image is comparatively monotonous and grid-based. To listen to the audio recording while looking at the moving image is, once again, to be transposed to a radically different reality. While the listener mostly hears a distant drone, at times barely audible, she is also exposed to, all of a sudden, thick and heavy vrooms. Are they engines, the restless vibrations of some unknown metal? The farther away the sounds, the more intense a sense of time passing, and the more emergent a sense of anticipation. The sounds are certainly suggestive of passing ships, which Lo says he ordinarily hears from his home at night, between waking and sleeping. Lo told me the recordings had not been mixed, but he edited out such background sounds as people talking, their footsteps, and the wash of waves. In both videos, the sound unsettles the fabricated tranquility of the image of the places, activating the otherwise stagnant economy of visual exchange.

Lo emphasizes repeatedly – in both his artist statement and during our conversation – that he was making a soundmark of Aberdeen, his community and home. The idea of soundmark comes from the language of acoustic ecology, aiming at reducing noises as unpleasant sounds, so that soundmarks as specially regarded sounds by people of a community could be registered. I find Lo’s audio recording captivating, however, not because it gives any sense of place out of geography or shared identity. It is rather the displacement (not placement) of the sound as against the moving image that makes possible experiences of strangeness and surprise. In Background Noise: Perspectives on Sound Art (2006), Brandon LaBelle offers a helpful reference to discerning between the two different ways sound is put to work. While acoustic ecology’s concern in soundscape composition emphasizes “immersion and origin”, LaBelle says the “backside” of such a concern does not work through identification and information. Instead, it “wields its power by being boundless, uprooted, and distinct.” It is my impression that Lo is aware of the competing intentions but is yet to give them – and the tension between them – confident expression.

In Lo’s earlier works like Auditory Scenes: Tsing Yi (2009), activities around the sea have also been his sonic sources, although he seemed to be more interested in composing narratives out of the sounds of human social life. Sea Wall takes a more abstract direction. In fact, it was the first time the artist has ever materialized his own listening experience as graphic elements – drawings of brown horizontal lines in varying lengths and in uniform thickness. Lo told me he made the drawings out of a sense of inadequacy after making the video and sound recording. I am not sure what kind of inadequacy he was referring to, but for me, the question is more whether the juxtaposition of the digital and the analogue have produced interesting dialogues. For instance, I asked Lo how he determined the size of the video and the drawings, which could have implications on the structural and conceptual relation between them. Lo said he “didn’t want the videos to overwhelm the drawings.” I speculate that the intention is to keep the moving images as relatively neutral visual registers, while accentuating the touch of the hand-drawn on paper. But the current set-up seems to yield an unintended, reverse effect: the drawings are presented as a pair of precious and pure objects to invite clinical inspection, rendering the dynamical relation between the moving images and the sonic composition unproductively dubious in the context of the work as a whole.

Would the drawings have generated a different kind of intervention if viewed from a different vantage point or in a different objecthood than, say, hanging wall pieces? Are there other options that would guide viewers and listeners to engage with how the artist thinks what he does?I am reminded of Cesare Pavese’s faith in our power to wonder, “The surest - also the quickest - way to awake the sense of wonder in ourselves is to look intently, undeterred, at a single object. Suddenly, miraculously, it will reveal itself as something we have never seen before.” (Dialoghi con Leuco, 1947 cited in Robert Bringhurst, The Elements of Typographic Style version 3.2, 2008) While Sea Wall may be a work not having fully entrusted itself to the wonder of sound, it has certainly affirmed how the drowsing of time could be sonically more interesting than clarity of information, how attention drifting and attention setting could both be gifts.


*Sea Wall (2013) is a work presented in the exhibition Beyond the Sound at Comix Home Base, curated by Anne Laure Chamboissier as part of Le French May 2015.


Yeung Yang

First published in issue 115 (July 2015) of AM Post, Hong Kong






Alfred Ko’s Pond on the roof


There is something natural about Pond on the roof (2013) that stands out from other color photographs in his recent solo a/part: early and recent works of Alfred Ko Chi-keung. Pond on the roof comes about on a regular day of the artist’s wandering around the city. Ko found this small puddle of water gathered on a greyish rooftop in Shek Kip Mei. The puddle is of an undefined shape with no beginning and no end, no introduction and no conclusion. It reflects patches of green, blue and yellow and a vague shape of a high-rise from somewhere out in the city. The water is still, but presents the imagination of its morphing into something else as the camera looks away. Instead of taking fabricated urban spaces and mass produced excess of consumer products as his object of gaze in the color series Claustrophobia and Agoraphobia, Pond on the roof concerns itself with the beauty of transience.

The unintentional, unknown and unnamed traces of the human in the photograph, and their beauty, remind me of Jacob Kirkegaard’s AION (2006). AION is a video and sound installation of abandoned interior spaces in the exclusion area near the Chernobyl nuclear power plant site. The zone was declared contaminated, hence evacuated since the accident in 1986. Without camera movement, the image seems still, but a closer look shows dust or debris and peeling wall paper making the tiniest tremble. Sound-wise, one hears layers of each room’s resonant frequencies. This is made by the artist placing recording equipment in each room, recording for ten minutes, then playing back the recording in the room while re-recording it. In this gesture that pays tribute to Alvin Lucier’s seminal work from the 1960s “I am sitting in a room” that attempts to employ the sound of his voice to give shape to a room, Kirkegaard renders the enclosure and its breach audible. Sound settles into the process of decay in a busy kind of solitude, framing the way we see (water in the pool, the broken piano, peeling walls, picture frames, etc.).

Ko and Kirkegaard’s works are worlds apart in time, and in geographical, cultural, and historical contexts, but they are similarly committed to addressing the actual and potential violence of the humanly devised. They are specific forms of engagement that reveal the obscenity of the accumulation of power by illegitimate means. At the same time, they are both actively pursuing beauty.

