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Feb '07

An Opportunity or a Risk? When performance art becomes part of art history

(A Report on Hong Kong Performance Art Research Project) Parallel to Hong Kong On the Move Performance Art project launched in April 2005, I started a research project on Hong Kong performance art in collaboration with a group of artists involved in the project. The research consisted of latitudinal and longitudinal studies of the development of the art form in Hong Kong. By inviting artists who are currently active in the field to conduct interviews with each other, their experience of performance art has been shared, recorded and accumulated. Also, extensive documentation of performances, talks and seminars in the 18-month On the Move project has developed a broad range of audiovisual materials of the art form in the AAA’s collection. Last but not least, a chronology of Hong Kong performance art has been constructed by collating related materials in attempt to trace its development since the mid 70s.

Leung Poshan Anthony Project 226 Mok Chu-yu

Tracing the history of performance art seems to be a visionary yet arduous task. Performance art, with its anti-establishment nature has long been marginalized by mainstream “art history” and also marginalizes itself so as to maintain its critical distance from the establishment. Unlike traditional art forms which produce objects of consumption, work of performance art only comes into life once. In some extreme cases, artists do not or even refuse to document one’s work in the belief that documentation cannot represent the power of live performances. Also, the expensive photo and video technology in the early days of performance art also add difficulties in doing and keeping documentation of what happened in history. These all make writing the chronology of Hong Kong performance art a painstaking process, but also a welcome challenge. The chronology that I drafted, of course, will never be a complete one, but is at least an attempt to list all the events between 1975 and 2005 which I could collate from books, artist monographs, exhibition catalogues, news clippings, etc. In some cases, due to a lack of documentary evidence available, the “history” of performance art could only be constructed by artists’ descriptions or scattered printed materials. And, oral histories can also be somewhat unreliable especially when hearing different versions of stories by members of the same group of artists who participated in the same event. Thanks to the Internet and electronic media which enable you to search for related events swiftly, and the availability of low-cost audiovisual technology, documentation of performance art is becoming increasingly accessible. As a researcher at the AAA, I feel a strong urge to document and preserve the flashing moments of performance art before they are lost in memory and history. My research has included collating material for the AAA collections on active members of the Hong Kong performance art scene. I conducted 11 video interviews with 14 artists (or art groups). In each interview, an artist was invited to talk to another artist chosen by him/herself about their practice and views on performance art. This artist-led approach has generated very fruitful and in-depth peer-to-peer dialogues by minimizing their resistance to authority presumed by the researcher in the process of research. Special thanks to Chen Shi-sen/San Mu, Ko Siu-lan, Kwok Mang-ho/Frog King, Leung Po-shan Anthony, Mok Chiu-yu, Tozer Pak, Project 226, Tsang Tak-ping Kith, Ricky Tse, Voila, Ricky Yeung, Yuenjie and Sunny Yung who have contributed to the research project and helped write the history of performance art in Hong Kong. This, together with the documentation of the On the Move project, conducted by the AAA, forms an important and solid resource on performance art in Hong Kong available for anyone wishing to conduct further research. Kwok Mang-ho/Frog King was the first one to start doing so-called performance art or action art in Hong Kong (or even China, but this have not yet been proven). My literary reviews starts at Kwok’s monologue which stated the first documented event “The Splash of Cow Bone Action” in 1975 when Kwok splashed a big black bag of burnt cow bones next to his award-winning sculpture “Fire Sculpture” in the ‘Contemporary Hong Kong Art’ exhibition in Hong Kong Museum of Art at City Hall’. The performance art scene was joined by Evelyna Liang Yee-woo who returned to Hong Kong after studying aboard in the early 80s. Performance art in Hong Kong at that time showed a strong sense of experimentation of the art form and reached its first peak in the late 80s when the June 4th Incident saw a lot of artists voice out through performance events. Since then, one can see the close relationship between performance art in Hong Kong and the social-political situation in Hong Kong and China. The 1997 handover which brought about uncertainty and issues of cultural identity was a contributor to a crucial turning point in Hong Kong’s performance art, or even contemporary art development. The “Red Man Incident” by Pan Xing-lei who splattered red paint on the Queen statue in Victoria Park has become the most-cited typical example. Again, in 2003, the SARS outbreak and political controversy saw half a million people take to the streets, and again acted as a catalyst for performance’s by artists, such as the renowned wedding of Clara Cheung and Gum Cheng of Project 226 and related performance events such as “SARS International Inc”.

