TO SHARE A WATERMELON WITH AN UNKNOWN PERSON, 2005, photo documentation of performance. All images in this article, unless otherwise noted, are courtesy the artist and Vitamin Creative Space, Guangzhou.

TO SHARE A WATERMELON WITH AN UNKNOWN PERSON, 2005, photo documentation of performance.

A LITTLE FLOWER FOR THE PASSER-BY (detail), 2005, photo documentation of interactive installation.

The Art of Covert Intervention

Pak Sheung Chuen

Features from May/Jun 2009
Hong Kong

Ever bought half a watermelon and wondered who bought the 
other half? Or, as Pak Sheung Chuen would put it: who did you share your watermelon with? Which anonymous individual were you connected to through this piece of conveniently pre-cut fruit? Whether presented as performance art, photographic documentation of performance art, installation or even sculpture, as is playfully evident from his 2005 piece, To share a watermelon with an unknown person, Pak Sheung Chuen’s artwork is not located in any specific medium.

Through his artwork, Pak devises conceptual strategies to communicate his reflections on everyday life. To share a watermelon involved Pak buying half a watermelon at a Hong Kong supermarket, taking it home and eating it at his kitchen table. Pak’s conception of what he was doing—“sharing” with an unknown and unknowing collaborator through the ostensibly anonymous logistics of a commodity-based culture—reconfigures a mundane commercial transaction into a latent social network. Typical of his projects, this strategy allows him to devise seemingly personalized connections from otherwise anonymous situations.

Pak Sheung Chuen was born in Anxi, Fujian province, China, in 1977. In 1984, he and his mother moved to Hong Kong to join his father, who had moved there for work before he was born; thus, Pak grew up in the run-up to the British handover of the territory to China in 1997. In 2002, he and four artist friends set up a studio where they lived and worked in the largely industrial area of Fo Tan, in the New Territories. Jobs were hard to find when he completed his BA in Fine Arts at the Chinese University of Hong Kong in 2002, particularly with the outbreak of the SARS epidemic. Instead, Pak and his friends concentrated on small, personal projects, drawing inspiration from everyday life in Fo Tan. Pak’s break came in 2003: his contribution to the exhibition “A time like this … Zeiten wie diese…,” organized by the nonprofit Para/Site Art Space to address the effects of SARS on life in Hong Kong, caught the eye of the local Ming Pao newspaper. This work, entitled 3692 (2003), was based on the subtle observation that disposable plastic sheets used to cover PIN code apartment door locks as a sanitary measure to contain the spread of infection, once removed, bore imprints that revealed the access codes punched into them. With around 20 artists allocated a single three-by-six meter wall, Pak presented the opaque white plastic sheets from the building complex where he lived, some in frames and others locked in a wooden box fixed to the wall. Displayed next to them was a brief text explaining his observation, and also telling the viewer that the pin codes of the other five buildings, printed on the sheets, were locked in the box. This work engaged with the tense balance of concern for public and personal hygiene versus public and private security.

Between 2004 and 2006, Pak contributed similar conceptual pieces to a column in Ming Pao’s Sunday supplement, cementing a shift in his practice away from the painting and drawing he had trained in. Weekly deadlines encouraged him to develop a process of habitually collecting ideas for future projects. “I needed a way to produce these works regularly,” says Pak in a Skype interview. “So my creative process was a matter of walking around thinking ‘What should I do next?’ I jotted my ideas down in notebooks, which became a big database. So many of my works since then have actually been conceived two or three years beforehand.”


A TRAVEL WITHOUT VISUAL EXPERIENCE (detail), 2009, photograph from mixed-media installation.

PAGE 22: HALF-FOLDED LIBRARY, 2008, book from site-specific installation at the New York Public Library, New York, 2008. Photo by Alis Atwell for ArtAsiaPacific.

3692, 2003, disposable plastic sheet with imprints of access codes of apartment  door combination locks, 13 × 15 cm.