Another photograph in a/part also stands out. October on Gloucester (2014) was made on a certain day cleared of teargas, one of those days still wrestling with memories of the recent past. Others on the footbridge over Gloucester Road must have shared the serendipitous encounter with the setting sun that brushed broad strokes across long stretches of asphalt all the way down and up to a distant building. Not only is sunlight rare in Ko’s photography, but also the way it finds equanimity in the ordinary, made possible only by the extraordinary struggles by the people to change the pulse of the city, to free the roads of traffic. In both Pond on the Roof and October on Gloucester, the artist engages what he is personally subjected to – at once the precariousness of the public realm and the beauty of home.

Ko had a different relationship with beauty when he first explored with color after a four-decade-long practice in black and white photography. The early explorations show a collection of strange colors and incongruous objects in urban non-places. The relatively confrontational approach is essential for the artist to show the vulgarity of the gigantic, flaunting its strength against the weak. To show the hollowness of this loudness is to claim the power to bring the gigantic up close for negotiation.

Now, beauty is possible not because of a hunting-driven gaze made in a decisive moment, but rather, because of a shift of attention – in Ko’s words, to return to “zone five – the neutrality of the density of middle grey.” Thus, the title image red before dawn of a/part – the beauty of the grey Victoria Habor, the morning yet to come, yet to be devoured by the self-conscious glory of the money-powered. Grey is the state of pausing in between extremes; this is the goal.

What is the value of seeing beauty in injury and destruction (a question many artists have always asked, but perhaps more consciously, intensely and frequently since the multiple global movements against illegitimate powers)? I find inspiration from Elaine Scarry’s idea that beauty calls for justice rather than being separate from it. In her book On Beauty and Being Just (1999) and related lectures, Scarry says that the moment we see beautiful things, we are in the state of bliss, and that very moment makes us marginal or secondary; we are “happy to be in a supporting rather than a central role.” This moment of “unselfing” makes us happy. As the recognition of beauty confers aliveness to the object of beauty, it also obliges us to protect this beauty.

On the night of the exhibition opening, photographer Roy Lee (Ko’s long-time friend) also shared where he found justice at work. “These are concrete images,” he said, “that give an interpretation, in a society where interpretation itself is not encouraged.” It is only after he affirmed the ground for the act of interpretation itself as a moral undertaking before he addressed the object of interpretation, in its multitude. He sees the undertaking as showing the inadequacy to be among a group of people to feel at ease and at peace with, for acts of interpretation by the artist demands a different kind of yearning for truth.

Ko repeatedly uses the word “absurdity” to describe what he sees in reality. I would propose that he also personalizes this absurdity in his photographic reality, without clairvoyance, without pride, without haste, to make possible suspension of time as much as the appreciation of timeliness. He does so by not looking away and not giving up on the possibility of beauty out of the most absurd. “If the world were clear, art would not exist.” (“Absurd Creation, Philosophy and Fiction” in Albert Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus)

Life has a way of returning to normal – cars racing to connect one financial district to the next. But processes of normalization can never totalize life, for aliveness has nothing to do with normality; it is a matter of beauty.


Yeung Yang

First published in issue 114 (May 2015) of AM Post, Hong Kong





Fiona Lee in a sound she tries to understand

It was the curator’s walk-through. Some sixty visitors took small, cautious steps up the wooden staircase to the mezzanine floor of the Calvo Building*. Their excitement from visiting installations in under-utilized buildings in Escolta, Manila was still audible in the contours of words exchanged and visible in the way briskly moving bodies accommodated each other.

Waiting for the chattering to quiet, Fiona Lee sat down at a small table, on which two palm-sized radios were placed. On the wall at her back, extending into the long corridor, were brownish historical photographs of the neighborhood – its river, its dwelling.

On the floor near the leg of the table was an empty stainless steel pot. The lid was half open, clinging onto the rim of the pot, making a murmur which became audible as the human hub bub gradually faded. The tiny vibrations were not aggressive like steam would push out from boiling water, but they were anything but easy. Restrained by incessant fits, the pot was an awkward misfit in the calm of the place.

Lee took up one radio, extended its antenna, stood up and opened the door to a carpeted room. Facing the door at the far end was a light, thin, and elongated cloth, on which a blurry image was projected. A closer look showed how the image was in fact natural light from the outside, gathered through a convex lens into the room. The room was a camera obscura. Facades of stone mansions, coconut trees, tricycles roaming asphalt concrete roads…touched the cloth, changing as time was slowly whiled away.

Sounds, too, began to gather. The radio Lee had been holding started picking up signals from hidden transmitters she had set up: horses galloped past, a rooster called, while birds chirped in the background. All these were recorded during sunrise in Manila, marking each one of Lee’s days in the residency of Transi(en)t Manila of Project Glocal.

As we walked out of the room, the morning of Manila fell out of tune. Noise replaced signal. Tension arose between a sense of loss and anticipation. Anxiety, uncertainty, and curiosity were simultaneously evoked.

Lee then led us into the corridor. We paced our steps past glass cases lined up on the left and the right. With many curiosities feasting the eye, the crowd began dispersing, until the radio picked up new signals – first, songs, as we walked past colorful movie posters from the 1940s to 1960s; then, some whirl of activities in a department store, with an occasional Christmas tune at a distance seeping through. In between, again, the radio was out of tune.

Then, we arrived at a wall full of portrait photographs of smiling women, many of whom with faces whitened by make-up. Lee told us these were beauty queens from pageants of decades old. She was going to find a cultural critic for an interview to address the white supremacy, when circumstances brought her instead to a cosmetic store, where she had a conversation with a sales person (with the help of a Tagalog translator), who had equally strong views against the routinization of whitening as defining beauty in Filipina society of a recent past. The last signal we picked up was at the far, dead end of the corridor. It was a live radio signal. The day I listened, the radio host was speaking about a design competition in a mix of Tagalog and English. One half step away from the signal, the radio fell out of tune.

