In 1996, Para Site, Hong Kong’s first non-profit artist-run space, opened in a dank walk-up building in Kennedy Town. Now, a little more than two decades later, a new artist-run space is following in its footsteps.
Negative Space sits on the 12th floor of the Foo Tak Building, an independent artists’ enclave in Wan Chai, and among its twentysomething founders is Joseph Leung – a mentee of artist Leung Chi-wo, who was one of the most prominent members of the group that founded Para Site. Like Para Site was in its early days, Negative Space is entirely run by artists, and it’s also non-profit-making – a breath of fresh air in a city that is still dominated by commercial art galleries and fairs.
That model allows for greater experimentation, not only in art forms but also in supporting younger or lesser-known artists whose work might not sell.
But Leung is quick to clarify that Negative Space has no intention to become the “next” Para Site, which has been curator-led since the early 2000s. “I think it’s difficult to make a meaningful comparison,” he says. He notes that when Para Site was established, its founders were already well established, but the Negative Space founders are all fresh out of art school. “Para Site was also set up at a period when there weren’t many art spaces or galleries,” says Leung. Today, Hong Kong’s art scene is flourishing.
In the middle of May, Leung was sitting in the new space with two of his friends and co-founders, Chan Ting and Sing Lau; two more, Owen Wong and Andy Li, weren’t able to join the interview. The space itself consists of an exhibiting area and a workshop, and the young artists are in the process of converting what was formerly a small kitchen into a dark room for developing film photography.
“Everything is about digital photography these days – it’s quite challenging to find a studio that develops film photography,” said Chan. “So we’ve decided to build our own dark room.” She grins as she shows off an enlarger that the Negative Space founders salvaged from an old print shop.
The five artists are renting their space for HK$5,000 a month – a bargain for any art studio in hyper-expensive Hong Kong, let alone one in the heart of Wan Chai. They have May Fung to thank. Leung met Fung, who turned the Foo Tak Building into an artists’ village in 2003, when he was studying at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “I told May that I wanted to do something very experimental with the space,” he said, and Fung agreed. Negative Space was born in March with a show featuring works from each of the five founders.
Negative Space has a shelf life: its founders don’t intend that it lasts for more than two years. It’s not the first of such space in Hong Kong. One of the first was Spring Workshop, a multidisciplinary exhibition space and artists’ residence in Wong Chuk Hang that ran from 2011 to 2017. It was joined in 2015 by Things That Can Happen, a two-year gallery in Sham Shui Po, and Nepture, another two-year space in Chai Wan.
But why limit themselves to two years? “Our goal is to have every member organise at least one exhibition, but other than that, we don’t want to set specific targets for ourselves,” said Chan. Perhaps the members’ desire to “draw a segment of the art world not visible at blue-chip gallery openings” is ambitious enough.
Chan, Leung and Lau say it’s too early for them to fully understand their position in Hong Kong’s art ecosystem, but they all agree that they want to invite young artists and curators to work in the space – and not just those in visual arts, but also film and music.
Their upcoming exhibition, Those Sparkles We See – Anna Chim’s Retrospective opens on 24 July with work from an artist and musician whose defies neat boundaries of form and medium. Chim was known for confessional music with raw lyrics laced with Cantonese swear words. Last year, she was just 23 when her life was cut short by acute heart failure. In response, a group of friends reached out to Negative Space to organise a tribute show. It didn’t take long for the five founders to agree.
“It’s usually hard for artists to find a space to exhibit, or they’re passive in seeking out these spaces,” said Chan. “We want to make it easier for them.”
The fluidity of the space’s programming is reflective of the five artists themselves. They are rarely in the space at the same time, as many have part time or full time jobs. Leung works as an assistant to Leung Chi-wo, while Li is a part-time art handler who is also assisting Shirley Tse, Hong Kong’s representative at the 2019 Venice Biennale. Meanwhile, Lau and Li are commercial videographers.
Each of the members fills a distinct niche in the group. Leung is clearly the spokesperson. Lau is the quietest of the three. Chan is perhaps the most sentimental, prone to whimsical pronouncements. “To me, art is something that is very raw. It is a direct reflection of our thoughts, the state we’re in. Art doesn’t lie,” she said.
Leung says this diversity is a strength. “In Hong Kong, you’d find that the arts scene is quite segregated. For example, if someone does commercial films, you won’t really expect the same person to do experimental video art,” he said.
What unites the five artists is a passion for images, something reflected in the name of the space itself. “We were trying to find something that connects the lot of us, and it’s photography,” said Leung. “Negative space denotes the empty area around the depicted objects. For me, negative space can also mean a space for contemplation.”
There is a lot to contemplate these days. Like Para Site, which opened just before Hong Kong’s handover from Britain to China, Negative Space has emerged at a particularly contentious point in Hong Kong’s history, when many consider the city’s freedoms to be in decline. “[We’re opening] in an atmosphere of utter despair,” said Leung. “There is a lot of negative energy in society right now. Personally, I’m running out of energy to be angry. I just feel sad.”
This helplessness seeps through in one of his photographic works. Dominated by a few vigorous strokes of jet-black paint, a closer look reveals the faint outline of Leung’s silhouette. The artist is engulfed by the menacing darkness, rid of a voice, identity and form.
In the humid air of spring, Chan echoed this sentiment of despair, and she spoke about feeling the tension between political conviction and mounting apathy. “For this generation of youths, you can say that we are in the ice age [for civil society],” she said. “Right now, many of us are asking, ‘So what if thousands of people [are] protesting? Nothing will happen.’ And the day after, life goes on.”
But then everything changed. Three weeks after our interview, on Sunday, 9 June, a million people took to the streets in protest against a proposed bill that would open the door for people accused of crimes in China to be extradited to the mainland. They were greeted by pepper spray, tear gas and alleged instances of police brutality. That prompted another two million people to hit the streets a week later, which pushed Chief Executive Carrie Lam to suspend the bill.
She refused to withdraw the bill entirely, however, or to investigate police conduct during the protests. And so the protests continue, marking the most significant wave of civil disobedience since the 2014 Umbrella Movement, when protesters occupied key parts of Hong Kong for 79 days.
“I feel empowered by this newfound unity,” said Leung after two million people marched in the streets. “We are all working towards the same goal.”
During the two Sunday protests, Negative Space opened its space up to protestors who needed a break. “None of us are political artists, but because of what happened, our space suddenly became very political,” said Chan.
The same can be said for the Foo Tak Building, which has a tradition of hanging banners with pro-democracy messages from its façade. That has fostered a sense of community spirit that extends to all aspects of the building – something the Negative Space founders find inspiring. Recently, when the air-conditioning in its lobby broke, the Foo Tak Building’s administrators posted the news on the members’ internal messaging board, prompting a wave of donations from its artists and other tenants.
“You can say this has nothing to do with politics,” says Leung. “But that sense of community, the idea that we’re here for each other, is something I’m really proud of.”
Negative Space’s private exhibition Those Sparkles We See is held from 24 July to 25 August 2019. To visit, please contact Phaedrus Lam at 6769 9703.