A traditional art exhibition features one artist’s work from a single series. But today, exhibitions are no longer confined to one solo artist. They can range from a curator grouping several works influenced by a certain major event together, like the M+ Sigg Collection at Artistree, to including multiple works made of the same media in one space, like Statement 3: New Sculpture from Germany at the Goethe-Institut Hong Kong.
But in Central, a newer, rather rare type of exhibition has opened its doors to the public this April: Mill6 Foundation’s spring show, Social Fabric, held at event space The Annex.
Social Fabric’s full title is Social Fabric: New Work by Mariana Hahn and Kwan Sheung Chi, a duo showing of Berlin-born Mariana Hahn and Hong Kong-born Kwan Sheung-chi’s works, tied together by internationally renowned curator David Elliott.
As exhibitions have evolved over the years, so has the definition of art itself in the eyes of many in the art world. An exhibit like Social Fabric may well prompt some viewers to ask the bigger question of “what is art?” or whether it’s necessary to have interlocutors to help the public interpret art.
Hahn, who graduated from the University of Arts London, was taken with silk, a delicate material from China that is prominent in Hong Kong. Upon her arrival to the city, she stayed on Lantau Island and studied the “shu nu” — women who resided there and wove for a living. Her artistic practice has always been based on the notion that the act of “weaving” is a metaphor for the human anatomy. Using fabrics as her creative medium, her art works are essentially clothing items that can be viewed as the carrier of the living narrative. Her series of works in Social Fabric specifically explores the role of silk and how it has transformed Hong Kong over time.
In contrast, Kwan is based in the city. With a BA in Fine Arts from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, he is perhaps most known for founding various advocacy groups, such as Woofer Ten, which focuses on expressing local political and social issues using experimental art. His unusual works document his own life as a typical resident of the city, and the installations on display in Social Fabric demonstrate his role as an insider. They scrutinise the troubling question that a large percentage of youth in Hong Kong have about their hometown today — should they stay or leave, given the city’s past, present and anticipated future?
It’s not the first time multiple artists have collaborated for an exhibition. Yet previously, when a pair of artists who both had equal prominence worked on single show, they would produce works together, in that each artist would have physically altered the displayed work, or at least have had a say in the ideas behind the work during the creative process. There would be communication between the artists; a chemistry, a dialogue. But in Social Fabric’s case, what could possibly be the connection between the two series of works by these two very different artists?
When asked this question, Mill6 Foundation director Angelika Li had an answer that sounded like it had been rehearsed many times.
“I brought together these artists from very different backgrounds because I saw a similar sensibility in how they approach their work, despite their differing personalities,” she said. “Mariana has a very quiet, poetic way of talking about violent matters, and Chi is a very quiet person, yet his works speak very loudly.”
But a “similar sensibility” spoken from the mouth of a director of a charity organisation just isn’t enough. Hahn is Mill6’s inaugural artist-in-residence, and it feels as if the staff simply paired her with a local artist for convenience. Li, without status in the art world, would not convince many. This is where David Elliott comes in. With a worldwide reputation, the British curator has had 20 years of experience in the art field since beginning this journey as the director of the Museum of Modern Art in Stockholm until 2001. He has made himself a household name in the art world as a curator, adviser, writer and chairman. Invited by Li to curate Social Fabric, he has said he was “delighted” to be involved in such an exhibition — and who could doubt someone with such eminence?
Elliott definitely has a way with words. During the public sharing session of the exhibition, he pushed Li’s idea behind Social Fabric — the goal of which was to encourage viewers to see Hong Kong’s evolution through a different prism by contrasting past with present in unusual art forms.
“Mariana and Chi are two very different artists, but that’s how it works,” said Elliott at the public sharing session. “Although they had only met for the first time not long before the exhibition, instinctively, Mariana felt there was a way to work together. My role, as the curator, was to advise them on what to include.”
He explained the full picture.
