Photography Reviews

Community and Participatory Art: involving collective vision in the current art movement

Art no longer is solely an individual expression. Other than collaborative art-making, we are growing interest and sensitivity towards how art can be a connectivity tool to extend to the community and public engagement. While the classic way of making and enjoying art still has its own value, the placement of art has been shifting towards collaborative and participatory, whether it is within the creative processing in making the artworks themselves or to create public engagement when experiencing the artworks. 

In recent months, there were several exhibitions that revolve around this theme which are worth discussing. 

I. Mountain No Mountain

https://nodisciplinelimited.hk/mountainnomountain/

A jointly presented project by LCSD and the Wan Chai District council, the project is curated by no discipline limited, inviting six artists to create community art experience as a way to use art to connect to the community. 

“In communities, art is not only functional or a mere tool for problem-solving. Community arts can also widen our senses and experience. Once our mindset changes, the surroundings and even ourselves are open to a broader world.”

The prelude exhibition at Our Gallery, Wan Chai was a way to introduce the work by the six participating artists, using different media, to create the community art experience in the coming months. 

Our broom, by Luke Ching, was a memorable one as I participated in the workshop which led me to think more deeply about brooms and street sweepers through our experiences in making the brooms and creative sweeping. Through embodied experience in creating symbols or Chinese characters made by fallen leaves, we are inspired to widen our senses and as a collective look deeper into the issues around brooms and unlock their possibilities. Here, the artist involved the community and the public in the actual artistic processing and in making the artwork itself. The other five artworks also use a similar methodology but through different mediums. For example, in the prelude exhibition, Lawerence Lau, uses “a chain of dialogues”, to invite the public the write their questions that they may want to ask if they meet a stranger in Wanchai on a notebook, and write their answers to the previous questioner. Using sound as a medium, he will continue with this methodology on the streets of Wanchai in the coming months and create a music gathering at the end with people who participated.

I look forward to seeing how the finished work will be presented, if they may, to the public once again or whether the work is left to be ephemeral and to be experienced live only.

II. Serendipity in the Street 

https://www.taikwun.hk/en/programme/detail/serendipity-in-the-street/838

Curated by Tai Kwun Heritage team, along with a researcher team and design partner One Bite Studio, seven artists were invited to use art to respond to what has been observed around the Central and Sheung Wan neighbourhood. The exhibition adopted “Modernologio”, an everyday life observation practice originated in Japan, as the research method to identify the interconnections between people, space and activity. 

Here the exhibition becomes a documentation or a way of showing the findings from the social research made around Central and Sheung Wan neighbourhood, with artworks such as drawings, sketch statistics, short films etc as representations of the findings. Although the exhibition also revolves around the community of Central and Sheung Wan, the value of the exhibition is in the objectivity of presenting a specific community through the work of art. The majority of the artworks is passively engaged with the public, with one section that invited the public to draw their own imagination on how to reuse the prison yard space in Tai Kwun. 

For me, this is definitely not participatory art and I’m not sure whether I can call this community art either. There’s definitely a stir within the art world to shake things up in how we define art and how we present art in exhibition spaces like Tai Kwun. 

III. Hongkongers Archives of 100 objects

https://www.facebook.com/香港百物檔案館

Initiated by artist Kong Yiu Wing, this exhibition was an extension of his previous work built from 2019 where the artist invited the public to donate objects that pertains to the theme “HongKongers”. Personal objects including household items, relics of the movement, old photos, documents, multimedia, 3D model etc becomes an archive for the HongKongers, so to speak. Here the value of the work rests upon being a preservation of a history of the community’s subjectivity about Hong Kong. 

From collecting items to creating a system to archiving these objects, every step of the way becomes a question to decide how much to insert the artist’s curation and how much to leave it open to public participation. And further, is this a question that should only be addressed to the artist himself or can we inspire the public to think together?

At the talk, there was a lady who picked up the documented files and started correcting mistakes. She expressed her disappointment with the mistakes she found in those documents. I wonder, instead of standing in opposing position to point out what was wrong, can we, as artists and curators, inspire the public to involve in bettering the archive in a collective way? And can we, as the public, question ourselves in how to contribute to bettering the archive? 

I look forward to see how this project evolves, and wonder the direction that the artist will take as the sole holder of this archive, yet also represents the community of Hong Kong. 

