Installation view from “Live Art 1995 – 2015” at the Sheung Wan Civic Centre Exhibition Hall. Courtesy M+, West Kowloon Cultural District.

Mobile M+: Live Art

Various Locations
Hong Kong

During the month of December, M+, Hong Kong’s future museum for 20th- and 21st-century visual culture in the West Kowloon Cultural District, presented “Mobile M+: Live Art,” the first in a series solely dedicated to performance art. M+’s chief curator Doryun Chong and visual art curator Pauline J. Yao led the project, which featured 10 artists from all over the world. Using their voices, breaths, movements and physical effort as channels, they activated their bodies as mediums to produce a diverse range of meanings.

Alongside several staged and outdoor performances, “Mobile M+: Live Art” also organized three exhibitions at different locations that explored the relationship between performance art, installation and documentation.

Held at the Sheung Wan Civic Centre, the group exhibition “Live Art 1995–2015” brought together five artists who document their live art performances through various forms, including photography, video and text-based instructions. While some of their acts depend partially on documentation, others are entirely contingent on it—such as American artist Patty’s Chang’s performances on everyday behavior, often done for small audiences or simply for the camera. The layer of mediation invites the audience to consider the relationship between the live event and the presentation of recorded acts and gestures.

JOHN CAGE, Writings through the Essay: On the Duty of Civil Disobedience, 1987, sound and light installation with 36 loudspeakers, 24 lights and 6 chairs, installed at Cattle Depot Artist Village in Kowloon. Courtesy John Cage Trust and M+, West Kowloon Cultural District.

JOHN CAGE, Writings through the Essay: On the Duty of Civil Disobedience, 1987, sound and light installation with 36 loudspeakers, 24 lights and 6 chairs, installed at Cattle Depot Artist Village in Kowloon. Courtesy John Cage Trust and M+, West Kowloon Cultural District.

Upon entering the exhibition space, one encountered Hong Kong artist Young Hay’s Bonjour, Young Hay (After Courbet) (1995). Three large-format, black-and-white photographs, shot at iconic locations in Hong Kong, document the artist’s four-hour walk from Mong Kok to Central in 1995, which he did with a blank canvas strapped to his back. The odd appearance of a stark, white space in the photos—the canvas—tells of Young’s attempt to reclaim artistic space in the dense urban landscape, where commercial ownership continues to dominate.

Meanwhile, shown at the center of the exhibition space was Guangzhou-born Lin Yilin’s Drive Shaft (1996), a three-hour-long video of the artist moving a cinderblock wall, which is written on with names of politicians, through the streets of Hong Kong. In transforming the wall into a “social construction,” Lin also removes the components of its “physical construction”; by constantly transporting it to the next destination in various pieces, the words on the wall become shuffled and previously recognizable names are rendered meaningless. Nearly 20 years later, and in the aftermath of the city’s recent “Umbrella Movement,” Lin’s concern with Hong Kong politics resonates more than ever. 

On display in a dimly lit room was Beijing-based Hu Xiangqian’s new work Reconstructing Michelangelo (2015), a six-channel video installation documenting the months Hu spent conveying knowledge and advice to his assistant about the condition of “being a contemporary artist.” In consciously performing the role of a mentor, Hu further challenges the boundaries of live art by delving into the process of “editing” a performance artist. In the dialogue between Hu and his assistant, the artist points out that philosophy and art are intertwined and that contemporary art should provoke critical thinking.

Another exhibition under the “Mobile M+: Live Art” series took place in the Cattle Depot Artist Village and was centered around the rarely seen installation Writings through the Essay: On the Duty of Civil Disobedience (1987) by the late American artist and composer John Cage (1912–1992). Inside one of the village’s distinctive red-brick buildings sat the installation, which consists of 36-channel sound recordings, 24 theatrical lights being played out according to instructions generated by the Chinese classic I-Ching (Book of Changes) and 6 locally sourced chairs. Cage’s fascination with chance operations, derived from the notion of non-intentionality in Zen Buddhism, laid at the heart of the show. By using I-Ching as a mechanism to filter out his own intention, Cage managed to transcend his personal preference in conceiving a work, making it something more akin to an act of nature. In fact, each new iteration of the installation takes on a site-specific quality and generates a unique experience for viewers.

The element of empty space was a recurring theme in Cage’s works. While his most famous musical composition 4’33” (1952) consists entirely of silence, in On the Duty of Civil Disobedience, the random play of sounds and lights—spread out at various distances and distinct from one another, yet converging and echoing at the point where the audience stands—seemed to give the empty space its definition and possibilities. By using American poet and philosopher Henry David Thoreau’s essay Civil Disobedience (1849) as source text to create mesostic poems (in which Cage’s reading of them was manipulated by pitch and speed), Cage was perhaps suggesting that, in a politically empty space where a government “governs least,” individuals, like sounds, can exist perfectly in their own distinctive ways, and also commingle with others.

Installation view from “Frog King Kwok and Eiko Otake” at Connecting Space Hong Kong. Courtesy M+, West Kowloon Cultural District.

EIKO OTAKE, A Body in Hong Kong, 2015, performance commissioned by M+ for “Mobile M+: Live Art” at Tim Mei Avenue, Hong Kong. Photo by CPAK Studio. Courtesy M+, West Kowloon Cultural District.

Only a ferry ride away across the Kowloon Bay was the exhibition “Frog King Kwok and Eiko Otake” at Connecting Space in North Point. Kwok’s installation Time (2015) is an accumulation of media material—gleaned and gathered from physical sources like newspapers or virtual ones in cyberspace—chronicling the artist’s five-decade-long practice. A fishing net carries all these clippings and print-outs, tossed together in nonchronological order “like an Internet search engine,” per the curatorial text. Accompanying Time was a digital slideshow of images documenting performances by New York-based Japanese artist and dancer Eiko Otake. These images are part of the Fukushima chapter of Otake’s ongoing collaboration with photographer William Johnston, entitled “A Body in Places” (2014– ). A Body in Fukushima (2015 0519) (2015) was produced in areas ravaged by the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in 2011. Through Otake’s slow yet controlled, tense but exquisite movements, she channels the mourning, anguish and grief felt in the deserted, radioactive land.

The three exhibitions at Sheung Wan Civic Centre, Cattle Depot Artist Village and Connecting Space explored various aspects of “liveness” in performance art. Here, art was recast as active communication rather than passive interpretation, process rather than form.