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'Incidents of Travel: Hong Kong'
by Yuk King Tan
24 January 2013
My art practice is a series of negotiations, folding ideas, curiosities, structures and translations which together form stories that are not entirely expected or make narratives in a slightly unfamiliar tongue. I am curious about systems of value: what is valuable and how does it appreciate? Who defines value and is that control static or creative? Where and how do we house what is seen as precious and what is finally disposable?
A large part of the tour is not only about looking at sites but about visiting the people that inhabit these places and hearing their stories. Connecting different inhabitants of Hong Kong with the tour may even intervene in how certain groups see their roles. In Hong Kong people live parallel lives. It is ironic that in such an over-populated hyper urban city, people cohabitating in one home can find themselves in completely separate, disparate existences. Part of my art process tries to investigative and re-form, and part of the tour looks at the positioning between host and visitor, migrant and home, belief and skepticism.
At the first art talk I ever gave I dressed as a tour guide, and with a loose mid-west American accent, I narrated a tour about art practice by highlighting art work seen and made and books read as various ‘attractions’, which were ingested over a travel slide presentation and onboard snacks. Like a twisted Greyhound bus tour complete with uniform and a cheerily dismissive attitude, I was interested in the distancing devices defining one’s art practice around the performance of presenting artwork in general. Any tour is an act of intimacy and distance. The act of memory is also a creative and theatrical set of gestures. This tour is a set around actions and meetings which are intimate, truthful and theatrical just as Hong Kong is a city rife with the potential for drama, fantasy and invention. I hope that the people we meet on the tour share in a larger discussion about what is valuable and what cannot be quantified.
In a early artwork “I am the light of the world, Dlrow eht fo thgil eht ma I” I made a video about a photograph made by group of New Zealand missionaries who went to southern China in the 1940s to spread the word of Christianty – a mission that unfortunately was a political and social disaster. The work was an image of the missionaries created entirely from firecrackers. In the video loop the firecrackers explode into a blaze of furious golden fire until the footage is reversed, setting up a continuous cycle of destruction and reformation.
Chung King Mansions and the nearby Mirador Mansions on Nathan Road, include low-budget guesthouses, electronic stores, clothing shops, sari stores, curry houses, tailors, and foreign exchange office. It has been estimated that 4,000 people live in the Mansions.
Chung King and Mirador Mansions
I became interested in the light well structures when I first arrived in Hong Kong. They seemed something like a physical metaphor for the very density of change that Hong Kong aspires too achieve. The pipes and internal systems climbing up the buildings are a form of root system and, as the bars barricading the top of the wells are unable to prevent large collection of rubbish thrown at the bottom, the wells suggest the contrasts between daylight with dark obscurity, connection versus containment. A friend, who is a caretaker of the poorest housing estates in Hong Kong, once described a story where a young man wrenched off the bars at the top of the light well and from a cocktail of hallucinogens and perhaps suicidal thoughts jumped down the well. After hitting most of the air conditioners and injuring himself on the metal clothing racks he hit the bottom but survived as his body was expectedly cushioned by the huge amount of garbage that had been tossed down there.
At Chung King Mansions we will be lead through the floors by another filmmaker, Berlin-based Elke Marhöfer who currently lives in the mansions recording and researching the stories from African traders for a film about exchange, migrants and trading with sub-Saharan Africa.
Berlin-based artist Elke Marhöfer joins us for a bit during our Mansions visit and tells us about the filming project she has been conducting in recent weeks focusing on the trade between Africa and Asia. Photo: Heman Chong.
Elke recommends Gordon Matthews' book "Ghetto at the center of the world. ChungKing Mansions, Hong Kong" (The University of Chicago Press, 2011).
Advertising low-budget lodging in the corridors of Chungking Mansions.
First floor of Chungking Mansions.
Boxed merchandise in Chungking Mansions.
Notice board in Mirador Mansions.
Tailor workshop in Mirador Mansions.
In the stairwell of Mirador Mansions. Photo: Mimi Brown.
Monica's enterprises, a sari store in Mirador Mansions.
Courtyard of Mirador Mansions.
Laundry and A/C at Mirador Mansions.
Maximising laundry space.
A lost mexican sombrero in the Mirador Mansions.
Interior façades, Mirador Mansions.
The tour of the Kowloon Mosque is lead by an Imam, Muhammad Ashrad. Both the mansions and the Kowloon Mosque hold 4,000 people and in many ways the two structures have defined the urban population of that area. As the largest and most attended mosque in Hong Kong it also shaped the development of that area, servicing and encouraging the Muslim population to stay and work in close proximity for prayer and for counsel. Most large religious institutions are constructed around notions of belief and grandiosity. The chandeliered grandeur of the main prayer space of the mosque has becomes its own inspirational jewel at the heart of the Muslim in Hong Kong yet by keeping the Muslim population centered around one area, it can be seen as problematic, creating a type of social isolation tank which acerbates the homogeneity of Hong Kong’s cultural make-up.
Kowloon Mosque and Islamic Centre in Nathan Road, largest in the city. Photo: Mimi Brown.
Tea break with macanese-portuguese pastéis de nata and chicken pie at Macau Dai Pai Dong.
Entrance to the Chai Wan recycling depot, focus of Yuk King Tan's video 'The Limit of Visibility' (2012).
The government owns all of Hong Kong's cargo working areas but private operators lease parts of the cargo bay from the government so that the refuse industry balances in tension between private enterprise and public management. One of the operators of the Chai Wan cargo bay will take us on a tour of the area and talk about his business working in the district over the last four years.
