Who Is Public Art For?
The space of Hong Kong known for a lot of things. Our skyscrapers, our mountainous terrain, our endless and identical shopping malls. One thing that most residents will recognize is the proliferation of unanimously deemed unsightly sculptures. Not surprisingly, most public art takes the form of the weather-proof sculptures, for practical reasons. After all, how well would your average woodcut print on paper or oil on canvas painting fare under Hong Kong’s high humidity?
While most public sculptures can withstand day-to-day wear and tear, maintenance of their facades and structures end up costing millions of Hong Kong taxpayer’s dollars every year. Yet, I agree in principle with the notion that art is not only meant to exist in elite institutions, archives and private collections. In the words of various curators and archivists I have worked with: the vast majority of the general public is wary of entering art institutions, thus why we need the art in our public spaces to meaningfully engage with a broader audience.
In my own essay about Robert Indiana’s sculptures in Hong Kong, I pointed out that his LOVE could be read as powerful emblems of unabashed affection, away from the codified rituals around dating and marriage in the city. I also felt it is worth noting that Indiana identified as gay, which adds an additional layer of significance to his LOVE work’s highly visible, public installations, given that queer people who express affection publicly anywhere are subject to violence.
Unfortunately, most public art in Hong Kong is like the tennis ball cum stream pictured above: irrelevant, though maybe funny for a few minutes. I was prompted to think about the tennis ball when I saw this sculpture Daydream in Zhongshan Station, Taipei last weekend.
From the caption: “Standing in a field of grass, water flows from the bird head covering the young girl’s face. A girl that would never grow up, a pencil that will never write.” You can write as much art-speak as you want, but it dosen’t change the fact that the work is a prepubescent nude girl with a horrifying bird head standing in astro-turf on an oddly shaped litter box. I consider Joyce Ho to be a leading contemporary Taiwanese artist (her exhibition No On at TKG+ was subtle, humorous and subversive.) So how did she end up working on this piece? Who approved of this object to be visible to hundreds of thousands of civilians every day?
All I have learnt is that 1) ugly public art is not a problem exclusive to Hong Kong and 2) the messaging of most fat-phobic weight reduction ads is a more memorable message than any of the giant blobs, tennis cum balls and golden dragons I have seen in the form of ‘public art.’ Which is sad.
August 6, 2019
“Be a good girl.”
These are the last words my father said to me before he died from cancer in a small, cold room. I was then a girl, and I’m now a woman. Years later, I still struggle with notions of respectability, filial piety, and imposter syndrome.
Somewhere around one and a half decades after being assigned female at birth, I started to realize the game is rigged. Being “good”, which in my context meant being quiet, submissive, obedient, and non-threatening, didn’t feel good. Walking the razor’s edge between being hated and being invisible, I started dreading going to school. When I tried to be outspoken, I was called a b*tch and bossy, sometimes to my face, but mainly behind my back. But letting everyone speak over me and make decisions for me almost felt worse, like carrying a heavy stone in my chest. I ebbed between feeling unruly and feeling like nothing.
I began pouring most of my energy into my homework, as getting high marks felt like a way of earning love, or at least, being taken somewhat seriously. I studied the attributes of older peers who parents and teachers praised often, and desperately attempted to emulate them. Nothing felt more important to me than doing everything “right,” so I wouldn’t become a statistic. A few months before my dad died, I was snooping in my parents’ room (I missed them a lot because they were in the hospital all the time so I tried to find traces of them in the objects they left lying around), and I found pamphlets about how grief-stricken children were likely to face academic troubles. So I tried to overcompensate and perform well. One time, after receiving a low test score, I cried for four hours.
Knowing what I know now, having been fortunate enough to graduate from university and begin working full-time, is that no amount of academic and external validation can pull you out of a grave you’ve already dug for yourself. Somewhere in between my college housemates frequently citing The Queer Art of Failure and realizing I would probably never become a doctor, lawyer, or engineer, I found joy. The past two years have involved a slow and incremental process of unlearning ideas I have internalized about being “respectable”, “good”, and most importantly, about love.
Surprisingly, it was a random stranger on Tinder who pointed out to me that “your true friends will care about you unconditionally, regardless of your job, salary, social status, or achievements.” I am still fighting the feeling of being perpetually “behind.” I am trying to believe in a sense of self-worth that arrives quietly.
