It’s one of the most powerful scenes in 20th century literature. A malignant dwarf stares up at a Nazi rally from inside the scaffolding that props up the spectacle, a bombastic carnival of power that is enforcing a new, seemingly unstoppable world order. The dwarf is Oskar Matzerath, the wily anti-hero and jester figure in Guenter Grass’ 1959 novel The Tin Drum. His stunted growth, amorality and absurd grandiosity serve as a symbol for Germany — and the whole of Europe — from the 1930s onwards. His character might well feel familiar to those observing the rise of populist leaders today.
Nihilistic Oskar embodies the ids and, very occasionally, the egos of his society, weaving his way around the various structures that prop it up and are simultaneously dismantled by it when the cogs of history take whatever turn comes next.
The iconic scaffolding scene reminds us of how flimsy and bizarre power structures are revealed to be when viewed from a different perspective – usually from inside the fragile mechanisms integral to creating their mirages of authority and superiority. That is is a vantage point offered in Dismantling the Scaffold, one of the two inaugural exhibitions at the newly opened Tai Kwun Contemporary, an art space inside the restored Victoria Prison and Central Police Station compound. Curated by independent art organisation Spring Workshop, it makes full use of Tai Kwun’s expansive space – a rarity in Hong Kong.
The strong and mercifully funny show brings together works from international artists meditating on and playing with ideas around what it means to live among the various structures society has imposed on us. It contemplates on shifting, symbiotic and clashing relationships across cultural, geo-political, technological and economic forces.
Loosely placing the story of Hong Kong in the wider context of the region, the show’s reach is expansive, working to imaginatively explore the city’s place as a potential cultural behemoth in a post-colonial world amid Asia’s rising prominence, incorporating futuristic works alongside pieces that reflect on the city’s mercurial history.
Both Oskar Matzerath’s adventures across institutions and Spring’s exhibit are underpinned by the philosophy of power dynamics proposed by Foucault, who wrote on the various ways the structures and ideologies that mould society are used as vehicles of control and influence. His studies of such structures, which extend to prisons and medical institutions, explored how they exercised economic, political and technological power. They provide particularly valuable insights applicable to today’s vastly transforming world in which so many institutional structures society has anchored itself to feel to be falling by the wayside in the face of widespread disruption and upheaval across all geographies, demographics and industries.
One of the best works is a mixed media installation piece produced by a triumvirate of artists, one from China, one from South Korea, and one from Japan, working together to create a piece that playfully and incisively creates a fictitious western capital called Xijing. These artists are Chen Shaoxing, Gimhongsok, and Ozawa Tsuyosh. When when the work was created in 2007, neither could speak each other’s language.
The work, “Xijing Men,” offers a clever play on words alongside an absurdist unpacking of nationalistic identities, deriding the boosterism of the Beijing Olympics amid political tensions between China and Japan. It encourages the viewer to think critically about the individual’s place in a wider geopolitical framework while also showing how humour and creative play can be used to bring individuals of disparate cultures and languages together. The fictitious nature of Xijing also draws attention to the seeming arbitrariness of national markers of identity, and, by extension, borders.
Closer to home are pieces from artist Tiffany Chung, who works between Ho Chi Minh City and Dallas, and has created an extensively researched project on a dark chapter in Hong Kong history – its treatment of Vietnamese refugees during a crisis in which thousands languished in detention centres across the city for years, suffering from the city’s extremely flimsy migration management system. This idea stretches further into the realm of porous borders that are continuing to reshape the world’s ever-changing geographies.
Using archival material, including video reports and newspaper clippings that examine the migration patterns of the boat people, the pieces draw attention to the city’s longstanding fraught relationship with and management of refugees, a problem that persists today as the city continues to drag its heels on implementing a viable system for humane treatment of asylum claimants.
Dismantling the Scaffold is curated by Christina Li, of Spring Workshop, the nimble and clever independent art organisation that was founded by Mimi Brown in 2012. Spring’s space in Wong Chuk Hang closed earlier this year, creating something of a vacuum in an art ecology that still weighs too heavily in favour of the commercial art world. That will hopefully start to change as the likes of Tai Kwun — which is off to such a promising start — and the M+ museum of visual culture help offset that imbalance and help foster much needed critical, independent and democratic discourse.
If Oskar Matzerath is a symbol of 20th century European society, Tai Kwun has the potential play a similar role for our 21st century transnational world. The site has lived many lives as various disciplinary structures. It started its days as the compound of Hong Kong’s first prison, Victoria Gaol, built not long after the British established control in 1841. It is also a site that has included a police headquarters and a magistracy through its checkered colonial history.
It now completes its latest transformation into a space in which to challenge who we are, where we are headed, and how best to navigate these old and new structures that surround us as we ponder the larger economic, political and cultural forces that will inevitably be interacting with the site as they will our city.
Dismantling the Scaffold runs at Tai Kwun Contemporary until August 19, 2018. Click here for more information.