TV is Dead, TV is Art: Killing TV at Tai Kwun

If you’re old enough to remember the feeling of anticipation when 7pm rolled around, meaning family dinner would be accompanied by your favourite TV show, JC Contemporary’s latest exhibition might conjure some happy memories. 

The first thing you see upon entering Killing TV, which includes works from 15 artists and artist groups, is a rotating platform upon which five old tube TV sets are installed. Viewers sit on a sofa installed at the end of this platform and are fed one video art piece after another. The only TV screen playing is the one in front of the sofa, and all others remained switched off, so if you happen to miss a video by one artist, you’ll have to wait for the next cycle – much like watching broadcast television in the days before streaming. The only thing missing is dinner – perhaps intentionally, as one of the works featured is Hong Kong artist Kwan Sheung-chi’s “TV-dinner” (2007). 

Killing TV’s rotating carousel is the brainchild of curators Jill Angel Chun and Tiffany Leung, and it set the scene for a show that is unapologetically nostalgic. It comes several months after broadcast stalwart Cable TV is pulling the plug on its pay TV service, bringing back memories of ATV — one of Hong Kong’s two free-to-air broadcasters — ceasing operations eight years ago. 

Broadcast TV eventually gave way to cable and now streaming services. And the grainy images of days gone by have been replaced by ultra-high-definition screens. Families watching television together over dinner have been replaced by individuals streaming shows whenever and wherever they want. Commercials are skippable, and one can easily flick from one show to another. 

This individualised and decentralised experience is mirrored in the configuration of the exhibition. Viewers are free to roam the halls, going from one video work to another, but the open space — only three of the 15 works are installed in enclosed spaces — also means that you’re hearing a mishmash of sounds from a myriad of works. If the rotating platform epitomises a traditional one-way mode of viewing television, the leakage of sounds and images from other screens represents the decentralised nature of modern TV viewing — and maybe contemporary life itself — which is very much “everything everywhere all at once.”

Killing TV’s curators say the show is not meant to be a comprehensive survey of TV culture, but a showcase of how different artists have disrupted broadcast TV. To that end, the curators have selected works from different eras, teasing out the threads connecting the works on display. Viewers can revisit works by the video art pioneers Nam June Paik, Dara Birnbaum and Chris Burden, and be reminded how these trailblazers were already challenging broadcast TV’s one-way communication in the early days. 

Birnbaum’s “Transmission Tower: Sentinel” is a towering structure forged from eight television sets. The TVs broadcast contrasting speeches by former US president George Bush and an activist-artist. Made in 1992, in the aftermath of the first Gulf War, the work sheds light on how information from an authority is disseminated and received – and how one might resist that authoritarian flow of information.

Nam June Paik and Jud Yalkut examine an even earlier era, when mid-century TV revolutionised advertising through catchy jingles and dazzling visuals that could reach enormous audiences. In “Waiting for Commercials” (1966-72, 1992), the artists intercut Japanese TV commercials with influential Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan’s speech on the impact of media to comment on the consumerist culture accompanying the popularity of television. McLuhan is famous for coining the saying “the medium is the message’’ in 1964, where he argued that the medium through which a message is communicated matters as much as the message itself. 

In “The TV Commercials” (1973-1977), Chris Burden bought a series of advertising slots on TV stations and disrupted the humdrum of cloying ads with self-made anti-sales pitches, including one video where he put himself in the role of a TV news anchor, disclosing his earnings, expenditures and profit as an artist.  

The show doesn’t just look to the past but teases out linkages between past and present. Did Burden, for example, anticipate the rise of the modern-day influencer? “If you look at the Four Heavenly Kings, they were nurtured by the traditional TV stations,” says Chun, referring to four male Cantopop stars popular in the 1980s and 90s: Aaron Kwok, Jackie Chan, Andy Lau and Leon Lai. By contrast, she adds, “a lot of the pop stars today are doing their own streaming, and building their own fan bases,” naming 1990-born indie singer-songwriter Serrini, who is set to participate in a Killing TV panel, as part of the Tai Kwun Conversations series, in November. Ideas about self-made influencers also find dizzying heft in Ryan Trecartin’s “Center Jenny” (2013), a video that speeds through 500 channels of reality TV contestants, all named Jenny.

Both Chow Chun-fai and Aled Simon mine the TV to explore issues of identity and power. Chow’s “Reproducing ‘Hong Kong – Live it, Love it!’” is a stop-motion video of 108 hand painted watercolours of clichéd Hong Kong images — Victoria Harbour, the Big Buddha and Jackie Chan — that have featured on tourism sites, billboards and pamphlets. 

The work makes the argument that the most powerful images came out of the broadcast TV era, with everyone tuning into the same shows and movies. It’s something Chow has explored before, particularly in his Painting on Movies series in which he paints cutscenes from well known Hong Kong movies made between the 1960s and 90s. And it raises the implicit question of whether streaming TV will lead to less defining cultural moments.

‘Hong Kong – Live it, Love it’ by Chow Chun-fai (2012) – Courtesy the artist

Aled Simon’s “Legend Extention II” (2023) ruminates on VHS tapes and faltering memory, before transitioning to the first-ever aerobics exercise video made in the Welsh language, features a Stonehenge-like structure forged from aerobic steppers.

Magdalen Wong’s “mmm wow” (2012) is the only work not featuring a screen – befitting of someone who says she has never been a fan of television but who nonetheless recognises the impact that TV commercials have on consumers. On the floor, a few television sets are flipped over, their screens kissing the floor, emitting mumbles and laughter – sounds the artist isolated from Hong Kong TV commercials from the 1980s to the early 2000s, which she regards as the golden age of television commercials, before the rise of the internet. “I feel the laughing in these commercials are also taunting the audience, as if saying, you are so dissatisfied with your lives that you’re always looking for something to fill the emptiness,” she says.

So has TV been “killed”? Ironically, the death of broadcast and cable TV in living rooms means that they are seen more than ever in arts exhibitions. Visual artists were of the first groups to become fascinated with broadcast TV, but the art world might also be where television will continue to live. Analogue TV, with its imperfect textures, offers a sense of ambiguity in art, says Chun. Chow notes that he’d purposely dig up VCRs with blurred captions and paint that, as they convey certain ideas about television aesthetics. 

“I know students who are working with analogue [TV] but they themselves were born [after it went out of fashion],” he says. “I think the reason analogue TV will continue to hold fascination – not only because it speaks to a certain aesthetic, but also a certain era.”   


Killing TV runs until November 19, 2023 at JC Contemporary in Tai Kwun.

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