I have always felt Other in Hong Kong, and being Other was a given in the UK. I came to the UK for the first time 3 years ago to study Fine Art and Film at Lancaster University. In the first-year painting project, I made a painting of a HK school girl in a mask, not because of COVID. She wears a yellow ribbon. My dad loved this painting for its symbolism, I thought it was super corny and lame, an idea too obvious, too kitsch, so I never thought about making any politically-engaged art about Hong Kong ever again. I never wanted to represent HK just because it’s where I’m from. I never felt wholly rooted there, my self-expression felt suppressed, my mother-tongue was always slightly foreign. I came to the UK to be Other proudly, on my own terms, express myself in the language I’ve grown to know best. But it was hard to find my own terms, my own voice. In the first week, HK students were given two extra mentors, also from HK. It may very well be a comforting welcome to some, but to me it felt like being gently put into another box before I even got out of the first one.
Fast forward to graduation, I am now left to freely explore on my own. It’s terrifying, but it feels good (sometimes). On Instagram one day, I came across the blue regular Arial font on a white background which says “Peer to Peer: UK / HK” (figure 1). The simplicity of the graphic gave a sense of ambiguity and space for interpretation and imagination to make our own meaning of this relationship, this connection. No fancy digital-ness or visual cues to imply certain trends or zeitgeist, just a blank slate, a white canvas. Simply seeing the letters “UK / HK”, makes visible a space in between, giving me a sense of belonging. I belong in this inbetweenness. I feel valued and worthy of speaking in this space. And so my voice begins here.
Figure 1: Peer to Peer: UK / HK graphic.
Yes, We’ve Dated. It’s complicated.
I feel I have to acknowledge the colonial past of this relationship. It’d be rude to ignore the complexity of which this relationship was formed in the first place. We were together for 156 years. We broke up 25 years ago. Hong Kong still, very much so, lives in the inbetweenness of the postcolonial condition. With the Queen’s death, HK people mourn for her under threatening eyes. It’s a weird time to restart this relationship, under the weird circumstance of art. I struggle to grapple with the perplexity of it all, yet I know it is excitement I feel for this resurgence, this new-born child, this resurrection. A chance to transform trauma through introspection into self-discovery. This isn’t a much-addressed theme throughout the programme, maybe it’s too risky or just awkward, but bits of postcolonialist ideas are embedded as always, like in translation, mother-tongues, our relationship with China, etc. After this little acknowledgment as food for thought, let’s dive into the programme.
Panellists waving goodbye after the launch.
Attending the launch of Peer to Peer: UK / HK, I was ready for a deep dive into this relationship, addressing the societal implications of it all, what this relationship means. I was met with courteous introductions and passing-ons of speeches from one director/curator to another and all. I ruminated on everyone’s Zoom names, some with their full Chinese names in pinyin, some including their English names, some with only their first names, and the “normality” of English’s first and last name basis. I thought of my own name. 譚戈兒. Tam Kwo Yi Chloe. Kwo Yi Chloe Tam. Chloe Kwo Yi Tam. Chloe Tam. TANGEER, what my website and Instagram is named after. Please excuse me while I go on a slight tangent about my name.
I found TANGEER on a plane ticket (figure 2) to Lhasa, Tibet, on a trip with my mum and gong gong (grandpa). I’ve never seen my name put together like that. It’s pronounced Tán Gē Ér, in mandarin pinyin. TANGEER bears this inbetweenness of looking like an English word (Tangier?), and being Mandarin pinyin. The pinyin feels like a secret, hidden in the façade of a misspelled English word. I love the idea that my name bears this intrinsic error for interpretation.
I started wondering why my first name was spelled Kwo Yi anyways. That’s not what it sounds like in Cantonese, which is [gwo1] [yi4]. Even though Kwo Yi is what’s on all my identification documents, it doesn’t represent what I recognise as my name. Without the intonations or the image-like structure of the characters, it bears no significance other than being an English mispronunciation of my Chinese name. But I know it’s spelt this way because HKers’ names for official documents were made during colonial times to be more easily pronounced for English people. It mimics the Cantonese pronunciation but is made “more English”. This is the difference between pinyin names of people from China and Hong Kong. Our names quite literally represent this inbetween of UK / HK.
