by Bhawna JaiminiJun 16, 2022
Visual culture can be defined as the sum of visible and tangible expressions by a collective or a civilisation that holistically reflect their characteristics, placing images or other forms of visual representation as central to how they are perceived and interpreted. This interdisciplinary field of study allows cross-collaborations between different creative realms and mediums, engendering new outlooks on how they all inform one another. Similarly, the identity of a city and its associated culture are innately tethered to the image it projects internally and externally. From its urban landscape to its cultural exports, the study of a city's visual culture is founded on the idea of scrutinising it from multiple frames of reference, to find connections that would have otherwise gone unnoticed.
As an experiential record of Hong Kong from the post-war era to the present day, narrated through individual and collective histories, Hong Kong: Here and Beyond is one of the M+ museum's opening exhibitions, currently on view till 11 June, 2023. Exploring the city's many dimensions and their evolution across multiple forms of media, which together form a blended chronicle of ideas, perspectives, identities, and traditions, the exhibition occupies the museum's Main Hall Gallery, exuding a density of knowledge that echoes the condensed feel of Hong Kong's own built environment. Mixing physical and digital displays covering the city's architecture, visual art, graphic and product design, alongside its cinema, in addition to other forms of cultural output, the exhibition is composed of four segments: Here, Identities, Places, and Beyond, examining Hong Kong's past to speculate on the trajectory of its future.
Developed through collaborations between multiple curatorial departments at the museum, to truly reflect the potpourri of viewpoints that depict the city from every angle and at every scale imaginable, the exhibition is centred on the concept of visual culture. Its opening coincided with that of the museum on November 12, 2021, welcoming visitors to the new Herzog & de Meuron-designed cultural space in Hong Kong's West Kowloon Cultural District. According to Tina Pang, the Curator of Hong Kong Visual Culture at the M+, the process of curating this showcase occurred in tandem with the growth of the museum's own collection, in a manner where the two were inextricably bound. Pang explains, while speaking to STIR, "I joined M+ in 2014 when there were really just about 30 colleagues. It's been an incredible journey from 2014 till today in building the collection, the team, and then opening the museum." In conversation with STIR, Pang narrates the story behind the exhibition, its objectives, and the key themes that unite its many perspectives on this vibrant, eclectic, frenetic, and chaotic concrete jungle.
Jerry Elengical: Considering how this is one of the M+ museum's inaugural exhibitions, how did you structure and curate the contents of the showcase to appeal to both lay people and specialists?
Tina Pang: When we began thinking about one of the opening exhibitions of Hong Kong Visual Culture, we thought about how we could use the collection to tell a story. The act of building the collection and then planning an exhibition became very deeply intertwined. We found that in the process of building a new collection, you had to focus on foundational things. There was an inbuilt contradiction in how we are a new museum presenting material that is quite historical. I think this allows you to see a continuum in the city's internal development and in its relationship with the outside world. So, the challenge was to use the materials that we had in the collection to tell this story. The other challenge was to express the idea of visual culture through the exhibition. This meant including all parts of the collection, so we needed to have quite an established methodology on how to collect.
We separated the collection into Visual Art, Design, Architecture, Moving Image, and an area that we call Hong Kong Visual Culture. We wanted to mix parts of the collection to narrate the story from different perspectives. The other challenge in trying to explain what visual culture is through the theme, topic, or the city of Hong Kong, was to do it in a way where the audience would comprehend it. We realised that it's very demanding for an audience to jump from an artwork to architectural archives. We wanted to make that transition less jarring by framing and structuring the exhibition through several key themes. We simply did not have space for a very comprehensive exhibition, so it became about choices: between different artists and their body of work. That is never a very satisfactory experience because you feel like you want to include everyone. I think we ended up with something that captures moments in Hong Kong's history, in individual artists' trajectories, touching on themes that are pertinent to other aspects of the exhibition, which was finally divided into four sections.
Jerry: How does the first segment commence the narration of this story through the lens of visual culture and art?
Tina: The first section is called Here. We wanted it to have an open-endedness, an idea of being in the city and what it means. We tried to raise that question and answer it through the work of artists who had very specific ways of working in line with living and growing up in Hong Kong, and what they wanted to achieve with their art. A small segment here looks at one of the most important art movements in Hong Kong, the New Ink Painting Movement. From the late 1940s-1980s, a group of pioneering artists who wanted to ensure that ink painting as a medium would not become sterile while trying to answer questions raised by movements like Abstract Expressionism in the United States. This is alongside artists who belonged to the first generation able to study outside Hong Kong, and those from the global Conceptual Art movement, participating in Biennials and Triennials. We wanted to capture different outlooks on how they perceived their own identity, and also vis-à-vis the outside world, through personal artistic journeys.
