Together Again

Doretta Lau on “Hanart 100: Idiosyncrasies”

View of “Hanart 100: Idiosyncrasies” at Pao Galleries, Hong Kong Arts Centre, 2014.

PICTURE HONG KONG’S cultural and political landscape in 1983. PRC Premier Zhao Ziyang and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher were still a year away from signing the Sino-British Joint Declaration that would return sovereignty of the region to China in 1997. At the time, no one in the colony thought it necessary to learn Mandarin. The film industry was pre-piracy and flourishing, with Jackie Chan’s Project A a hit at home and abroad. It was in this context, in December of that year, that Hanart TZ Gallery held its first exhibition in a basement in Kadoorie Hill. Hanart director Chang Tsong-Zung, known to friends as “Johnson,” borrowed the space from one of his uncles, and recalls the decision to leap into the art world as a bit of a folly.

Since then, Chang has become at once a pioneer and provocateur in the region’s art scene, championing traditional calligraphy and painting as well as contemporary art. In partnership with Hong Kong Arts Centre, he organized the germinal 1993 exhibition “China’s New Art, Post-1989,” which toured the United States from 1995–1997 and inaugurated a whole new agenda for what mattered in Chinese art in the wake of Tiananmen. (China’s first presentation at the Venice Biennale was also in 1993, in an exhibition organized by Achille Bonito Oliva, Li Xianting, and Francesca dal Lago.) Then in 2000, Chang and Claire Hsu cofounded the nonprofit Asia Art Archive, a platform for research, criticism, and documentation of contemporary art across the continent. In addition to running the gallery and various international projects, Chang is a guest professor at the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou. Hanart’s flagship space is now settled in the Pedder Building, the historic nine-story commercial tower that also houses Gagosian, Lehmann Maupin, Simon Lee Gallery, Pearl Lam Galleries, and Ben Brown Fine Arts.

So it was no small thing when, last month, the gallery commenced festivities to celebrate its thirtieth anniversary. For the occasion, Chang and Gao Shiming, a professor at China Academy of Art, put together the exhibition “Hanart 100: Idiosyncrasies”—“100” referring to the number of works in the show—as well as a two-day symposium held at the Hong Kong Arts Centre. Chang and Gao selected all the works from Chang’s collection to address two questions: “What is the ‘Chinese Contemporary’?” and “Where do the fractured domains of China meet?” Both could in fact be simplified into one, more direct, question: Who is involved in the “making” of that which travels under the moniker “Chinese contemporary art”?

During the symposium, the lectures and responses were crafted to address Chang’s idea that contemporary Chinese art comprises “three art worlds”: the “global” art world, the world of traditional art, and the world of socialist art. Among the panelists over the two days were Harvard Asian Art professor Eugene Wang, Asia Art Archive Head of Research and Programs Hammad Nasar, and Guggenheim curator Thomas J. Berghuis, as well as a variety of prominent cultural figures like the media theorist Boris Groys and the poet Bei Dao. The diversity of speakers and viewpoints prevented the discussion from becoming myopic or provincial. Conversations moved between English and Mandarin, with simultaneous translation, which muddled the dialogue for those of us not fluent in both languages. (An apropos Cantonese saying for this is “a chicken conversing with a duck.”) Still, participants in the three sessions valiantly chipped away at the thesis. The first group discussed this concept of three art worlds, the second addressed fragmentation and dispersion to places such as Taiwan and Hong Kong, and the third examined the Chinese avant-garde during the twentieth century.

The exhibition both concretized and confounded the core questions. SOME EXHIBITS MAY CONTAIN DISTURBING ELEMENTS read a sign in one of the rooms, in genteel Hong Kong style. Just beyond was Liu Wei’s painting You Like Pork?, 1995, which depicts a naked woman defecating. With a sly wink, the curators hung a 1940 calligraphy piece by Gao Jianfu across from Liu’s work, a potent illustration of the diversity of objects selected to prove the exhibition’s theses. It is impossible to initiate a conversation about the development of Chinese art over the past sixty years without the inclusion of paintings featuring Chairman Mao, and indeed such figurations sometimes provided a bridge between the “socialist” and “global” art worlds delineated in the show’s itinerary. The earliest Mao work included in the exhibition was Lin Gang’s Zhao Guilan at Meeting of Giants, 1951, the most recent Liu Dahong’s canvas Sacrificial Altar, 2001. The former is a celebration of the factory worker, while the latter references Renaissance religious iconography. This progression from a propaganda driven depiction of Mao to a critique of that godlike imagery reflects the social upheaval and transformation that has taken place in China over the past fifty years.

There was not enough room to display all one hundred works at the Arts Centre, and so the exhibition continued at Hanart Square, Chang’s satellite space in an industrial building in Kwai Chung. On a quiet Thursday, a small handful of visitors walked around to examine works such as an early series of Zhang Xiaogang oil paintings Private Notes: Four No. 1–7, 1991, depicting disembodied figures in a studio setting; photographic self-portraits in Japan taken in 2001 by RongRong & inri; and a Leung Chi Wo installation, Domestic Amnesia, 1997, featuring what appears to be four antique doors encased in glass, made in the year of Hong Kong’s return to Chinese sovereignty. The works were better served in this setting, where higher ceilings made for a less claustrophobic viewing experience. The Hong Kong Arts Centre, where the main part of the exhibition was staged, was not built with large installations or vast canvasses in mind.

Two days after the exhibition’s opening, daily newspaper South China Morning Post reported that Chang intends to donate the one hundred works to a yet to be named organization in Hong Kong, and that the week prior he became a member of West Kowloon Cultural District Authority’s museum committee. If the collection does end up in M+, the WKCDA’s contemporary visual culture museum, it will be further ballast in Chang’s attempt to reorient the Chinese “modern” through this lens and to canonize these objects. Somehow, though, there remains a disconnect between the China of this particular art historical imagination and the one that Hong Kong contends with on a daily basis. At the moment, Hong Kong citizens are grappling with the news that a prominent news editor—who had been ousted from the newspaper Ming Pao in favor of a Malaysian editor that some feel is “pro-Beijing”—was attacked with a cleaver. Perhaps the “fractured domains of China” can only meet convivially in symposium settings.

Doretta Lau is a Hong Kong–based critic and the author of the story collection How Does a Single Blade of Grass Thank the Sun? (2014).