Hong Kong serves as beacon and platform for the Asian art scene, the vanguard of contemporary art for a region in which it is striving to find its identity. Hong Kong’s leading contemporary art centre, Para Site, has played its part in the process, forging critical understanding of local and international phenomena in art and society for two decades. As Hong Kong emerges from the chrysalis, what does its art world look like now, and what does the future hold?
Identity and politics, two infamous buzzwords of late, together describe much of the cultural anxiety surrounding globalisation and art in the past decade. Hong Kong, a relatively young city just twenty years off the heels of British colonisation, has been at the centre of the creation of identity politics. This city, country, or special administrative region if we’re being technical, may not be able to decide what it is just yet, but is headstrong about what it is not, much like any twenty-something handling an existential crisis. Except Hong Kong has developed its crisis into its mantra, its platform and a safe haven for those looking to create and express artistic thought. The vague boundaries of this city’s identity make it a welcome playground for contradictory conversation: a battle between Eastern tradition and Western outlook, a stage for enacting the tensions of its past, present and future.
Art organisations and the cultural sector as a whole play a crucial role in facilitating these debates, very much in tune with what Para Site strives to do as an independent, non-profit art space. Para Site’s own twenty-year history in this city follows along the tramlines of Hong Kong’s transitory art scene. Founded by a group of seven artists looking to provide a space for artistic freedom in the midst of the handover to China, Para Site remains an institution that the city needs. Art and culture continue to be defining factors of a nation’s historical identity, and while Hong Kong continues to solidify its own, Para Site will be there, suggesting all the alternatives.
Lam Hoi Sin, We are all Internet Americans, inkjet on fabric, 2015
In the past decade, Hong Kong has seen the introduction of major contemporary art fairs and non-profit art organisations, and a surge of international and local art galleries. Investment in the arts has peaked in both the private and government sectors and doesn’t seem to be regressing any time soon. Alongside all this is the ever-present argument over nationalism, perhaps reflected best by the recent Umbrella Movement initiated by student activists in 2014 for the democracy and independence of Hong Kong. This city’s younger generation is hyper-aware of its volatile position at the forefront of a foggy future, including many of the artists expressly focused on highlighting popular anxieties, recognising the fine print in China’s looming and encroaching presence and noticing the lingering scent of a western coloniser.
Ng Ka Chun, Dogvane, ags, metallic structure, blower, live broadcasting CCTV, 2015
Para Site has played host to these ideas, as have many in this region, to encourage the voicing of worries and the backing of history’s lessons. In 2015, Para Site staged a group exhibition of young Hong Kong artists titled Imagine there’s no country, Above us only our cities, curated by Jims Lam Chi Hang. Artists were invited to dissolve the idea of nationhood and look back at their personal history through the lens of contemporary society, resulting in a set of stories free from the limitations of contracted nationality. Elvis Yip Kin Bon hand crafted and recomposed news articles using the words of appointed officials in contrast with his own humorous headlines. Lam Hoi Sin used a dating app to go beyond relationships enclosed by geographic boundaries. Ng Ka Chun presented a dialogue between the flags of Hong Kong and the People’s Republic of China.
Elvis Yip Kin Bon, Speech from Qiáo xiao yang on 24th March, 2013 [details], 260 pieces of newspaper clippings, 2013-2015
These reflections are at the forefront of Hong Kong and of art in the region. A constant struggle to determine one’s identity in relation to something or someone else perhaps describes the basics of human existence, but in an era when identity is becoming more fluid, maybe it is time to consider a systematic change in thinking. Para Site continues to explore the jet trails of art and political thought and the ephemeral landscapes of society, joining a wider discussion regarding the identity politics of Hong Kong as an international trading port, both literal and figurative.