Artists in Hong Kong live in a city undergoing great change. In March, just one day before Art Basel Hong Kong opened to fairgoers from near and far, an election committee selected Carrie Lam as chief executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, an autonomous territory of the People’s Republic of China. It was a historic moment for the first such female leader, but protest followed her election by the small pro-China committee representing a large population of more than 7 million. “We are in for an intense and interesting time in the Pearl River Delta,” artist Yuk King Tan told me at the time. “China is changing. Hong Kong is changing. I think it’s going to be a pyrotechnic interaction.”
Asked for his take on the art scene in Hong Kong, artist and political activist Chow Chun Fai referred to a quote by Mark Rothko, speaking decades ago about the years leading up to the state of America in 1969: “For then we had nothing to lose and a vision to gain. Today it is not quite the same. It is a time of verbiage, activity, and consumption. Which condition is better for the world at large I will not venture to discuss. But I do know that many who are driven to this life are desperately searching for those pockets of silence where they can grow and root.”
For this installment of Habitat, ARTnews visited the studios of artists growing from roots in Hong Kong.
In his studio in the post-industrial neighborhood of Kwai Fong, Samson Young was finalizing artwork to go to Italy for the Venice Biennale, where he is representing Hong Kong. His project “Songs for Disaster Relief” addresses the ’80s-era peak of charity music singles such as “We Are the World” as markers of a culturally transformative moment. About the Hong Kong art scene, he said, “I think things are getting better,” holding out hope for completion of the M+ museum scheduled to open in 2019 and a new wing of the Hong Kong Museum of Art. “There will be more spaces for emerging artists.”
Chow Chun Fai
Chow Chun Fai works in Fo Tan, an artist community supported by studios in a sprawling industrial building complex. “It’s a nice combination of different communities,” he said of the area. “On my left is a soap maker; on my right is a furniture company. With a more complex ecosystem, more locals can survive.” He is also involved with the Factory Artists Concern Group, for which he developed a petition in protest of governmental policies that push up land prices and drive artists out of spaces they call home.
Yuk King Tan
Rooted in Australia and New Zealand before settling in Hong Kong, Yuk King Tan explores multicultural identity within post-colonial society. Her spacious studio overlooks Chai Wan Port Ferry, a cargo area where ships carry raw materials to port. Hong Kong in the present is “highly politicized,” she said, “and fascinating.” For an artwork titled The Gulf and the Boundary (accidents), she has worked with hundreds of black-and-white photographs based on mishaps, real and imagined, in Hong Kong.
Kingsley Ng, whose work is often site-specific, did not have a formal studio space for Twenty-Five Minutes Older, a project that debuted this year at Art Basel Hong Kong. Instead, he spent his time in historic Hong Kong trams that have been part of the city’s public transportation system since 1904. He transformed them into moving camera obscuras, with text projected atop upside-down reflections of the world passing by. With the piece, Ng said he aimed to “cast light on what already exists” around Hong Kong.
Russian expat Konstantin Bessmertny moved his studio practice to Hong Kong two years ago from the neighboring island of Macau, where he lives in a small village and takes an hour-long ferry ride to work. He described a city in a state of transition, with new possibilities and more competition for artists. “Art flourishes in dictatorships,” he said. “Art is decorative and boring in Switzerland—it has nothing to say.” Bessmertny has been living in Asia for more than 20 years, but his recent work ruminates on the timely centennial of the Russian Revolution in 1917.
Winnie Siu Davies
A recurring theme in the work of Winnie Siu Davies is the economic disparity between Hong Kong’s rich and poor. Her studio in Fo Tan is packed with paintings referencing Chinese politics and society, including one with a poor man and an empty rice bowl framed by a prosperous city backdrop. Her style, self-described: “symbolic surrealism.”
A ride up a freight elevator leads to the studio space of the Office, a collective based in Kennedy Town, a neighborhood named for a 19th-century governor during Hong Kong’s British colonial past. The collective—Morgan Wong, Olivia Chow, Jims Lam Chi, Eason Tsang, and Oscar Chan (not pictured)—uses an abandoned back section of its floor to showcase parts of Any Other Business (A.O.B.), a yearlong project that considers the “ethos of self-criticism and the urgency of time” in relation to a building that is not up to code and thus could be demolished. “Although slowly disappearing,” Wong said, “I’m glad that Hong Kong still has a mix of old neighborhoods and new.”
Painter Eric Niebuhr moved to his current home from Texas in 2012. “Hong Kong feels like a city in the midst of defining itself and coming into its own artistically,” he said. He works in the artist haven of Fo Tan, and his paintings often reference architecture unique to Hong Kong, such as “dragon hole” buildings—skyscrapers with gaping holes that allow, according to local legend, space for dragons to pass through from their home in the mountains to the sea.
A version of this story originally appeared in the Summer 2017 issue of ARTnews on page 46 under the title “In Hong Kong.”