The exhibition opens with the work of somebody colloquially known as the King of Kowloon, whose real name was Tsang Tsou-choi. During his lifetime, he was known to write his calligraphy on public surfaces around the city, generally on government buildings. We understood that he intended for his work to be seen by the general public and felt that it was a very powerful indication of what visual culture is. Visual culture is often vernacular, it's something you encounter every day in the public domain. He's such an interesting figure because he was considered by some urban and street artists to be a kind of graffiti artist, but some dismissed him as an artist. I don't think he would have described himself as an artist. He was a modest man, and lived a modest life. The nature of what he wrote was very much connected to the city, and his claim to be descended from the original owners of the Kowloon Peninsula. At first, his writings could have been interpreted as anti-colonial messages, but after the handover in 1997, I think many felt his sentiments aligned with young residents figuring out their place in the region. His calligraphy soon became a part of popular culture, used by designers, graphic artists, and in advertisements. It became something that many people in Hong Kong would recognise even without being acquainted with his work. That's the very nature of how visual culture gains traction and has a life of its own.
Visual culture is often vernacular, it's something you encounter every day in the public domain.
Jerry: Hong Kong's high-density housing solutions have few equals across the globe. In what way have these concerns as well as potential solutions to them been depicted through the exhibition?
Tina: In this first section, we touched upon housing because it is a universal issue in Hong Kong since we are such a dense and small city. This has encouraged development centred on density, convenience, and effective infrastructure, particularly with public transport and planning. Hong Kong has inadvertently, through different waves of immigration from the late 1940s-1960s, seen dramatic population growth. Faced with those population increases, they had to come up with innovative solutions to house large groups of people in small spaces.
In the Here section, we have a work by the architect and artist, Kacey Wong, which is a floating home. He modelled it on Aldo Rossi's Teatro del Mondo. It inquires into how you can escape the rat race of land value by building your own home and taking possession of it by floating it out into the harbour. We see it as a very playful architect/artist critique. In the transition between the Here section and the Places section, we commissioned a 1:1 reproduction of the architect Gary Chang's home known as the 'Domestic Transformer.' He worked very closely with us to realise it. Within 32 sqm he has created a very functional, but luxurious space. For us, this was a designer/architect's solution to the urban housing situation. And it's applicable globally now, as a model for compact living where you can build a lot of functionality into a very small space. His principle is that we focus on doing one thing at a time, such that the space adapts around you, where the walls move and things hide as required.
Jerry: Could you elaborate on how the principles behind the evolution of Hong Kong's built environment has been portrayed in the showcase?
Tina: In the Places section, when we focus on the built environment, it's a more historical and documentary approach. We looked into how Hong Kong was a leading innovator in large-scale housing, where many citizens live in publicly subsidised housing even today. Consequently, there were many generations of people who grew up in public housing with incredible social mobility because of the safe and convenient environments available to them. Urban planners in Hong Kong built access to education, markets, and public transportation into the housing infrastructure. Everything is very connected. That sort of forward thinking, in terms of building communities, is a key feature of Hong Kong's architecture. We were thrilled to have a kind of flexibility to also include the work of photographers like Michael Wolf in his series of photographs on Hong Kong called the Architecture of Density, where he captured key housing estates almost to abstraction. On first glance, they don't immediately seem like housing complexes, until you look more closely. This encourages people to expand the way they think about a certain topic.
One project we focus on in the Places section is the Connaught Centre, now called the Jardine House, built on reclaimed land. It was designed by the architect James Kinoshita for Palmer & Turner, and was also the start of a pedestrian network connecting the central business district towards the Hong Kong-Macau Ferry terminal. It facilitated pedestrian travel, but also spearheaded a very informal network of bridges, walkways, and shortcuts through commercial buildings, connecting private and public spaces to afford residents a very informal way of navigating the city. A group of architects at Hong Kong University conducted research on this topic and subsequently published a book called Cities Without Ground, where they mapped the entire informal network. That moment in time was also the birth of the contemporary experience of navigating the business and residential districts of Hong Kong Island. Another important project would be the ATL Logistics Center. This is an integrated transportation hub and has been designed to allow for the constant flow of lorries and logistics infrastructure. It met the needs of an incredibly busy logistics hub at the time of its completion, but also anticipated continuous growth, since Hong Kong is one of the busiest logistic centres in the world.
Jerry: In your view how does visual culture shape cultural identities as seen through the built environment? How does it affect external perception of this sense of identity?
Tina: The final section of the exhibition is called Beyond, where we look at the influence of Hong Kong cinema on the global understanding of its visual culture. Of course, we have some amazing specific genres related to the city. Some are more action based, others are a bit granular, regarding contemporary life such as the films of Wong Kar-wai. It's probably our most significant cultural export in shaping external perspectives of Hong Kong. Another idea that interested us is how the city of Hong Kong, alongside New York and Paris, can be recognised immediately from photographs or films. We worked very closely with our Moving Image colleagues to think about really well-known Hong Kong films in which the city really is a character, and extracted lots of clips from films by Wong Kar-wai, by John Woo, and others, where the main characters are navigating the city.