This is not the first time Lee shows interest in the immanent and at times imperceptible material processes ongoing in our ordinary lives. In the Delight series (since 2010), the hissing of light bulbs is amplified to transform the source of light into a source of sound. In The Last Scene (2011), the application of the process of freezing and thawing to a door handle bestows upon the door a capacity for transition while suspending its normal function of spatial separation. In the more recent catch the wings of meteors (2014), Lee brings into audibility the electromagnetic waves perpetually present in a social space – a cafe, where our social identities are produced without regard to the robust materiality always already surrounding us.

What is different in the Calvo Building installation is that Lee, for the first time in her artistic practice, is engaging with human language spoken, sung, and embedded in rich and complex histories. On the one hand, one might see this as the artist discovering a new challenge in her practice, creating a kind of ambivalence that she had to force out of the pot – that awkward misfit – to free herself. On the other hand, one might say she has adapted the artistic language from the field of robust materiality to human speech, so that speech, too, presents not established meanings in social life, but as sonic material with discernible grain in the spectrum of signal and noise. If to every sound is a silence that is “not the absence of signal, but the absence of a space articulated outside of the experience of listening as such” as Daniela Cascella proposes, Lee’s artistic disposition may even be regarded as a longer journey of researching on how silence could be crafted out of sound. No matter, that Lee has to respond to objects and sites loaded with historical meanings is both a source of her qualms as well as a catalyst for her growth.

Lee told me several times the pot was very important in the installation. If it were not there, she said, she would not have felt right. As to why, she didn’t quite have words for. What we did talk about was what made an art work complete in general. Rather than a certain manner of outward finishing and polishing, we find an occasional protrusion out of nowhere, or a strange occurrence of inconsistency somewhere, contributing more to its integrity. Lee didn’t feel complete yet with the work, and she is allowing her reflexivity linger into the future.

We walked out of the metal gate. The guard called her by name to say goodbye, and put the lock up to close for the day.


*The Calvo Building, in Art Deco style, was built in 1936 and inaugurated for commercial purposes two years later. It houses a private collection of artifacts as a reminder of the historical significance of Escolta. It occasionally opens to tour groups by appointment or when there is a Saturday market in Escolta.


Yeung Yang

First published in AM Post, March 2015










Sunday Lai’s '1Mbps'

Brevity of expression, coupled with agility of mind, makes Sunday Lai’s latest video 1Mbps one of her finest. In the one-minute work made with the technique of stop motion, a grey and white spinner icon in a dark background is all that is visible on the screen. The icon we are accustomed to when data hunting, routinely experienced as a thing in the passing, is offered up for a longer ponder.


One narrative possibility of the icon that 1Mbps explores regards its subservient relation to data. For data to be transmitted up to speed, the icon is designed to render itself into destruction – the faster, the better. In 1Mbps, the icon, however, does not point to data yet to come – that is, data in its uploading state. Rather, it becomes a moving drawing imbued with an energy of its own, producing time as thickened, resisting the oppression of speed that dictates the way we are.


The work also repositions the place of human activity in our technologically mediated lives. It provisionally frees us from our imperative to access data (and our tendency to fret when access is delayed or denied) by compelling us to reflect on our compulsive desire for the uploading state to end. To see the moving drawing of the spinner icon is to see the truth of all that we anticipate and associate with when armed with the power that one click promises.


But of what kind are these promises? How have they been directing our attention? We begin to ask. The artist’s invitation for us to linger over simple but vital questions makes the human activity of wondering a valuable end in itself, not a means serving some other ends, not a barrier for life to move on.


Lai’s interest in emptying things, sites, and situations of received and instrumental function has come up in her past works. Immediate references could be made with the series of ‘actions’ she takes in Going to watch TV. She visits shop windows of electronic appliance retail stores at night. In response to the video black of a TV switched off (one of the three video blacks’ that Bill Viola proposes), placed in a position of prominence by spatial design, Lai uses a remote control to switch the TV on. She re-sets the parameters that regulate the ‘playing’ (switching on and off) and ‘displaying’ (showing the TV as consumer item) in social space. In doing so, her body becomes a stylus that intervenes in the human-technology relation. What still begs questions is the way she selects content – or how she regards the content played and displayed. In the interventions, how content might constitute intervention does not seem to be an integral narrative device. It would be interesting to find out why and how it could have given varying force to her acts.


In a similar way, Basic Movement is a series of performances where Lai draws with her body. She runs in the opposite direction of others on a track in a sports ground, swims a line perpendicular to others in a public swimming pool, and jumps over the tennis net in an empty tennis court. While these performances take place as if in separation from any technological device, one could argue that the spaces by design are technological apparatuses that systematize and standardize our experience of space – the materials used to draw boundaries, limits, divide whole into parts, etc. What makes 1Mbps as a corporeal intervention different, however, is that 1Mbps focuses more on the technological as an objective phenomenon, and less the question of personal ownership of routinized social space. By rendering space into limbo, 1Mbps highlights the peculiarity of human attention itself, which brings me to the last point regarding 1Mbps.


When Lai was still a student at the Academy of Visual Arts (AVA), she presented Try to find poetry in banality (2008), inspired by fluorescent cards used frequently in retail shops in Japan and Hong Kong for product descriptions. Imagining the hand written texts erased and the call to consumers silenced, Lai arranges one hundred blank cards into a rectangle on the wall. Pure panels of colors conjure up a sense of incongruous beauty. Then, in the graduation show in 2009, Lai hangs multiple, small paintings on the peeling walls of a room on campus. The wall is partly painted white, partly revealed as wood. Lai intervenes by hanging small, centimeters-thick wood blocks of varying shades of brown in varying states of being scrapped and painted on the wall. One could regard the small panels as extending the painted or unpainted patches of the wall; one could also regard them as gestures that enlarge and proximate the details of the edges of the paint. Either way, Lai engenders and enchants material encounters.


