Shu Lea Cheang, Making News Making History—Live from Tiananmen Square, 1989, five-channel video, color, sound, 30 minutes.

Shu Lea Cheang, Making News Making History—Live from Tiananmen Square, 1989, five-channel video, color, sound, 30 minutes.

“(Not) Just a Historical Document”

“The name of the game is Dialogue,” an expressionless female face tells us in a booming robotic voice. The rules of the game are simple, but bear repeating for the sake of emphasis: Keep playing and keep talking; keep playing and keep talking. “Let us now begin our dialogue,” she says, piquing our curiosity. “You’ve lost.”

At first, Danny Ning Tsun Yung’s single-channel video Game, 1986, appears to suggest that debate, dialogue, and reasoning are the origin of game logic. However, as the video continues and the participant loses no matter what, this absurd game points to the meaninglessness of the endeavor and the absence of logic. Yung’s was one of twenty radical yet relatively unknown video works shown in the exhibition “(Not) Just a Historical Document: Hong Kong–Taiwan Video Art 1980–1990s,” the show’s title a wry nod to China calling the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984 just “a historical document” at the twentieth anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong in 2017. The show’s staging the show at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Taipei was a reminder that though both Taipei and Hong Kong challenge the idea of a unitary China, Taipei is currently the more open space. The exhibition, therefore, offered a candid insight into the differences in power and perspective across the region during key historical moments.

Shu Lea Cheang’s five-channel video installation Making News Making History—Live from Tiananmen Square, 1989, placed footage from student protests and statistics on China Central Television’s monopoly of the media next to dreamy animations and disconnected subtitles such as is the end an absurdist play absurd? and we are now labelled counter-revolutionary. One of the works responding most immediately to the 1989 massacre, the installation shows Cheang’s using an absurdist narrative to look at the brutality of this single catastrophic event. Ellen Pau’s poetic single-channel video Blue, 1989–90, reminiscent of post–World War II playwrights’ response to the trauma of Hiroshima, draws similarly on the absurd. On a small television monitor we see miniature explosions in blue, some with electric energy, illuminated at their fringes like fireworks, others softer and slower, like the billowing mushroom clouds formed by nuclear bombs. The screen fades, a train rushes by, a figure floats like an apparition, and all the while a funereal lament can be heard in the background.

In his 2017 essay “Delayed Plasticity: A Preliminary Investigation of the Political Criticism of Sinophone Single-Channel Video Art in the 1980s,” curator Sing Song-Yong tells us that the audiovisual material for Pau’s video came from Zuni Icosahedron, an experimental theater group founded in 1982 that both Pau and Yung were part of. Many of Zuni’s members also helped to stage the First International Video Art Festival in Hong Kong in 1983. This fact reminds us of the degree to which performance and media influenced each other in Hong Kong as elsewhere. More specifically, we are able to trace how video became the medium of choice for artists wielding absurdism and activism as responses to the uncertainty and rising nationalism of the times. These cross-connections add nuance to our understanding of art history, but also reveal the complex trajectories that shaped the multiple versions of China that exist right now. In marginal and niche activities we somehow find unexpected answers to critical questions such as “What is China?” and “Where is China today?”