Re–considered crossings: representation beyond hybridity
Essay by Norman Jackson Ford
Border crossings, inter-culturalism, trans-culturalism, travel theory, transnationalism, globalization, de-territorialization, creolization and especially the oft used hybridity; all these terms have been, at one time or another, evoked as a premise for visual art exhibitions and, on a broader scale, have become the dominant mode for the distribution of art, especially that from outside Europe and North America. It therefore, becomes clear that in an arts and cultural exchange project such as Re-Considered Crossings, one follows a well traveled path, with countless ‘international’ exhibitions, biennials and festivals dominating the global art scene. But, beyond the introduction of ‘outsider’ art, moving past the conceptual foundations of ‘border crossings’, what concrete meanings are being promoted here – what premises are being questioned, and being reinforced? This essay will address these questions, with only provisional solutions. It considers the ways in which these projects differs from others with similar premises and relate its themes to the concepts of communities in city space and inter-cultural exchanges, as well as artistic production in Hong Kong and Vienna. In effect, it is an attempt to critique the very terms with which it defines itself. The exhibitions, seminars and lectures presented in this project are, in many ways, yet another series of „cross-cultural“ events – but they will also engage in a critical discourse on the values, meanings and representations tacitly and explicitly created in just these sorts of projects.
Herein lies a paradox, since although we have conceived a project that supports the importance of sharing imagery, as well as promotes the people who produce this imagery from a wide variety of cultures, nations or cities, we are also aware that this is a premise rarely critiqued and considered in and of itself as part of the exhibition process. In short, we intend to destabilize the very foundation that makes this, and other projects possible, not by denying their importance, but by incorporating within our series of events, a critical re-consideration of just what makes „crossing borders“ in the form of inter-cultural exchanges such a dominant mode in the distribution of art today.
Following this, our aim is not to focus on the direct exchange of art between nations or cities, though the project certainly involves a physical exchange of cultural products, but to emphasize the reciprocity of dialogical exchange that is being developed between artists, curators, gallery administrators/owners and other cultural workers from both cities. The logistics of such a series of events, even on a scale as small as this project, requires relationships to be developed, ideas to be discussed and compromises to be made…all of which contribute to the events presented and, in turn, become the objects of our critique.
In order to enable such a re-consideration we had, first of all, to initiate the project as an exchange between cities. Our project follows in the footsteps of many, much larger projects in the last few years, engaging with similar conceptual and logistical issues that were investigated in exhibitions such as Cities on The Move (a large scale exhibition of Asian artists, shown in Vienna and Bordeaux), Inside Out: New Chinese Art (a travelling exhibition of contemporary Chinese/Hong Kong art presented around the US, Mexico, and lastly in various Asian cities) or Polypolis: Art From Asian Pacific Megacities (shown in Hamburg, Germany).
Yet, there is one significant difference between Re-Considered Crossings and those mentioned above – our project involves a reciprocal relationship between Hong Kong and Vienna, not just a presentation of a particular region’s art strategically inserted into another country. Our project is also artist initiated, produced and presented in small, artist run gallery spaces and funded on a shoestring budget. It is precisely these differentiating aspects of our project that tend to encourage opportunities for closer ties, both with the artists/curators and writers involved and with the corporate and private sponsors who have supported these events. While the exhibitions above do implicitly deal with the implications of cultural exchanges, they did so only tacitly and often uni-directionally, leaving the region who produced the artists out of the discourse, or to be involved from a distance and on another nation’s grounds. By contrast, Re-Considered Crossings attempts, through a series of essays, panel discussions, artistic collaborations and lectures, to carefully re-consider what is accomplished, if anything, by such events. Our project will examine three primary concepts; the inter-cultural problematic discussed above, the efficacy and need for fixed (or flexible) labels like, diaspora, exile, hybridity, migrancy and, lastly, the relationships between these issues and the specific communities involved as sites of cultural production. All these terms can apply, to one degree or another, to both Vienna and Hong Kong, and to most large cities in the world today, yet they tend to be employed to describe particular Asian cities most often, especially hybridity and its application to Hong Kong (I will return to this below). However, to begin, a consideration of the specific cities included in this project is in order, to both support the basic motivation for an exchange between these two diverse cities and to, more generally, set a foundation for the critique which, we feel, is implicitly embedded in such a project. Cities can sometimes be seen as separate and outside their nation’s boundaries, for example, New York/USA and Tokyo/Japan. Both these cities are predominantly American and Japanese respectively, yet they have certain qualities that set them apart from their physical locations – nodes of transportation; international cultural events; large, influential and segmented immigrant populations; distinctive urban/architectural spaces; etc. Similarly, Hong Kong and Vienna have ambivalent relationships to their home nations – an ambiguous relationship between geography and cultural separateness. By both fracturing nationalist tendencies with internationalism (economically and politically as well as culturally) and in the deep connections to their countries, Hong Kong and Vienna tend to break down, redefine and reconstruct notions of home, nation and city.