Lai has categorized these works under ‘Painting’ in her website. I find it tempting to dispute this and call these two works installations, for the way she arranges cards on the wall and includes the photographs showing her sources of inspiration in Try to find poetry in banality, and for the way she sets up the fragments of scrapped paint on the floor, stacks of small wooden panels in them, and larger and darker wooden blocks on the side, as if creating an aesthetic of a certain construction in progress, in Traces. I don’t know anything about Painting in general, if there is such a thing, but I find it more interesting to make a case for her two works as indeed Painting because they highlight how a painting, a wall (and the wall only) that frames it, and the visible gestures of the artist are fixated onto the form of painting-on and paint-to the wall. In these works, Lai’s painterly gestures are continuous with the things and spaces she works with. They all belong to the idea of painting itself.


In the same way Try to find poetry in banality and Traces impregnate our otherwise stale modes of perception, 1Mbps brings this sensitive quality of mind, this artistic choice of letting recede and letting unfold, to a different material reality.


I can imagine how these works come together in the way Lai confers humanity on the banal – gleaning what is wasted away in our routine attention to other things, holding it dear.


Yeung Yang

first published in September 2014 issue of AM Post, Hong Kong



Two animations from two graduation shows: Jess Lau Ching Wa’s The Fading Piece and Wayne Wong Wing Chun’s Koon Tong Chronicle

The Fading Piece by Jess Lau is a duo video installation with sound, presented at City University’s School of Creative Media Bachelor of Arts graduation exhibition. The left projection begins with one short, black stroke on a blank, white screen, followed by a series of strokes of a similar length and weight, extending from the left bottom corner to the right and upper edges of the screen. Buildings, roads, vehicles, bushes…gradually emerge, until an overview of a built topography takes shape. The strokes keep reaching up and become broader to sweep the sky.


The video animates a photographic image of the town center of Kwun Tong that Lau found on Wikipedia. Her picturing the image as made up of lines, unfolding in a particular direction and speed, and dissectible by the kind of labor required of the stop-motion technique, reveals crucial aspects of the artistic process – keen observation of the world, patient deliberation about how points of focus recede and arise, and astute interpretation of space as constituted in movements. In deliberately applying discipline and regularity to the strokes to conjure up spatial density and monotony, Lau inscribes not only the presence of the strokes; she also reveals the blankness they are encroaching upon.


The video on the right adds restraint to the process. A charcoal stick as tall as to almost touching the top and bottom edges of the screen begins to vibrate. In brisk, incessant movements, the charcoal stick wears out. When it is no more, the process of inscription on the left also stops; that is, the ending of the video coincides with the natural deterioration of the artist’s material, compelling her labor to stop as well. What come into the narrative are not such meanings from the outside as the contention over urban development or renewal, its capacity to brutalize or destroy etc., but rather, the artist’s quiet reflection and small struggles with what she perceives. In comparison with the wide, overview of the built topography, the charcoal stick is monumental in size. Is it also monumental in meaning? I find Lau’s decision to push the charcoal stick right into the viewer’s face interesting. It directs and diverts the tension built up in the making of density towards the artist’s self-possessed activity. In sustaining the tension, Lau lays open such questions as whether hand gestures of the artist are commensurable with creative and destructive gestures of other kinds.


There could be another reading of Lau’s work: its engagement with time. The animation abstracts what is routinely, speedily, and widely circulated as one among many pieces of visual information into a slow process of materialization in time. I recall experiencing the pleasure of anticipation as the topography unfolds, only to want the drawing to stop as the strokes swipe at the sky and weigh down upon the built topography, as if deliberating whether to erase it or not. This experience would not have been possible if the artist hasn’t had a deep engagement with time as a core material of her creation.


This question of time reminds me of the Industrious Clock by Yugo Nakamura created in 2001. It is still accessible on the internet. It is a set of thumbnail, moving images of a hand, writing with a pencil the second, minute, hour, day, month, and year. The gestures are mechanical, chasing after and failing to match up with clock-time. It suggests how clock-time as spatialized units of time is alienating for the human. Lau shares the sensitivity and interest in how time is mediated by technology and other modes of fabrication. But Lau’s work is also different in that time is not an object to be grasped with a possessive will, but rather, a horizon in which and with which space unfolds.


Wayne Wong takes a different approach in his animation work. Presented at the Baptist University’s Academy of Visual Arts Master of Visual Arts graduation exhibition, Wong’s installation Koon Tong Chronicle is an animation film displayed with a monitor screen amidst some eighty paintings. The paintings are the source materials of the animation film. The paintings spread out into two walls, some reaching up to the ceiling, and others, reaching down below eye level. Without going into the story the work tells – a rich and inspiring mix of ideas addressing fact and fiction, past and future, I would like to quickly raise one question regarding Wong’s conceptualization of space in relation to his preferred art form. The way in which the paintings are displayed certainly yield visual impact. My question is, of what kind is this impact, and what is the kind of attention that the artist wants the viewer to lend to the work?


