Opening 8 January 2011, 17:00 – 21:00
And running through 28 January 2011
Open weekends 12:00 – 18:00
Otherwise by appointment
At the cargo container storage bay
Located adjacent to the Whitehead Club
In Whitehead, Ma On Shan, New Territories, H.K.
This is an experiment in exhibition-making. It begins with the situation of cultural production and circulation throughout the Pearl River Delta, a conurbation that forms a cyclical distribution structure through which goods travel more freely than people. Encompassing a near continuous metropolis that stretches from Hong Kong and Shenzhen in the southeast through Dongguan, Guangzhou, Foshan, Zhongshan, Zhuhai and ultimately Macau in the southwest, the region is marked by fascinating paths of growth (a form of just-in-time urbanism that Hou Hanru has called ‘post-planning’ and MAP Office has termed a ‘thin pattern’), unbelievable demographics (a population of some 120 million and an average age below 30 in certain cities), and an uncertain position in global exchange: although it was once known as the face of the Chinese economic miracle for its transition from farmland to manufacturing hub in the space of a decade, many factories have since decamped to interior regions with cheaper labor, and the Yangtze River Delta centered on Shanghai is increasingly usurping its role in finance and shipping. Nevertheless, contemporary Cantonese art has consistently been most interested in the possibilities for personal freedom and alternative visual production that emerge under the urban conditions made possible by these economic structures rather than manufacturing and trade per se, a fact evident in the growing list of alternative spaces and collective moments in the recent art history of Guangzhou and Shenzhen (and, as the territory becomes increasingly dominated by mainland Chinese cultural thinking, Hong Kong as well).
The most interesting nexus within this system occurs at the point of friction between Hong Kong and Shenzhen, a functionally-international border that operates as a point of exchange between China and non-China even as it regulates the definitions of these terms through a complex diagram of class, race, nationality, and power. Here, there is a privilege of passing that entails more than appearance: this is the right of passage, a rite in which many thousands indulge every day, but it is also a ritual of consolidation from which many millions are excluded on ambivalent terms. We find it productive to think of the border in this particular scenario as a mechanism, as something more than a gate that selectively allows visitors and other bodies in motion to pass from one side to the other; much more so, it also produces these very bodies and enacts a particular visual culture of passing. From the types of goods offered for sale at the entrances and exits to the border crossing to the luggage in which they are transported, from the types of clothing and hairstyles of those crossing to the uniforms and modes of transportation on either end, the figure of the border exists as a very special moment in the cultural imagination of south China, positioned somewhere between 1980s Hong Kong cinema, reform and opening, and grocery shopping.
This exhibition emerges as an experiment in adopting this structure as a culture of display. The central strategy is simple: to produce a cultural space that might take on such a border-mechanism function. Within this strategy of course, is embedded a set of tactics contributing to a field we might classify as the curatorial; our tactics include balance, representation, space, sound, re-use, displacement, and so on. The exhibition takes place within the archetypal conceptual architectures of the border, installed first in a set of disused shipping containers placed between the harbor and the hulking post-industrial buildings of the New Territories, an effective cultural border zone between the urban cores of Hong Kong and Shenzhen. It is then to be installed again in an empty factory complex on the edges of Shenzhen, and the process of moving these containers from one pole to the other--including the legal and financial labor involved in pushing art-and-idea from one side of the border to the other--will become a central component of the exhibition project. These two forms of architectural space, linked in the middle by the container truck, constitute the central shipping apparatus of the Pearl River Delta, summarizing through the use and re-use of space a process of movement and production spanning half a century from the rise of Hong Kong as an industrial hub to its rebirth as an export control point for the factories of Shenzhen--and again into a third stage as the latter complexes began to go bankrupt or move further inland. This is a history of failures, and one ripe for incorporation into the artistic trajectory that we might call an ontology of cross-border living.
