Dropping into Hong Kong for ten days after a sleepy Melbourne winter is a shock to the system, particularly if arriving at night when its still nearly 30 degrees and very humid. The saturation of neon signs and advertising images, combined with the frenetic pace and emphasis on high technologyfrom super-efficient transport systems to the latest digital consumablesmake Hong Kong a model global metropolis of the 21st century. In recent years, Hong Kongs vibrant art scene has begun to attract much international attention, particularly independent spaces such as Para/Site and 1aspace with their continuing exchange programs and conferences (later this year) on international artist-run spaces.
Transcode, the 5th Annual Microwave Festival of new media art, presented a range of high-tech art from around the world, and included a symposium and a number of "video slam" nights featuring short video works from around the world. The accompanying exhibition at the Town Hall exhibition space was international in scope and innovative in design. For me, an exhibition of "new media" conjures an empty space with a long bank of computer monitors in front of office chairs. Thankfully, Transcode escaped this by clever exhibition design. Designed by Douglas Young (architect and director of G.O.D., a kind of up-market Hong Kong version of IKEA), the entrance to the exhibition was a tunnel covered in dark fabric that curved around the ceiling, creating a sense of entering into another world. The various installations were likewise enveloped in a series of enclosed and warm spaces, the effect was like exploring the set of a sci-fi film or perhaps a womb. There were five main installations and the obligatory CD-ROM lounge with a dozen computers but even here the atmosphere was such that you wanted to explore; the monitors were on low tables with cushions scattered around, the room was darkened and swathed in black fabric, giving digital art a comfortable organic feeling.
Leung Chi-wos installation Sucking (Sky) consisted of several small screens attached to long arms extending from the ground at various heights, giving the impression that odd-looking organic eyes were watching you. The screens actually displayed repeated video images taken from a city street looking up at the shape of the sky formed by tall city buildings, the view falling back to the ground then rushing back up to the sky in a breathing pattern. Sucking (Sky) highlighted the negative space between skyscrapers, which attained a life of its own in this installation, breathing on organic tentacles. In the next space, American artists Camille Utterback and Romy Achituvs Text Rain was an interactive piece whereby the audience had to pass between a large screen with letters falling down it and another facing screen on which were projected the shadows both of the falling letters and the viewer. Standing between the screens and watching the shadow screen, the body of the viewer actually stopped the letters, bits of text falling onto your head and shoulders.
For me the highlight was Japanese artist Kouichirou Etos SoundCreatures, a room-sized installation with a contained space within which a dozen robots moved slowly and mechanically in odd patterns. Lit up in the darkened space, they looked like circular UFOs with antennae and as they moved, they emitted electronic melodiesshort phrases of beeps in repeated patterns. The polyphony created a surprisingly calm atmosphere. On two sides of the space were control consoles for the audience where they could alter the tones of individual robots by using buttons such as "play staccato", "key up", "play reverse" and "vibrato", or change the pitch and tempo. By changing one at a time, you could alter the whole polyphony, getting lost for a while in the robots world and caught up in their melodic communication.
I happened to make the opening of a new commercial gallery, Grotto, and its first exhibition entitled Hyphenation: Contemporary Hong Kong Art. Featuring Leung Chi Wo, Shieh Ka Ho and Wong Lai Ching, Hyphenation presented three very different approaches to contemporary art practice in Hong Kong and highlighted the diversity of work being done by the younger generation (all these artists are in their thirties). Leungs work was a series of photographic stills similar to the Sucking (Sky) images from Transcode. Taken from ground level with a fisheye lens, Leungs images highlight the negative spaces between buildings, drawing attention to their shapes with the aid of various coloured tints. Shiehs paintings were delicate figures painted in traditional Chinese "fine-brush" figure style but included nudes and surreal images from contemporary Hong Kong such as The Peak, which consisted of a womans head peeping out from behind the Bank of China building. Wongs ceramic work included a series of porcelain patterned shoes and Terracotta Blouse, a meticulously crafted "blouse" made of stitched together square pieces of orange porcelain.
Some artists from Para/Site invited me to Macau to see a performance in Macaus newest artist-run space, curiously titled The Old Ladies House (apparently it used to be a nursing home). The one hour ferry ride from Hong Kong is worth the trip not only for the amazing colonial architecture but also for the fooda blend of Portuguese, Chinese and South-East Asian with a dash of flavour from other points along the Portuguese trading route (like Mozambique and Goa). Situated in the colonial part of town, The Old Ladies House was a nineteen century colonial building set around a square. Its peeling and faded yellow paint and wooden shutters added to the atmosphere of Lisbon-in-China. The performance, Balcony: The Emptied Jacket, was a loose adaptation of Jean Genets The Balcony, performed in English and Cantonese with a little French thrown in. The audience of around thirty people followed the two actors, Anthony Leung Po Shan and Steven Pang Ka-wing, from the square into the Old Ladies House and into the upstairs room. Live piano music accompanied the whole performance (some improvised, although Chopins Funeral March featured repeatedly). Not knowing any Cantonese, I didnt know exactly what was going on but the female character began as a prostitute/slave and the male character as a master. The master/slave positions reversed during the play as did their main language; she moved from English to Cantonese, he the reverse. An emphasis on roleplay, with much stripping, cross-dressing and suggestive interaction with the audience in the intimate spaces of the Old Ladies House, made for an engaging performance despite my language deficiency.
D.J. Huppatz is a Melbourne writer.