Ming Pao, known for its outspoken stance on Mainland issues, asked Pak to respond to political matters, such as the annual pro-democracy demonstrations held on July 1, the anniversary of the 1997 handover. In 2005, Pak realized A Present to the Central Government, for which he laid a yellow ribbon, about one foot wide, across one of the roads the demonstration took to record protestors’ footprints. After the march, he cut the ribbon into thin foot-long strips, took them to Beijing, and tied them to random places in and around Tiananmen Square. However, Pak says this work was not intended to sway the Chinese public’s political opinions, but rather to use his role as an artist to direct people’s attention to the political hopes of a portion of Hong Kong’s population. Pak’s idea comes directly from the practice, in previous marches, of tying yellow ribbons to the iron gates of the Hong Kong government offices as an act of peaceful yet visible dissent.

Ming Pao’s circulation of over 100,000 brought Pak’s name and artworks to a huge audience. However, his use of the medium of the press may have made some reluctant to take his work seriously and as a result, says Pak, he received few offers to exhibit as a professional artist in Hong Kong. That changed in 2005 when, after publishing two books of his newspaper works which caught the local art world’s attention, his A Little Flower for the Passer-by (2005) won an award at the inaugural “Inward Gazes” exhibition of Chinese performance art photography, held at the Macao Museum of Art. For A Little Flower for the Passer-by, carried out in a poor area of Hong Kong, Pak created little “flowers” on the street by placing five HKD 1 coins in a tight circle on the ground to form the “petals,” drawing a white leafy stem and noting the date beside each one. Photographs documented each flower, sometimes close-up, sometimes within the surrounding streetscape, but then he left them there, waiting for those in need to pick them up. Through “Inward Gazes” Pak also met well-established mainland curators Feng Boyi and Gao Shiming, who remain influential supporters. Gao and Feng have included Pak’s work in numerous gallery exhibitions in China; moreover, Gao was one of the main curators of the Third Guangzhou Triennial (2008), to which Pak was invited.

Although Pak rarely traveled outside of China before 2005, since then his schedule has expanded as ambitiously as his projects. In 2006, Tobias Berger, former Para/Site director and the curator of the Busan Biennale invited Pak to take part that year. A grant from the Asian Cultural Council followed, which took Pak to New York in 2007 for a year-long residency at the International Studio and Curatorial Program (ISCP). The sudden and profound alienation that he felt in New York greatly influenced his work. Previously content to craft almost virtual, serendipitous interactions, Pak undertook a series of works that are oblique yet real interventions of the artist’s presence into the public life of the city.

At ISCP, Pak developed his “New York Public Library Projects” using public libraries as exhibition spaces and the books they house as raw material. The first work in the project was Page 22: Half-Folded Library, for which Pak spent three and a half months covertly folding dog-ears on page 22 of every second book in the 58th Street Branch Library in Manhattan. The language in which Pak frames the outcome of this work suggests that he was responding as much to the strictures of the New York art world as to the self-estrangement he felt in the city. For instance, his CV lists Page 22 as a “solo exhibition” in New York. On his blog, he offered extracts of a Ming Pao article he wrote entitled “Why I did the Private Museum Projects?” claiming that this performance-cum-exhibition realized a “site-specific installation,” turning a public library into a “private museum” where his works are now in a “permanent collection”; and he delivers this claim with characteristic humor—“This is a shortcut for your artwork to enter a big institution!” With this impish reasoning, Pak appropriates a public institution, using art-speak to validate his covert interventions.

For Norwegian Wood (2007), in the same series, Pak collected tree leaves from Norway and, in his words, “exchanged” these in New York by borrowing 20-odd copies of Japanese writer Haruki Murakami’s 1987 novel Norwegian Wood from libraries across the city, cutting out sections of pages in the shape of the leaves, embedding the leaf in the book, and eventually taking the paper “leaves” back to the “Norwegian wood.” As with Page 22, Pak assumed that the audience, by wondering who was responsible for cutting out part of the books’ text, would be indirectly thinking of him, as well as sharing this experience with other readers. However, when information on the project was published in Ming Pao, Hong Kong readers questioned the ethics of the project. Pak also received critical comments on his Norwegian Wood blog page from some of the very New Yorkers he had intended to “connect” with. One such comment illustrates how Pak’s tactics can fail to acknowledge that the artist himself is the ultimate protagonist in such choreographed renditions of “everyday life.” A certain “jwwa” wrote: “…honestly I think it’s a little messed up since you are defacing communal property but furthermore mutilating Murakami’s work, his art. I am unable to fully appreciate and experience Murakami’s creation due to your creation… Creative though, good job I guess.”

