As soon as you entered the building, your body temperature was checked. Then you took the elevator to the desired floor, and upon stepping out, you were asked to complete a declaration form stating that you showed no symptoms of Covid-19 and had not been out of town for the past 14 days. At last you were permitted to enter, but only after rubbing your hands with sanitizer from the dispenser on the reception desk. You had to keep your face mask on. Once you were in, you had to make sure to keep a distance from others and avoid congregating in groups of more than four people.
It was not at a hospital or border checkpoint that these stringent safety precautions were observed over Easter weekend, but at the opening of the group exhibition “Anonymous Society for Magick” at Hong Kong’s Blindspot Gallery. Similar measures were applied at the neighboring gallery de Sarthe, which opened “Shifting Landscapes,” a two-artist show featuring Hong Kong–based Andrew Luk and the late 20th-century master Chu Teh-Chun.
The handful of us who ventured out of self-isolation on this rare occasion cooperated without question—we knew what a luxury it was to see art in person, and that it was our vigilance that had helped keep the number of infected at about 1,000 and deaths at only 4 out of a population of 7.4 million, saving Hong Kong from total lockdown during the coronavirus pandemic.
Such vigilance, however, did not come about by chance nor is it encrypted in our DNA. It’s the result of many painful and traumatic lessons that people in Hong Kong have experienced collectively over the years.
From the deadly SARS that claimed 299 lives in 2003 to the ongoing pro-democracy protests that have gripped the city since last June to the current plague, the trajectory of events in the city has propelled some Hong Kong artists to become sensitive and acute observers and critics who respond to current events in a timely manner. Art may not be a frontline tool in fighting a deadly virus or instigating a dramatic shift in the political landscape, but it helps consolidate our thoughts and emotions in order to make sense of our past and project our future.
While many parts of the world have been locked down in an attempt to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus, and the use of face masks has been recommended only just recently in certain places, “Portraits from Behind,” the recent solo exhibition at Gallery Exit of the artist Chow Chun-fai’s oil paintings, reminded us that face masks have been an element of daily life in Hong Kong for nearly a year.
The last time Hong Kong residents donned masks to guard against a virus was during SARS. That peculiar image of numerous people in masks was revived during the many rallies over the course of the second half of 2019 when people took to the streets initially to protest the now-axed extradition bill. As the demonstrations morphed into a large-scale movement to defend the city’s freedom and demand democracy, face masks became shields from tear gas and facial recognition. When the coronavirus began to spread to the city from mainland China in January, putting them on was like a reflex.
Hong Kong’s strong community response to the virus was the fruit of seeds of self-initiation sown during the 2019 protests: citizens mobilized to organize protests, form support groups, crowdfund campaigns, and even create the “yellow economy,” which encourages people to spend money at pro-democracy shops and restaurants and boycott those that don’t support the movement. “We have been prepared to face this plague,” Chow said.
Chow painted his memories and impression of this important chapter of the Hong Kong story in his latest series of small paintings—some of them were as small as 4 x 4 inches, a stark contrast to the artist’s previous works. They ranged from self-portraits of the masked Chow at various protests to images of some of the most violent moments that saw the streets and an armored police truck ablaze. The more intense the image, the smaller the painting. The artist has said that he was unable to create for a while during the peak of the political turmoil until he had the urge to keep a record by painting small canvases that he could finish in a day.
Ying Kwok, curator of “Anonymous Society for Magick,” observed that the astonishingly fast development of recent events has forced artists to modify the way they work so as to respond much more swiftly, creating works “in the form of a diary.” Another of these artists is Lam Tung-Pang, she said, who is featured in Kwok’s latest show.
Last year, Kwok curated the exhibition “Contagious Cities: Far Away, Too Close,” which combed through the impact of plagues and diseases in the emotional and psychological realms with works by local and international artists. The show opened at Tai Kwun exactly a year before the novel coronavirus began raging in the city, and in hindsight it seems like a forewarning of the return of a deadly plague. It was also a special occasion for artists to reflect on how both SARS in 2003 and the influenza pandemic in 1918 shaped the city.
But having lived through the ongoing turbulence in a Hong Kong that has seen an explosion of creative expression in response to the fast-changing circumstances, amplified by the effect of social media, artists no longer have the luxury to take years to contemplate and reflect.
Kwok seemed to be well aware of this in preparation for “Anonymous Society for Magick,” borrowing early 20th-century occultist Aleister Crowley’s definition of “Magick” as “the science of understanding oneself and one’s conditions.” The exhibition was a timely poetic response to the chaotic world we inhabit today.
Among its highlights was Lam’s new kinetic mixed-media installation The Great Escape (2020). Lam has appeared in a number of exhibitions over the past year: his solo show “Saan Dung Gei” opened in March at Blindspot Gallery, and he presented new works at group exhibitions, including Image-coated (2019), a mixed-media installation that served as an artistic lens into the history and identity of Hong Kong. The work was unveiled as part of November’s reopening of the Hong Kong Museum of Art amid the protests, and during those months, Lam actively shared his drawings on social media. In line with Lam’s painting style, these drawings, often accompanied by poetry, trod the line between social commentary and love letters to his home city.
The Great Escape, inspired by magician Harry Houdini (and a nod to the British band Blur’s 1995 album title), is Lam’s ongoing reaction to Hong Kong’s social turbulence. The revolving projection of landscape drawings centers around a miniature installation of a fragmented house. On one of the drawings, the artist has written, referencing Raymond Williams in his book The Country and The City (1973), “A working country is hardly ever a landscape. The very idea of landscape implies separation and observation.” When one has lived somewhere for a long time, one becomes too much a part of that place to observe it objectively.
The notion of landscape is echoed in fellow Hong Kong artist Andrew Luk’s latest work, Haunted, Salvaged, a large-scale installation on show at de Sarthe that was originally intended for the Encounters sector of the canceled Art Basel Hong Kong.
Like Chow, Luk said he couldn’t make anything for three months during the protests, but that the self-isolation and social distancing imposed by the pandemic gave him the space to reflect. The result is Luk’s installation of eerie, disfigured landscapes floating above totems comprising fossils of old-fashioned devices like Walkmans and Gameboys. These floating landscapes maintain a fragile equilibrium, prompting the viewer to confront his or her own precarious existence: After all these months of turmoil, our future is uncertain. It will surely not be what we imagined.
Artists have created records of that turmoil. Young artist Giraffe Leung Lok-hei deals with traumatic memories of Hong Kong protests through his conceptual street art series Paper Over the Cracks. As actions in the streets have receded amid the coronavirus outbreak, street art, calligraphy, protest slogan graffiti, and posters that once covered the walls and pavement across town have been painted over or removed by government workers, but their clumsy efforts only led to a scarred cityscape. Leung framed these visible marks with yellow tape, adding labels next to them as if they were artworks in a gallery or museum. His work became an accidental community art project, as Leung called for people to join him. Yellow frames around popped up in various spots around town, most notably at locations where clashes between protesters and police had taken place. The more the government wanted to eradicate the past, the harder it was to make people forget.
As the art world struggles to survive this unprecedented global crisis brought on by a contagious disease, artists in Hong Kong are diving deep into the city’s collective psyche, which has been devastated not only by the virus but also by the mounting fear of losing freedom and autonomy as Beijing tightens its grip. The world will recover when the virus is under control, but Hong Kong’s struggle will not end, at least not in the foreseeable future. Its artists will have more stories to tell.