Listening to Wong speak about his creative process, I am impressed by his willingness to venture into an unfamiliar art form. Although Wong had a solid training in painting, he chooses animation instead for his graduation work because he has become interested in movement. Wong told me how it was during a residency in France not long ago that he realized the activity of wandering without a purpose, choosing and observing an object, and thinking associatively with it, could be very inspiring. In Koon Tong Chronicle, the spontaneity and open-endedness of moving between reflection and materialization seem not to have been given as much place as another kind of creative process: a storyboard trying to break out of its linearity by being laid out in space. As a display of the process and results that serve the production of the animation film, the installation hides the nuances of Wong’s ways of seeing. While it is always rewarding to learn of the multiple origins and muse of an artist’s work, it is equally rewarding to engage with how an artist plays with showing and hiding the boundary of his/her work.


Lau regarded her work as a documentation of energy. By extension, I would propose that both her work and Wong’s are documentations of the distribution of energy in multiple sets of material and symbolic mechanisms, and by doing so, leaving different and interesting questions on what artists can do unresolved and productively open. I wonder how they will take this tandem of certainty and doubt into the future.


Yeung Yang

First published in AM Post, 2014


Mak Ying-tung’s ‘Almost Empty’

To walk into Mak Ying-tung’s installation ‘Almost Empty’ is to be challenged by the undefined. The horizontal orientation of the way the objects are placed presents a vision of spreading out, seemingly driven by an imperative to fill up each inch of ground, each corner, each wall.


It is possible to regard the installation as a combination of two approaches to the main character at play: the party balloon. In the first approach, Mak breaks down the self-possessed form of the ordinary party balloon loaded with meanings of play, fanfares and celebrations into the smallest units – hundreds of detached knots of balloon heads now attached to canvases, air in its representation of closed-circuit pumps, and fragments of rubber fallen off a dozen resin-stiffened balloons on the ground. The ordinary objects are not only decontextualized, but made impotent and dysfunctional. In the second approach, Mak ponders about motions stopped; the humanly-devised life of the party balloon of inflation and deflation is  interrupted. One half-deflated balloon is stiffened up in a glass case, one resin-framed balloon is placed under a chair, tilting it, and several resin-framed balloons are bound together in vacuum.


Mak has a consistent interest in the conditions of the materiality and received meanings of objects of daily life. Having worked primarily with pairs of objects and paired ideas by intervening and transforming their relations (eg. a needle pricking strawberries in ‘Sterilisation’, multiple tissue papers oozing out of a punctuated tissue box in ‘Liberation’, party horns sounding out and literally blowing out banknotes in ‘Happy, Happier, Happiest’), Mak chooses to attend to the singularity of the party balloon in ‘Almost Empty’. In this new move to study the object in its physicality, Mak retreats from telling one-off narratives and turns instead to studying the force of her own intervention. She refuses to stop at the mere whimsical that is appealing for instant gratification but no longer adequate in satisfying the artist’s attention. The installation becomes an objectification of multi-faceted processes of her musings. I recall John Armleder’s Furniture Sculptures - non-representational, stage-conscious, almost anarchical.


It is always rewarding to encounter artists willing to take up new challenges, to try to be a little different from the way they were. The only problem I have with ‘Almost Empty’ is the two canvases with the balloon heads. While the installation succeeds in challenging the our routinized attention, by conjuring up an oddity that lingers in space, a similar rigor seems lacking in confronting the conventions and established consistencies of the canvas as a material form.


For artists who invest extended time in researching and testing out the nature of materials and the nature of human intervention, the struggle of whether or not to tell the hardship of the process in the final work is real. This is also a choice between showing oneself - as a maker who has worked hard and endured, and showing what she has surrendered to - that which she has learnt and let come into her aesthetic. Some things show without being said, some don’t, even after being encouraged.

Yeung Yang

July 2014



First published in AICAHK website

“how close we have come to being rich”*

In a recent public forum at the College Art Association Annual Conference in Chicago, scholar/curator Bruce Barber compared the curator today to the hedge funds manager, whose goal in managing assets is to reduce risk. The metaphor was intended as a polemic to begin a critical examination of the complexity of the economic position of curators working in institutional structures today. What impressed me about his presentation was that in the act of critique, it affirmed the importance of expanding the dialogical possibilities of curating and curators’ constant self-questioning - curating could contribute to as well as fail art. While curating has consequences on art, curators could make choices that mitigate the consequences.


This essay aims to invite artists in Hong Kong who are skeptical of curating to give curating a chance. The skepticism may be a product of complex circumstances, but some doubts artists may have are well-founded. For instance, how many curators in Hong Kong do studio visits, spending long periods of time with artists to learn about their works as an end in itself, not for meeting exhibition deadlines? How and how much do curators speak critically in public about their reasons for working with some artists and not others, making choices informed not only by personal taste, but by artistic contribution, or accountability and ethical positions? The less such questions are discussed openly, the more rigid the barriers of forging trust become. We end up not seeing each other as whole persons in a peer community. This would definitely fail art.


Stepping back from how curating has unfolded in the contemporary world, in order that historical reality does not limit our imagination of ideals, I propose that curating is an activity of conferring value upon objects of art - objects in all facets of the term, from bounded physical entities to spatially, temporally, socially, and technologically mediated systems that are generative, site-specific, and open. They are chosen and gathered in specific ways as objects for attention and contemplation in such settings as exhibitions, projects, events etc., where their specific values in relation to each other are attended to. At the same time, curating is also an activity of conferring value upon art in general. To choose to curate art is to regard art as a good to pursue; to curate well is to bring about the good of art, in its specificity and generality.


While curating is commonly seen as the individual expression of a curator, I see it also as the expression of the curator’s submission to the force of the disparate objects of art made by other individuals - the artists. To curate is to find ways to let her own and others’ ideas sound out each other. This encounter is productive by enabling a nexus in which the value of each other in a certain public realm (varying between the chosen forms of presentation) could be deliberated. I have recently encountered two exhibitions in the US, in which specific curatorial gestures encourage different ways of thinking about the exhibits and art in general. They are telling as to how curating could indeed be an activity of valuing art, and failing it.


