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Varieties of Cultural Hybridity
Both Western modernist and Chinese traditionalist cultural narratives have been active in Hong Kong cultural space. While there have been individuals who have attempted to adhere to one or the other, many ambitious artists seem to have felt that neither narrative could simply be dismissed. They apparently recognized that to ignore an increasingly internationalized art world in which Western definitions of the modern or contemporary were hegemonic would have meant condemning themselves to marginality, while to embrace Western modernism without equivocation would have meant running the risk of losing a sense of their own cultural identity, of appearing to be mere mimics or belated followers of Western trends. Hybrid art has been the consequence of this dilemma, and artists such as Lui Shou-kwan and Van Lau made an explicit relationship in their works to both the narrative of Western modernism and that of Chinese traditional culture, even though they are irreconcilable. The problem challenging these artists was to make both narratives legible to the spectator, but at the same time to prevent their incompatibility from becoming apparent, lest their work failed to hold together and the task of becoming an artist who was both 'modern' and 'Chinese' appeared impossible to achieve.
At a time when the notion of hybridity is being much explored in critical theory and given largely positive associations, it is valuable to note how problematic hybrid art works can be. The following discussion shows how certain consciously hybrid works produced in HongKong anxiously attempt to reconcile the incompatible. It also seeks to demonstrate that hybridity can collude with the notion of cultural essence, which it is often taken to be undermining. The work of Wucius Wong rather than Lui Shou-kwan or Van Lau will serve to represent the first generation of artists in Hong Kong to attempt to create a consciously modernist art. Wong's work is particularly worthy of examination since he is more willing to acknowledge visually the incompatibility between Western modernist and Chinese traditionalist narratives.
Although Wong and other artists of his generation seemed to want to hold on to both narratives, there was a later moment when both of them began to fall into disrepute. Luis Chan and Antonio Mak, artists from very different age groups, attained their maturity in this moment. Neither Chan nor Mak attempted to find a space outside the dominant narratives; both seemed to recognize that these were too powerful simply to be ignored. Nevertheless, neither artist seemed to take either narrative seriously, and both may be viewed as having produced works which are at least implicitly critical of those Hong Kong artists who do. The art of Chan and Mak is also hybrid in nature, but differs from that of Wong or Lui in that it happily erodes both of the narratives with which it engages instead of attempting to uphold them. Chan and Mak, although their solutions were different, can each be said to have produced art that makes a Hong Kong viewpoint possible. Taking elements from both cultural narratives, but without being in thrall to either, they produced a variety of hybrid art with greater liberatory potential one that helped to create a more explicitly local cultural space.
In juxtaposing the work of Chan and Mak with that of Wong, we can identify differences and even antagonisms between various artistic phenomena to which the term hybrid might be applied, and thus highlight some dangers in the indiscriminate or blanket use of the term. Hong Kong paintings and sculptures invite scepticism about the notion of hybridity, and in such a particular, relatively defined cultural and historical context we can see more clearly how hybrid artworks function. The cultural narratives which artists employ are not wholly given to them: at a certain level, they choose to engage with those narratives in their work, and for particular purposes. Nevertheless, artists do always find themselves in cultural or discursive landscapes that are largely not of their own making. A particular cultural locus may only sustain certain strategies of hybridity at any one time. This at any rate seems to have been the case in Hong Kong, with the emergence of Wong's hybrid style belonging to the moment of modernism's appearance in Hong Kong visual culture, while Chan and Mak's emergence as mature artists belonged to the post-modern moment. While the two moments might for the sake of convenience be characterized as 'modern' and 'post-modern', they should not be conceived in narrowly artistic terms, but rather as moments of broader cultural change, even as moments when the colonial government underwent crises of legitimation.
The broader preconditions for these two moments are alluded to in the pages that follow and are also explored here in a schematic way. The first moment was arguably precipitated by the development of Hong Kong's manufacturing sector, giving rise, for instance, to a heightened sense of inequalities, but also leading to a greater openness to external intellectual and cultural frames of reference. The vast influx of refugees in the post-war period was also a destabilizing factor. Demographically, the second moment occurred when the children of those refugees reached adulthood, constituting a generation that took Hong Kong as its horizon and knew China only as a foreign country, the border having been closed by that time. Political factors that helped to precipitate this second moment were the Sino-British Joint Declaration on the Future of Hong Kong of 1984 (which set the clock running for the handover of the territory to China) and the brutal crackdown of the Beijing student democracy movement in 1989 (which intensified fears over 1997). Concern for cultural identity in art since that time has been paralleled by political demands for greater local democracy.
