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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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

A different kind of photobooks – texts & images

In 2019, there are several interesting photobooks that incorporate the clever use of text, turning them into the best photobooks of 2019 named by various renowned critics and artists.

One which I own myself – Slant by Aaron Schuman published by MACK and I wrote a review about, brilliantly combines the use of local newspaper reportage of succinct and “extraordinarily anticlimactic” accounts of crimes, suspicious activities, events and non-events with black and white photographs. They are hilariously ridiculous.

Two more which came to my attention lately while reading the rest of the best photobooks of 2019 list by Photo-Eye.

Were it not for by Michael Ashkin published by Fw:Books

Ashkin_00_site

© Michael Ashkin, from the book ‘Were it not for’; Source @ Fw:Books

Were it not for combines a line phrase which begins with “were it not for…” with 218 photographs of the Mojave Desert. This combination creates a powerful sense of unease throughout the document, with the black and white images that show areas of bleak and grim, it seems as though don’t we always have an excuse for making this mess in the world? As Jorg Colberg mentioned in CPhMag, “Wherever you look, whatever you hear, it’s all the same hopeless mess: a lived environment that more often than not looks like a garbage dump, with soulless anonymous architecture everywhere, and a cultural/societal environment filled with endless violence, dread, and despair.”

Here the photographs don’t play the starring role like in most photobooks. They are not necessarily memorable yet it is its combination with the text and the whole book itself which creates this looming feeling of helplessness for the world. And that is what sticks to our mind.

I walk toward the sun which is always going down by Alan Huck published by MACK

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© Alan Huck, from the book ‘Were it not for’; Source @ MACK

By way of an interior monologue, I walk toward the sun which is always going down is a reminder amongst the daily stream of distractions to slow down, give full attention to our daily endeavours and, according to Annie Dillard, “to discover, at least, where it is that we’ve been so startlingly set down if we can’t learn why” as Raymond Meeks describes in Photo-Eye. It is a book that takes a visual form of what a long meditation of the inner self while exploring a place with a very long walk. Highly recommended by many.

Refences: https://cphmag.com/images-and-text/

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