The compacted cubes of paper and cardboard, craned from trucks into formal grids carpeting the long barges, can seen as a refuse landscape, the material creating its own mountains and valleys. Compacted into modernist blocks, the previously loose paper detritus is the byproduct of a booming information industry. Distributed between masses of ships and industrial crane equipment, this material is prepared to become another kind of vast colony. Sent to less developed countries further broken down and salvaged, the waste material is a literal paper trail about the scale, power and wastage of economic development and trade. The sheer tonnage of the paper and the beauty of its compressed form about to undergo future transformation are all tied to the fluctuating market value attached to refuse material.
The Chai Wan cargo bay operator who has an office on the Cargo Bay, also runs a small charter boat service from Chai Wan.
There is also a fishing boat area close by and we will take a small boat out into the harbour to look at the Hong Kong coastline from both urban and mountain landscape perspective over the sea. The famous Chinese painting trope of mountains and mist painting can be literally seen in Hong Kong landscape. I think of the philosophical traditions of the mountains and mist ink painting or mountain water as an analogy to the values of Hong Kong. The symbolism of a singular figure against nature, or in this case the mountains shrouding a hyper-dense urbanization can be seen best over sunset in a creaky fishing boat navigating between the large cargo tankers and cruise liners.
While on the harbour we will visit the largest Tin Hau Temple in Tai Mui Wan (or Joss House Bay) which can only be accessed by water as well as the floating fishing villages of Fat Tong Mun.
We end with the tour with a dinner at a tiny boarding house where nine domestic helpers will make a meal from the Philippines and discuss political and personal issues around life as a Filipina woman working in Hong Kong.
"I am a person behind everyone. We are always invisible, and if you want to call your work something, well, it should be just H, like Hey, or just like the sound ‘Hhh”, or H_____ with a gap. That’s like us - without a name. I have to subdue my personality, be in the background. Sometimes I feel as if I am losing myself piece by piece. Everyday a little part is gone, the worse thing is that it’s your self-confidence. And as time goes on you are lost, you have to be humble, and it’s so hard to be quiet all the time. You know… it's like I left my personality home in the Philippines.
We have a relationship based on verbs. My employer does not speak English, and I do not yet know how to speak Cantonese. We always use verbs in our everyday life, so we do action words. Not nouns or adjectives, the verb relationship.
That is an irony, even for us, that we are going to other countries taking care of others kids to have more money for our kids. Just like them, the employers, they entrust us their kids and we bring them up so they can make more money. It is bad, but needed in this kind of society, for this kind of lifestyle that we all want. Because we must enjoy life. It is in our nature to seek what others have. Though it is sometimes more about wants than necessities.
The most difficult part is the adjustment period. It’s a very long adjustment period. Both parties must put up with each other; you have your own attitudes, upbringing and values. So of course I try to correct mine, but also you must adjust to my values.
I will do in the gallery space what needs to be done, if I need to sweep the floor I will sweep, if there is dust I will dust the pictures. But we are used to it, is very hard to get away from your routine. When you are used to doing it, it is very hard to stop. The routine is sometimes boring; I am a person who likes to do fieldwork. It’s so boring if it’s just about the floor and house. Not everyday you have someone to talk to because everyday is very busy. It’s so comforting to be able to talk.
It’s quite bad; the Philippines is poor because there is so much politicking. They think about politics without considering the needs of the people. The people get poorer and poorer. I studied accountancy. To be working is a necessity; no mother wants to be away from her kids. We are the ‘light of the home’, yet we must go out and earn money.
I cannot explain art; art is something other people have like a gift, its drawing and pictures. Art is a gift, something that not everyone appreciates. Something its about dreams, sometimes its when things that are extra good. I feel so honored and thankful; it’s not everybody that wants us to be an artwork. My daughter is good at drawing."
Yuk King Tan (China/New Zealand) is an artist who lives and works in Hong Kong, negotiating issues such as bi-cultural and multi-cultural identity within a constantly evolving post-colonial society.
Her work, which includes detailed drawings in ash and smoke residue, exploding fire cracker installations, photographs taken from rockets, and a giant cardboard HSBC lion pushed through the streets of Hong Kong, is often poetic and frequently suggestive, connecting highly different subject-matters and mediums. The meta-themes in the artist’s work unveil interests in cultural delineations, global migration, and a personal relationship to world-defining issues such as value and economy.
Yuk King Tan has had solo and group exhibitions, most notably at the Hong Kong Arts Centre (1996); Ludwig Forum für Internationale Kunst, Aachen (1999); Museum Fridericianum, Kassel (1999 and 2002); Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (2000); Camden Arts Centre, London (2000); Wellington City Gallery, New Zealand (2005); and Artists Space, New York (2006); Kunstverein, Hamburg (2008). She has held residencies at Dunedin, New Plymouth, Queensland, Aachen, Sydney, and London and has participated in international biennials in Queensland, Vilnius, Auckland, and São Paulo. She graduated from Elam School of Fine Arts, Auckland University, New Zealand in 1993. She has taught and lectured at graduate and post-graduate art schools.
Soundscapes of "Incidents of Travel";
Storify "Incidents of Travel";
Flickr album of the four tours of "Incidents of Travel";
'Incidents of travel' tour with Nadim Abbas on 19 January 2013;
'Incidents of Travel' tour with Ho Sin Tung on 29 January 2013;
'Incidents of Travel' tour with Samson Young on 7 February 2013.
– This is the blog of the independent curatorial office Latitudes. Follow us on Facebook and @LTTDS.
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