In this respect the Hong Kong SAR (Special Administrative Region, the label given to the city after the handover) stands out as blatantly ambiguous. It retains colonial qualities in the midst of post-colonialism, as it moved out of the shadow of the UK only to ‘regain’ its place as part of the Chinese ‘motherland’. In some respects there was no „Hong Kong“ prior to its colonization, its pre-colonial past, buried under trade, colonial domination and today, under a complex labyrinth of trans-national economics and politics, is rarely acknowledged. In a sense, Hong Kong tries to retain a fractured and imaginary pre-colonial identity sourced from the mainland, which is supported by the unconventional, but very real, ‘border’ between the two. Hong Kong is, undeniably, part of China, but it functions in the ambivalent space of the label „one country, two systems“, a space that is continuously negotiated and redefined.
In this negotiated space we can see the work of Leung Chi-wo as exemplary in the way he uses photography and installation to problematically map various urban spaces. His pinhole photographs are presented as negative shapes mapped onto various objects; tabletops, chandeliers, and even cookies. His work, though full of almost manic attempts at placing oneself in a particular time and space, interrupts efforts at this placement, as the architectural clues needed to find ones’ way have been eliminated, leaving only the abstracted shape of the sky to use as a signpost. Leung’s work only allows an unstable sense of place, disrupting what would normally be the photograph’s ability to support memory. We may also consider Dominique Harris’ large scale, color photographs in a similar vein, as they collect moments from vague holidays, yet only partially revealing their locales and the personages involved. It is as if the act of documenting her travels have failed, and in that failure, tend to reveal a complex sense of mobile place and unraveled travel.
As Hong Kong has a surface image that is variously culled and eclectically constructed from its transient mentality and cultural short term memory, Vienna presents itself as a city of tradition and history, appearing, in many ways, as a living museum. However, both cities emphasize a kind of building; in Hong Kong it is generally preceded by destruction, the tearing down in order to build something newer, due to limited land resources and speculative profit seeking. It has only recently made valid attempts at heritage conservation and restoration. Vienna, in a contrary way, tends to focus more on heritage building and restoration, endeavoring to retain its image as a site produced for the tourist gaze, conservatively keeping the city’s image in stasis. Yet, when one moves out of the city center, Vienna has many sites with contemporary structures; the UN center (UNO City), Hunterwasser’s work, modern apartment blocks and the series of bars and restaurants around the Danube canal. For Hong Kong the need to keep all possibilities open, and which avoids any conventional sense of architectural history, leads to a kind of urban „chip planning“, as it is called by Guiterrez and Portefaix, two writer/architects working here. The way the city represents itself is in mutation, in a state of flux, where physical landmarks change and the fa?ades of buildings become, not familiar signposts, but generic markings against a shifting ground. This contrast between the apparent stasis in Vienna, and the visual fluidity of Hong Kong, epitomizes the paradoxical spaces in which the participants in this project are building their ideas, whether images or texts, and moving them from one site to the next.