Pak devised such anonymous interventions as a means of both socially and artistically infiltrating New York’s “everyday,” and having persevered, he concluded that New York had been a positive experience: “I wanted to make the city pay attention to my existence. But it also opened my eyes; I met talented artists from different countries who gave me a very professional feeling, so I started to think about how art could become my lifelong career.” These projects were shown together as a large installation of documentary text and photographs at the Guangzhou Triennial in 2008.

Pak’s open-ended, collectivist approach to art-making, valuing process as much as outcome, recalls the “encounters” or “agglutinations” described by curator and critic Nicolas Bourriaud in Relational Aesthetics (1998). Bourriaud discussed art practices which had moved away from medium-specific expression, particularly in the 1990s, suggesting: “we ought to talk of ‘formations’ rather than ‘forms,’ […] present day art shows that form only exists in the encounter and in the dynamic relationship enjoyed by an artistic proposition with other formations, artistic or otherwise.”

In January, Pak held his most ambitious solo show to date, under the title “All Days All Nights,” at Vitamin Creative Space in Guangzhou. He presented the exhibition as a work-in-progress, combining old and new projects in an organic process to achieve something new. Vitamin’s curator Hu Fang met Pak in New York, and the two decided to work together. Vitamin also provided financial support for Pak to make a new work, A Travel Without Visual Experience (2009). For this, Pak spent five days in Malaysia on an organized tour, visiting the usual tourist spots and occasionally taking snapshots. However, from the moment he boarded the plane in Hong Kong, Pak closed his eyes to simulate blindness, and wore dark glasses to avoid attention. Some of the snapshots he took, or had taken of him, were exhibited as part of his show, in a wallpapered corner of the space, suggesting the usual domestic display of photographs as visualized memories. What’s more, that section of the exhibition was kept dark, and viewers were instructed to bring their own flash-equipped cameras to snap the images in the dark and view them afterwards, in the light. The project comes from Pak wanting to question the privileged relationship between vision and memory, which prompted him to devise an experience to enact this critical query, mediated by his own body. 

In addition to recent invitations to Busan, Guangzhou and Yokohama, Pak will represent Hong Kong at the Venice Biennale this year, working again with curator Tobias Berger. Significantly, this is the first time Hong Kong has chosen to send only one artist since its first showing in Venice in 2001. At the time of writing, Pak cannot give specifics of what he will present, although he admits that his solo show at Vitamin Creative Space was a practice run. In some ways, Pak’s ongoing use of newspaper and internet publishing positions his work in a space beyond the typical institutional networks of the art world. Yet, as recent biennales and triennales have shown, institutions themselves have changed into more complex cultural phenomena, which seem to be able to constantly accommodate—some would even say co-opt—various new, alternative practices.

Venice is the oldest biennale, yet not only has it maintained an air of prestige, its standing even seems to have increased over the last decade. Naturally, this probably has less to do with art than with cultural politics. That Hong Kong must officially present its pavilion as “Hong Kong China”—because it is a “region” and not a national entity—only underlines the way in which exhibitions such as Venice assume the role of a cultural Olympics, combining culture, diplomacy and ostensibly friendly international competition. When asked what it means for a Hong Kong artist to show in Venice, Pak says: “It gives me another layer of identity. Before Yokohama in 2008, I just represented myself as a professional artist in big shows around the world. But in Venice, representing Hong Kong adds an extra ‘burden,’” he laughs. “At the same time, if I use it wisely, Venice is an opportunity to make an impression on many people.” The most exciting aspect of Pak’s work for Venice is that, like us, he is eagerly waiting to see how the project will unfold.