Artists in many parts of the world spent the 1990s caught up in the historic moment that was the end of the Cold War—what would be claimed as the end of history. Some, like those in the Chinese mainland, were under a prevailing spell as economic as political, which lasted almost to the end of the millennium. That spell was a convergence of political ambition economic reform, and widening injustice and exclusion underscored by poverty that crept alongside explosive wealth accessed by luck or backdoors: privilege and proscription side-by-side, neither belonging to a conventional social class. That mood suffused everything artists experienced as daily life. It also spilled over into adjacent territories poised to return to the motherland. This was the moment in which Leung Chi Wo passed his formative years in Hong Kong as he grew into the role of a contemporary artist in the final years of British rule. His generation experienced the transition firsthand, living between local and international cultures, and owning a complex national identity.
Hong Kong was the proverbial cultural desert, a place in which art was largely a foreign import and, in the early 1990s, of a highly restricted nature. It was a situation Leung Chi Wo himself was instrumental in arresting with the founding (together with Tsang Tak Ping, Lisa Cheung, Sara Chi Hang Wong, Phoebe Man, Leung Mee Ping, and Patrick Lee), in 1996, of the artist-run collaborative project Para Site. The significance of Para Site’s contribution to the Hong Kong art scene has proved nothing short of historic. Leung is an artist shackled to history, a fact that is expressed in his work in ways subtle yet profound.
“I always found firsthand observations to be a good strategy,”
Leung Chi Wo was born in 1968 into a family of four children—he is the youngest—resident in the densely populated area of East Kowloon known as Kwun Tong: “Where Paul Chan is from,” he reminds me. His art career began at Chinese University of Hong Kong. There, he experimented most widely with photography. “It was not taught as such and was something I could do entirely for myself. A form in which no one could judge me.” That experience proved pivotal; photography continues to be a major vehicle for expression in his work.
When his time at Chinese University ended in 1990 Leung did not see himself as an artist. “You couldn’t see art in Hong Kong, so there was no concept of ‘artist.’” Yet, looking back, he describes the 1980s as an interesting time. “Romantic, it now seems. People who had been studying abroad were coming back and doing things differently. Their art felt more cross-disciplinary.”
For the brief period it operated during the early 1990s, Leung hung out at the Quart Society, a bar located on Aberdeen Street, where he met other artists—it was here that curator Hou Hanru gave an early talk en route to Paris in 1990. Following his own route to Europe, in 1991, Leung took a language scholarship to Italy. There, he also studied photography, became interested in theater, joined a drama group, and, courtesy of a summer job working on a biodynamic farm in Perugia, discovered the joy of physical labor—in his words, “the essence of Joseph Beuys’s working ethos.” Upon his return to Hong Kong, drawing on the heightened consciousness engendered by his experiences, he produced the “Traveler” series between 1993 and 1997. Photographs of buildings that “appeared foreign to me,” using a tool—a homemade pinhole camera—that allowed him to “find exotic moments in the familiar.” It was, he says, “inspiring to position oneself as a tourist to experience the world in a different way.” The ability to reposition himself vis-à-vis the social and cultural moment and embrace different perspectives underscores much of what he does as an artist.
Pushing Buttons, Connecting Dots
Leung Chi Wo’s 2015 survey exhibition, “Push the Button,” at OCAT Shenzhen, came with the requisite button. When—if—visitors pressed the button, they were rewarded with a glimpse of sky as seen looking straight up through an enclosing prism of highrise buildings. In the various artworks in which it appears, this view is often the artist’s means of tracking locomotion in the city. “I am not interested in showing how the city is changing. Looking straight up reveals the city environment in a non-specific way. You get a sense of place without needing an illustrative image. The shape encourages the imagination to wander.”
Leung began looking up in 1996, the year that he and his collaborators came up with the concept for Para Site. He was experimenting with homemade pinhole cameras, making photographs that mark the start of his work with negative space, a process that evolved further through his collaboration with artist Sara Wong on “City Cookie” (1999-2003). (Shapes of sky delineated by the tops of buildings became the forms of a cookie cutters used to make cookies dispensed at various exhibition events.)
“Push the Button” provided a rare opportunity to understand how Leung’s various works connect, not visually but in terms of how his chosen medium is married to concept, and how concepts evolve from one work to another. Generally speaking, Leung’s use of photography, text, video, and performance documentation is subtle, cerebral; more about ideas than visuals, although the vision used to convey ideas is deftly conceived and succinct. In broad terms, his body of work centers on several ongoing themes such as memory, language, and physical space. But all of these attributes, or lines of inquiry, are aligned with a process that begins with research and draws on discrepancies and contradictions as it unearths the otherwise unseen or unnoticed.
