Hong Kong has always had its share of homegrown art spaces, from the pioneering Chatham Gallery, which operated between 1962 and 1966, to the artist-run Para Site Art Space, which opened in 1996, to the rise of commercial galleries such as Grotto Fine Art, Hanart TZ, Alisan Fine Arts and 10 Chancery Lane.
The art scene continues to evolve. While the pandemic and political events of the past few years have caused feelings of unease and uncertainty among the art community, that hasn’t prevented budding gallerists from setting up new spaces. In the past two years, Hong Kong galleries, including these new art spaces, are making greater effort to show local artists, perhaps due to a desire to tell the story of Hong Kong—the identity of the city and its inhabitant—through art. The pandemic also posed logistical problems, making it harder to transport artworks from overseas artists.
We reached out to three young art spaces to hear what they hope to achieve – and how they plan to navigate the complicated waters of present-day Hong Kong.
Hidden Space: A space to experiment
Hidden Space was set up in 2017 on the 16th floor of an industrial building in Kwai Hing, in the northwestern part of Hong Kong. It came about through a happy accident. The three founders, Kay Mei Ling Beadman, Katie Ho and Isabella Isabella, met while doing their Masters of Fine Art at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) University. Ho asked if she could borrow part of Beadman’s studio space, which she had bought several years earlier, to create an installation piece. Beadman agreed. That installation turned into a mini exhibition, which prompted to Isabella stage a show in response, with Beadman following suit afterwards. That led the trio to decide to convert part of the studio into a dedicated venue for exhibitions. “We jokingly called it Hidden Space, and it stuck,” says Ho.
Since opening, the space has shown works by established artists such as Chan Sai-lok and Mark Chung, as well as upcoming ones including Florence Lam, all of which are created in situ. Hidden Space is described by its founders as proudly non-commercial, which allows artists to engage with the space and their audience without any pressure to sell their works. The space’s moda operandi is best showcased through the annual Hidden Space Award, which is given to an artist graduating from the Bachelor of Fine Arts programme run by RMIT University and the Hong Kong Art School. The winner is granted access to the space for eight months, as well as plenty of conversations with the co-founders.
“Winning artists get a solo show but it’s almost not the biggest part of it, as we are going to mentor you. We are going to talk about curating, the installation and so on,” says Beadman, who works as an art teacher, along with Ng. In many instances, the founders ask the artist to expand the scope of their practice, such as when they suggested that 2019 Hidden Space Award winner Tang Kwong-san work on creating objects – a first for the painter. The result was a thoughtful installation based on the 1978 BBC documentary The Bamboo Curtain, which focuses on illegal immigrants making the deadly swim from mainland China to Hong Kong. Projected through a fish tank onto a small piece of cloth hand-dyed in tea, it reflected on ideas of displacement, the diaspora and identity.
Those questions are even more relevant in today’s Hong Kong, when emigration has surged and the socio-political environment has changed so radically from the days when Hidden Space first opened. In the summer of 2020, after the upheaval of the previous year’s pro-democracy protests, China’s top legislature enacted a new national security law for Hong Kong that prohibits acts of secession, subversion against the Hong Kong and Chinese governments. The law was accompanied by a new security apparatus with wide-ranging powers of enforcement that observers have described as drastically reducing Hong Kong’s freedom of expression. What impact does that have on an institution like Hidden Space?
Beadman doesn’t directly answer the question, but notes that the very existence of the art space provides the freedom to think – and create. She says there is increasingly “less space, that isn’t work, home, or a commercial gallery” for Hongkongers to express themselves, which makes Hidden Space all the more important.
Touch Gallery: Unique works
Hong Kong artist-turned-gallerist Enders Wong opened Touch Gallery at the height of the pandemic in November 2020. At that point, he had already been operating his ceramics gallery Touch Ceramics for a year in Tai Kwun, and when the space next to it became available, Wong “immediately” asked the art centre’s management if he could open a second gallery dedicated to visual arts.
The two galleries reflect Wong’s interests. The artist-turned-gallerist studied both painting and ceramics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. While Touch Ceramics has showcased ceramic pieces by Japanese artists including Tomonari Hashimoto and Ogata Kamio, Touch Gallery is dedicated to showing Hong Kong artists. Many of the artists exhibited in the gallery’s first year are teachers or students from Wong’s alma mater. It opened with a solo show by artist and educator Kurt Chan before proceeding to exhibitions by emerging artists such as Cheung Sze-lit, as well as established artists such as Chow Chun-fai and Chui Pui-chee, whose painting “Nine Abysses” is currently showing at the gallery.
While Touch’s roster of artists might be familiar to frequent gallery-goers, their art won’t be, as Wong requests artists to create a series unique to both space and the gallery. “I’d have a chat with every artist, what they’d like to create for the space,” he says. The gallery is small, which led Wong Chun-hei—known for large works—to create a series of mini landscapes.
Looking ahead, Wong plans to show works by fresh graduates or young artists at least twice a year. These artists include Miki Lam and Lau Yin-Yeung, which the gallery recently showed in a duo exhibition. Wong decided to put them together because of their strong yet contrasting approaches to life. Lam lives a very fast-paced life, reflected in her art through fuzzy images created from pencils, rulers and a sewing machine. Lau, on the other hand, is a student of Buddhism, and her work features landscapes and clouds that seem as if they are frozen in a particular moment.
SC Gallery: Understanding Hong Kong
A student of RMIT University, Sharon Cheung was searching for a studio space when the idea of opening a gallery came about. “I thought, why not open a gallery, where I can show my own works, but also that of other artists,” she says. SC Gallery is the fruits of her labour. It opened this March in Wong Chuk Hang with Abnormal States, a show by two Hong Kong artists, Tang Kwong-san and Jeremy Fung. It is now set to open the group exhibition The sunshine is still here on May 19. Cheung already has the full year planned out, with the view to bring some of these artists to the international art stage.
While the gallery business might seem like a departure from Cheung’s past experiences, one could argue that she has been working to this moment, with the gallery combining her experience of years working in media and public relations with her natural confidence. Cheung is best known as the reporter who, in 2000, asked former Chinese president Jiang Zemin if former Hong Kong chief executive Tung Chee-hua was appointed—foreshadowing Hong Kong’s eventual political transformation—to which Jiang retorted, “Too young, too simple, sometimes naive.”
After working as a news reporter at iCable and the South China Morning Post, she joined Media Asia, a Hong Kong film production and distribution outfit, before founding her own public relations firm YiJie Communications. It’s clear that Media Asia has had a huge impact on Cheung’s life. When asked about the goal of her gallery, she says, “I want to tell the stories of this city,” and quotes renowned film director Johnnie To, with whom she worked at the production company: “If I fail to even tell the story of where I was born and lived, how do I begin to tell the stories of other places?” he said. “In that regard, I’m quite clear about the gallery’s positioning,” says Cheung.
So what is Hong Kong’s story today? In Cheung’s telling, it was a worry-free place “where you’d hear the saying, “horses will continue to run and people will continue to dance.” But after the 2019 protests, Hongkongers are thinking a bit more deeply about the city and their own identity. Cheung says art is one avenue where people who want to learn more about Hong Kong-—and what its inhabitants are concerned about—can turn to.
Abnormal States, the gallery’s opening show, is a case in point. It explored feelings of estrangement from one’s surroundings, such as those produced by Covid restrictions, or the surprise of finding perfectly healthy plants at rubbish collection points, seemingly abandoned by their owners in a rush as they left Hong Kong. The show provided plenty of opportunities for reflection, but no easy answers. “I honestly think there is no more interesting time than now for Hong Kong art,” says Cheung.