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Artist Inspirations, The Art of Philosophy

Honest Photography: how to photograph with a free mind

Part 1. Kosuke Okahara on photographing with a free mind

“If there’s a pure form of documentary photography, the picture should not be influenced by any preexisting visions.”

Having been working on a story about the impact of drugs on local community in various parts of Columbia for 13 years, Kosuke Okahara became able to predict the kind of scenes that he would see even though he was in different towns, and in the way he would frame the images.

“It’s like I was trying to see what I’ve seen already… it’s almost like I’m copying myself…”

“I asked myself – am I documenting or am I just taking pictures of the situation that I kind of wanted to see… ” he quoted. 

A former aspiring Olympic skier whom became a W. Eugene Smith Fellowship recipient, Japanese photographer Kosuke Okahara shared his struggle with the philosophical dilemma he had with documentary photography, and his journey to finding his ways through making the work The Blue Affair

© Kosuke Okahara, from the photobook ‘The Blue Affair’; Source @ Kosuke Okahara Website

The Blue Affair is a a work with photographs taken in Koza, the heart of Okinawa, which gave Okahara the refreshing sense of being a photographer with a beginner’s mind again. The repeated visits without a specific purpose in producing a story somehow led to the people, the conversations, the happenings he encountered from this place infiltrating his dreams — as if these were symbolic gestures in nudging him to return, and at the same time, to relight his inner flame and re-experience again the joy of just pure photography.   

“… being more conscious takes one away from the purpose while getting ride of the purpose is the only way to get closer to the intent. In that sense, documentary is like a tragedy of fate. Achieving by losing – like a Shakepearean play.” —extract from the afterword written by Tatsuya Ishikawa, of the photo book The Blue Affair by Kosuke Okahara. 

Are we really creating images from a fresh eye every time we shoot, or are we already building on from pre-existing images of what to be seen? How can we be more aware when the way we photograph becomes purposeful rather than being open and honest with what is there to be seen? And how can we remove ourselves from the position of already knowing and begin again with a beginner’s mind? These are the questions to ponder, and with the blue affair, Okahara has shown us that it is possible.

Going through The Blue Affair book gave me chills. It’s the kind of book that gives you a visual journey in a way that you are drawn in as if you were present with the photographer, experiencing what he was experiencing at the same time. That’s the kind of work I aspire to work towards, because the work that one would remember the most, are the ones that are felt.

His recommended Photobook:  Rasen Kaigan by Leiko Shiga

Please check out his work:

Website: https://www.kosukeokahara.com / IG: @kosukeokahara

To be continued… Part 2. Teju Cole on embracing chance in a confined time

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Slow Looking, The Art of Philosophy

Can we look at a tree without the image of the tree?

I.

Ever since I came to know Krishnamurti (thanks to a friend who introduced me to him), this question he pointed out has been stuck in my mind ever since. 

“Can we look at a tree without the image of the tree?”

Can we really look at a tree, without translating it with our own terminology, categories or temperament? Just looking – just seeing what’s in front of us – seeing what is actually taking place, and feeling it without words of interpretations?

II.

It reminds me of another piece of reading that I loved by Brian Massumi on the autonomy of affect. 

“A man builds a snowman on his roof garden. It starts to melt in the afternoon sun. He watches. After a time, he takes the snowman to the cool of the mountains, where it stops melting. He bids it good-bye, and leaves.” 

Researchers took this short-film and turned it into 3 versions: the original voiceless version and 2 with added voice-overs (one factual and one emotional) and gave them to a group of 9 years old children to watch. What was astonishing from this finding was that the original non-verbal version elicited the greatest response from the children’s skin, the factual voice-over was the least unpleasant and the emotional voice-over was the most remembered. The result clearly showed us that our body responds to what we see before the formation of words. And then with the addition of words, they amplify or dampen what is being seen. Even with factual descriptions, it linearised what and how the images were being looked at, and in turn became an interpretation of what we see. 

Note: In the case of watching a film, we are looking at consciously indexed moving images. This means that there’s an intent of how those images were framed when creating the film for the audience to look at. But the takeaway here is that – what we see produces a primitive affect prior to any input of words, whether we are consciously aware or not.

III.

So, can we look at a tree without the image of the tree?

Zheng Bo, a Hong Kong-based artist, who spent his art practice working with plants mentioned that, the whole point of his daily rituals of drawing plants, is so that he can look and study the plants. He said that his artworks of plants are of no mastery of craftsmanship, but the experience of daily pencil-drawing of the plants made him slow down and look at the plants closely. He was documenting his experience of looking at plants. 