Conceptualized during the global financial crisis of 2008, when the number of empty factories and discarded containers in Shenzhen and Hong Kong, respectively, had reached an all-time high, the project has, rather ironically, been forced to shift focus and downsize due to an increased demand for the tools of global export trade in 2010. The exhibition thus moves into yet further marginal spaces in its attempt to materialize both sides of this complex machinery, positioned in a former refugee camp (now golf course, naturally) in the middle of the Eastern New Territories. Occupying six containers in a row of 10 on the edge of a storage yard--small by any standard--of several dozen, the site is dusty, windy, and cold. When evening sets in and the only light comes from the handful of barebulbs hung within the containers the effect becomes something along the lines of a night market, or, more appropriately for our purposes, a grey market. This is one of the major logics to inform our curatorial practice with regard to this exhibition: rather than working with artists to produce polished and resolved work that attempts to explore the border at a critical distance, we asked our collaborators to physically cross the border, often carrying materials, in order to complete their projects, essentially making for a grey market of ideas not quite ready for appearance at the real markets. It is also an instantiation of shanzhai culture, a phenomenon that has received much attention from the press in recent years. Stemming from the word for distributed domestic factory units that have emerged at various junctions of tension throughout early modern and recent Chinese history, this is a fascinating culture of reverse engineering, copying, reinvention, improvement, and innovation that has produced many of the partially non-functional technologies widely available in the regional electronics industries, the epicenter of which is located at Huaqiangbei in Shenzhen. The works described here are thus not-quite-ready, not-quite-unique, and not-quite-real; the same goes for the exhibition as a whole.
The first container belongs to Matt Hope and Jon Phillips, inventors of the Laoban Soundsystem based in Beijing and Guangzhou, respectively, who have here produced the “Laoban Container Soundsystem” (2011). Fabricated under close observation at two factories outside Guangzhou, the work consists of a massive steel front plate cut and welded to custom dimensions in Huizhou and 40 speaker drivers made by hand to custom dimensions in Panyu. The steel plate is set flush several inches inside the mouth of the container and the speaker drivers are then wired into the empty holes left on its face, ultimately transforming the empty volume of the container into an infinite baffle prepared to take advantage of some 4000 watts of amplification. Hope and Phillips see their work as the tracing of a line between production and consumption, first taking advantage of the highly customized production situation in South China and then attempting to draw consumers--here, those moved by the sound produced by DJs at the helm of the system--into direct contact with the factories. The resulting piece fits in aesthetically with a peculiar erotics of the post-global manufacturing situation while on another level remaining a fantastically pragmatic piece of equipment for mobile event situations. Each and every element of the fabrication process becomes a telling signifier of this paradoxical situation: in this case the steel plate was made just millimeters too large, requiring the artists and curators to file, finagle, and otherwise negotiate the standardized geometry of ISO parts in order to complete the work. Interestingly, this error occurs as digital models--drawn on Hope’s computer according to the indicated ISO dimensions--clash with the reality of production when it at last becomes material with the collusion of steel and fire at the hands of underpaid technicians. Here, the engineering of sound can only be a political act: fabrication there, assembly here.
Hong Kong artist Warren Leung Chi Wo deals with this notion of the same object enacting different functions on opposite sides of the border in a less oblique way albeit with the distance of the documentarian, contributing the series of photographs entitled “Fish Farm House” (2006-2007). Executed in collaboration with anthropologist Sidney Cheung, these 60 images depict the transitional structures erected over the past half century in the northern New Territories in order to house owners and workers at aquaculture complexes; now that this industry is no longer economically viable, the buildings are used only as temporary resting places or housing for guest workers from the mainland. Often positioned in or adjacent to the closed border zone against the Shenzhen River, they are dwarfed by the rigidly designed skyscrapers and residential complexes built on the mainland side of the border. In this scenario the same architectural feature is able to reflect macroscopic shifts in economic flows, indicating the Hong Kong occupation of the fish farm territory during a period of economic and cultural growth in the city (namely, the 1960s and 1970s, when a mushrooming population of immigrants stressed the resources of the region) and then the later reoccupation by mainland immigrants themselves as the farms declined in productivity. Once known as fishing settlements, Hong Kong and Shenzhen alike are now far and away net importers of seafood; aside from demands of quantity, the waters here are now too polluted for a significant catch. In this exhibition these photographs are split into two groups: half of the images, those depicting interiors of the wood and metal structures, are placed inside the containers, presenting intimate views of kitchens, living rooms, and sleeping areas with their own liminal aesthetics of occasional habitation, while the other half, those depicting the structures from without, are instead printed as banners and hung over the entrances to the container volumes in an attempt to activate these standardized spatial units as objects. As the sun sets to the rear, the sky depicted in these external shots appears to change also from blue to grey.
Hu Xiangqian, too, plays with the ideas of settlement as a counterpoint to migration, here through a video recording a hypothetical intervention into Chinese local political machinery entitled “Flying Blue Flag” (2005). Democracy is actually alive and well (or at least surviving) at the lowest tiers of municipal government in rural China; in an attempt to define its possibilities through a humorous aesthetics of breakdown, the artist tried to run for village head in an election for which he was ineligible, making a mockery of the democratic process and using every tactics available in order to win votes: in the less egregious cases he plays on racial prejudice and shows small business owners ridiculous renderings of his plans to redevelop commercial zones, while at the other end of the spectrum he offers outright cash bribes. All of this is executed in a style clearly derived in large part from American political drama and Hong Kong triad films, complete with waving flags, victory signs, ill-fitting suits, awkward handshakes, and copious backslapping--reminiscent, perhaps, of the early days of government in Shenzhen. Taking place in the small town of Nanting outside of Guangzhou (where he was based until a recent move to Beijing), this dramatic video delivers an intriguing study in the flow of styles and ideas across borders: here it is largely this aesthetics of political process that commands attention, particularly in light of the fact that elected leadership in this part of the world is rarely ever less farcical than Hu Xiangqian makes it. It is a game of rhetoric, one filtered through the populist political imagery of Shenzhen that is itself a shadow of the Hong Kong legislative system. Installed here on an old security monitor and placed on a stool in the rear of a container otherwise occupied by the photography of Leung Chi Wo, we begin to approach an aesthetics of border crossing, albeit one defined by the passage of ideas at the lower end of the economic spectrum.
The third container is given over to Li Jinghu, widely but perhaps apocryphally labelled the only contemporary artist in Dongguan--the Pearl River Delta factory town best known for producing plastic consumer products and building materials rather than electronics, a massive migrant population compared even to Shenzhen, a thriving sex culture, and a pseudo-syndicalist style of government by corporation. Given this background, Li Jinghu had originally wished to fill an entire container with water and salt to mimic synthetic human sweat, materializing labor in an ambiguous way that would leave its biopolitical products locked up and unavailable to the spectator. And while labor is always invisible, for this exhibition it also proved difficult to control: given a nonporous ground surface and a large number of electrical cables attached to a generator in the immediate vicinity, this proposal proved practically impossible. The artist later proposed an alternative version in which detergent fluid (coincidentally, the old-fashioned “Labor Band”) and water filled a barrel also housing an air compressor, thus filling the container with bubbles. Although it was never fully filled, this did prove to be an interesting approach to social sculpture, birthing bizarre pseudo-organic forms that grow, shrink, morph, and move, traveling around the space of the mouth of the container over the course of each day. Initially viewed through doors closed so as to leave only a thin sliver of space through which to peep, as these forms grow the doors can also be opened, allowing the soap structures to leak out the bottom of the doors and grow toward work in neighboring containers. I admire most in this work a fidelity to material despite the contextual failure of the original proposition: interested in the productive capacities of the region, Li Jinghu creates his work entirely out of the plastic and metal domestic objects and appliances so widely available--produced in Dongguan for consumption in Hong Kong and beyond.