Wucius Wong seems to feel caught between an allegiance to Western modernism and one to Chinese tradition, wishing in some sense to affirm both. Rather than allowing his work to suffer from his inability to harmonize these two conflicting narratives, however, Wong takes some degree of control over his situation by making opposition the theme of his work. The conflict is not resolved by this decision, but is at least given expression, dramatized.
In a work such as Cloud Harmony No. 1 (illus. 2), Wong shows his desire to retain a link to Chinese cultural narratives by his adoption of a hanging-scroll format, but also, more directly, by his reference to the misty-mountain subject matter of classical Chinese painting. Whereas Lui Shou-kwan and his followers in the Hong Kong New Ink Painting movement made use of Chinese ink and absorbent paper, thereby producing works that claim an allegiance to traditional Chinese technique, Wong has commonly used acrylic. Subject matter thus becomes the primary site where Chineseness is signified in his painting. The sculptor Van Lau, working in metal and thus unable to effect links at the level of technique to literati culture, is similarly constrained to signify Chineseness through subject matter. He does this, for instance, in his sculptures on the theme of bamboo (such as Windy Form and Autumn Leaves [both 1985]), executed in a manner indebted to the Constructivists of the West (illus. 3).
For Wong, unlike a straightforward traditionalist artist, a mere declaration of allegiance to literati modes is not enough: Chinese references must be counterbalanced by signs of modernity. Such claims to contemporaneity are made by the introduction of a grid-like structure which serves to partition the surface of the image. Wong would have encountered this Constructivist vocabulary (also found in more recent paintings such as Agitated Waters No. 5 ) through his involvement with design. Wong worked at one time as a lecturer at the design school of Hong Kong Polytechnic (now Hong Kong Polytechnic University), and he is also the author of several widely disseminated manuals on two- and three-dimensional design in which a Bauhaus educational model is presented.
In Cloud Harmony No. 1, the organic and the geometric are both present, but each retains a large degree of autonomy. Visual harmony becomes largely a matter of balancing opposing or incommensurable forces. The painting opens up a symbolic arena in which Chinese (traditional) elements and Western (modern) elements are allowed their different voices. In this respect, Cloud Harmony No. 1 differs from such New Ink Painting works as Lui Shou-kwan's Zhuangzi (illus. 4), which also balances these aspects but which wishes to avoid any sense that the modernization of ink painting is a problematic project. In Zhuangzi, the allusion to European and American gestural abstraction is meant to be noticed (in order to give the work its claim of contemporaneity), but an attempt is made to play down the differences between the two cultural narratives invoked, in order to present an aesthetically unified whole. Abstract Expressionism and its European counterpart arguably offered particular possibilities to Chinese artists at the time when it was the most up-to-date signifier of Western modernism available in the international arena, because its gestural nature had superficial similarities with the foregrounded brushwork of classical Chinese painting and calligraphy, and because the Abstract Expressionists were often themselves interested in East Asian brushwork. By choosing a hard-edged formal vocabulary instead of engaging with Abstract Expressionism like his one-time teacher Lui, Wong must have consciously decided to accentuate rather than blur the East/West distinctions in his painting. Geometry, with its associations to rationality and the West, serves there as the 'yang' in opposition to the 'yin' of the organic, the natural and the Chinese.
Although Wong may be understood as producing a kind of muted allegory of the situation of Hong Kong in works such as Cloud Harmony No. 1, it is an allegory that tends towards treating the Chinese and the Western as necessary complementary parts of a larger whole. It points away from political and historical frameworks of interpretation towards a metaphysical one. His mode of painting has something of a double-voiced quality, acknowledging difference but ending up reducing both Chinese and Western cultures to (diametrically opposed) essences in a way that is not all that different from the position of the traditionalist. Indeed, China is represented in his paintings only in terms of tradition, modernity always being placed outside Chineseness. Because of this restriction, a rigidity enters: the signs of Chineseness become exaggerated clichés, repetitive caricatures of literati traits. Hybridity proves capable of co-existing with a notion of cultural essence, and even of entrenching it.
Although Luis Chan developed his mature style at a later date than Lui Shou-kwan (and, indeed, partly as a response to the challenge of such early Hong Kong modernists as Lui), he was a much older man. Chan had already worked for some years in the academic realist manner adopted by a number of other Hong Kong artists of his own generation, such as Lee Byng and Yee Bon. None of these artists appear to have felt any pressing need to forge connections with Chinese cultural traditions, and all were seemingly unaware of Western modernist discourse. Indeed, Chan's early work seems a striking instance of art created within a kind of colonial mentality. Since his mature work offers a radical departure from such a frame of mind, and shares with that of the other artists considered here a certain self-awareness about the cultural situation in which it finds itself, a brief consideration of his earlier work offers a valuable counterpoint.