Artist interview: Ricky Yeung (left) & Yuenjie (right) wen yau
Leung Wai-man

Indeed, Hong Kong performance art, which started with artists’ experimentation of the art form in the mid 70s and the early 80s and turned to address more political concerns in the late 80s and the 90s, has reflected a wide diversity of styles in the last 5-10 years. Artists have shown different concerns in their works such as body, gender, space, sound, religion, personal emotions and linguistics on top of social-political issues. In recent years, the concept of live art has been introduced from the UK to Hong Kong by young artists who have been studying abroad. The idea of live art blurred the boundaries between performance art, which has a long history and influence from fine art, and experimental theatre/dance, which has been somehow marginalized by the popular mainstream theatre. The year-round festival On the Move in 2005/06 also created opportunities for local artists to show works and brought international artists to Hong Kong. With a significant increase in the international performance art festivals, especially in Asia in the last few years, more and more artists are invited to present their work overseas. This frequent cultural exchange not only increases artists’ international exposure, but also provides references to them by works of other artists of different styles from diverse cultural backgrounds. The performance art scene in Hong Kong seems to have reached an unprecedented boom and vibrancy. Undoubtedly, On the Move project in the last one year or more has contributed a lot and enlivened the scene by creating a regular platform for local artists showcasing their works and meeting renowned international artists. Their guerilla performances in streets or public talks have effectively attracted audiences, whereas empty seats in their theatre performances have brought about frustrations. There may be several reasons to explain this; performance art is not suitable for theatre presentation or box sales; the quality of work is not appealing; marketing strategies have not been strong enough. One of the biggest challenges that needs to be tackled is people’s perception of performance art in Hong Kong and performance artists’ resistance to conventions or mainstream culture. I got a surprise when I searched “performance art” on a news database, where the term was described as unreasonable, irrational or destructive actions. The term “performance art” was given a bad name by the media in Hong Kong after Pan Xing-lei’s controversial “Red Man Incident” in 1996. Indeed, the increasing interest in performance art (especially Chinese performance art, which often has strong political appeal and has aroused controversy such as the infamous “Eating People” work by Zhu Yu) in the international art scene gives the art form an growing force. The “Inward Gazes: Documentaries of Chinese Performance Art” organized by the Macau Museum of Art is an ambitious example in which Chinese performance art has, for the first time, been formally included within the establishment in such a high profile and large scale manner. Also, the Chinese Arts Centre in Manchester, in the UK has just organized the “Vital 06: International Chinese Live Art Festival” which extraordinarily showcased Chinese performance art outside China. Thanks to the Macau Museum of Art and Chinese Arts Centre, who invited the AAA to present the chronology of Hong Kong performance art in the symposium and exhibition catalogue, and to screen selected documentaries of work of some Hong Kong performance artists respectively in the above events, Hong Kong finds its place within the domain of Chinese performance art in an international context. On the Move project as the first large-scale performance art project also indicates how local funding institutions are opening their doors to the art form which has long been neglected or marginalized. While the Hong Kong art scene arguably faces the threat of increasing maginalisation in the face of dramatic growth in mainland China, this project has shown the vitality of Hong Kong performance art and ways in which we can keep it in the recent history of contemporary art in an organic, supportive and sustainable way. Special Thanks to the Hong Kong On the Move Performance Art project presented by Asian People’s Theatre Festival Society (APTFS) collaborated in part of the research. Photo of performance documentation by: Cheung Chi-wai, Keith Sin, Leung tze-fung & Fung Wai-sang @Two Too Ideas Photo Copyright: Asia Art Archive and Asian People’s Theatre Festival Society (APTFS) (wen yau is Research for Hong Kong at the Asia Art Archive.) (This article was first published in the AAA’s newsletter December 2006 issue)

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