01 To Defend the Core Values is the Core of the Core Values, by artists Kwan Sheung-chi and Wong Wai-yin, is a satirical take on Hong Kong’s quest for identity. Visitors to a shopfront exhibition space are confronted by an oversized gold coin and asked to write what they think are Hong Kong’s “core values” on a piece of paper; 02 The carcass of a vintage neon Coca-Cola sign sits collapsed on the lawn of a park (photo credit: Joel Lam); 03 Artist Pak Sheung-chuen stands on a streetcorner trying to sell people a spiritual text, the Book of L; 04 A light installation by Tsang Kin-wah based on the Book of Revelation; 05 One of Erkka Nissinen's satirical videos.
Hong Kong’s future visual culture museum, M+, gets an early start with an exhibition of new contemporary art set in the streets and shops of a gritty neighbourhood.
Strange things are afoot in Yau Ma Tei. Step through a door on Portland Street and you’ll come face-to-face with a large gold coin embossed with four words: “Hong Kong’s Core Values.” Down the street, the carcass of a vintage neon Coca-Cola sign sits collapsed on the lawn of a park. Nearby, artist Pak Sheung-chuen stands on a streetcorner, a wild look in his eye, trying to sell people a spiritual text, the Book of L.
It’s not that Hong Kong has gone crazy. It’s just the latest edition of Mobile M+, the roving contemporary art programme of the West Kowloon Cultural District’s future visual culture museum. Last January, M+ commissioned a series of works in conjunction with the West Kowloon Bamboo Theatre, a hugely popular celebration of Cantonese opera. Now the museum’s curatorial team has turned its attention to Yau Ma Tei, a gritty neighbourhood not far from M+’s future home. Seven Hong Kong artists have created new works for the exhibition, which is taking place in Yau Ma Tei’s shops and streets until June 10.
Much of it is provocative and socially-engaged. To Defend the Core Values is the Core of the Core Values, by artists Kwan Sheung-chi and Wong Wai-yin, is a satirical take on Hong Kong’s quest for identity. Visitors to a shopfront exhibition space are confronted by an oversized gold coin and asked to write what they think are Hong Kong’s “core values” on a piece of paper, along with their name and contact information. On June 4, the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing—a hugely symbolic date for many people in Hong Kong, where support for the student demonstrators was high—the artists will draw a name. The winner will have the choice of keeping the coin or throwing it into Victoria Harbour.
“Politicians and public figures always talk about core values, but no one has really had a discussion about what those core values are,” says Wong. Kwan adds: “We wanted to have some uncertainty in the project. The value of both Hong Kong and the coin is uncertain. It changes depending on people and the times.”
Pak Sheung-chuen takes a similarly active approach in his work, L, a sprawling series of performances and interventions that investigates the borders between spirituality, social interaction and everyday life. Drawing from ideas that occurred to him over the past several years, Pak created a kind of spiritual text that contains a number of odd activities, like cutting newspaper into the shape of a flame. He also took inspiration from a bible calligraphy shop to set up a Gospel TV service, in which four strategically-placed bits of black tape transform your television set into a glowing cross.
Salesmen stand on nearby commercial streets trying to sell the concept to passersby. “The Gospel TV plan is a life-long plan, but in case you want to test it, we have a three-month plan, a one-month plan and a Sunday plan,” exclaims Pak. “If you are interested, we can go to your home and install it immediately!”
Pak’s sales assistant, Long Lee, explains that Hong Kong pedestrians are used to being constantly targeted by touts selling mobile phone and internet plans. “People always persuade you to buy some service you don’t really need, so it’s really interesting to promote some abstract ideas,” he says. “If you accept what we are selling, it says something about trust and relationships."
Other works in the Mobile M+ exhibition include Leung Mee-ping’s I Miss Fanta, which salvaged the iconic Coke sign from a Macau scrap heap, raising questions about heritage, urban identity and commerce; Fantomas, an investigation into cinematic representations of the supernatural filmmaker Yu Lik-wai; a light installation by Tsang Kin-wah based on the Book of Revelation; and satirical videos and prints by Erkka Nissinen.
Woven as it is into the fabric of Yau Ma Tei’s daily life—part of Leung’s neon installation is exhibited in a recycling-depot-cum-curios-shop, and rearranged every day by the shop owner—the Mobile M+ exhibition is Hong Kong’s most ambitious attempt yet to create art that is both community-based and conceptually ambitious.
“If you’re in a park or under a flyover, encountering this kind of art becomes more exciting than when you go to a museum or gallery,” says curator Stella Fong, who joined M+ six months ago after working for Hong Kong’s notoriously staid government-run Museum of Art. “You aren’t only a viewer, you are a participant. We are trying to break down barriers and expectations of what M+ will be. Art can be very flexible and down to earth.”
Getting permission to hold the exhibition in shops and public spaces was difficult because of Hong Kong’s outdated exhibition licencing laws, which is something that M+ hopes to change as it holds more mobile exhibitions before opening in 2015. “We’re going to jot down all these issues and one day hope to get them simplified,” says Fong. “It’s important to build a really good relationship with communities like Yau Ma Tei. They’re our neighbours and also our target audience.”