Doryun Chong and Pauline J. Yao, co-curators
Mobile M+: Live Art, the ninth project in the ongoing Mobile M+ exhibition series, expands the definition of the work of art from a static object to a situation. Here, art is recast as conduit rather than form, communication rather than meaning, an active verb rather than a passive noun. Often ephemeral and temporary, as well as variable and adaptable, this kind of art activates the artist or performer’s body as the main medium and looks to voice, breath, movement, and physical effort as channels of expression. Mobile M+: Live Art presents a range of works that explore various aspects of ‘liveness’, a characteristic that has become more and more prominent in contemporary art over the last few decades. Included in the exhibition are staged performances in a theatre setting, outdoor actions and interventions, and displays of artworks doubling as performance documentation. The definition of performance in the context of Mobile M+: Live Art is wilfully ambiguous; performances can take place before an audience or in the privacy of one’s home, can emerge out of the artist’s own movements or the actions of many, and can be single events or multiple occurrences. What unifies this group of performers is their affinity for foregrounding the body as a channel or mode of expression which can produce endlessly proliferating sets of meanings. The ten artists of different generations represented here hail from Hong Kong, south China, Korea, Singapore, and the United States and are presenting a diverse group of works dating from the 1980s to the present.
The artist’s body—spurred into action by spontaneous or scripted turns and embracing different modalities of time—has been an engine of artmaking in our region, as it has been in twentieth and twenty-first century art in general. In some cases, the act of making and primacy of the body has taken precedence over what is made, indicative of deprived conditions and/or situations of repression. It was not merely negative reactions, however, that put the body at the centre of this kind of artmaking. Emulation and experimentation also played important roles. Now well-recognised topics in the region’s art history from the last few decades bear this out. When young Japanese painters came together in Gutai Art Association (known simply as Gutai) during the mid-1950s, still in the midst of the nation’s post-war reconstruction, their collective effort to find each a unique painterly language involved gestural, muscular, and even violent physical actions. They did not paint with a brush on a canvas on an easel; rather, they painted with household tools and industrial materials, or with feet, and with chance. A certain exasperation with painting arguably led, in 1973, the twenty-three year old Tehching Hsieh to jump out a second-floor window of his Taipei flat. Partially an act of adolescent angst and partially motivated by wanting to make a clean break with his painting practice, the action left the fledgling artist with little except a broken ankle. A few years after, Hsieh boarded an oil tanker, jumped ship in Philadelphia, and soon emerged as a legendary practitioner of performance art in downtown New York, the hotbed of this new art form. Across the globe, in the derelict outskirts of post-Tiananmen 1990s Beijing, artists inhabiting the squalid confines of the East Village put their bodies on the artistic battlefront by staging raw and daring actions that captured the attention of the international art world. In our extended region, from Singapore to Seoul, from the 1960s through the rest of the twentieth century and to the present, artists chose their own bodies (or sometimes those of their associates) to put the course of artistic development and the discussion of what constitutes art on a different platform. These gestures required artists to assume great personal courage and face social and political risks.
Live art is an exceedingly multilayered domain, with an equally rich history—or histories—that cannot be summarised neatly in one place, or one exhibition. What Mobile M+: Live Art proffers is a subjective narrative and a unique angle, while placing this history at close reach. An artist such as Frog King Kwok (Kwok Mang Ho), virtually a household name in Hong Kong, is one such example. Widely known for his ubiquitous, exuberant presence, Kwok is a pioneering figure in the Hong Kong art world who introduced ‘Happening’ and process-based installations. During the mid- to late 1970s, he staged a series of action-oriented, at times provocative, spatial works, where he alchemically transformed decidedly un-artistic materials such as plastic bags, burned animal bones, and rotten eggs into art. In his project for Mobile M+: Live Art, Kwok reinterprets and recreates the idioms of these early works to form a new installation at Connecting Space in North Point.
Just as Kwok was coming of age in Hong Kong, Eiko Otake, one half of celebrated dancer/choreographer/artist duo Eiko and Koma, emigrated from Japan to New York. Renowned for their gloriously ‘glacial’, taut, and controlled movements, Eiko and Koma’s work holds at its core a central concern for nature and ecology, and for the human body’s place in them. In recent years, Eiko has developed solo projects in response to, and taking off from, the ongoing disasters in Fukushima in the wake of the catastrophic earthquake and tsunami in 2011. Haunting photographs featuring her mournful, ghostly figure, which she created with photographer William Johnston, will be shown as a slideshow in Connecting Space. In addition, Otake presents two movement pieces titled A Body in Hong Kong in outdoor public spaces in the West Kowloon Cultural District and in Admiralty.
