A Journal of the Plague Year. Continental Fear. Islands, ghosts, rebels.
A Journal of the Plague Year. Continental Fear. Islands, ghosts, rebels.
August 31 - November 16, 2014
August 30 (sat.) 6PM
Curator's Exhibition Introduction
August 30 (sat.) 6:30PM Cosmin Costinas, Inti Guerrero
Arko Art Center Gallery 1∙2
Curated by Cosmin Costinas, Inti Guerrero
Organised by Arko Art Center, Arts Council Korea
Supported by the Hong Kong Arts Development Council (ADC)
Ai Weiwei, Bernd Behr, Natalia Sui-hung Chan, Oscar Chan Yik Long, Yin-Ju Chen, George Chinnery, Megan Cope, Dung Kai-Cheung, Larry Feign, Katsushika Hokusai, James T. Hong, Kim Kyungman, Kim So Youn, Rustam Khalfin, Takiji Kobayashi, Irene Kopelman, Firenze Lai, Lam Qua, Lee Kit, Im Heungsoon, Len Lye, Ma Liuming, Fionnuala McHugh, Josef Ng, Pak Sheung Cheun, Lygia Pape, Para/Site Art Criticism Class 2003, Jina Park, Moe Satt, Ricky Yeung Sau-churk, Samson Young, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Xiaoyu Weng, Adrian Wong , Ming Wong, Mathias Woo & Edward Lam & Zuni Icosahedron
A Journal of the Plague Year is a touring exhibition that shifts its center of gravity under the influence of magnetic forces in each location on its itinerary. Nevertheless, it departs from and remains strongly connected to an exploration of the events that affected Hong Kong in the spring of 2003: the most significant airborne epidemic in recent years, the SARS crisis, coupled with the tragic death of pop figure and pan-Asian icon Leslie Cheung.
This exhibition navigates disparate but interconnected narratives and contributes to a critical discussion about recent history,the implications of which extend beyond Hong Kong and beyond the realm of medicine. Fear of contamination, both physiological and cultural, as well as the anxietiesheld within societies that encounter alterities and face their own projections and prejudices, are all explored in contributionsfrom artists of various generations and shown together with historical artifacts and pop culture ephemera. Fear towards agents of difference is a recurrent pattern in different societies at different historical moments. Mechanisms of hatred and politics of differentiation have always been based on dehumanizing the body of the other, and the other isperpetually fabricated everywhere. The human is sometimes altogether abandoned when representing higher orders of the social, like the nation and its place in history. Animals, real or mythological, are then employed. For this reason, the exhibition also gathersdocumentation of a selection of performances that have destabilized varying narratives of dehumanization. They have done so by placing on the frontline the fragile but individualized human body at various moments of historical transformation and rupture in different corners of Asia: from the highly insecure Hong Kong of the 1980s, anticipating its handover to Mainland China, to China itself during its traumatic post-Tiananmen years; from Singapore and the last chapters of the Lee Kuan Yew era, to Kazakhstan at the dawn of nationhood after the fall of the Soviet Union; and finally, to Myanmar amidst its current transformation,under the specter of a possible democracy and of growing rejection of the other.
Anti-Chinese sentiments, which are strongly present in the public sphere of Hong Kong (in its anti-Mainland China variation of the more general anti-Chinese complex), as well as in other parts of Asia, are seen through a historical framework that includes the anti-Chinese immigration prejudices of the Western world present inthe early twentieth century. Immigrants were, and are stillfrequently represented as pests, as a disease that could sicken the essentialist and mono-cultural social body defined by populist nationalist rhetoric in varying contexts. Korea and China share a complicated relationship that includes many moments of anti-Chinese sentiments in the peninsula. The exhibition mentions a particularly violent and relatively hidden episode that occurred in 1931, theWanpaoshan incident. A local dispute led to anti-Chinese riots and lynchings of scores of Chinese peasants by Koreans across the country (with particular virulence in Pyongyang). This violence was catalyzed, and perhaps instigated, by the Japanese authorities – whichat the time were an occupying force in Korea – as part of their continental plan of colonial domination. The invention of an enemy is, however, a common strategy that stimulates radical nationalism in the service of imperial interests everywhere.