IV.

As a photographer and a psychologist, I’m fascinated by looking – the way we see – the images we form both mentally and physically. With this question in mind, I did an experiment with photographs, with the intention of just looking at trees. 

I picked a tree randomly and began looking at it from the bottom, where the roots are, then moving up to its branches and observed how they separate, and finally gazed upon the leaves and the fruits. And then I realised, the moment I took a photograph was the moment that I compared it with my mental image of a tree. I was photographing something that’s outside of my mental image of trees as new knowledge for me to keep. After this realisation, I then decided to not photograph anything and just observed. I watched my thoughts while I was just looking at this one particular tree, and I saw myself comparing that with what I know about trees, “oh the branches on this tree have such irregular shapes!” “the roots here are super interesting, they look like claws” etc. It seemed like the space between the looking and the thoughts is abducted, or maybe I just wasn’t aware enough of the gap in between. So I tried again. This time with a different tree. At first I did the same thing – I started from the roots and slowed moved up my gaze. Then I noticed the moment I took the phone out it changed the way I was looking at the tree. The act became purposeful in capturing something. So instead, I started all over but this time using my phone camera live view as a lens to observe the tree. I zoomed in as if I leaned forward; and zoomed out as if I took a step back to see the whole tree. Then at those moments where I was just looking with my mind emptied, I pressed the shutter. Something magical happened. The captured images have this sense of deadpan and mundane. They are really just ordinary, and at the same time I’m fascinated. I bet these are some of the images that one wouldn’t even spend a second and swipe to the next. 

V.

Looking at a tree, without the image of the tree, documenting it as an image, and looking at the tree in the image. What do you see?

Reference: 

Art Asia Pacific. (2021). Zheng Bo: Life is hard, why do we make it so easy? [Video]. Retrieved 8 June 2021, from http://artasiapacific.com/Projects/ZhengBoLifeIsHardWhyDoWeMakeItSoEasy.

Krishmurati, J., 2020. A mind free of ‘me’. Retrieved 8 June 2021, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=88ewKAjk7sg&t=1001s at 16:25 

Massumi, B. (1995). The Autonomy of Affect. Cultural Critique, (31), 83-109. doi:10.2307/1354446

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Photography Reviews

Hello! How are you? — A Photo Exhibition by So Hing Keung

If I am to be completely honest, writing has been with my life even more so than photography. Since I remember I kept a diary close to me and it’s been something that I make sure I do every morning til this day. There’s always been this little voice inside my head that says I should write more but also not really knowing what it is that I should write. So I started and I stopped. I wrote a bit of this and that, and then I stopped again. This cycle repeated endlessly. The creative resistance is huge. Not good enough writing. Not good enough topic. Not interesting enough. Not genuine enough. Etcetera etcetera. I have struggles to make myself sit and sift through my thoughts to come to something that I feel is “presentable”. But maybe that’s the very idea that is blocking me. 

I once read a letter of Vincent Van Gough to his brother, Theo, from October 2 1884, he wrote,

“You don’t know how paralyzing it is, that stare from a blank canvas that says to the painter you can’t do anything. The canvas has an idiotic stare, and mesmerises some painters so that they turn into idiots themselves.

Many painters are afraid of the blank canvas, but the blank canvas IS AFRAID of the truly passionate painter who dares — and who has once broken the spell of “you can’t.”

So this whispering voice is coming back to me again. And this time I’m determined to break this spell of “you can’t” and just write. Like Picasso would say, “you have to start painting to know what you want to paint.” A blank page is a scary thing to a writer, it is different to photography where one picks something from the world and frame it. One has to clearly organise their thoughts so to articulate exactly what they want to communicate. So here I am again, starring at this blank page and my fingers started to type, and then holding the delete button and retype again. Something beautiful came about from this act of back and forth, and then words start to imprint themselves onto this blank page forming sentences and paragraphs. Maybe all I really needed to get pass was the very first 15 minutes of panic, and just let myself sit through this uncomfortable space of the unknown. 

© Lumenvism, from the series ‘Hello! How Are You?’; Source @ JCCAC Happenings

Yesterday I went to the exhibition opening “Hello! How are you? — A Photo Exhibition by So Hing Keung” at Lumenvisum Hong Kong. I noticed that usually art reviews or exhibitions go-to articles are mostly written in Chinese (because after all it’s mostly for the local audience) but honestly, I’m just way more comfortable with writing in English. (Perhaps this can be useful for those outside of Hong Kong to know more about Hong Kong art and artist.)