As a native of Hong Kong, Leung is effectively fluent in two Chinese tongues, as well as English and Italian. The context of Hong Kong, as a former British colony now returned to the motherland, provides endless examples of language as an invisible but ever-present means of social control employed by a ruling system through the process of naming. Chinese characters are generally metaphorical in meaning without a singular, unbending definition. Leung’s performance and installation work Wik Dor Lei (Land of Profit) exploits the meanings of English versus Cantonese, historical reference versus images of fortune. Both approaches to naming illustrate how language embodies culture, turning myths, ideas, and concepts into facts. We say a rose would be as sweet by any other name, but would it? If so, why do we attach such importance to names; the appropriate name, a suitable name, the right name? Leung’s works contain further examples, such as I Don’t Like My Name / Can I Change My Name? (2007); My Name is Victoria, and Victoria’s Secret (both 2008). The first is a roll call of girls named Victoria expressing views on their naming; the second, a juxtaposition of images of Victoria Beckham and Queen Victoria, two light boxes each bearing a quote from the respective Victoria. His work with language echoes the view of the violence of syntax and vocabulary held by contemporary philosopher Slavoj Žižek. It is why the humor in the works conceals a wistful, at times a dark underside.
Factual situations on which Leung draws ideas for works are serious; they say much about us. A simple example might be the careless clutter we disregard in our own home environments (“Domestica Invisibile,” 2004-2008), or the insidious shaping of human existence in the shapes given to the physical world by looking up, or the lost individuals given voice in the video Untitled (Words about Memories but Not Exactly) (2012) or the photo series “He was Lost Yesterday and We Found Him Today” (2010-ongoing), and “Roles” (2013).
In Leung’s work, photographic images are an extremely subtle form of communication, as “Domestica Invisibile” demonstrates. His aim here was to enter into a stranger’s home with permission to photograph hidden spaces. “I was looking for something the owner would not usually see.” This hidden nature was explored using odd angles or perspectives in areas of cramped space, on things put somewhere to be out of the way: the clutter of life, the nature of living in Hong Kong. “People tend to claim space or personalize it.” 1 Beginning with people he knew, Leung discussed moving house and the homes in question, topics ambiguous in degrees of impersonality. But confronted with the environment, the results are intensely personal.
This is also the case with the project He was Lost Yesterday and We Found Him Today, which begins with a series of single figures isolated from any context on a flat monochrome background. Executed in collaboration with Sara Wong, the project centers on incidental figures in well-known mass-media news photographs, individuals unrelated to the action that was the subject of the original photo carelessly consigned to eternal anonymity. Posing as these unidentified figures, the artists attempt to reclaim their visibility. Interestingly, Leung refers to the images as self-portraits. The work is powerful for the documentary research that accompanies it. Leung credits “the photography and film, the images that allow you to go beyond the initial idea.”
Photography and Film as Memory
“With memory, we never question its accuracy in the way we question facts. There is no quantifiable right or wrong. Far more interesting is the why of a memory, the how it came into being.”
The video work Untitled (Words about Memories but Not Exactly) (2012) presents interviews with seven figures from the Hong Kong art world. They are Johnson Chang, well-known gallerist and curator; Tsang Tak Ping, artist and founding member of Para Site; Kan Tai Keung, artist and lecturer at Chinese University; Lui Chun Kwong, artist, colleague, and studio neighbor in Fotan; Wong Wo Bik, photographer and art educator; Rosanna Li, artist and art educator; and artist Kurt Chan Yuk Keung. Over a six-month period, Leung browsed through exhibition catalogues in libraries and art archives for names of unfamiliar Hong Kong artists, particularly those “who were active between the early 1970s and 1990s and who have now been largely forgotten by us.”
Untitled (Words about Memories but Not Exactly) is about research. It is a kind of documentary, and not just because it involves video recordings of interviews in a standard biographical television format. The idea is predicated on uncovering information about a group of artists, an approach familiar in the art world today, which delights in resurrecting lost souls, and reestablishing facts and positions by deconstructing archives and reactivating memory: rewriting history. But that is not exactly Leung’s idea, for memory plays a key role in his work. He took his shortlist to the interviewees, aware that their memories of the people named and events described might differ. The process of gaining knowledge through discourse, by seeking answers to questions asked, is undone by discrepancy. These contradictions are given weight in the work via additional subtitles that appear on the screen as affirmation and contradiction of facts. These discrepancies speak directly to the audience. Leung is deft at revealing the flaws in human nature—it is an enduring quality in his work. “People have an agenda. They know what they want. They take what they need,” he explains. “My process is always trying to see what I don’t need.”
Text by Karen Smith