Hope, censorship, the Hong Kong protests and their threads across Asia and the Pacific: a conversation with artist Yuk King Tan, whose show Crisis of the Ordinary is at Starkwhite gallery now.
A lattice screen made out of white plastic zip tie police handcuffs. Batons, bottles, drones and other protest objects, wrapped in many-coloured threads, trailing across and pooling on the floor. Crisis of the Ordinary, Hong Kong-based Chinese New Zealand artist Yuk King Tan’s exhibition at Auckland’s Starkwhite gallery, is firmly tied to current events in her current home, yet there are also objects sourced from protests in Korea and New Zealand.
It’s been at least 12 weeks since protests in Hong Kong began against a bill proposing suspects be extradited to China for trial. Yet, as tension with China has heightened, the movement has revealed itself as being about much else: the identity of a nationhood; calls for investigations into police violence; a halt to talk of the protests as “riots”; an amnesty for the arrested; and the ability to elect Hong Kong’s leader and legislature. There’s a fight in the media over perceptions, and – given the arrests of protest leaders in the past – caution over what people say publicly. So what then the role of the artist?
For Yuk King Tan geopolitics, censorship, the effects of economic globalisation, and cultural influences across the Asia Pacific region have long been her work’s concern. She locates in the ordinary the hope, creativity and humanity so often missing from media reports of unrest. And right now she has to be careful with the words she chooses.
Yuk, when we last spoke you were making rocket sculptures. They spoke of censorship, free speech and the marketplace. You told me then, “Even when I lived in New Zealand as immigrant Chinese or NZ diaspora artist I felt like I wasn’t allowed to talk about certain subjects.” Even then you were questioning how far artists’ voices would be heard in one of the most open of Asian regions.
It’s fascinating how things you think are the norm can be overthrown, or tossed around quite quickly. I think I was even more relaxed when I said that. Now… it’s incredible how much what you say and how you say it can be used for highlighting certain issues or used as… kind of a weight around your neck. Because you can never go back on certain statements. Especially if it becomes tense politically.
Has that happened to you or other artists?
I think we all feel that. Just being a socially responsible active person in the art world right now, it’s incredible. Just take the Japanese Biennial right now [an exhibition about Japan’s history of censoring art at the Aichi Triennale was closed in August after just three days due, ironically, to censorship]. And now the Whitney Biennial… [protests saw the Vice Chair of the Whitney Museum in New York Warren B. Kanders stand down in July over his ownership of Safariland, a company making tear-gas canisters used against protestors].
Artist craft visual images and ideas for different purposes but this a specific time where artists are feeling more responsible, for what they say publicly or collectively, and are being more strong-willed in saying ‘this is not right, we need to either pull-out or make a general public statement’.
I feel like Hong Kong is one of the most open and academically rigorous of places and that is why this is happening. In terms of women’s rights, or women having a role in politics and cultural affairs, it’s incredibly strong as a region. It’s progressive in Asia, which is why it is making its big statement – to ask how we retain our core values.
Hong Kong reminds me a little of New Zealand in the ‘80s. There’s a lot of conversation about cultural identity, civil rights, freedom of speech and expression and how to make accessible the highest level education.
These are really important issues for the art world now as well. With new museums happening in Hong Kong and new creative initiatives popping up, and including more support for artist-run-spaces, we’re coming to an exciting time that has coincided with one of the biggest demonstrations we’ve seen in our region. These two things can be seen either as toxic or really positive and hopeful, because any of these ideas are important social issues that must be addressed.
Are artists having to be really careful about how they respond, or might be seen as responding? How easy is it being an artist in Hong Kong right now?
I think artists are the most brave in our society. We never try and stop the work that needs to get made. Perhaps we might scrub it a different way – and different artists have different strategies. I have friends who make works that use the backdrop of HK’s situation as a contextual jumping point to their work, like Tozer Pak, Kacey Wong and Angela Su. With other artists’ work there’s a certain Chinese way where you can use poetry and historical allusion which is part of our traditions and psyche to speak to all of Chinese history.
Sorry to labour the point, but I’m thinking about what I’ve been reading – the sense that this protest is leaderless, or at least facing out like that because of people being singled out in the past. Two of the founders of the 2014 Umbrella or occupy movement, for example, academics Chan Kin-man and Benny Tai I understand were put in high level security prisons for their role.
I spent a lot of time on the streets documenting Umbrella, and it’s really important to emphasise the creativity that came out of the movement. Hong Kong is so creative and in my experience the ongoing series of demonstrations and movements highlighted the responsiveness and visual acuity of the region. That movement created an open-air free-form university that I’d never seen before – it was fascinating in terms of the speed of semiotics in graphic design, art, music, movies and documentaries. That shift felt incredible.
But in terms of the political situation – and Benny Tai is now trying to appeal his sentence – there were many cases where the prosecution became what one of my writer friends, Anthony Daiparan, has coined ‘lawfare’, which means using the legal system as punishment for previously sanctioned normal activity. From those prosecutions, all the creativity – and perhaps also from just clever necessity – this new movement adopted the philosophy ‘just be water, flow’ or “Be water, my friend” as Bruce Lee said! It’s leaderless in one way, yet they fill containers, they go into any space, and do what they can to flow back the next time. This is more about what people need to do to regain their identity. For example, “if you can’t have everything for everybody, so be water, flow like water, fill up every container, slip away like mist and come back again like vapour.”
Artists and journalists are identifiable by name. Does that mean in this situation they’re increasingly in danger of being a target of tension points when all else is vaporising!?
