‘Déjà Disparu’ is a theory derived by the cultural theorist Ackbar Abbas in his seminal work Hong Kong: Culture and the Politics of Disappearance. In Abbas’ definition, ‘Déjà Disparu’ is ‘the feeling that what is new and unique about the situation is always already gone, and we are left holding a handful of cliché, or a cluster of memories of what has never been’.
‘Déjà Disparu’ remains a key cultural concept that is repeatedly referred to when discussing the recent cultural history of Hong Kong. Inspired by this academic perspective, the Pearl Lam Galleries in Hong Kong has selected artworks by Ellen Pau, Sara Wong, Vincent Yu and Ho Siu-kee, each of them overlooked but important figures in the local art scene from the 1990s, and attempts to tackle the collective amnesia of that period. Hong Kong has been building a reputation as a bustling hub of contemporary art in the past couple years; this exhibition is, perhaps, a response to the mounting concerns about the need of delving back into the city’s art history between the mid-1980s the 2000s in order to understand the ways in which this recent past influenced the current geography of the Hong Kong art scene.
Ho Siu-kee, Sara Wong, Ellen Pau and Vincent Yu are artists from the post-baby boomers of the mid-1980s and 1990s who witnessed the rise of Hong Kong as a successful laissez-faire colonial city. Because of the distinctive cultural and political situation of Hong Kong, these artists straddle the Chinese and Western modes of art; aligning themselves with neither. Meanwhile, these artists’ works considered notions of locality through works that raised questions about the handover of Hong Kong in 1997 and incorporated critiques of the Tiananmen Square Incident on 4 June 1989. This questioning resulted in the development of a unique language that has contributed to constructing an indigenous quality for Hong Kong art.
Ho Siu-kee’s ‘Gravity Hoop’ (1996) is a large stainless steel hoop inside which the artist is suspended upside down. Playing with the physical body as the medium to instigate a bodily experience of the irrevocable power of gravity and his own relationship to the world, Ho’s conceptual performance acts as a metaphor of the sense of insecurity and uncertainty in daily life. Ho’s work also reflects upon the wider notion of Hong Kong’s search for cultural and political balance and stability in the pre-1997 handover moment.
Ellen Pau’s Recycling Cinema (1998) is a single-channel video work shot from a dark room. The work focuses on an expressway in Hong Kong near the seashore; Pau used a camera which moves from left to right. Through meticulous attention to timing, Pau managed to capture high speed cars on the expressway as images looping continuously on screen. At some point, viewers may feel visually irritated and disoriented; it recalls haunting allegories of reality and metaphysical. Transcending sociological and theoretical cinematic practices, Paul’s works compel viewers to become more aware of their own existence in a particular moment and to question how we actually see things.
The exhibition also includes Sara Wong’s To Walk a Straight Line in the City (West-1998/ West-2013) and Local Orientation (2008/2013), which is a video projection. In both works, Wong drew four straight lines (paths) crossing roads and buildings in the Western district of the City; she then walked according to these paths and encountered obstacles, as expected. Wong’s experience draws our attention to the immediate confrontations brought upon by urban restriction; it also hints at the physical changes within Hong Kong’s urban fabric, which may eventually lead to a complete loss of collective memory in the post-handover era.
Works produced by Ho, Wong and Pau demonstrate that Hong Kong artists were not shy about addressing politically sensitive subjects during the pre- and post-handover periods. This candidness on social and political subjects, as well as the interest in defining the cultural identity of Hong Kong, has only intensified in the post-colonial era. Unlike their peers from Mainland China, Hong Kong artists rarely produce large-scale and visually provocative artwork. Rather, in my view, their artwork tend to be more subdued, abstract, conceptual yet powerful. In part, this may be because the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ (一国两制), the system by which democratic Hong Kong is incorporated into officially Communist China, is an experimental political model; the political ambiguity instigates a certain level of insecurity that is reflected through the arts, signaling a sense of anxiety that pervades into the cultural sphere. Perhaps, this explains the sense of timelessness that is embedded into the works of Sara Wong, Ellen Pau and Ho Siu-kee; they still look fresh and relevant to the contemporary Hong Kong viewer long after they were made.
Equally important, the exhibition also reminds viewers of the leading roles these artists played in developing Hong Kong’s contemporary art scene. Sara Wong is one of the founding members of Para/Site in 1996 – an artist-run independent art space that has become an important platform for local artists, as well as a vital institution that bridges Hong Kong art with the wider international art scene. Ellen Pau, who is nicknamed the ‘godmother of Media Art in Hong Kong’, co-founded Videotage, a not-for-profit organisation established in 1986 focusing on the presentation, promotion, production and preservation of video and media art in Hong Kong. Videotage later launched the Microwave Festival in 1996, establishing Hong Kong at the forefront of international media art in Asia.
Though small in scale, ‘Déjà Disparu’ presents a sample of the diverse artistic practises in Hong Kong, offering new insights into the fascinating cultural history of Hong Kong whilst raising important questions about the nature of and future of art in Hong Kong.