I once did a workshop with So Hing Keung and his work is very much influenced by Josef Sudek. A lot So’s previous work, even the work at this particular exhibition, are mainly photographs of still life and rarely does he photograph people. His interest in photographing traces in our ordinary life draws our attention to the little things that we may overlook daily. In this particular work, he drew his attention to his shadow (which he refers to as death) and its relationship with objects and the surrounding environment. Playing by the idea of how photographers usually avoid shooting shadows, he purposefully investigated this relationship to question and document his existence. 

Further by displaying these photographs of the shadows in an exhibition format, it has an after effect of creating an illusion of “saying hello” and inviting the audience to join in the conversation with his shadows in co-creating our existence wit those photographs. On one of the walls, there are 4 large panels of work with one that looks like Lo Ting, a species half-human half-fish, indigenous to Hong Kong, as the poster of the exhibition. He referred these panels as “death rolls” and hence the looseness of the mount. The rest of the work were displayed in an organised home deco style of 15-20 thick white frames along the other three white walls. The frames were small and glassless, allowing the audience to look closely, like peaking through different windows, to speak to these strange aliens that never come to light. 

The work has a certain subtlety yet with a quick glance it can easily be interpreted as gimmicky and literal. Especially with the limited gestures (often with a hand wave) and rigid body postures of how the artist interacted with his shadows, I feel the work can be expanded much more if given the range of diversity to play. I guess this work comes with resonance to the previous days of working from home, social distancing and lockdowns where one would begin to ask deep questions about our very own existence, especially when we cannot relate to the physical world. Our shadows become the very fundamental thing that brings us back to our sense of placement in this world. Here, So recreated this journey for the audience to experience how we can reconnect with ourselves and the world.

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Artist Inspirations

In conversation with Mien Thuy

How do we define ourselves? And what makes us who we are as individuals and as a collective? Thuy is a Vietnamese self-taught photographer who is interested in using photography as a tool to navigate and explore her identity and her Vietnamese roots.

The image of her hands, using both her middle fingers and the ring fingers, stretching her eyes into 2 thin lines making a strange face in front of a mirror captivated me. I even tried it myself — the muscles around the eyes were stretched outside of their comfortable placements, feeling strange and unpleasant yet present. What intrigued me the most was her self-portrait in front of a mirror ironically puts her in a place of wanting this strangeness to be seen yet one cannot even see herself.

As a new member joining badeyesphotos, Thuy is joining me in a long deep conversation about how photography came into her life, her works and the process behind them and life in general. Hello Thuy! Thanks for joining me and discussing with you about your photography journey.

© Mien Thuy, from the series ‘Sisyphus’s sleepwalking’; Source @ Mien Thuy Website

When I was studying Thuy’s work for the interview, I could easily resonate with her emotional rides as a female photographer myself working in Asia as well. Our identity is constantly changing and shaping from our own changing body, our family influences and to the nation’s political and cultural impacts. Here Thuy is not afraid to speak and stand up for what she believes in, despite the world trying to categorise herself into labels of this or that, she used photography to express her struggle yet at the same time stood a unique point of view of expressing who she is as a photographer.

Her recommended Photobook: Jesús Monterde — Nemini Parco

Please check out her work:

Website: https://mienthuytran.com / IG: @may.ushuaia

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Slow Looking

The life of VR

What if we do live in games in our future… what would it be like? And what if we develop relationships with people inside the game… and not just a feeling but actually can do everything like what you can do in real life too and be able to sense all that… then what is the boundary between real and not-real? Do we then need reality? And then what if the people you developed relationship inside the games you discovered are the people that you actually know in real life too, wouldn’t that confused the fuck out of you? Especially in the games one can change their appearance and character… then again it goes back to… what’s real and what’s unreal? Who is the real identity and are both real and game you both you? And then, wouldn’t one thought about what if the reality we are now in is actually just a game that we are all playing in? And that there is a greater reality out there somewhere?