During the mid-1990s, artists Young Hay and Guangzhou-based artist Lin Yilin made their own bodies the central focus as well as the tool of their artmaking on the streets of Hong Kong. Young Hay strapped a large white board resembling a canvas on his back as he roamed the city for a performance. This was captured in black-and-white photos at iconic locations around Hong Kong, as well as in Beijing, New York, and Berlin. The white square punctuating the familiar urban landscape memorialises the constantly changing, always disappearing past, and also speaks to the anonymity, loneliness, and surreptitious void for individual expression in these cosmopolitan centres. While Young’s performances give careful consideration to the artistry of the photographic documentation, Lin’s work focusses on his labouring, sweating, and heaving body. Moving rows of cinder blocks across a busy crosswalk in Guangzhou or a pedestrian bridge in Hong Kong, as he did in 1996, Lin turned utterly mundane work into meaningful gestures, and what is normally overlooked into small public spectacles.
This willingness to make what is considered insignificant, highly private, or only imagined and hidden is frequently a requirement for artistic performances, and Patty Chang emerged as a primary example of this in the late 1990s and early 2000s in the United States. Boldly tackling issues of gender, race, and family relations, Chang’s performances were done for small audiences and frequently for the camera. The power of the video documentation, inevitably centring on her exposed face, body, and voice, is fully evident now, more than a decade later. Following Hong Kong’s return to China and through the first decade of the twenty-first century, Pak Sheung Chuen has built up a body of work that is at once humorous, trenchant, and deeply affecting. In contrast to, or departing from Young, Lin, and Chang’s practices, Pak’s actions freely traverse the boundaries between public and private, art and life to the degree to which they can only haltingly be referred to as performance. Pak’s work departs from startlingly effective actions that, in spite of or because they are familiar, bring unexpected twists. Recorded meticulously so that audiences can experience the moments they could not have been part of, Pak’s approach reminds viewers as much of the liveness of art as of the artfulness of life. Clearly in kindred spirits with these artistic practices but wholly in its own, Guangdong-born, Beijing based Hu Xiangqian’s energetic performances strive to erase the distinctions between art and life. In his work, private thoughts become public speeches, which in turn become christened as artistic actions. As Hu unpacks his own life experience by performing the role of performance artist, we encounter new ways of experiencing the body—and the self—as the key catalyst for unfolding meaning. The work of these five artists from Hong Kong, southern China, and the United States together limns a subjective history of the artist’s body, action, and performance over the last two decades in an exhibition at Sheung Wan Civic Centre Exhibition Hall. In addition, Lin, Chang, and Hu present new performances at West Kowloon Cultural District and Connecting Space.
Over the last few years, in Singapore and Berlin, Ming Wong has been building a robust body of work, in which he constantly, and with incredible facility, switches racial, gender, and cultural identities. While assuming a range of personae from, say, a bourgeois Italian housewife in a Pier Paolo Pasolini film to a Turkish transgender popular singer, Wong has learned to inhabit various genres of film and theatrical presentation. In this spirit Wong has undertaken a research project in Hong Kong pertaining to Cantonese opera. This long-term effort has begun to manifest itself in various forms and, in this project, takes the form of a rehearsal at School of Creative Media, City University of Hong Kong, in Kowloon Tong, in preparation for a full-scale reinterpretation to come in the near future. Inspiration that takes the artist out of his or her usual comfort zone describes Haegue Yang’s ongoing series of readings of a novella by the late French author Marguerite Duras. While the Berlin-based Korean artist is primarily known for her sculpture and installations, this repeated staging of a single female voice reading resonant words written by one of the most celebrated, and enigmatic, female writers is not only a public demonstration of an artistic obsession, but also of a persistent will to communicate and even convert an ever widening circle of audiences. This staging in Hong Kong will be accompanied by the release of a new translation of Duras’ text into Chinese in the form of an artist’s book. Two staged readings are presented at the storied Sunbeam Theatre in North Point.
Rounding out Mobile M+: Live Art—a project that consists of a network of an exhibition, an installation, and various performances and actions—is a rarely seen installation Writings through the Essay: On the Duty of Civil Disobedience (1987) by American artist and composer John Cage (1912–1992). A twentieth-century luminary, Cage was famously influenced by Asian philosophies, especially Zen Buddhism. While his work is usually seen as esoteric and enigmatic, it was equally concerned with sensorial and cognitive immediacy, as well as individual and social responsibility. Writings through the Essay: On the Duty of Civil Disobedience brings together a historical text—something of a manifesto on relations between the individual and the body politic—a chorus (or cacophony) of voices, and theatrical lighting controlled by I-Ching instructions—in other words, many elements that define his oeuvre. Every person who visits the installation will see and hear something different as the lighting and sound elements, and even chair placement, are repeated according to random, non-repeating instructions. Shown for the first time in Asia in more than 10 years, this 1987 work extends the definition of what ‘liveness’ of art might be. Liveness need not rely upon actual living bodies in the same time and space as audiences. Rather, it can embody itself even through the most non-physical elements such as sound and light. What ultimately defines liveness may very well be the belief in the communicative ability of art. It reminds us that the act of artmaking is not for mere aesthetic pleasures that are already widely accepted and expected, but for sparking viewers—experiencers—to think and feel differently, and to bring themselves to a new dimension of awareness.