Of the terms used above to describe these cities and as underlying critical issues for this project, hybridity is the most commonly used to characterize Hong Kong’s origination and present state – East meets West, the perimeter between China and the world or, the global clashing with the local. However, conventional notions of hybridity do not quite hold up here…the concept has within it the idea of two or more stable entities coming together to form an entirely new thing, like the bauhinia, Hong Kong’s flower emblem. These hybrids come clichés are depictions difficult to avoid, requiring alternate strategies of representation and resistance
Hong Kong is neither an entirely new space nor is it composed of particularly stable parts. For Holly Lee, a destabilizing of hybrids is of paramount interest as she depicts complex, apparently hybrid people, digitally constructed using both European and Chinese clichés, symbols and icons, textured as if they are paintings and maneuvered over conventionally photographed portraits. These images are unsettling precisely because of their use of the hybrid construct to critique itself.
These cities have also presented themselves as gateways, as economic and physical transition points between themselves and particular regions, Hong Kong to China and Vienna to Eastern Europe, due primarily to their geographic and topographic qualities. But this role as entrep?t has changed significantly – Vienna’s position as the gateway to Eastern Europe has been reduced due to the massive political upheavals of the past 15 years, while Hong Kong is constantly challenged by other Asian cities like Singapore and Shanghai, as the doorway to mainland China.
These cities also become sites for an alternately constructed performance of travel, temporary migrancy and voluntary exile. The artists chosen for this exhibition have all traveled significantly and for a wide variety of reasons, urging one to consider how this nomadic attitude affects their work. Perhaps one way to approach the relationship between art, „inter-cultural“ mobility and community is by looking at the artists’ work from the geographical ‘outside’ – from a space that appears to be its cultural opposite. In this way the importance and complexity of cross-cultural influences, moving both in and out of a city’s space, and how these are as crucial in the production of these city’s visuality as the ‘local’, ‘native’ culture, may begin to be understood. We then come to be concerned with the city’s impact on the producers of culture more than the cities themselves. Therefore, as Ackbar Abbas has said, the representations in these exhibitions are not so much images of the city as they are „city images“.
If these „city images“ do not so much depict the city directly as they interact with, and re-enact, the city’s affects, then Sarah Mack’s and Lee Ka-sing’s work do so in unusual ways. Mack’s color photographs are meta-narrative, visual texts, re-appropriating various Pre-Raphaelite paintings, which themselves refer to classic European texts like Shakespeare or Faust, and re-photographing them, in order to re-tell the tales in a fragmented fashion. Her images do not so much tell us the whole story as they rely on a piecemeal sort of knowledge – a knowledge that is garnered by an indirect relationship to the texts and which Mack, taught these narratives in a colonial university system, experienced in a way that is fragmented and culturally out of sync. These images travel, psychically, as she turns the subjects on themselves, examining, through the many layers of interpretation and time, the palimpsest of culturally biased readings.
Lee Ka-sing’s Forty Poems series also relates to texts but by producing a series of small C-prints that, when taken in sequence, start to build a lyrical, but again, fragmented whole. Perhaps the word fragment is not as useful, referring as it does to an a priori whole, as ‘bits’, which seems more appropriate, in that Lee’s images scarcely add up, undermining a rhythmic, linear reading, and instead, creating a kind of slippage between an unavailable, originary whole and unstable readings.
This slippage can then lead us back to the individuals who inhabit these communities, who look at and ‘read’ these visual texts and who took part in and organized this project. Re-Considered Crossings is an exchange of imagery between two cities, a building of relationships between cultural workers of all kinds in these urban communities and a critical re-consideration of the terms which define such inter-cultural exchanges. For this to be effective the images presented, while of paramount importance, are not the only objects of study for the critical writings and discourse surrounding the project. The lectures, essays and seminars produced must critique this process in relation to the sources of knowledge, which supports and makes possible the project itself.
If Re-Considered Crossings is at once about a sharing of imagery between cities and, more importantly, about a fluid sense of travel, migration and a move beyond hybrids, then it is the people who transition between these diverse, but now, through this project, tenuously connected, spaces. When thinking and re-considering the motives for such a project, one should be brought back to the people who produce, discuss and present that imagery, which, in a diverse series of flows, re-contains and re-confirms the premise that these images are not about hybrid identities or cultures, nor necessarily about a mixing of sources and inspirations, but about strategies of representation and resistance to stable or fluid constructs that limit their production and meaning.