Asia Art Archive (AAA) may have a rather dry moniker, but, during its 14-year existence, the Hong Kong nonprofit has become an invaluable cog in the city’s art machine. Its archival collection, much of which is available online, and its scholarly programming have evolved into substantial resources, while its work in education may prove an even greater legacy—these workshops for teachers, children and the wider community show a real commitment to extending AAA’s reach beyond the usual suspects. This reach may of necessity still be limited, but an example has been set, and other nonprofits, as well as the Hong Kong government, should take note.
“Mapping Asia” is Asia Art Archive’s first major exhibition at its Sheung Wan home, and accompanies a conference series and an impressive special edition of its Field Notes journal, both of which share the same name as the show. The exhibit is mounted in the organization’s study area, and the resulting spatial constraints initially bring to mind an old-fashioned library display. Almost all the 30 or so artworks, generally quite diminutive, are attached to a vertical display unit that creeps round a narrow corridor between book stacks and outer walls.
Yet, on closer inspection, a high degree of invention and impressive production values have been employed to overcome these display restrictions. Wallpapering a central column is a poster by the influential Burmese artist Bagyi Aung Soe for the film Tender are the Feet (1972), a love story set against the encroachment of modernizing tendencies into a traditional dance troupe. Nearby, hovering enticingly above a low meeting table, is Irish artist Tom Molloy’s small globe of the Earth, its surface entirely obscured by white paint, apart from seemingly random squiggles. These turn out to be manmade national borders, which have been left uncovered. A grandiose project by local curator Adam Bobbette, which postulates readings of the cosmoses of Hong Kong and Java through a comparative study of unstable ground in the two locations, resides in and on top of a large plan chest. Prints by Singaporean artist Robert Zhao Renhui, of man-made flora and fauna, decorate the lifts.
As can be surmised from the above, “Mapping Asia” could, not unfairly, be called diverse. The exhibits are drawn largely from Hong Kong, China and the Subcontinent, but occasionally stray further afield. Their focus ranges across a great number of timeworn touchstones of contemporary art criticism from the last two decades or more—identities, maps, globalization, liminality, knowledge production, migration, language, diasporas, confronting modernity, trade routes, naming, habitats, borders, nationalism, memory, Pan-Asianism, cultural exchange, hybridity, archives (of course) and, rather weirdly, book-burning. Such diffusion is perhaps a reflection of the show’s connection to wider programming. The modern-day conference errs toward titles that embrace the nebulous, allowing all-comers—whether hotshot external curators, emerging local artists or nervous academics clutching a first draft of their dissertation—to wheel out their set spiel with minimal alteration.
This all-embracing philosophy does not make for a focused exhibition experience, yet almost all the works in “Mapping Asia” remain interesting. The result has the air of a dusty cabinet of diverse curios, between which, with a little effort and indulgence, one can probably agree to the existence of some sort of link. For instance, a small selection of Chinese ceramics, employing various motifs suggestive of trading and intellectual contact across Asia, is surrounded by a clip from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I (1956), a poem by Agha Shahid Ali, known for his blending of diverse cultural influences and poetic forms, a short film about book-burning over the last 2,000 years, and a woodcut by the Indian-born American artist Zarina Hashmi, quoting lines by the similarly itinerant 18th-century Urdu poet Meer Taqi Meer about his own homelessness and the decline of Delhi’s glory.
Similarly, the exhibition’s slightly desiccated themes do not mean that the individual works do not merit attention. Particularly enjoyable is Zhou Tiehai’s allegory Will/We Must (1996), a silent black-and-white video in the manner of a 1920s revolutionary film about the efforts of young Chinese artists to reach a wider art world, neatly satirizing not only its format but also the conflicting aspirations of the art community and the proprietorial urges of intruding Western curators. The work’s final scene places the group aboard a stormy Raft of Medusa, unable to go forward or back, closing with the valedictory text, “Farewell Art.”
A nice touch is a bookshelf running around the entirety of the display—some of the volumes that face out on this shelf are directly connected to nearby works, others are more generally associated with the exhibition’s theme. Again, their diversity does lead one to wonder if the show is really more than a series of disconnected musings, but the arrangement piques interest, and, as immediate perusal was difficult, I will be tracking down a couple for future reading. Less well judged is a stylish, five-color illustrated brochure given to each and every visitor in place of that boring old stalwart, the wall caption. Why a struggling nonprofit should display such needless largesse is beyond me, but this lack of financial vigilance is hardly exclusive to AAA.
There is much talk of AAA relocating to the grander surroundings of the Central Police Station—scheduled to reopen as a heritage and arts hub in 2016—having previously “expressed an interest” in leading the new center’s cultural programming. Such a move would give AAA welcome space to expand and refine its exhibition-making, as well as to ensure increased space for storage and study of its collections, allowing them to become a more truly accessible resource. Maybe this would be the ideal moment to ditch the off-putting “archive,” with its savor of academic forelock-tugging, from the organization’s name. Even if such a move risks alienating the more squeamish donor, perhaps the time has come to embrace the open and democratic implications of being a “library.” Such a name might attract the public funding that AAA deserves, and surely this is what this worthwhile organization should aspire to be—an art library for all the people of Hong Kong.
“Mapping Asia” runs from May 12–August 29 at Asia Art Archive, Hong Kong.
John Jervis is managing editor at ArtAsiaPacific.