Sometimes I watch too much anime. The Sword Art Online anime made me think a lot about virtual reality worlds, and that really is like another world e.g. Mars or Moon that people can live in I suppose – with everything that can be adopted from the real world e.g. governance, structures, associations, relationships, homes, crimes etc. And eventually the world doesn’t even need avatar of real people, it can just be AIs. What will happen if each and one of us are able to create our own VR world with AIs in it… then do we even need other human beings? If everything can be replaced by AI… do we need each other, the social aspect of human connection? And then literally, if one can create more than one VR worlds, one can jump from worlds to worlds to experience different things or systems, relationships, power dynamics, rules etc. Then what is the significance of the reality? And would that matter anymore? Right now for all that matter I might just be in one of the VR worlds designed by someone higher, and that I am put in a place called Hong Kong to do what I am to do. Who knows.

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Photography Reviews

Evidence – Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel

Larry Sultan, famously known for his work Picture from Home, which documents the lives of his home with parents in Southern California with contemporary photography, film stills, fragments of conversations and his own writings and other memorabilia, collaborated with Mike Mandel for a work less well-known Evidence, a brilliant recent discovery while reading the book Photography and Collaboration by Daniel Palmer.

Between 1975-1977, Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel worked together and curated selected photographs from a multitude of images that previously existed solely within the boundaries of the industrial, scientific, governmental and other institutional sources. The work Evidence is about juxtaposing these previously contextualised images into new forms of narratives which some become humorous and while others perplexing. The work demonstrate that the meaning of a photograph is conditioned by the context and sequence in which it is seen, and by isolating from their original context that these images take on meanings that address the confluence of industry and corporate mischief, ingenuity and pseudo-science.

© Larry Sultan, from the series ‘Evidence’; Source @ Larry Sultan

One needs to read the book to fully absorb and comprehend what they set out to do (And I wish I have the book to read it closely too!). The absurdity of these pairings somehow has a common thread that holds the whole book, transporting you to a universe that you may be familiar with yet completely off in some way – suggesting that we often read images in a contextualised form and when that’s been removed, what seems familiar becomes floating in a space that is waiting for us to make meaning of. When there’s a series of these and are carefully curated and sequenced, our brain has its way to fill in those blanks and create new forms of narrative. Evidently these are images of evidence, of truths, of events, of history… somehow in Evidence the value of these images changed and became fictional.

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Slow Looking

Do dogs dream?

The dog next to me was sleeping peacefully while I was doing some work on my laptop just next to her. Suddenly there goes some crazy sounds from my right end and I thought she must have been snoring. I took a quick glance over and saw her body was frozen in a crescent moon shape with twitching eyes and continuing with these strange sounds as if she was having some bad dreams. I then typed in google and asked, “do dogs dream?” Apparently they do. Just like us humans.

And then I wondered, “What was she dreaming about?”

Is it her mother? Or is it the neighbour garage dog that she sees everyday? Maybe she was picking a fight with him since she runs away usually in her awake world.

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Slow Looking

The fake valentine.

The workers are on a roll again. When I saw this tunnel full of fake pink sakura flowers hanging beautifully, I know it is the season of love soon. Their florescent orange uniform clashes so loudly with the pale pink fake sakuras that it was eye soaring. Standing on the side of the tunnel, they robotically take apart the pink sakura flowers one by one from sheets and sheets of them, leaving bags of green plastic branches, and bunches of never dying flowers that are waiting to be glued onto the tunnel that people enter into on their daily walks from the ferry pier to the city hub.

“I’ve had enough.”

I imagined one saying that, hanging his uniform on the roof of the temporarily built workplace next to this tunnel that overlooks one of the tallest financial building across the harbour.

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Slow Looking

The poetic dance of the mind.

7:42am. I messaged Zoe, “I dreamt of you last night.” And then she replied, “I thought of you last night and was going to message you today.”

Is there really something called telepathy? Or simply by chance that I thought of you subconsciously and you consciously thought of me too at the same time? Was it because I dreamt of you that somehow that thought came to you so you thought of me? Or was it because you thought of me so your soul travelled to my dreams? Or was it really a synchronised photon entanglement of transporting the same message to two people at the exact same time? Or it doesn’t really have any explanation at all but just plain coincidence. But… isn’t it beautiful? That when I thought of you and you also thought of me? The poetic dance of the mind where at that moment, in some altered universe, we were connected for a split second. And here… are the traces, the breadcrumbs of that beautiful encounter.

She said, “Oh yeah some how the art exhibition event at the gallery we went together during Christmas popped up. So I thought of you.”

I said, “You were teaching me how to play piano in my dreams, and performed first. Somehow you were so into it that you were glowing, and then in the middle of the tune, you stopped, went towards the electric guitar, picked it up and started rocking and rolling.”

Makes me wonder – are there any connections between the two?

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