“The name Social Fabric describes the collaboration perfectly well. It’s a joining of two cities, Hong Kong and Berlin, in a metaphor for the way Hong Kong migrants are woven together, just like Mariana’s weaving work. The different ideas and attitudes towards the city’s past, present and future — from Chi, as an insider looking out and from Mariana, as an outsider looking in — are woven together.”
The elaborate explanation nearly sounds convincing, coming from Elliott. But closer scrutiny of the information available about the artists themselves suggest otherwise. And it certainly did not seem to help that there was not much communication, much less any chemistry, between the two artists during the English sharing session, where both artists made speeches.
As the exhibition is in Hong Kong, Hahn of course could not speak about her work in her native language, German. Her English had a strong accent, but otherwise, she seemed able to communicate her ideas clearly to the audience. Kwan, on the other hand, was not fluent in English and decided to conduct his speech in Cantonese. Luckily for him, the entire audience understood Chinese — except for Hahn and Elliott.
This inability to communicate in the same language definitely explains, or at least contributes towards, the reason that the artists did not interact much during the short time they had known each other, as Hahn stated in interview. The German artist even went on to say that in essence, their works were separate.
“Chi’s a very poetic person,” she said. “We’re very different personality-wise. Because of this, we have our own approaches to making art. What David and Angelika hoped for us was that we would interact, understand and learn from each other’s ways. But we are not making a crossover here. The pieces stand as individual.”
There was obvious weight on Hahn’s works over Kwan’s — the German artist’s pieces outnumbered the latter’s three pieces by 26. But Kwan’s works, especially Hong Kongese, was the most impactful to the local resident. Observing the many types of visitors who wandered into the exhibition over a couple of days, the one piece of artwork that captivated all was the large-scale installation with which the visitor could interact.
As he described this work, he did not mention the other half of the exhibition altogether — this includes both the other artist and her pieces.
Inspired by the topical issue of identity, Kwan has covered the floor with tiny red and gold lapel badges depicting the flags of China saying “Hong Konger,” leading to a door that opens up to a bright white room. By scattering the badges all over the floor, his art goes straight to the heart of the question of what it means to be a Hong Konger today.
“I got these pins customised on Taobao,” he said. “I find it funny how you can buy your identity on the Internet.”
The only similarity between Hahn and Kwan’s works is that all of the pieces were inspired by Hong Kong. With just one link between the two series, can a typical person without any arts education even tell that they are supposedly a collaboration?
Elliot said that he did not think art has to be explained. Yet, without his explanation of the two artists’ works during the sharing session, it really was difficult for the audience to understand what brings Hahn and Kwan’s works together as one. They are different in creative medium, different in origin, and the artists have had minimal communication with each other. The average passer-by would not to able to depict the “woven” connections that the curator had dressed up so fancily in words.
Likewise, John Batten, president of the International Association of Art Critics Hong Kong, agreed that art does not need to be explained.
“Today, there are many press conference-type events like a dinner with the artists or gallery owners,” he said. “They feel like propagandas to feed a certain viewpoint to the public. The best thing for the public to do to appreciate art is to see an exhibition cold, form questions then try and work out the piece on their own — being spoon-fed an explanation takes away from the experience. Today, art is more than just the intentions of the creators. The audience can take away what they want from an exhibition and that becomes what that piece does, too.”
Another prominent player in the local art scene, Mark Spiegler, the director of annual art fair Art Basel, explained his definition of “good art.”
“Good art is something that changes you. Often, it’s a momentary attraction between a piece and a viewer,” he said. “How do you know it changes you? You walk away with a new aesthetic, a new experience, a different person. If a piece of work scares you, makes you uncomfortable and you’re thinking about it after, you’re affected.”
Art is like the relationship between prose and poetry. Prose is the direct conscience of information from writer to reader and poetry works on a subconscious level. If the viewer does not walk away from Social Fabric seeing the connection between Hahn’s and Kwan’s work, perhaps only understanding it when it is put into words for them, or is not walking away feeling affected in any way, then Elliott and Li have essentially failed in their exhibition. The two artists’ works are, to put it simply, just two collections forced together by prose in order for Mill6 Foundation to have something to show for its spring exhibition.