The official narrative of The Way of the Shovel: Art as Archaeology, presented by the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, is that it questions history and its truthfulness. The shovel is presented literally, as artists dig and excavate and as their works address such labour. The shovel is also metaphorical in that it returns art to the matters and materials that come before it as ‘art work’. The curator and artists make it clear in the audio tour (http://shifting-grounds.net/exhibition.html) that they are not doing scientific archaeology, and there are differences between what artists do and what archeologists do in relation to history. My problem with the exhibition is whether the way the materials are presented live up to what it intends. For instance, accompanying the photographic work of Jason Lazarus entitled “Above Sigmund Freud’s couch” is a caption that says, “the artist ‘excavates’ the ceiling” (above Freud’s consultation couch) in what is “probably the most revered excavation site in the history of psychoanalysis.” Not only does the caption compete with the title of the work by being repetitive of it, but it also risks adding an unnecessary dimension of populism to the interpretation of an ambiguous and complex image that conjures up a mixture of noise, anxiety, solitude, power, and desire, which has nothing to do with the sentiment of reverence to an excavation site. It is possible the curation intends to make us complicit of the gaze of many, but to what effect? What does this shared act of looking make us, and make the act of the artist looking? Guidance along this line of thinking is not to be found. Instead, along this exhibit and some others, captions tell visitors to listen with their mobile phones to the narratives of psychoanalysts and archaeologists on the particular object on display and its context. Surely, to include experts’ opinions is to encourage understanding. But what kind of understanding? If artists know in ways that are different from how archaeologists know, what does this kind of disciplinary narratives introduced as explanation of the art do to the art? While the curation draws on established disciplines to explain itself, as if its loyalty to them needs no questioning, there is no concomitant acknowledgement of the specificity of the artists’ contribution in ways of knowing, or un-knowing. This treatment of the artists’ ideas risks neutralizing art into a set of didactic narratives that tell us how we should make of their ideas. The original intent of acknowledging artists’ ways of working with history becomes subordinated to what is already established as legitimate and taken-for-granted ways of working with history.


On the contrary, Live Archive, coincidentally also by Jason Lazarus at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco offers a different kind of curatorial gesture. It creates more open parameters and exerts more challenging demands on viewers to consider the exhibits. The exhibition begins with an installation entitled ‘5/19/12 2012, Glow-in-the-dark tape’. The caption offers a story of how the tapes were ‘salvaged’ from a dark room that is now closed. The caption ends by saying, “As way-finders for both the students and the medium, these sections of tape suggest new directions in practice and pedagogy, delineated by the loss of the tape’s usefulness. The skillful attentiveness required in the darkroom has been largely replaced by the ubiquity of digital photography, and the effects on the future of artistic production are still the subject of speculation.” The tapes are obsolescent; but the meaning of what is rendered obsolescent in the way history unfolds itself is kept uncertain and open.


To find the way-finder, one must look all the way up towards the uppermost corner of the wall; two, roughly six-inch tapes are placed in the sign of multiplification. Then, making a sharp turn into a different corner, one is greeted by three walls full of emotionally-charged protest signs made in artist-led workshops in response to Occupy Wall Street in 2011. Among them are “I’M NOT A ‘HUMAN RESOURCE’. I AM A ‘HUMAN BEING’.”, “SORRY FOR THE INCONVENIENCE. WE ARE TRYING TO CHANGE THE WORLD.” Together, the poignancy of the tapes at the first corner and the deafening silence of the protest signs in the next conjure up a moment that compels our reflection on the agency of our subjectivity and its limits in the world we live.


In the same exhibition, a blanket-wrapped red-brown object, with black gaffer taped horizontally and vertically across it, is affixed to the wall. It is entitled Untitled (New Orleans) 2011. The caption, written in the first-person narrative, tells of how Lazarus found the board of dated African American photos fixed to it in a junk shop. According to the shop, he says, it was salvaged post-Katrina. The artist bought the board, so “the shop wrapped and taped it up.” The exhibit is shown the way it “left the merchant’s arms”. No photograph is shown, but there are as many as one could imagine.


There could be incessant debates on whether any single object in this exhibition, considered in isolation, is art at all. No claim has certainly been made either way. But in where and how the exhibits are placed in relation to the how the gallery space unfolds and in relation to each other, their historical references are addressed but also suspended, to free up the possibilities of a different set of politics and aesthetics where they are. Lazarus treats the exhibition as “processes of learning” that take place between the artist and others. The ambiguity and tension in meaning are kept open for pondering. In this curation, the artist’s personal memory does not become an authority by first-hand testimony. Rather, it is sensual and fragile, and becomes a powerful critique of modern systems of preserving memory, an insight shared by Pierre Nora. Elsewhere, I have discussed his ideas from the essay “Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire”. For the purpose here, I would reiterate how he questions modern systems of memory preservation (museums, archives, monuments, etc.) for being sites of remains that de-ritualize our world. While common responses to this misplaced politics is to present memories as objects of individual possession, Nora argues instead that it is the activity of remembering as lived experience that is at issue. To care for sites of memory is to care for remembering that is “at once immediately available concrete sensual experience and susceptible to the most abstract elaboration”(my emphasis). The question for the problem of memory is then shifted from what to remember to how to remember. As an example, Nora cites the observance of a commemorative minute of silence, a “concentrated appeal to memory by literally breaking a temporal continuity.”


Lazarus’ Live Archive resonates. It calls for minutes of silence that are also dynamic sites for remembering. The artist’s process of thinking and questioning is an integral part of the exhibition, opened up as a series of choices made in the curation: what to control and what to let go of, who is involved and how etc. These choices all play a vital role in conferring value upon objects of human life. The way they are makes the exhibition - a temporary intervention in life - meaningful.