Luis Chan differed from Wong and Mak in that he did not have any overseas training. Born in Panama in 1905, he moved to Hong Kong in 1910, remaining there until his death in 1995. Apart from a painting trip to Beijing and other mainland Chinese cities in 1936 and a sojourn in Macau during the Japanese occupation, he hardly seems to have left Hong Kong at all. Because of the absence of opportunities for formal art education in the territory (there is no art academy even today), Chan relied on correspondence courses, turning to the colonial power, Britain, as the source of information and standards. The Studio, the leading British art magazine of the time, was an important frame of reference for Chan, who was subscribing to it by 1927. The style he developed was a fluent naturalism indebted to British models: he favoured landscape as his subject matter and generally preferred to use watercolour, working directly from nature and paying particular attention to light effects (illus. 5). Although his style of this time can hardly be described as innovative, Chan did achieve a degree of local recognition and status. Not only did he gain some attention from the Hong Kong colonial élite; he even received it from the colonial power itself. Chan must have felt a sense of achievement when in 1954 he wrote an article on his own work and that of other Hong Kong artists for The Studio, thereby featuring in the very publication which had given him his initial point of artistic reference. A more official form of British recognition came in 1960, when Chan was invited, along with David Kwok and Zhao Shao'ang, two Chinese media artists, to represent Hong Kong at the British Commonwealth Exhibition in London.
Only a year after this triumph, however, Chan was faced with a catastrophe. His work was excluded from a major exhibition organized at the new Hong Kong City Hall on the grounds that it was 'out of date'. Chan seems to have discovered his marginality as a result of this rejection, his insight into his real situation as a colonial artist leading to a loss of artistic security. For a great part of the 1960s, his art was in crisis: one modern style after another appeared in the work of an artist who had once seemed so confident about his way of painting, but none was able to provide a stable basis for a distinctive individual idiom. Once naturalism was no longer acceptable, the issue of style was inevitably foregrounded, but there seemed to be no criteria Chan could adopt to choose among the plethora of possible artistic identities. While not all works of this period are failures, one senses that Chan was playing with styles he did not fully understand: Cubist or Pointillist idioms, for instance, are present in a partial and largely decorative way, the artist having been condemned to the role of mimic.
Chan was to find a way of coming to terms with his marginality in relation to Western modernism after seeing a demonstration of monotype technique by the French artist Jacques Halpern. Halpern seems to have favoured a non-geometric abstract idiom of an art informel kind, but it is perhaps important that Chan did not chose to imitate his style. Discovery of an automatist method of working was more important to Chan than the encounter with abstraction, since it provided him with a specific technique for initiating a dialogue with the unconscious. His new works may have started as abstract pattern-making, but this was followed by a crucial second phase in which he studied the marks produced with the assistance of chance. Illusory images were found in them which were then further specified. This fantasy art has much in common with the decalcomania technique employed by Max Ernst in paintings such as Europe After the Rain II (1940-42) or Henri Michaux's ink experiments (of which Chan as an extremely well-read artist was certainly aware), but only at the level of method. At the level of content, they are highly original, and no longer in the shadow of Western modernist examples: in the seventh decade of his life, Chan had finally discovered his 'mature' style.
Landscape predominates in these works, as it had done in Chan's earlier paintings, and water is frequently to be seen. Although we no longer find exact topographical description, it is still possible to recognize in a work such as City by the Sea (illus. 6) the island and sea topography of Hong Kong, rat her than the mountain and river landscape of the Chinese heartland favoured by traditional ink painting. The animal, vegetal and mineral realms are no longer distinct. Faces may appear in rocks (Peach Garden ), or islands may metamorphose into birds (Duck and Rooster Island [illus. 7]). We may be taken underwater to visit a rich and strange world of tropical fish (a recurrent subject for Chan), but then encounter a crowd of human faces as if trapped behind the bars along a fish's side (Seahorse Meeting a Fish [illus. 8]). There is much that is visually ravishing (particularly because of Chan's growing confidence as a colourist), and the mood is frequently whimsical, but darker notes do intrude, Death as a Skater (1980) and Execution (illus. 9) being two examples of this.
References to Chinese mythology may be found on occasion (as in Rise of the Drowned Poet ), but while Chan in this phase of his art welcomed inspiration from all sources (Chinese or Western, high or popular), he was never a servant to them. His very openness inoculated him against the danger of being either a Chinese traditionalist or a provincial imitator of Western modernism, and all sources faced transformation on entering the world of his paintings. Rise of the Drowned Poet, for instance, is based on the story of the poet-statesman Chu Yuan, whose drowning is commemorated in early summer by the Dragon Boat Festival. Chan's personal and perhaps even autobiographical reworking of the traditional story introduces the theme of rebirth.