One of the unexpected things we really wanted to highlight was how Hong Kong cinema has influenced video game developers. We realised through the work of an M+/ Design Trust fellow, Hugh Davis, that Hong Kong is disproportionately represented as an environment for video games. Many of these developers have never visited Hong Kong, so their only encounter is only through cinema. This was very fascinating and extended way beyond what we could have imagined. If we think about films like the John Wick franchise, you can see this relationship. I think films are trying to replicate the experience that gamers can have within virtual environments. Early video games presented a very abstract Hong Kong landscape, and later ones used cities like Hong Kong and Tokyo as models to represent the cyberpunk genre.
Jerry: How did these changes fuel the growth of Hong Kong's communications and graphic design industries?
Tina: There is a fascinating intersection between the goals of the city and how it communicates its own identity, disseminated through the work of graphic designers, both foreign-trained and local. The 1960s-1970s was a really amazing and creative period in Hong Kong. There was a whole generation of artists, designers, photographers, even filmmakers who travelled overseas to study. When they came back to Hong Kong, they had an incredibly collaborative way of working. Apart from graphic design, they were creating new editorial platforms, working in popular culture, on album cover designs, styling, art, directing, etc. It would be very difficult to say they did any one thing because they probably did it all, collaborating across different platforms: print, photography, television, or film. This incredibly dynamic landscape was funded by the popularity of Hong Kong popular culture like Cantopop, exported widely across Asia or even as far as Africa.
Jerry: Beyond chronicling the transformation of Hong Kong's visual identity, both culturally and spatially, there is also an account of the political and socio-economic changes from this era that runs through each of the segments. How did you structure and incorporate this into the exhibition?
Tina: There is a transnational quality to how things developed at the start of the exhibition's time frame, partly because of a massive influx of migrants from China. Under the colonial administration, urban planners, designers, and civil servants were trying to solve problems for a class of people who brought in a lot of knowledge from other parts of the world. Housing, transport infrastructure, and governance structures were all examples of that. From the 1950s onwards, as China's stature changed due to trade embargoes, industries and the import-export trade for things that would have been manufactured in China, were set up in Hong Kong. Its position as a member of the Commonwealth, was very advantageous for the dissemination of products through this channel. This also extended to Hong Kong's participation in cultural forums. The 1970 Expo in Osaka for example, was a very important moment for Hong Kong, because it was projecting itself both as a manufacturing and cultural hub—a place of modernity and a place for tourism and leisure.
We focused very much on one moment in the 1960s, with the emergence of Hong Kong as a centre for tourism and manufacturing, during a period of very intensive social engineering. This can be encapsulated by some key architectural projects such as the Peak Tower which was the terminus of the Peak Tram. It was an instant tourist attraction, and all of a sudden, we had this otherworldly structure with a fancy restaurant and branding done by Austrian designer Henry Steiner who arrived in the 1960s, and became most well-known for his branding for HSBC. So there are wonderful micro-histories around certain projects that really reflect an era, a moment, a key feature of how the city's visual identity emerged. Another work by a Vietnamese-American artist Tiffany Chung, reflects on the history of the Vietnamese people and Hong Kong through the 1970s and 1980s. Right at the heart of this massive migration is a very contemporary issue now: the forced migration of massive population groups. At that time, Hong Kong was a place of refuge, and Tiffany's work traces the history of Vietnamese refugees arriving in Hong Kong. Initially, no one was turned away, but this policy gradually changed as the numbers continued to grow. Today, many of the Vietnamese migrants that came to Hong Kong have become residents, and have built their futures here.
There are wonderful micro-histories around certain projects that really reflect an era, a moment, a key feature of how the city's visual identity emerged.
Jerry: How did you resolve to conclude the narrative recounted through the exhibition?
Tina: The exhibition designer we worked with wanted to replicate the density of the city, towards the exhibition's conclusion. At every turn where you encounter the exhibits, you are confronted by a very rich palette of things to choose from, but, we really felt that we needed some space for reflection and contemplation about the future. We have one room which hosts a two channel video essay titled Where Do We Look Now? reflecting on the past through different genres of Hong Kong cinema. My Moving Image colleagues have drawn from different films and genres to create a very poetic collage of clips that reflect many of the things that you encounter elsewhere in the exhibition. The very last work in the narrative is a new animated commission by the comic artist Kongkee titled Flower in the Mirror. He worked with a sound artist, recording the sounds of the city and paired them with his abstract animation based on the vibrant neon culture of Hong Kong, to hint at man's relationship with the city. He's very interested in the idea of what our near future could be like in terms of how man relates to the environment. Eventually, we created what you would call an infinity room, a mirror box, with a back wall accommodating his digital animation. And it expands like a kaleidoscope, infinitely. In combination with the soundscape, you get this collision between the real world and his animated environment. So that's a more abstract and speculative way in which we wanted to end the first exhibition on Hong Kong visual culture at M+.
Hong Kong: Here and Beyond is on view at the M+ Museum till June 11, 2023.
- Affordable Housing
- Architecture Exhibition
- Design Exhibition
- Graphic Design
- Hong Kong
- Immersive Installation
- Infrastructure Design
- Ink Painting
- Public Space
- Skyscraper Architecture
- Social Housing
- Street Art
- Urban Design
- Urban Development
- Urban Housing
- Visual Art