Yeung Yang

Feb 21, 2014

St Louis


*This is taken from Tove Jansson’s essay “The Stone”, collected in Sculptor’s Daughter, A Childhood Memoir (1968).

^ This writing is commissioned by the Art Appraisal Club with support from the City Magazine. I would also like to thank the Asian Cultural Council for making this writing and all that comes into it possible as part of my fellowship in the US in 2013-2014. I would also like to thank the General Education Foundation Programme of the Office of University General Education, Chinese University of Hong Kong, (中文大學大學通識基礎課程)for granting my leave for the fellowship. Any error is mine.



First published in AICAHK website, July 2014




- 楊陽






首先,就著雙年展的參與權,以往以平等參與為原則,如今的新方式以委約進行,是大原則的改變。可是,當局卻沒有向公眾解釋為何在芸芸政策中擇一而棄其他,或是曾考慮過其他那些方案。另外,是次政策改變對將來在雙年展中展示香港藝術的機制有甚麼意義和影響,以至藝發局和 M+的「合作」是否會進一部建制化等議題,理應有公眾和業界的討論。早在2006年11月23日, 西九龍文娛藝術區核心文化藝術設施諮詢委員會轄下的博物館小組發表新聞公報,宣佈成立「新文化機構」M+,其任命為「以超越傳統概念及跨界別的嶄新手法研究及展示視覺文化。」 召集人羅仲榮並說「小組十分重視M+的研究及教育角色」。不同機構於香港藝術發展的各個層面上的職責,制定怎樣的政策達至怎樣的目的,都牽涉如何為社會建立和維護藝術價值的嚴肅問題。究竟M+被邀策劃這傳統雙年展內的香港館展覽,跟它原本的任命,以及這次合作跟香港藝術未來發展方向有甚麼關係,兩個機構都未有向公眾詳細解釋。相反,藝發局把合作說成是與M+的一次「實驗」,把公共事項當成為只是兩個機構之間的事,不鼓勵公眾討論。這做法其實是在鼓吹一種思考習性:藝術不是為所有人而是為少數而設的。因此,這不僅是沒有咨詢業界和公眾的程序問題,更重要的,是當局違背了作為獲授權專責香港藝術發展的公營機構的根本使命,放棄了引發有關藝術價值的公眾討論和建立瞭解和欣賞藝術的公共文化的機會。




藝發局和M+於回應公眾詢問有關政策轉變時皆提及自由,但都未有提到以上說的公民自由。當被問及會議紀錄能否公開,藝發局主席王英偉指藝發局的委員會議以閉門形式進行,是為了讓委員在大會中「自由交流意見」,若將會議紀錄公開將損害這種自由。M+行政總裁李立偉以「策展自由」為理由,單方面設立公眾知情權的限度,並指出選擇藝術家不應藉「投票、委員會或在壓力下」決定。這兩種以「自由」作申辯的方式有混淆視聽之嫌,原因有二。第一,他們提出的「自由」,實是淩駕於公眾所享有的基本自由,當我們說某種自由更值得被維護,而其他自由則要被犧牲,那麼,我們正在談論的,究竟是所有人平等享有的自由,還是少數人的特權呢?第二, M+所描述的自由彷彿可以與公眾分隔開來,其實是將自身與公眾(或「選票」)置於對立。在香港還未有一群對藝術好奇和關心、廣泛且接受力高的公眾時,將業內人士隔絕於公眾以外,是明智的策略嗎?藝術要長遠及持續地發展,有賴高質素的、會提出問題和態度開放的公眾,採取孤立而非參與式的政策,是可取的嗎?





自六月份當局宣佈參展安排至今, 我有幾點觀察,在此稍作補充。

一、 關於事情的定性

2012年10月3日, 藝發局於公眾論壇發佈聲明,說過去「每屆展覽都由不同的策展團隊籌備,欠缺固定的工作團隊承傳經驗」,這也成為要跟M+合作的理由。把承傳看作為以委任一個策展團隊而達至,不但表示藝發局對怎樣的條件能構成整體的、並非只則重策展一項的承傳的想法模糊有,也顯露了局方一直在屬於自身職責的領域(例如場地資料、宣傳、紀錄和研究工作)都未有做好。與此同時,M+強調自己是被邀請的,是被動的,業界也有聲音說M+是受害者。我不同意, 因為M+作為一個公營機構有其任命,要理解自身工作的合法性和合理性,也沒有一個專業機構能只在空中樓閣中運作。M+承諾跟藝發局合作, 卻在引發公眾不滿時跟藝發局保持距離, 似乎對藝發局作為香港本地藝術發展的任命和職分一點不理解、不關心,這樣的「合作」, 又顯示M+對整體本地藝術發展的承擔有多少? 承擔非屬個人,否則它就變成英雄主義;承擔也非由一個機構獨佔,否則它就變成政策傾斜。

二, 是誰的事情: 專業與公眾之間

Louis Menand於十九世紀歐美專業組織如何成為認可專業水平的機構的研究當中,指出當這些組織提出一套專業資格的時候,也是為社會價值重整 (redistribution of certain social values)。這時候, 個人(有別於由機構認可的專業人)每每會變得在身分上感到不自由,也會比之前較難做到要做的, 較難在利益的競爭中堅守路向[1]。正因專業有其社會性和社會意義,公營機構對專業水平的界定,也應該是建立良好操守及其社會價值的過程。這些都是專業的公共性,也是專業在公共領域產生意義的責任,這也就是我在上文說的雙重責任。可惜,兩公營機構一直只說不是所有工作都能「公開」,這又見它們對「公」的粗略對待及其構成原素的矮化。我要重申,這不只是程序問題,而是理念之辯。「公」,是對公平、公義的取態,這當然艱巨,但這也是它的意義和力量的來源。香港仍未有公共檔案法,也未有資訊自由法,這也會是我們將來要努力的方向,好讓公營機構以公眾為任命的職份與法理更清晰。


[1]“The autonomous individual is now figured as less free than the person who operates as the extension of an organization – less free because less secure in his sense of identity, less likely to get done what he wants done, less able to hold his course in the winds of competing interests.”Menand, Discovering Modernism. T.S. Eliot and His Context. New York: Oxford University Press. 1987:118-9.

