“If you put a mattress in there and sleep on it, you’d wake up drenched in sweat,” says Sara Wong of Para Site’s first site in a first-floor walk-up in Kennedy Town. “There’d be a faint outline of your body on the bed.”
As one of Para Site’s founding members and current board of director and secretary, there is no one better equipped than Wong to talk to about the evolution of one of Hong Kong’s leading independent art spaces, which has blazed a trail for contemporary art since it was established in 1996.
Over the past two decades, Para Site has seen its renown grow along with that of Hong Kong’s art scene, and its physical footprint has expanded accordingly. But for all the changes, there seems to remain one constant – Para Site’s draw to the most inauspicious of locations. Its second space was located on Po Yan Street in Sheung Wan, an area that was ravaged by the bubonic plague in 1894. In 2015, Para Site moved to the 22nd floor of an industrial building in North Point. It seems innocuous enough, until you turn the corner to come face to face with Hong Kong’s oldest funeral home – a particularly undesirable trait in a city still governed by superstitions.
Operation-wise, Para Site has also transformed from an artist-run space to a gallery with a more formalised structure. A director and deputy director were appointed to lead the space, consulted by a board. “Even though it is no longer artists-run, I think Para Site is still very important in the local art scene,” says Wong. She remembers the space raised “quite a few eyebrows” when it appointed German-born curator Tobias Berger as its executive director in 2005. “But he really went out there to meet with artists, curators, people in the local art scene,” she says. “And those that came after did the same.”
Set up at a time when Hong Kong had very few art spaces, Para Site has always been a leader. “We had the flexibility of exploring different ways of expression, through exhibitions, writing workshops and publications,” says Wong. In 1998, the space hosted Art SUPERmarket, an alternative fundraising project that invited some 90 artists to donate 180 small works that sold for HK$800 apiece. The space’s in-house magazine, PS, with its arty covers and irreverence for traditional formats, captured the zeitgeist of the city’s budding art scene.
Wong likes to think that Para Site has maintained the same sense of purpose even as Hong Kong’s art ecosystem has grown in size and complexity. In a hyper-commercial city, the non-profit space remains known for its experimental streak, both in content and form. The latter was seen in Apitchatpong Weerasethakul’s exhibition The Serenity of Madness, when “Ghost Teen,” a giant photograph of a mask-donning teenager, was stuck onto the exterior of Para Site and reflected on glossy surface of the building opposite it. “That wasn’t part of our initial plan at all,” recalls Qu Chang, an associate curator at Para Site. “It just kind of… happened.”
Qu and Wong are sitting together in the gallery and their conversation quickly turns into a discussion about Hong Kong art. While both are careful to avoid essentialist readings of the city’s art scene, they agree that local artists have a distinctive approach to their work. “Hong Kong artists are more inward-looking, subtle, but it doesn’t mean that they aren’t aware of what’s happening around them,” notes Wong. Some of them start with a very quiet outer layer, but when you dig deeper, there is usually some kind of twist. That is the real message.”
Qu contrasts the Hong Kong approach with that of artists in mainland China, where she is from. “Hong Kong artists tend to be more personal, whereas those from the north, for example, tend to talk about politics and philosophy a lot more,” she says. “But it doesn’t mean that Hong Kong artists are insulated from what’s happening to them. They just have a different way of expressing it. [For these artists], the personal often spills over into the political. The line is very fluid.”
That line is what Crush, the latest exhibition curated by Qu at Para Site, is trying to challenge. The show takes a cue from feminist geographer Eleanor Wilkinson’s 2016 paper On love as an (im)properly political concept, in which she critiques rhetoric that calls for the “transformative power” of love, especially in politics. The theorist argues that love isn’t necessarily nurturing and benevolent, it can also be domineering and destructive. Crush filters all that through the lens of unrequited love. “It’s all in the title,” Qu explains. “You develop a crush for someone, but you could also be crushed by that crush.”