There are definitely flame wars, troll wars, bot attacks and, even worse, the toxicity of different agendas. Some of my journalist female friends try to keep their reporting very open-ended – objective truths and to be clear about what are different opinions – but they have been treated to death threats, rape threats, just every kind of concerted possibility. So that’s a terrible moment for journalism right now. But that is also a reflection of all our time on the internet. Personally, I can even see it in New Zealand as well – it’s incredible what some of my female friends have to go through on a different level.
In terms of artists, I think if you have a name it’s really important that you be really clear about what you think and be really brave. Not just the protestors, but Hong Kong in general has incredible spirit. I’m hopeful. It’s important to stand for what Hong Kong is and also to realise that it’s not against China, or a statement of duality – in my personal opinion. It’s just an adjustment of how our world in modern globally-economically-connecte
I appreciate your hope. Indeed there’s a work in your show called ‘Bridges’ about people connecting on the street in the downtime between protest flash points.
I wanted to hark back to the Umbrella movement and the open air university. People were holding lectures… things are much more tense now but at the same time when I’m here in New Zealand, I notice that people hear these sound bites but there are hours these students spend constantly there on the street and they’re having conversations with the police. Little moments of connection. It’s not just these dramatic hot points of teargas – though there is that happening, of course.
In Hong Kong, because of hyper-urbanism and economics there is no real private space and no real public space. You’re out there on the street everyday and it’s a city that literally turns itself inside out constantly so that the outside becomes private domain and private may be considered public too. The time spent at protests outside everyday is in some ways about trying to reconfigure how Hong Kong works. Of course, there are the hardliners in the nighttime but it’s also incredible what happens in the daytime. I wanted to do a daybreak morning time video. I was shooting from a bridge. Somebody raises a colonial flag, police come and go, barriers are formed, umbrellas come up and down. There’s the idea that it’s not only these confrontations that are important. At some point, Hong Kong goes back to normalcy and people have to live together again, and this is how it could work.
Lovely. This show, Crisis of the Ordinary, isn’t explicitly about Hong Kong. I’m interested with Ihumatāo going on here that we have our own activism with its own complexities and progressive social actions.
It’s huge! I’ve only been seeing it from afar. It’s important and issues over land are vital, in that if they are not handled with care the scars remain for generations. This isn’t just about Hong Kong. It’s about how when the tensions get so high because of managerial issues the ordinary gets upturned and we have to rethink what is our new normal. So I’m thinking about what’s happening in Aotearoa and Australia and they’re really connected these threads in the Asia Pacific region.
Indeed, even early in your career when you were fresh out of Elam art school in Auckland in the mid ‘90s. I was working with others at Artspace organising Letting Space, a programme of art installations in vacant spaces. For that you took over the top floor of a new pagoda-shaped office tower on Wellesley Street as installation space. A flash red-hatted symbol of Chinese economic influence, in the heart of a city depleted by an economic recession, invaded by your trails of red cotton.
In terms of those geo-political threads with Asia I’m also thinking of Island Portrait at Te Papa in 2013, a video work concerning Chinese labourers constructing a courthouse to Chinese design in the Cook Islands. You were the only New Zealand artist I can think of then doing that kind of work.
And that kind of activity is at the forefront of New Zealand and Australia’s relationship with the Pacific. And it’s not just about that. I’m trying to infuse ordinary objects with language and a series of symbols and how we negotiate geopolitical strictures but also our own familial relationships. My family doesn’t just have one particular viewpoint. They have many backgrounds and generations in terms of being fifth generation New Zealand and my mainland China family. All these viewpoints are things we deal with incessantly. I’m just trying to find a creative visual language that I can talk through and also cut through the dogma.
The significance of colour in the new work is interesting. As I said you started with red cotton…
And now I’ve got into the multi-coloured perspective! So, they’re all based on nationalistic colour tones. In Crisis of the Ordinary the spectrum of colours is based on different yellow, red, white and dark blue gradients from national flags colours. That’s why all the string has a striking primary colour palette – it’s actually very hard to create with dyes with those distinct hard bright colours. I’m fascinated by how flags work and obviously New Zealand has a darkened history of making a flag that is of now but also speaks to our history.
It almost looks like some kind of bar chart.
I was thinking about bar charts. I talk a lot about economics in my work and I did think about conceptually tying the work to the stock market by having the colour charts relate to the different value of the objects tied to their market worth, fascinating but perhaps over complicated for this installation. Ha, look for that the next larger work though!
And the Zip Tie handcuffs, are they in common use?
Yes. They are military grade plastic police handcuffs. I was thinking a lot about Chinese latticework. A lot used to be about creating eternity symbols. The eternity knot is an important part of Chinese cultural history, from the Tang and Song dynasty onwards. These eternity patterns are things that we use in a day-to-day way: as visual screens on Hong Kong windows and beautiful antique furniture, even lanyards as well. So that’s why I started to make these screens.
political & climate reportersFind Out More
I wanted them to have a power and a beauty, and imbue them with the idea that they can live further. That’s important to emphasise because I think people can become too fatalistic. This thing is going to go on for a long time. It’s important to see it from an objective distance. It’s amazing how quickly things can change, for good.
And the media doesn’t have a reputation for generating hope in these situations. Maybe there’s a space in the public realm here for art?
Hope does not sell! Images sell and while there are a lot of fantastic images out there, I think artists and a lot of the people who work in these movements have – since 2012 when the first big one million person march happened – kept going on for a reason. And I think for us in the cultural sector the amount of creativity, the amount of cultural work that has been generated, especially with a more reflective side, and the fact that museums have to be brave to show this kind of work; it shows that many of us have been stepping up to the plate. I think that’s all incredibly heartening to see.
Yuk King Tan: Crisis Of The Ordinary is at Starkwhite Auckland until 7 September 2019
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.