Tsang Tsz Yeung’s Family Album


W. G. Sebald begins Rings of Saturn with a slow reflection on his experience of being bed-ridden.“[All] that could be seen of the world from my bed was the colourless patch of sky framed in the window.” As he gradually regains the ability to stand up, he leans against the window in the “tortured posture of a creature that has raised itself erect for the first time.” Here lies a male torso estranged from its surroundings – restrained, immobilized, disempowered. Hong Kong artist Tsang Tsz Yeung has been caught in a similar state, but it presents to him a different quality of experience, which sows the seed for the series of photographic works and installation Family Album.

It was three years ago, when an ankle sprain constrained Tsang to the bed for six months. He began making a series of images of his plastered leg (and the various stages of its recovery and transformation) with his I-Phone. Instead of turning the injury and the activity of photographing it into a process of therapeutic joy, Tsang applies regularity and discipline to the undertaking. Most images frame the injury from a fixed point of his reclined body. The gaze is frontal, and the distance between the eye and leg is kept as perceptually equal in each image. No resignation, fear, or pain is shown. The scenarios coming into the frame are mostly without human bodily presence. In the rare case that there are people around, their faces are either not shown, or that they are absorbed in their own business, as if apathetic or have become accustomed to Tsang’s asocial posture. The greyish tone of the indoor lighting gives an artificial quality to the scenarios. Are they suggestive of enforced idleness or freedom from social roles? The blandness in the images generates a curious ambivalence.

Tsang compares the formalist choices in his work to the water tower series by Bernd and Hilla Becher, in that their works present an impersonal and emotionless gaze that produces types. I am not as sure of the comparison. Indeed, like the Bechers’ works, the repetition and variation in the choice of subject and manner of framing may yield a way of reading the composition of Tsang’s works. However, reading Tsang’s works in the light of the Bechers’ risks sidelining the physical and symbolic embodiment in Tsang’s. Rather than rendering the seer disinterested and separate from the camera, Tsang’s object of gaze is continuous with him as the seeing subject. The camera is a prosthesis by which he embodies a certain state of limbo. As Tsang gradually regains the ability to stand up, he does not simply leave these tokens of an injured life behind. Rather, he explores them further as coordinates that map a body in space, which leads to the next stage of development of Family Album.

With IKEA do-it-yourself furniture parts, he installs a rack on a three-legged stool, on which he could place his right leg. Extended from the rack is a rectangular frame up to the height of a sitting person’s eye level, to form an L-shape with the leg rack. One might be tempted to read Tsang’s choice of making this intermediary object of inconvenience with an obscure function as motivated by fetishistic desire. I would like to propose otherwise. A photojournalist by profession, Tsang sets off to challenge the established consistency of a way of seeing he has benefited from as much as he has been limited by. Only with an understanding of this process of backward thinking, of receding into reflecting on how his seeing has been disciplined, that one may start appreciating (albeit by hindsight) that the principle of repetition in the I-Phone images produces not some typology for the purpose of accumulation, but a persistent and inexhaustible energy of self-questioning that puts the artist’s routinized way of seeing into examination.



It was two weeks into the Umbrella Movement. Tsang walked into the café with baggy eyes and a backpack from which a matt black helmet dangled. Tsang told me what he saw on the streets, how he made quick decisions of taking up or putting down his camera as circumstances of the newsworthy or safety compelled. Gradually, we moved into discussing the latest addition to Family Album – an installation of multiple variations of the camera configured as domestic furniture items that exist uncompromisingly between function and form.

In the installation, wooden stools and drawers become a twin lens reflex camera, a single lens reflex camera, a panoramic camera, and more. Pump caps of bottles become the camera shutter; convex glass bottoms of vases become the lens. By returning the camera into the basic essence of gathering, refracting and converging light, Tsang redefines his own agency from view-finding to an affective relation to the camera and the activity of photograph making. While the practice of a photojournalist is disciplined by the timely, topical, and sensational, in Family Album, Tsang takes his professional device apart, takes its authority away, and renders it transparent. With these new objects of unease and inconvenience, a development from the dysfunctional foot rack, Tsang presents the untimely, the irrelevant and off-topic. In doing so, Tsang is not interested in paralyzing the camera, but rather, in how the camera could be freed up in its low-tech, clumsy, even comical body.

Two more elements contribute vitally to Family Album as installation – blurry portrait photographs of his father and himself, and an instant photo-booth in which one could get a self-portrait with a featureless face, similar to the ones of Tsang and his father’s, displayed as part of the installation. Tsang’s father has a workshop in Fotan where he makes furniture by hand. Without consciously choosing to get closer to his father, Tsang talks about how it has been both a hassle and a delight to seek his help to make this work. There were times when the two would sit in the corridor outside the workshop, having lunch together. Their conversations were usually not exciting, moving quickly back into old topics of how the son should find a proper job, etc. Family Album alludes to the ordinariness of the father and son’s conversation, without letting the artist’s personal life totalize the work. The newly found intimacy remains literally and metaphorically blurry: mesmerizing, unassuming, suggestive.

It takes courage and composure to render what is dear yet unresolved into the open. The fragility of the male body and the indeterminateness of intimate male relations in the family is evidence of a rare sensibility.


Yeung Yang

First published in AM Post January, 2014