Nestled high on the aptly named Hill Road, on the west side of Hong Kong Island, 2P Contemporary Art Gallery occupies a space slightly removed from the city’s crowded and hectic center. Here, Hong Kong-based Yuk King Tan and Chow Chun Fai, critically questioned the image of their city, examining, as the title suggests, the “limit of visibility” in Hong Kong.
The exhibition title is borrowed from Tan’s latest video piece, The Limit of Visibility (2012), which follows the workday at a recycling and waste removal yard. In one part of the eight-minute film, compacted cubes of paper waste are hauled and stacked on barges, lifted by cranes and placed in neat, grid-like patterns. The once-wild remnants of discarded information—apathetically tossed fliers, worksheets and hand outs, schedules and drafts—are here amassed and ordered, before being forced back into a strictly ordered system, like that from which they came. By capturing these actions on film and presenting them in a gallery, Tan invites the viewer to examine the nature of creating art in an industrial milieu, juxtaposing the production of information, waste and art, and collating the variegated methods into a streamlined phrase—the journey of waste carried on the back of a truck heading down the motorway, taken to be reprocessed and remade. It also suggests the mechanization of chaos.
The theme of aligning art and trash with the city of Hong Kong is also reflected in Tan’s video, Scavenger (2008). In the video, an old Chinese woman—who we discover from the work’s description is Lam Por Por (i.e. “Grandma Lam”), a veteran “scavenger”—pushes a street trolley bearing an almost life-size cardboard replica of one of the two lions that guard the well-known (Norman Foster-designed Hong Kong Shanghai Banking Corporation (HSBC) building. The Western-style lions stand as a symbol of Chinese and British colonial power, but have since been adopted as an iconic symbol of Hong Kong itself. In a particularly poignant moment, Lam, who has pushed the same trolley through the local streets for ten years, pushes the cardboard lion down the road alongside another scavenger burdened with a disordered mess of papers, subtly questioning the validity of this symbol by comparing it, in the most direct way, to a pile of trash. As the video progresses, and the trolley is jostled along the crowded streets and hefted over unruly curbs, the precisely cut layers of the lion begin to shift out of place. At the end, when the seperate layers of the statue are so disheveled that they no longer resemble what they once were, Lam brings the trolley to a weighing station in Sheung Wan where the icon-cum-waste cardboard is weighed, and she collects her money.
On the same wall as Tan’s video was Chow Chun Fai’s Reproducing Hong Kong – Asia’s World City (2012), for which Chow modifies a video published by the Hong Kong Tourism Board that depicts a young woman traveling around Hong Kong, laughing and smiling near iconic sights. By re-ordering and re-presenting the commercial video as a piece of art, Chow calls into question the nature of propaganda and the equally creative and manipulative hand that facilitates its production. Whereas Tan’s The Limit of Visibility transforms waste production into a creative form through artistic presentation, Reproducing Hong Kong uses artistic manipulation to reveal the more commercial forces at play when creating images, thus inviting viewers to engage in that very process of information manipulation along with the artist and invisible government bodies before him.
“The Limit of Visibility” is a timely reflection on the images and perceptions that have come to represent and shape Hong Kong, at a moment when political awareness seems on the rise and locals are in a position to recreate such symbols for themselves. This past month, thousands gathered throughout Hong Kong in demonstration against the impending implementation of a pro-Beijing “cultural education” program in Hong Kong public schools. Parents took to the streets, voicing their right to choose how China’s history is presented to their children. The program, which has been critiqued for glossing over important, yet controversial topics such as the Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen Square incident, paints an idealized view of Communist Party rule, aimed at nurturing “patriots” rather than protesters. Like their fellow Hong Kongers, Tan and Chow seem to be engaged both in questioning the validity of signifiers for local identity imposed from above, and reappropriating these to present a truer, more nuanced image of the territory.