Hong Kong

Walid Raad, Untitled #79 (detail), 2020, mixed media, 47 1⁄4 × 98 1⁄2 × 70 7⁄8".

Walid Raad, Untitled #79 (detail), 2020, mixed media, 47 1⁄4 × 98 1⁄2 × 70 7⁄8".

“Portals, Stories, and Other Journeys”

In 2014, Asia Art Archive became custodian of a studio filled with six hundred dust-choked boxes of photographs, catalogues, collages, and books. Belonging to the late Hong Kong–based artist Ha Bik Chuen, these materials documented thousands of the city’s exhibitions from the 1960s through his death in 2009. Ha accumulated them unselectively, obsessively: The boxes contain photographs of artist friends; leaflets from early shows featuring the avant-garde Circle Art Group; and printed ephemera from ad hoc art spaces, including a cathedral hall, that preceded the boom of commercial galleries. The exhibition “Portals, Stories, and Other Journeys” was, in turn, a treatise on the significance of archives in a city’s history, and how they can haunt, and placate, the living.

In addition to the forensic presentation of Ha’s books, photographs, and collages on long tables, four individual artists and a collective showed work that addressed the theme of the archive, including five projects—curated by Michelle Wong—made directly in response to Ha’s materials and his workroom, which he called his “thinking studio.” For Untitled #79, 2020, Walid Raad displayed an assemblage of hand-size cutouts of Ha and others to reveal, as in a board game, Ha’s many roles in Hong Kong’s history: as artist, archivist, and observer. In an email to the curator, Raad admits his own potential misunderstanding: “Was he doing all of this naively or sensitively? Am I reading him only as a symptom or an agent?” These questions reared their heads again in Unledgered, 2021, by Raqs Media Collective, who describe archives as being “in wait of revolts of intimacy that disorder the time of the living.” A Tyvek-covered sofa, a small table fan emitting inaudible dialogue, and an LED panel warping primary-color fields narrate the artist group’s memory of visiting Ha’s thinking studio, at once inviting and unsettling in its effusively anachronistic arrangements.

Unledgered situates the notion of the archive in discomfort, and Banu Cennetog˘lu further raised the issue of violence and possession. In a series of screenings and talks, she articulated the absurdity of our obsession with AAA’s obsession with Ha’s obsession with documentation. One screening was of Jill Magid’s film The Proposal (2018), concerning a tug-of-war over the professional archive of late Mexican architect Luis Barragán (1902–1988); the film concludes with the artist exhuming Barragán’s ashes ahead of a potential exchange in return for the repatriation of his archive from Switzerland to Mexico. In speaking about American performance artist Narcissister’s 2017 digital video, Narcissister Organ Player, Paul B. Preciado discussed our digestion of archives and their existence—sometimes spectral—within the somatic psyche of the body. Cennetog˘lu also left us a translated chapter from Nurdan Gürbilek’s 2015 essay collection Sessizin Payı (The Share of the Silent), evoking the mythical paradox of Orpheus’s death gaze and Eurydice’s preternatural near resurrection.

If Orpheus’s attempt to resurrect Eurydice is undone by his desire to see her form, her shape, then what can be said about Hong Kong’s desire to archive its rapidly vanishing cultural history? Situated at the center of the exhibition was a 2021 fiberglass replica of Jimmy Keung Chi Ming’s 1997 statue of Lo Ting, a species of merperson said to be the true indigenous ancestor of the Hong Kong people. For years, the original Styrofoam object has been kept in the office of Oscar Ho, a curator who in 1997—the year Hong Kong’s sovereignty was transferred from the United Kingdom to the People’s Republic of China—organized an exhibition around local histories that featured the sculpture. Since then, Lo Ting has reappeared at times when Hong Kong’s culture is at risk of vanishing—first a year later, in 1998, then in 2021, a year after the implementation of a new national security law. One is reminded of cultural theorist Ackbar Abbas’s words: “The change in status of culture in Hong Kong can be described as follows: from reverse hallucination, which sees only desert, to a culture of disappearance, whose appearance is posited on the imminence of its disappearance.”