THE ARTIST AS PUBLIC INTELLECTUAL
an interview with
TL;DR: directly to full video
wen yau |Civil Left/Right series: wish you were here, (2014), Installation/performance
Palazzo Mora, Venice, Italy
Photo by: Elena Cardin / Eames Armstrong | Image courtesy of wen yau
As is so often the case for practitioners in the art field, wen yau’s role cannot be easily defined. Over the past years, she has been concentrating on performance/live art and time-based media, while working on research projects through affiliations with the Asia Art Archive and the Academy of Visual Arts of Hong Kong Baptist University. She was also one of the founders of Hong Kong community art space WooferTen.
Nonetheless, a common thread runs through these endeavours, as becomes clear when we ask her about her views on the role of the artist in society: wen yau considers the artist as a public intellectual with a responsibility towards the wider public, and not just towards the art crowd.
It is no coincidence, that there is a close connection between wen yau’s practice and our meeting point: Tamar Park, the public space under the arch of the Hong Kong Central Government Offices. She explains:
“Whenever I have an interview I will invite the interviewer to come with me to the Tamar Park. I feel that this is my space. This is not only the government's space. I want to reclaim the publicness of this space.”
The I <3 Hong Kong t-shirt that she is wearing alludes to yet another symbolic aspect of the location of our meeting: Hong Kong’s recent fight for democracy and the discussion about its autonomy versus the central government in Beijing. Tamar Park was at the center of protests instigated by the 2014 Umbrella Movement – named after the umbrella’s that protesters used to block police tear gas.
The protests resulted in the occupation of the city’s crucial thoroughfares for 79 days by an enormous crowd demanding democratic reforms from China’s increasingly present central government. Civic Square – the square in front of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council that recently had been closed off – as well as the ‘Lennon Wall’, that during the protests was covered in a curtain of heartfelt post-it support messages, are just around the corner.
There, under the looming presence of the Central Government Offices, we speak with wen yau about the influence of the international art world on Hong Kong. Here we highlight three topics that come up during our conversation.
The Chinese and Hong Kong flags waving at Civic Square
INTERNATIONAL ART HUNTERS
wen yau certainly feels that her many international contacts and experiences over the years have enriched her practice, and she urges new generations of artists to go abroad as well to see what others are doing.
This illustrates the dual nature of ‘the international’, both as a force that can drive cultural colonisation and as an opportunity to engage with new perspectives. wen yau feels that these encounters are urgently needed in a setting in which people from the outside come to hunt and ‘discover’ new artists.
The threat of colonisation is definitely still felt in the art circles of so-called ‘emerging markets’.
FIREWORKS & BIG SPECTACULAR SHOWS
wen yau stresses that cultural colonisation has been amplified by the arrival of art market juggernaut Art Basel in Hong Kong in 2013. With the yearly art fair in Hong Kong, she feels that the stakes for the homegrown art scene have been raised, both on a personal and institutional level. At the personal level, she recalls her – in hindsight luxurious – chance to develop her work in a relatively quiet and subtle way:
“So I’m lucky I started my practice, or started exhibiting my work in 2003. At that time it was still quite quiet in Hong Kong. I still had a chance to develop my work in a more quiet and subtle way. So I feel that actually this is more healthy, you know, to work slowly, comparatively.”
This sharply contrasts with the dilemma’s facing artists that start their practice in the present constellation of market pressure and steep competition:
“OK, you are like firework after graduation. If you can’t make firework nobody knows you and then you’ll be dead afterwards. But then the point is, after you make your firework, how can you sustain your work?”
A similar logic undermines sustainability at an institutional level. Many small to medium-size non-profit art organisations feel the need to grab a share of the attention by organising big ‘international’ events. For wen yau this pulls resources away from smaller projects with a community focus. She stresses the difficulty for these organisations to not cannibalise themselves but to find a good balance, to use available resources well, and to make sure to remain relevant for a local community.
Headquarters of the Chinese armed forces, the People's Liberation Army (PLA) at the edge of Tamar Park, Hong Kong
THE INTERNATIONAL AS A POSITIVE FORCE
Zooming out, despite her concern about the negative effects of the international art world for Hong Kong, wen yau concludes that in the city’s precarious situation vis-à-vis China, international attention is very welcome. This might make new people aware of Hong Kong’s situation and it might put pressure on the city’s governments.
However, ending on a more reflective note, she also observes the inherent tensions that an engagement with the international art world brings to the city:
“We’re defending our local culture, we’re defending our local identity in the face of this oppression from the mainland government. But then on the other hand I see that people in the art world are quite happy with all these art market things. I’m still trying to figure out what is up here. We are so inconsistent in this sense.”
pdf of the interview here: