Front façade of Asia Society Hong Kong Center in Admiralty, Hong Kong. All photos by Denise Tsui for ArtAsiaPacific

Jun 27 2016

Para Site International Conference 2016: 20 Years of Para Site

by Denise Tsui

The notion of the “Hong Kong identity” is certainly nothing new. Constructing and defining the “Hong Kong identity” has been a prevalent topic since the years preceding the handover of the city-state to China in 1997. Leaders of Hong Kong branded the Fragrant Harbor as “Asia’s World City” in 2001; now 15 years on, that title seems outdated, as neighboring cities such as Singapore and Seoul rise up the global economic and livability ladder, threatening to toss Hong Kong off its comfortable throne. On the other hand, the art landscape of Hong Kong appears to be strengthening year to year.  

In 1996, amid a local art infrastructure that consisted of very limited commercial galleries, no art fairs and a slim picking of nonprofit institutions and collectives, a group of seven like-minded Hong Kong artists came together to establish the artist-run space Para Site. From its early days in Oil Street, North Point, to its quaint shop-front location in Sheung Wan to its current, much larger premise in Quarry Bay since late 2015, Para Site has earned its reputation as Hong Kong’s leading contemporary art institution.

On the occasion of its 20th anniversary, the institution held the 4th annual Para Site International Conference (6/21–23), which highlighted the events, people and forces that have helped shape the fabric of Hong Kong’s art scene over the past two decades. Across three days, local cultural producers, art practitioners and international guests gathered at Asia Society Hong Kong Center, bringing together specialist knowledge and experience to reflect on the effects of globalization in Hong Kong, as well as in other parts of Asia and the world at large.

Day one took the 1990s as its point of departure. Under the rubric of “The 1990s: Identity in the times of the handover and the age of the biennial,” speakers revisited pre-1997 Hong Kong, Taiwan and China, investigating the movements and people that forever changed the art scene of these intimately linked countries. Independent Hong Kong-based researcher and writer Phoebe Wong recalled the phenomenon of “Hongkongology” in the years leading to 1997, when Hong Kong was situated between “the imminent decolonization with the British and the renationalization with China.” Citing the Art Asia Hong Kong fair (which held two editions, in 1992 and 1993 respectively) and the government review of Hong Kong’s art policy in 1993, dubbed the “Pink Paper,” Wong noted the radical globalization that swept through Hong Kong in the early 1990s.

Believing that historical developments are never clear-cut, Beijing-based Carol Yinghua Lu presented her research on avant-garde art practices in China between the years 1988–1996. In particular, Lu focused on the Beijing collective “New Measurement Group” and Shanghai artist Qian Weikang. Although their practices were at the forefront of conceptual art in China at the time, two decades later their significance has gone chiefly unacknowledged and absent from the canon of contemporary Chinese art history. Taipei-based curator and writer Amy Cheng reevaluated the post-martial law era of Taiwan. Curatorial practice was largely introduced in Taiwan in the mid-1990s, with Fumio Nanjo’s 1998 edition of the Taipei Biennial considered the catalyst. Cheng, however, argued that the profession of curating came to the fore in the late 1980s with the lifting of martial law in 1987, and that large-format exhibitions can be traced back as far as 1927 with the widely criticized 1st Taiwan Fine Art Exhibition—which, despite its name, featured almost entirely Japanese artists.

Rounding out the first day, Ute Meta Bauer, founding director of the Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore at Nanyang Technological University, gave an overview of what she witnessed as evolutionary discourse, touching upon, in particular, the geographical shifts outside of the major Western centers of art, which occurred as a result of increased mobility, affordability of travel and the rise of the internet. Referencing breakthrough international exhibitions such as Jean-Hubert Martin’s 1989 “Magiciens de la Terre,” the Third Havana Biennial of the same year, the 1995 Gwangju Biennale and Documenta X directed by Catherine David in 1997, among others, Bauer reinforced the idea that in the 1990s the art world began to recognize that art was growing beyond the Western canon.  

Booklet for the 2016 Para Site International Conference: “20 Years of Para Site.”

The next two days of the Para Site conference whirled by, with speakers attempting to evaluate the past 16 years under the following topics: “The 2000s: The rise of China and the global art world” and “The 2010s: Booms and crises in the age of the art fair.” While art critic and contemporary Chinese art curator Pi Li assessed the discourse of Chinese art post-2008, Russell Storer, senior curator at the National Gallery of Singapore, examined the proliferation of biennales in Asia as well as his native Australia. Going against the grain, Berlin curator and founding director of Zurich’s Johann Jacobs Musuem Roger M. Buergel boldly claimed that “globalization never happened.” Instead, he proposed that there has long been “a history of deep entanglement and cross fertilization with the West,” which “needs to be unearthed.”

Returning to the discussion of Hong Kong’s identity, artist and Para Site co-founder Leung Chi Wo noted in a conversation with current Para Site director Cosmin Costinas that in the first decade of the millennium, “Hong Kong [garnered] a very strong identity [that] people in the 1990s could not really achieve.” Among several threads of Hong Kong’s art history that Leung spoke about, he recalled the increased usage of the labels “local artist” immediately following 1997 and the current trend of the “Hong Kong artist” in a post-2014 Umbrella Movement art scene.

Tobias Berger, head of arts at Hong Kong’s forthcoming Old Bailey Galleries of the Tai Kwun cultural complex, speaking about his experiences working with Hong Kong artists and in the city’s nonprofit arts sector.

Turning away from Asia, Warsaw’s Museum of Modern Art director Joanna Mytkowska, Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros curator Sofía Hernández Chong Cuy and Bogotá-based artist, writer and curator Lucas Ospina brought the perspective of Europe and Latin America through refreshing, and at times humorous, presentations. Meanwhile, curator, writer and professor Tirdad Zolghadr shared his current working hypothesis, which draws connections between student activism and contemporary art through wide-ranging case studies around the world, from Taipei and New York to Hong Kong and Cape Town.

Concluding the presentations, Tobias Berger, head of arts at Hong Kong’s upcoming Old Bailey Galleries of the Tai Kwun cultural complex, reflected on the concept of space and its prevalence in the artistic practices of Hong Kong artists throughout the past two decades. Exploring the politics of space in the art infrastructure of Hong Kong, Berger gave an overview of the rise of the commercial art sector in Hong Kong, which overtook the nonprofit sector following the establishment of the Hong Kong Art Fair (now Art Basel Hong Kong) in 2008. Returning to the core beliefs of Para Site and other nonprofit art institutions, including the future M+ museum and Tai Kwun, Berger optimistically hoped that while Hong Kong may be “dominated by commercial [galleries]” at present, that with the aforementioned cultural spaces on the agenda, “we can level it out again.”

A dense three days of talks and presentations, the 2016 Para Site International Conference successfully raised many pertinent questions relating to the current and near future of the globalized (or according to Buergel, not globalized) art world, while also enriching many attendees with research and knowledge they may have been previously unfamiliar with. If there was one takeaway from the conference, it might perhaps be that the landscape of art, wherever you are in the world, inevitably changes—often faster than we can reflect on it. Change may be imminent; at any given moment the art market may crash, the economic bubble of a country may burst or its politics may take a sharp turn for the worse. Considering such circumstances, one would perhaps be wise to take Berger’s advice and just “enjoy it while we can.”

The 2016 Para Site International Conference was held at Asia Society Hong Kong Center on June 21–23, 2016.

Denise Tsui is assistant editor at ArtAsiaPacific.