Whereas his earlier works showed no relationship at all to premodern Chinese painting, Chan was now willing to adopt both hanging-scroll and handscroll formats on occasion, referring to such works as his 'modern Chinese paintings'. His lack of hang-ups about tradition (unlike Wong or Lui, he seems not to have been anxious about the difficulties of being both Chinese and modern) is revealed in his matter-of-fact statement that a painting by him was Chinese if it had been done on Chinese paper. Lui's Zhuangzi anxiously counterbalances its engagement with the modernism of Adolph Gottlieb and Pierre Soulages by a reference to a traditionally sanctioned Chinese text in which the philosopher of the title dreams of being a butterfly. When Chan produced a work on the same theme (Butterfly Dream ), his approach was recognizably more playful and accepting of heterogeneity. In a work that must surely have been undertaken with the intention of conducting a dialogue with Lui's, Chan employed both collage (his butterfly is a real one) and a pouring technique which clearly invokes Jackson Pollock (like Lui, Chan brought together Chinese and Abstract Expressionist influences, but whereas Lui sinicized the reference to Abstract Expressionism by rendering it in Chinese ink, Chan left his quotation in a Western medium). This Pollock-like pouring appears in other works by Chan and is used in an uninhibited way without worry over what meaning the technique might have had in its original context. Letting his unconscious be the guide to what may be given meaning in his own work, the skeins of paint start to suggest faces, and circles are added to indicate eyes (Untitled ). The theme of transformation in the Zhuangzi text is embodied by Chan even at the level of creative method. Although his treatment may initially appear less reverential than Lui's, Chart perhaps displayed a deeper engagement with their shared textual source.
Chan not only appropriated or resignified elements of the stylistic vocabulary of other artists in his own work, he also seemed to be doing something similar when in the role of spectator. He talked for instance of the possibility of seeing illusory images of people or creatures in the paintings of Cezanne and Zhang Daqian. The traces of this very idiosyncratic mode of reception can be seen on the copies of the art magazines to which he subscribed: often a face had been 'discovered' in an image, and specified by a ballpoint pen mark. Even the austere abstract paintings of Kenneth Noland were given this treatment. Far more than most Western artists of the same period, he relied on reproductions for information, but the subservient attitude towards Western sources adopted in his early years had now manifestly disappeared. His relationship to them became more active and confident, as his graffiti-like additions to the magazine illustrations attest. Rather than treating them as role models, he offered them up to his unconscious as raw material, interpreting them from his own (Hong Kong) viewpoint.
As well as effortlessly incorporating elements from both Chinese and Western high art traditions, Chan also found a place for references to popular culture. In addition to his life-long interest in art magazines, Chan turned to television for inspiration in his later phase. 'I still do life studies I watch T.V.!' he once quipped in answer to an interviewer's question. Both political figures and fictional characters from television entered his paintings, but only if his unconscious found their presence appropriate. At a time when television was giving a lot of coverage to events in the Middle East, Chart was surprised to discover 'the figure of Arafat boxed in the corner of a half-finished painting' (Magic Carpet ).
Another media event which found its way into a painting was the Silver Jubilee celebration for Queen Elizabeth II of England (H.M. Queen Elizabeth's Silver Jubilee ). The monarch's head appears as a collage item (on Hong Kong-issue stamps attached to the painting's surface), and the British Union Jack in black and red rather than red, white and blue is also included. What at first might appear to be an act of homage in fact turns out to be a gently subversive statement about the colony's mother country. Gentle, perhaps, because (after all) Britain had been the most important source of cultural information in Chan's early years as an artist, and because his growing autonomy as a painter permitted a degree of magnanimity that might not have prevailed had he failed to transcend his earlier state of cultural provincialism. Having decolonized his psyche, Luis Chan could look more with humour than with anger at the signifiers of colonial power.
By the time of his tragic early death in 1994, Antonio Mak had created an extensive body of sculpture, working primarily in bronze cast from wax originals. The human figure was his principal subject (with animals such as horses and tigers also being of great interest), and the style in which he worked owed more to Rodin (and indeed to even earlier sculptural traditions) than it did to contemporary trends. Undertaking his studies at a later date than Wong, Mak seems to have been aware that the Western narrative of modernist progress was losing its credibility. So, although he used a recognizably Western visual language, he therefore chose not to make a futile attempt to be more up to the minute than artists being fêted in Western metropolitan centres. His relatively 'old-fashioned' idiom was put to the service of an acute intellect, one might see him as a sort of conceptual artist. Marcel Duchamp and Bruce Nauman were both artists to whom Mak responden positively, as René Magritte, the most conceptual of the painters associated with Surrealism.
Excerpted from HONG KONG ART by David Clarke. Copyright © 2001 by David Clarke. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.