Aside from further photographs from Leung Chi Wo, the fourth container is dominated by an installation produced by Nadim Abbas entitled “Cataract II” (2011). Although similar in concept to a recent solo exhibition in two crisp galleries in downtown Hong Kong, here the container setting brackets this work as if it were an altar of sorts: set several feet ahead of the innermost wall, a clean white wall appears as a freestanding monolith. At is center a pair of window frames of the flimsy aluminum style so common to Hong Kong apartments (intended to keep children in and thieves out) block a backlit photograph of Iguazu Falls, the South American tourist landmark infamous locally for its starring role in the 1997 Wong Kar-Wai film Happy Together. The falls, in that film a metonymical reference to the enthralling depths of a lover, are here further mechanically enhanced by a scrolling water pattern between photograph and light source, clumsily animating the water effect and gesturing toward the wall hangings and digital clocks also--surprise, surprise--produced in the Peal River Delta. Less interested in such politics of production, however, Abbas seeks a more universal grammar of psychoanalytical architectures of the self based on the experience of viewing; in this space, a loud amplifier sitting behind the window plays a waterfall recording that serves to further immerse the spectator within this image. Such immersion, however, can only come at a distance--the production values of the environment are low enough to force viewers into a vacillating relationship of absorption and boredom, drawing attention to the apparatus of the window frame and pushing into the background the literary or poetic references of the waterfall and water itself. Although it sits on a small peninsula just several dozen meters from Tolo Harbor, the immediate site of the containers is dusty and barren, leading the artist to insert this particularly restful moment into the harsh metal space of the exhibition galleries. This is a very conscious psychology of architecture, one that requires no context but interacts with site and place wherever it is located.
Probably overlooked by many visitors, this container also contains the diminutive work of Guangzhou-based artist Huang He. Consisting of nothing but rock sugar and folded paper, this piece, entitled “Lilliput” (2011), is intended as an intervention into the fengshui and general spatial environment of the container setting. According to the standard ISO dimensions of the shipping container and the location and style of art works within it (paying particular attention to the aspect of water in Abbas’s work), the artist was able to diagram the proper actions to take without ever seeing the site or indeed ever entering Hong Kong. As a result, the photographs to the left of the space have a short line of rock sugar along their inner edge, while the white wall opposite the frontal opening of the container is preceded on its right side with another such line. Directly to the right as one enters the space there is a third line, here also including two sheets of standard computer paper folded tightly into square shapes, both of which are covered with a typed segment of text but only one of which reveals this writing on its exterior. The latter such text, authored by the artist’s sister Huang Shan, consists of a poem that touches upon the Shenzhen River, the idea of a homeland, regional accents, Hong Kong television, and consumer culture in these two Pearl River Delta cities. The other, three paragraphs of prose written by Huang He herself, approaches similar themes through a different tone, recounting anecdotes from a childhood spent on the banks of the Shenzhen River--all the while keeping in mind the fact that she was born in Guangzhou and counts as her ancestral home the town of Zhanjiang. We find here the derivation of the work title: Huang He’s mother, at least as recounted in this text, worked in “Lilliput,” or the land of the little people, a colloquial name given to the theme park Splendid China, which reproduces in miniature the great nationalist landmarks of Chinese history. As to whether these talismanic texts and pieces of sugar had their intended effect on the space, of this I cannot play the judge; nevertheless, it may be worth noting that this container was consistently warmer than any of the others.
The final container is occupied by Hong Kong artist Adrian Wong, who uses it for a performance engaging with the history of the site as a refugee camp during and after the war in Vietnam. Leading up to the exhibition opening, Wong hired two African immigrants seeking refugee status in Hong Kong and asked them to think of how they are stereotypically perceived within the racially rather monotonous society of Hong Kong; an acting coach then taught them how to act out these attributes in an exaggerated manner and assisted them in developing characters based on such a persona. Equipped with these new theatrical personalities, the actors then went on to invent a bizarre ball game inside the container involving a ball balanced between the eye and nose, brooms, heavy metal balls, chalk circles, and piles of dirt. As audience members arrived the men attempted to teach the rules of this game to their new students, all the while casting the questions of political identity, race, and belonging into high relief. Wong consistently employs this strategy of overacting as a tool in his performance-based work, and the results typically make for aspects of documentation that remain strong even after the factor of liveness disappears with the passing of time: in this case, a sound recording of raised voices, whistles, and balls clanking on steel walls, continues to animate the container space. As during the performance proper, this creates an atmosphere of participation that can only be described as forced or partially unpleasant, interpellating the viewer as a component of the work without ever asking for permission.
This is the beauty of an exhibition in containers on a patch of dirt by the sea: it could be anywhere but, for the moment at least, it is here.
-- Robin Peckham
(All images courtesy of Society for Experimental Cultural Production and the artists.)