- 198 Contemporary Arts & Learning
Hong Kong, that natural child of Victorian Britain and Qing Dynasty China had become a source of embarrassment and irritation to its progenitors since it came into being in 1842. Neither parent to begin with wanted to recognise the infant; Lord Palmerston described it as a “barren Island”, whilst the Emperor of China, barely noticed its existence; or even knew its whereabouts! The treaty in which this ‘barren’ rock was given to Britain is known to the Chinese in classrooms everywhere as the ‘unequal treaty’; and whereas this has become a scarcely studied footnote in our school history books; the pychological effect of this humiliation has never completely disappeared from the Chinese national psyche- even to this day.
Empire doesn’t always have to be about men in pith helmets brandishing bayonets at natives. There is also ‘soft’ or cultural imperialism; things like ‘western’ music, fast food chains, and clothing brands- and of course- art. Former exhibitions of different cultures in the UK invariably reveal about themselves a certain euro-centricity. By categorising other cultures; writers, philosophers, and artists deal with the ‘otherness’ of Eastern culture, customs and beliefs. The scholar Edward Said argued this was a reflection of European imperialism and even racism. Whether you agree or not with Edward Said, there is some truth in how we all tend to categorise each other and put people of other cultures in ‘boxes’. I still remember in Hong Kong often hearing behind my back the word Gwai-lou (literally foreign white ghost), a rather derogatory word for foreigners. Perhaps our brains are just inclined to see things as black and white. Can us ‘Westerners’ not help but view ‘the East’ through western eyes and vice versa?
Are we forever to be at fault for this?
“Hong Kong Whispers” turns our concept of an art exhibition on its head. Showing at the ‘198 Contemporary Arts and Learning Centre’ in Brixton; it is refreshing and pioneering in its attempt to break the mould of ‘euro-centricity’. At typical exhibitions we usually forget that the city outside the gallery also shapes the way we understand the ideas inside. It argues that an exhibition is akin to a game of Chinese Whispers; exploring how art is (mis)interpreted and translated from the society of the artist to that of the viewer. Six artists from Hong Kong have exhibited their work analysing contemporary Britain – thus making us the audience the subject of the exhibition; reversing the role of who is being analysed. Hong Kong Whispers aims to raise questions on the relationship between artist and audience, art and society, and Hong Kong and Britain.
For all the tea in China! It was Britain’s addiction to this ‘China drink’ as Samuel Johnson called it in the 18th century, which brought Britain to Hong Kong in the first place. Livia Garcia echoes this idea; exhibiting images of the hungry mouths of residents in Leeds on discarded tea bags filled with rice. It shows how the seemingly separate communities in the UK and China are in fact joined through global business in food production. Continuing the theme of joint Anglo-Chinese identity, Annysa Ng’s installation uses mirrors to place the viewers in an infinite reflection. The viewer is caught between two walls covered by silhouetted portraits of women adorned with starchy ruffled Tudor collars and Ming/Qing Chinese costume. Here, one truly gains an understanding of Hong Kong as a child of both Britain and China – sometimes torn between the two.
The initially eccentric, yet fascinating video of artist Samson Young touring the lavish attractions of Hong Kong dressed as a Tele-tubby (a tea sipping, bona fide, British National apparently), overlaid with the former Communist Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping’s famous speech ‘Build Socialism with Chinese Characteristics’ creates a witty yet warning commentary on the political situation of Hong Kong teetering between two cultures; between Democracy and Communism; Capitalism and Socialism.
But perhaps the most political is the artist Thickest Choi’s project; linking the communities of Hong Kong and Brixton, south London, through the universal experience of the Police ‘Stop-and-Search’ policy. This practice sparked the Brixton Riots in 1981 on the very road where the exhibition takes place, but was also implemented in Hong Kong in fear of Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution across the road, after the so called ‘Leftist riots’ in 1967. The law has not changed since then. It tells us that perhaps the greatest threat to liberty is not from our ‘opponents’ per se; rather the threat to liberty is our own fear, and the reaction against it.
The days of formal empire may have ended long ago; but its legacy and the issues it raises still haunt us to this day. Cultural imperialism is still being shaped and challenged by new technologies of communication and political movements. The conceptual elements of the project originated from the anthropological quandary of how to represent other cultures without the ‘euro-centricity’- it has achieved it wonderfully. It seeks not to represent culture statically, but tries to make the exhibition an arena of active and engaged understanding.