April 25, 2019
When I meet up with friends, we talk about any number of things. We talk about having trouble sleeping. We talk about movies we want to watch, books we want to read. We talk about people we find attractive and people we are avoiding. We talk about being stressed at work. One thing we don’t talk about is our dreams.
I don’t mean dreams like the passage between sleeping and waking, though I do have one friend who likes to recount his dreams to me quite vividly. What I mean is those vague notions of purpose, of being propelled towards something.
Last year, when I was watching season five of Bojack Horseman, I was drawn to the character Gina Cazador. Gina wanted to be a singer, but felt too embarrassed even by the thought of it. So she became an actress. But Bojack encourages her to try auditioning for a singing part on the show they’re working on. Even though the audition dosen’t go as she hoped, Gina is relieved to have at least tried.
Been thinking a lot about what my dreams might be. Growing up, I used to think dreams were for other people. For extraordinary people. I was raised to believe that success meant putting your head down, working a job people respected, and sacrificing for the next generation. Reality meant the opposite of dreams. So for most of my life, even in my college years, I believed with all of my heart that I would never be the kind of person who worked a “dream job” or “followed their dreams.” Because following your dreams is for special people. And I’m a regular person, with average abilities, who struggles to speak more than just English, and has trouble getting out of bed in the morning.
Only very recently, when I was in the studio of a friend, G, who works as an illustrator and educator, did I return seriously to the thought of dreams. Since graduating, I’ve mainly been asking myself how to make my Mom proud. Right before I finished school, a lot of my friends told me to “stop worrying so much about supporting [my] mom” and to “find what makes [me] happy.” I wanted to explain to them that because I am Chinese and the descendant of immigrants, I can’t be that way. My life isn’t just about me. I owe my family everything, and more.
But back to the studio. G was explaining to me that they achieved their childhood dream. They’d recently found a drawing they had made as a child, titled “What I want to be when I grow up.” All three of the points on their drawing, ranging from being an artist, to getting to see the world, had become their current reality. They are very hardworking and have been honing their art skills for many years. I sat on the couch, looking at them, and realized how much I could have achieved if I had been half as motivated as them.
I’m 24 now, which simultaneously feels young and too late. I always wanted to be someone who makes things, namely books and comics and illustrations, but I’ve not pursued that as seriously because I doubt my abilities and I doubt whether I can be even an ounce as successful as my friends. I feel more confident in my capacity to realize other people’s dreams than in addressing my own goals. I feel restless and small.
My friend H has a tattoo on their arm that reads “dreams deferred are not a plan of action.” I am trying to remember this. A lot of people tell me that I’m young and I have time. Since my thesis advisor from college died suddenly last June I have been thinking about him a lot. He always believed in me with a kind of slow-burning faith that surprised me. I want to recover that sense of value, the feeling that I have something to give.
March 20, 2019
The Death of the Artist
On Sunday, February 24, 2019, I was sitting on a plastic chair on Canton Road in Yau Ma Tei. It was a cold afternoon and I shivered as I sat across from my friend Michael. As he was drawn into a conversation with one of his collaborators, I noticed I was receiving some messages on WhatsApp. I glanced down at my phone and unlocked the screen.
Hon Chi-fun had passed away. He was ninety-six years old.
It’s hard to begin to describe how it feels when the artist whose exhibition you’ve been curating for the better part of a year passes from the earthly realm into the next. Perhaps because the relationship between myself and the artists I look up to is one I think about a lot, but don’t really talk to people about. Maybe because it feels sentimental, even disingenuous, to elaborate on the sizable presence artists occupy in my life. Processing Hon’s passing has me thinking about how my interest in contemporary art and curating has a lot to do with my perception of death, and of time.
When I am eleven, in the early hours of August 4, 2008, I watch the light leave my cancer-stricken father’s eyes in a hospital near where I live. His sisters begin wailing so loudly I felt my ears pulse with blood. The first thing I do when I go home is draw. I can’t sleep, so I draw and draw until dawn when the rest of my family wakes up and we begin the process of calling everyone we know to inform them that my father is no longer with us.
