FIRENZE LAI, “This is Not Yours.”, 2015, oil on canvas, 91.5 × 122 cm. Courtesy the artist and Para Site, Hong Kong. 

A Hundred Years Of Shame–Songs of Resistance and Scenarios for Chinese Nations

Para Site
Hong Kong

After relocating to their new home in Quarry Bay, the Hong Kong’s nonprofit art space Para Site launched their inaugural exhibition, “A Hundred Years of Shame–Songs of Resistance and Scenarios for Chinese Nations,” early this March. Co-curated by Cosmin Costinas, executive director and curator of Para Site, and Anthony Yung, senior researcher at Asia Art Archive, the ambitious show gathers works by established and emerging artists from Taiwan, China and Hong Kong, which comment on the contentious intra-power struggles and uncertain concept of national identity.

The curators have intentionally installed Hong Kong artist Firenze Lai’s painting “This is Not Yours.” (2015) next to the exhibition’s introductory text at the entrance of the art space. The painting illustrates the scene of an invasion: a group of people on the left of the canvas are reaching their arms out toward a tree, but they are obstructed by a figure in the middle, who is cloaked in white like a guardian angel. From this “guardian” emerges a protector-like figure who hugs the thick tree trunk, shielding it from harm. Around the corner is Lai’s other painting, Human Chain (2014), depicting a “wall” formed by a line of figures linking arms. Both of Lai’s works evoke ideas of homeland defense. On September 28, 2014, merely days after Lai finished painting Human Chain, the Hong Kong police force used tear gas to quash Occupy Central activists—who were protesting for universal suffrage during the city’s 2017 chief executive election—which caused public outcry. On her Facebook page, the artist insists on several occasions that she “will well remember that moment,” when violence was exerted upon innocent citizens by their own countrymen, and the feeling of helplessness that consumed her then. The expressive brushworks and deliberate use of a dull and cold palette that Lai uses in her two paintings—with shades of dark greens, somber blues and dreary grays—betray the oppressive nature of their subjects.

TREVOR YEUNGLive in Hong Kong, Born in Dongguan, 2015, installation of aquarium system with Macropodus (Black Paradisefish/Chinese Betta), Mikrogeophagus ramirezi (German Blue Ram), Scleropages formosus(Asian Arowana), Cyphotilapia frontosa (Frontosa), Carassius auratus (Ranchu, Gold Fish), Paracheirodon innesi (Neon Tetra) and styrofoam box, dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist and Para Site, Hong Kong. 

Not all of the exhibited works are as outspoken as Lai’s paintings. Located in the center of the gallery space is Guangdong-born, Hong Kong-based artist Trevor Yeung’s installation of six fish tanks, each containing a different species of fish that were imported to Hong Kong from various parts of the world. Titled Live in Hong Kong, Born in Dongguan (2015), the small-scale aquarium metaphorically conveys Yeung’s insecurities as a mainland Chinese person living in Hong Kong and his feelings of shame toward the stereotyped “poor manners” of his people that are exaggerated by Hong Kong media. Identifying with the displacement of the fish in the tanks, Yeung considers that he, too, is seen as an outsider in Hong Kong. Visitors to Para Site can walk between the fish tanks and into the intimate space that their circular arrangement has created. The dimly glowing light, graceful silhouettes of the fish and the movement of flowing water are breathtaking. Stepping outside of this temporary refuge, the viewer is once again vulnerable to the larger world of reality.

SONG TAWhy Are You Still Playing Around While These Are Your Test Results?!, 2014, paper and found objects, dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist and Para Site, Hong Kong. 

Elsewhere in the show, a recording studio for the fictional Xi Kang Records has been set up in a small, dark room. One can sit down and enjoy playlists prepared by a selection of independent music researchers and musicians. Projected on a screen are the corresponding music videos, as well as politically tinged image collages and performances. Most of the songs are from China and all of them bear a certain message of resistance, either toward the act of political compromise or to one’s ordinary life.

While the majority of the exhibited works are focused on political issues, the social aspect explored in the show is equally significant. Guangzhou-based artist Song Ta’s Why Are You Still Playing Around While These Are Your Test Results?! (2014) displays 26 elementary-school test papers, each with the score of 59.5—only half a mark below the pass point. The work is inspired by Ta’s ongoing research on the exams of students from poverty-stricken regions in China, which documents the experience of such children within the education system. Encased in individual frames, the 26 test papers are presented as valuable art objects that deliver a critical observation on the strict, and often controversial, Chinese system of schooling.

Detail of the room installation “Academy of Humiliation,” as part of “A Hundred Years of Shame–Songs of Resistance and Scenarios for Chinese Nations” at Para Site, Hong Kong, 2015. Courtesy Para Site. 

Accompanying the works displayed in the main gallery space are two rooms named “Academy of Shame” and “Academy of Humiliation,” which present archival materials that provide wider historical context and information regarding the various issues explored in the exhibition. The diverse presentation of materials includes: an eight-minute excerpt from Johnnie To’s film Election 2 (2006); a clip of former Chinese leader Jiang Zemin’s speech in 1997; and a collection of newspaper and poorly copied paintings displayed under the Department of Mimetic Ignominy, a project devised by Moscow-based curators Ekaterina Degot and David Riff.

Neither the subtlety of self-shame underpinning Yeung’s installation or the rebellious spirit in Lai’s paintings will have a changing effect on China’s public image. They merely serve to call attention for democratic freedom for the citizens of both Hong Kong and mainland China. They represent a statement that must be made and a voice that must be heard. “A Hundred Years of Shame” seems to suggest that artists from the greater Chinese regions are continuing to find means to express their political sentiments, even though their world today is still rife with censorship.

“A Hundred Years of Shame–Songs of Resistance and Scenarios for Chinese Nations” is on view at Para Site, Hong Kong, until May 17, 2015.