The return of nationalism and its anxieties has been fuelled in recent years in Asia by the ongoing disputes that surround a number of small islands, largely uninhabited and unvisited, and effectively invisible on regional maps that form, in one combination or another, the objects of territorial claims for every single nation in East Asia. These geographically quasi-insignificant rocks have become the symbol of growing imperial pride and insecurity in the region, and are considered a dangerous sign of things to come. But whyislands? Could there be a deeper reason, one that is rooted in myths and cultural patterns upon which millions can project their most radical politics for pieces of land that might not even really exist? Such invented places, as well as the signs and objects, the images and the great orchestrations of the social behind this pervasive accumulation of fear, behind the drawing of one’s territory and the expulsionof others from it, are directly and indirectly captured in several of the artworks gathered together in this exhibition.
The core of the show remains focused, however, on Hong Kong. The city has a subjectively internalized history of epidemics and of representations in the colonial era as an infected land that needed to be conquered from nature, disease and oriental habits in order to be made healthy, modern and profitable. These narratives culminated with the identification of the bacilluscausing the plague during an epidemic in Hong Kong in 1894. This discovery contributed to a dubious association of the disease with Asia and heightened the “yellow peril” scares in Europe and America at the time. In Hong Kong, the fear of infecting agents has always resonated with a fear ofother people,quarantine has mirrored exclusion, whilst epidemiological, racial and cultural contaminationhave shared the same language.
The unparalleled shutdown of Hong Kong in 2003 due to SARSand the subsequent atomization of society into quarantined segments, led to an unexpected shift in the political awareness of the territory’s citizenry. Just after the end of the epidemic record numbers of people turned out to protest against a new internal security law imposed by Beijing, ultimatelyprompting its shelving and, more importantly, the emergence of an active political community. After that moment the image of a de-politicized and soullessly pragmatic commercial hub could no longer tell the whole story about Hong Kong.
Less gloriously however, the main measure taken to alleviate the economic meltdown caused by SARS, namely the option for Mainland citizens to visit the territory for the first time on individual visas, caused another major shift in the identity of the city and its relationship with Mainland China. Medicalised vocabularies and imageries reminiscent of epidemics have been used in relation to the growing number of Mainland Chinese in Hong Kong, who are seen as pathogens that corrupt an otherwise healthy social body and as milk-formula-sucking locusts. Again, an epidemic becomes the backdrop to paranoia and hate, yet the fear of the Chinese, of their vast numbers and uncivilized habits, is now harbored by fellow Chinese rather than by the self-content Europeans of the last plague visitation a century ago. This essentializing xenophobia has come to be a defining factor in the relationship between the two sides of the Shenzhen River and, paradoxically,it has complicated the pro-democracy (and anti-Beijing) discourses and activism rejuvenated in the wake of the SARS crisis.
These ambivalences in the identity of Hongkongers are reflected in the figure of Leslie Cheung, the hugely iconic figure, actor and singer who committed suicide at the height of the SARS crisis by jumping off the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Central Hong Kong. His shocking death at the darkest hour of the darkest times in recent memory played its part in the mobilization of Hongkongers, who turned out in huge numbers for Leslie’s funeral, ignoring health warnings in effect at the time. GorGor’s (“Big Brother” in Cantonese and the name by which Leslie had been known) life and career had contributed to forging a strong sense of identity for Hong Kong culture, in spite of his queer and often contrarian persona. The versatility of the roles that he had played reflected, and arguably enhanced, the versatility of the city’s identity in recent decades, before and after the handover. And his ghostly presence continues to do so.
Cosmin Costinas and Inti Guerrero (curators)
A view from Chinese immigrants’ region rioted by Pyungyang peasants, Wanpaoshan Incident in 1931.
Photo courtesy of Han Hong-gu.
Portrait no 48.Yang Kang, 1830–1850, Educational print on canvas, 20x30cm.
Fukusima 2011, 2012, Oil on canvas, 70x100cm.
Divisor, 1968-2013, Photograph of a street performance.
Playground, 2009, Acrylic on paperboard, 31x42.5cm.