Despite the heavy-sounding title, the show is one of the quietest to be staged at Para Site’s current space. There is a feeling that one must rein in one’s emotions. For an exhibition that examines how love can crush us, it also appears to warn us against succumbing to these emotions.
The way that the personal spills over into the political is succinctly manifested in Wong Wing-sang’s “Magic Props” (2016). It has long suspected that Nobita Nori, the protagonist of Doraemon, a popular Japanese cartoon, suffers from autism and that the titular character — a portly blue cat robot — is nothing more than a figment of his imagination. Created after the 2015 death of Lam Po-cheun, the voice actor who dubbed Doraemon into Cantonese, Magic Props rubs out Doraemon, thus presenting a broken and jarring narrative of the classic show without its namesake character.
One is also tempted to draw parallels between the sense of loss in Wong’s work with the sense of hopelessness that perpetuated a segment of Hong Kong society after the 2014 Umbrella Movement, which was also known as Occupy Central. “The artist told me it wasn’t political, but his work came out shortly after the Occupy movement, I immediately connected the sense of loss in his video with sense of loss experienced by the city’s youths,” says Qu.
Next to Magic Props is Marge Monko’s “Dear D” (2015). Qu says that Monko’s work was another source of inspiration for the exhibition. “I first met Marge and saw her piece in Estonia three years ago,” she says. “It got me thinking about the relationship between unrequited love and contemporary love. Heartbreak is something personal, yet it is also very much a social construct.”
On the projector, a narrator is typing out a “love email” to “D,” the object of his or her affection. Dear D models itself partially after Chris Kraus’ novel I Love Dick, a faux self-autobiographical novel where the narrator pens a series of love letters to a man named Dick, while ruminating on life, love, the arts and philosophy. When Kraus’ novel came out in 1997, it was attacked by some as “narcissistic” and “messy,” but two decades on, it is being devoured by feminists, artists and academics, and last year it was adapted into an Amazon TV series. “Dear D” reworks those ideas in a contemporary context, bringing to the fore the tension between the immediacy promised by digital communication channels and the alienation brought about by it.
Despite this tension, there is relief in the acting of writing itself. Like I Love Dick, “Dear D” is a performative act, an attempt to work it through one’s thoughts and feelings, and where the narrator, to paraphrase Mongo paraphrasing Kraus, is “writing her way into this world.”
Feminist undertones also course through the artist’s “Studies of Bourgeoise” (2004-2006), located on the opposite end of the exhibition. Showing female bodies in various contorted states in a setting as grand as that of a Venetian palace, they reference 19th century studies on female hysteria but also look like high-fashion adverts, in which models are often asked to pose in unnatural ways.
While female hysteria is no longer recognised as an illness, the piece shows how the female body, and emotions attributed to the female sex, are socially constructed. “It’s relevant not only in the context of exhibition, but also in the age of the #MeToo movement,” notes Qu.
Meanwhile, Sarah Lai Cheuk-wah’s “Rave On, Strokes and Demonstration” recreates images that she has seen on the bodies of the celebrities that she follows on Instagram. It’s a poignant examination of modern social relationships, trapped in the liminal space between intimacy and distance, real and virtual. Love may unite, but fairytales rarely happen in real life, and more often it doesn’t – and when that happens, we’re left clawing for whatever snippet is left of that dream.
Disquieted souls loom large in Chen Zhe’s “891 Dusks: An Encyclopedia of Psychological Experiences” (2012-ongoing), where the artist investigates dusk’s profound effect upon the human psyche and records them, one by one, in a leather-bound volume. The work was previously shown at Shanghai’s BANK gallery, but here it takes on new meaning; Hong Kong, after all, is known as a city that never sleeps.
Chen’s work stirs up memories of whisky-addled nights, nights spent ransacking kitchen cabinets for sleeping pills, wandering around Admiralty when the sun has long set, but the streets are still thronged with tents in all hues, yellow umbrellas and banners. Fleeting emotions, but they leave an indelible mark, one that lurks in the shadow, awaiting its chance to leap forth.
Crush runs until November 25, 2018 at Para Site. Click here for more information.