I turn twenty-one in a bar in Shibuya, Tokyo. I am then studying under a professor I am intellectually enamored with. His name is Taro and in his class on Japanese Visual Culture I write a fifteen-page paper about On Kawara. I feel strange in this class because everyone else thinks I try too hard because I go to exhibitions without being forced to. I begin lying to my peers when they ask me what I do on the weekends.
“I Went, I Got Up and I Met suggest that each day lived is an act of creation, and that this act can consist of the same repeated motions for several years at a time. They also suggest that, in the case of On Kawara, it is possible to create work that is not primarily discussed in relation to one’s personal biography or national identity. To question one’s everyday behavioral patterns, one’s attachment to being categorized, as well as who one should exist meaninglessly with, is of no small importance.”
Writing this Kawara paper consumes my life. I scour Tokyo to see his works in person. I read PDFs on my laptop until my eyes water. In this paper I try to capture what it was like to visit Kawara’s Guggenheim retrospective, Silence, in 2015. It was a cold spring day in Manhattan and I had left my friend sleeping on her bed to see the exhibition early. As I quietly circled the rotunda, taking in each and every one of the date paintings, I was asked by a security guard what I thought about the works. I was shy and I didn’t say much. He then said that he liked the paintings because they reminded him that every single day was significant for somebody. That the paintings capture the sheer everything-ness of life, that on any given day, there are more than three hundred thousand people being born, and more than one hundred and fifty thousand people that die. A day could commemorate someone falling in love, or two people breaking up. The end of a war and the beginning of another.
In the rotunda, I see my father’s death date and I stand in front of it for a very long time. Before I realize it, I am crying. After the date paintings I reach his I Got Up series. These works haunt me, precisely because they render the act of simply being alive momentous, especially for someone with depression. To me it feels like Kawara is asking, “do you know how much I have to fight the urge to die?”
In 2016, I take a class with Eiko Otake. Her slowness and awareness of her body serve as an antidote to the painful frenzy of college life. When dropping in on her class in 2015, I meet someone I love for longer than I should have. A year later, I return as her student, sobered and needing clarity in my life.
In every class she demonstrates what it would mean to be very still, and confront our thoughts with openness. In this class we talk a lot about death. For my final project, I gather dates which are important to my peers, and I print 600 copies of these dates. I individually affix these dates to my room, which I proceed to sleep in for a week. I describe the work as a grieving ritual, in that they render me vulnerable enough to record a verbal letter to my father, and to speak into existence words I had shut inside for eight years.
The next semester, my last one, is one in which I am asked to write about the concept of an “open work.” The brief is for a contemporary art history class, and I decide to write about Yoko Ono’s Blood Piece, having strong memories of her retrospective From My Window at the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo in 2015. In this paper I reflect on Ono’s proposition that death is the final work in the life of the artist, and the work’s insistence on the non-separation between an artist’s life and their oeuvre. Also in this semester, I make a comic about grieving Ren Hang’s suicide. I am thinking about death all the time. I still do.
All of this is what brings me to the point I am at now. I am sitting in the same bedroom I grew up in, preparing to open Hon’s retrospective in less than three weeks. After looking at images of his artworks, making trips to see his work in person, writing about his oeuvre and overseeing the mounting of a full-scale exhibition and publication about him, I feel a supreme emptiness when faced with the reality of his death. Firstly, there’s the overwhelming administration of the loss of a public life. There’s an obituary to be written within a few hours of finding out the news. There’s a memorial to be planned, and collaborators to break the news to. But more than all of this, is a void of sadness I can’t fully access.
I realize how Hon stands out to me as an exceptionally vulnerable and emotional artist. Rather than suppressing or disregarding his feelings, he vigorously wrestled with them through painting after painting. Undaunted by the lack of resources in Hong Kong’s nascent art scene, he rallied with fellow artists and cultural workers to facilitate an atmosphere of creating, looking at, talking about and paying attention to art. He exploded material constraints by inventing his own approaches to printmaking, photography, and painting. The legacy of his life is not only articulated through his artworks, but through everyone he crossed paths with, ranging from his peers in the Circle Art Group, to students he taught or presented his work to. He fought fiercely for the right for Hong Kong artists not to have make themselves legible or easily read by all audiences, instead advocating for a complexity that was often then only granted to artists from European or American contexts. For this, and for so much more, I am grateful.
February 26, 2019