Vast as factories—or mostly in the mind
Without access to the huge industrial work spaces of the mainland, Hong Kong artists are rejecting the very idea of the studio-as-symbol
By Robin Peckham. From Art Basel Hong Kong daily edition
Published online: 22 May 2013
As enthusiasm for revived forms of institutional critique has spread across greater China in the past three years, levelling accusations and invective at museums, galleries, alternative spaces and funding mechanisms alike, one category has remained largely unexamined: the artist’s studio.
In centres such as Beijing, Shanghai and Chengdu, the studio is a sacred space, often larger than most galleries and even playing the commercial role of the latter, at least until the professionalisation of the primary market around 2005. A visit to the studio clusters on the semi-urban outskirts of these cities can leave no doubt that the former factory buildings in which artists house their work have been repurposed in name only, and that the work of manufacturing and production carries on within.
In Hong Kong, too, industrial neighbourhoods have witnessed an influx of artists, designers and musicians over the past 15 years, albeit on a very different model. Rather than the huge, airy train depots and assembly lines of the mainland, Hong Kong’s industrial buildings are typically 20-storey blocks with freight lifts, tall ceilings, raw corridors and discounted rental rates—an improvement over the typical Hong Kong office or apartment in terms of artistic practice but still vastly limiting in terms of what can be produced.
Younger artists with more formal or systematic exposure abroad tend to be familiar with the logic that proceeds from Daniel Buren’s influential 1971 text The Function of the Studio, in which the artist delimits the archetype of the studio as a private and permanent site for the production of “portable” work, which is produced in that environment as if for certain idealised museum-like conditions.
China has arguably one of the strongest studio ethics in the world today; in a sense, intensive technical and rote training have created an environment in which even dedicated painters feel the need to differentiate themselves from their backgrounds by creating site-specific installations.
Early moments in this history might include Zhang Peili’s mid-1980s efforts to de-emphasise the role of painting by placing his canvases within highly structured spatial systems. More recently, painters, from promising younger figures such as Qiu Xiaofei to established artists such as Zhang Xiaogang, have taken advantage of their respective gallery exhibitions to demonstrate that they are not simply painters. In fact, as the emphasis on sheer scale retreats from the studio and the gallery, the dominant mode of practice in Beijing seems to have shifted to work that is “project-based”, in which artists adapt themselves to particular tools and materials in order to suit individual concepts. Young artist Xu Qu attributes this way of thinking to the influence of figures such as John Armleder, under whom Xu studied in Braunschweig, Germany.
If the ideological parallel between studio and museum exists also in Hong Kong, it might be tempting to suppose that this model has long been widespread in the city. Only in the past few years have artists had the opportunity to work with exhibition spaces larger than 1,000 sq. ft. Osage Gallery in Kwun Tong was the first to break this mould with 8,000 sq. ft of space in an industrial building, but this scale is now commonplace.
Arguably, because of such spatial restrictions, artists working in Hong Kong have never been overly focused on showing their work within the existing typologies of local exhibition spaces: not only have most galleries been historically positioned within unattractive office buildings or diminutive storefronts, but few—with the notable exceptions of Hanart TZ and Grotto Fine Art—ever expressed much interest in locally produced work. In this sense, and noting the backgrounds of the few galleries and institutional curators who have shown Hong Kong art, it would appear that the traditional image of the scholar’s studio, with a small desk for painting, a small shelf for reading and a window to the world for contemplation, has exerted more influence on the presentation of art than Buren’s classic studios on the European or American loft models.
Nevertheless, a certain shadow of this Western conceptual critique can be distinguished within the projects of artists such as Adrian Wong, who cites the influence of Michael Asher in Los Angeles, where Wong lived and worked for several years.
“A post-medium, post-studio practice is emblematic of art being produced in Hong Kong—not only because of the limited space available but also as a reaction against the studio focus of traditional Chinese painting,” Wong says.
He goes on to suggest that his own model of practice, which has quickly gained currency with a younger generation of artists, is indicative of the general “just-in-time” economy of Hong Kong’s situation within the Pearl River Delta, allowing for the outsourcing of minor fabrication tasks with largely modest materials. (Wong hired robotics engineers, mascot costume designers and tailors to produce work for his bar environment, Wun Dun, with the Absolut Art Bureau for Art Basel Hong Kong.)
Wong warns, however, that this way of working often becomes enmeshed with and occasionally indistinguishable from commercial cultures of design in the city. It is significant that, even when the critical post-studio is mobilised, it sits alongside a distributed practice involving light industry rather than buttressing a conceptual turn to immateriality. Clearly, Hong Kong art is very much of this world.
Anthony Yung, an independent curator and researcher at the Asia Art Archive, insists that the studio remains an important signifying force in Hong Kong art: “It’s not that we don’t use the studio but rather that we can’t afford to use a studio,” Yung says. Indeed, as Buren admits, “artists who maintain ramshackle workspaces despite their drawbacks are obviously artists for whom the idea of possessing a studio is a necessity”.
Yung ties this phenomenon in Hong Kong to a fixation with craft, and the notion of producing every element of the work through painstaking processes rooted in the labour of the hands, pointing to artists such as Kong Chun Hei and Lee Kit, who are known for spending a great deal of time in their studios, and yet produce work that has very few spatial demands.
Tobias Berger, the managing curator of the M+ museum of visual culture in Kowloon, points to the effects of this enigma: “Having had Kurt Chan Yuk-keung—a conceptual artist who did not believe in a studio or in art that is made to sell—as a professor, most interesting artists today don’t feel they need a studio… It is [a] paradox that exactly these post-studio and pre-commercial-gallery artists are the ones that founded Fotanian, the most successful studio cluster in Asia,” Berger says.
One explanation lies in the simple romance of isolated studio life, cut off from the crass social life of mainstream Hong Kong culture. Lee Kit, for example, has framed much of his practice around the provision of “suggestions for better living”, pitching his life in the studio as an alternative way of being. The choice to become an artist, after all, is not a socially normal one, and studio life is often called to stand as much more than the pragmatic space it could otherwise be; there is a spiritual connection to the very idea of the studio but also an intellectual faith interest in the supposed purity of studio culture.
The artist Magdalen Wong echoes this sentiment, describing the studio as “a place to be isolated from the rest of the world… a psychological space where I could be comfortable to daydream and transport my thoughts far away”. This instability is endemic to the production of art in Hong Kong, where art remains physically and culturally confined to the margins—there, at least, it is free to define its own space.
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