Hong Kong

Firenze Lai, Human Chain, 2014, oil on canvas, 31 1/2 × 27 1/2". From “A Hundred Years of Shame: Songs of Resistance and Scenarios for Chinese Nations.”

Firenze Lai, Human Chain, 2014, oil on canvas, 31 1/2 × 27 1/2". From “A Hundred Years of Shame: Songs of Resistance and Scenarios for Chinese Nations.”

“A Hundred Years of Shame”

Firenze Lai, Human Chain, 2014, oil on canvas, 31 1/2 × 27 1/2". From “A Hundred Years of Shame: Songs of Resistance and Scenarios for Chinese Nations.”

“A Hundred Years of Shame: Songs of Resistance and Scenarios for Chinese Nations” traced the expression of dissent and pluralism in the work of eighteen artists from the “Chinese world.” The phrase is interesting: It presents an interpretation of “China” as a nation not only contained within the current state’s borders but dispersed in communities the world over—the diaspora, a contested nation (Taiwan), and a “special administrative region” (Hong Kong) included. The intention of the organizers, Para Site’s executive director and curator, Cosmin Costinas, and Asia Art Archive senior researcher Anthony Yung, was to locate politics within a vast and fragmented cultural landscape in which the individual becomes both record and map of political experience and response. The view was an intimate and unexpected study of dissent.

The exhibition’s English title refers to what the Chinese call “a century of national humiliation”—an experience of (colonial) modernity, a timeline that begins with the First Opium War and ends with the proclamation of the People’s Republic of China. In this frame, Firenze Lai’s oil-on-canvas paintings are aptly titled “This is not yours,” 2015, and Human Chain, 2014. The former shows a man embracing a tree as he is seemingly whipped while a crowd lunges toward him; the painting is executed in a curiously faithful—albeit somewhat morphed—continuation of Expressionism. In this El Greco–meets–late Malevich encounter, a low-frequency alienation emerges not only in the tension between figuration and abstraction. In Human Chain, for example, soft geometry is applied to swaths of color and shape that render a uniform line of men who seem to represent, in their formal rendering, a relational web of interlocking histories, from that of art to those of war and revolution.

History was stretched in all directions in this exhibition. There were two archives, for instance—“The Academy of Humiliation” and “The Academy of Shame”—and a recording studio installed for the fictional label Xi Kang Records. Established for this exhibition by a group of researchers and musicians, the studio represented a compilation of audio- visual dissent and was named after a subversive scholar and musician of the Three Kingdoms period of the third century. The booth is soundproof; inside, videos and records play continuously; a window looks out to part of the exhibition. Standing inside the room felt like being absorbed into a tangible, human history. The feeling was not unlike that of stepping between the five fish tanks arranged in pentagonal formation in Trevor Yeung’s Live in Hong Kong, Born in Dongguan, 2015. Only one person at a time is allowed to enter the space, which felt like walking into a goldfish bowl. Each tank is an archive of sorts, filled with a different species of fish to trace a series of relations. For example, Carassius auratus—“the king of goldfish”—was developed in Japan, later introduced to China, and brought illegally into Hong Kong by smugglers, from whom Leung procured them. The transaction recalled, to Yeung, the human smuggling that occurred between China and Hong Kong in the 1970s and ’80s.

The exhibition’s Chinese title, which translates as “The Edge of the World,” comes from Hu Xiangqian’s Speech at the Edge of the World, 2013, a video documenting an address the artist delivered at his old school in Leizhou, Guangdong—a provincial town known ironically by the locals as “the edge of the world,” a testament to its marginal identity. Talking to the students, Hu is idealistic. He describes the world as discoverable as long as one is willing to step out and expand one’s boundaries. This is an action—and perspective—that promises both revolutionary and alienating potential, something this exhibition distilled into a sensory web of art and context.

Stephanie Bailey