Cosmin Costinas, incoming curator of Hong Kong’s only serious alternative space, Para/Site, attempts to shape his upcoming exhibition program with a project seeking to explore the ramifications of the past year—a period of time during much of which, not entirely coincidentally, the art space has been left rudderless and without direction. Drawing on a political moment that has emerged as a fundamentally hopeful crisis in the workings of both the global neoliberal economy and the theoretically democratic governance structures that back it, “Two Thousand Eleven” is equally influenced by the likes of the Occupy Movement and the Arab Spring on the one hand and the increasing incoherence of the dream of a cosmopolitan Europe on the other. This is the situation in which any thinking person who has survived 2011 might find herself, but the fact that the question is asked now from Hong Kong is particularly resonant: as Costinas has declared, “Holland … feel[s] threatened by the rest of the world—I prefer to go to the rest of the world.” It may be an all-too-convenient elision, this positioning of Hong Kong as a stand-in for “the rest of the world,” but the fact that the city remains on the intellectual periphery—and productively so—is unavoidable.
Politically speaking, Hong Kong is something akin to a Meillasouxian wilderness: along with the parallel cores of Beijing and Singapore, it is very much defining the future of the civil sphere between democracy and total governance, and sits firmly outside the subject position that once led to the creation and maintenance of the liberal democratic welfare state. As an uncanny territory, of sorts, it becomes an unstable zone in which unpredictable moves could in fact change the rules of the game entirely—and it is here that small-scale operations like Para/Site come in, functioning through a media footprint across the international art regime far and away disproportionate to its physical presence on a Hong Kong street. Appropriately, “Two Thousand Eleven” is tentatively bold, offering an excited first thrust of the proverbial sword that misses its mark completely—or so it would seem.
Olga Chernysheva, “Alley of Cosmonauts,” 2008; Courtesy of Vitamin Creative Space and the artist
Contrary to what might be expected, this is a political exhibition only in the most disconcerting way possible. Work from Josh Smith presents the clearest image of what power mechanisms, namely surveillance, once looked like in his Black Tower (1985-1987), a short film in which a narrator comes to believe that a particularly opaque building is somehow following him. The context may be strictly neoliberal but the paranoia remains in the current order: at this point in time, conspiratorial imaginations have become the very channels through which power functions in a stunning merging of secrecy and openness, a nightmare perhaps presaged in the visual panopticon of this particular piece. On the facing wall, Olga Chernysheva has installed her Alley of the Cosmonauts (2008), a photographic series documenting the once glorious monuments to the heroes of the Soviet space program, an historical moment that captured the optimism of the science fictional utopian concept of the Communist future better than perhaps any other. Today, however, the statues of the sculpture park remain covered and therefore invisible, enjoying a status of collective existence in that the name of the place survives even as the specific details of its construction have been somehow buried or erased. The notion of post-communism is a fragile one for Hong Kong, whose political ego has known only the aggressive statist Maoism of midcentury China and the global capitalism of imperial Britain; nevertheless, in a time during which the precariously underemployed can consider leaving their government-supplied public housing in order to occupy the public plaza under the headquarters of the Hong Kong Shanghai Banking Corporation, it is clear that the dissolution of the socialist dream continues to play a role in the city.
John Smith, screen shot from “The Black Tower,” 1985-1987; Courtesy of Vitamin Creative Space, and the artist
Para/Site has always been a small space, but for this exhibition Costinas has made the inspired decision to further divide the ground floor gallery with the addition of a diagonal wall, setting the work from Smith and Chernysheva such that the two projects are not directly opposed but rather both offer themselves forward to a certain degree, all of which clearly sets out to make the point that the quality of any curatorial endeavor does not depend on the scale or budget of the venue. Further adding to the sensation that this is a new institution entirely, Heman Chong has covered the floor in straight black namecards almost a meter deep for the project Monument to the people we’ve conveniently forgotten (I hate you) (2008). Numbering somewhere in the neighborhood of a million, this latest deconstruction of the monochrome is an implicitly architectural invention that requires sustained attention from the audience, framing the experience of the exhibition within a challenge to spatial operation that continues even and especially after the work is hung. Continuing in this vein of formal experimentation that somehow leaves its political stakes surprisingly clear, a new site-specific mural piece from Federico Herrero reworks the facade of the space and continues up the stairs and into what was formerly the office, all uncertain washes of blue and yellow that seem to provide a new working context for things yet to come from this new curatorial hotspot.
All in all, there is indeed something here in the conceptual wilderness of our world, a strange island with a free press but no democratically elected officials. If it is to be, it is through quirky and unexpected interventions like this one that something might be able to happen in a place like this.
(Image at top: Heman Chong, Monument to the people we've conveniently forgotten (I hate you), Offset prints on 260 gsm paper, 1 million copies, each measuring 9 x 5.5 cm, 2008; Courtesy of Vitamin Creative Space, Motive Gallery and STPI)