So back to the Zoom launch meeting, it was fascinating how everyone chooses to represent their names. Some maybe a conscious decision with conceptual reasoning, some merely a choice out of a million they stuck with. I find it difficult to remember their English translation of pinyin names because it exists in a language which is formed between Cantonese and English. Or maybe it’s because of the westernised prejudice I’ve developed to be more inclined to remembering English names. Anyway, after this launch session, I’m left curious and hungry for enlightenment.
Figure 2: Plane ticket to Lhasa with my name in Mandarin pinyin.
Power of Place
I started exploring the artworks made for Power of Place, brought together by Open Eye Gallery, WMA and Redeye, gathering the works of 13 artists from both UK and HK. I didn’t quite know what to expect or how large scale this project was. I hopped onto the website, trying to navigate my way through unfamiliar but accessibly laid out territory.
Chance and Control – Superimposition (UK-HK)
Starting with the Superimposition (UK-HK) artworks, I tapped through the superimposed images of Hin Nam Fong 方顯楠, Melanie King, and Samson Pak Hang Wong 黃百亨. Seeing the familiar details of HK and UK, I admired the beauty of chance made possible – or simply made existing – by the power of association in our minds. I wondered if the artists communicated previously to make these images DO something. It’s weird, the way we yearn for control and the belief that what we plan is usually better than what we simply allow to happen (which funnily my wording of “allow” still implies control).
But I was informed by the curator in the Artist, Power and Place session that no, they only knew that they would be photographing their immediate surroundings, using the parameters of “historical, cultural, temporal, and spatial connection” between the two places and focusing on “the similarity of objects and spaces from these two areas, including street lights, self-portraits, buildings, construction sites, post boxes and windows”. And in the short period of time they had, they managed to create triple exposures across two continents. Their photogrammetry experiment was an interesting amalgamation of the iconic colonial emblem of the postbox, using a 3D version of double exposure to mix the physical being and colours. It nicely signifies a beginning of this synthesis and the potential that lies ahead.
From “Double exposure: HK to HK”.
Good old chance and pattern recognition.
Liminality – A photo conversation on ‘Liminality and the Power of Place’
Speaking of potential, Joseph Leung Mong Sum 梁望琛 and Anna Sellen had really in-depth conversations on their shared interest of liminality on several occasions (that are available to watch here and here), which totally broadened my idea of liminal spaces beyond the empty fluorescent hallways on Fandom. Joseph made a great point that liminality creates a space where we can re-negotiate our roles, where we have freedom to forge new identities – the potential for transformation. Anna also made another great point that all these exchanges within the P2P programme occupy a liminal space of not only the temporal and physical distance between the exchanges, but fostering a new space for ideas within all these connections made, of what next? This echoes what I mentioned at the start, there is a potentiality to the simplicity of the general aesthetics of Peer to Peer.
Amongst the series of exchanges in photographs, I found their two images of car parks particularly poignant in Joseph’s beautiful capturing of the car park as a liminal space (figure 3), as well as Anna’s contemplative response in exploring what it means to be a non-being in a non-place (figure 4). The shrub represents this being that is alive, that no one pays attention to, and exists quite permanently in the otherwise transitory space of a car park for the purpose we give it. (slight tangent) I once laughed myself to tears when thinking of the car park as a park for cars, where cars go and have fun and play with one another. It’s so ironic that the cars just sit there while they wait for their human owners to come back and fetch them, staying in one spot – dead and useless – in this park. Parks as we know it are where kids go have fun – though the fun they have is also quite liminal, maybe not in the children’s minds when they are flowing with play, but to adults, there will always be a time to go home.
So what is liminality? Liminality is life, as Victor Hugo’s maxim “waiting is life” so simply states. Joseph expressed in the symposium session that the world is indifferently blunt, and existence is liminal. “That’s the scary part of liminality. There’s always uncertainty, but there’s potential to embrace liminality, to decolonialise where you are, and to embrace the potential of what you can be.” Redeye’s director Paul Hermann led the session in a very organic, genuine, and curious way which gave the artists AND curator lots of opportunities to reflect on and share their experience. It was an incredibly insightful session, where a lot of questions of the state of being in transition were raised, which were addressed further when I watched their Photo Conversation.
|Figure 3: Joseph’s photograph of an empty parking space.||Figure 4: Anna’s response to Joseph’s image, also of an empty parking lot.|
Tender Intimacy – Re:Home
There is still so much to be explored. Re:Home by Johannes Pretorius, Lucy Saggers, and Iris Sham made me immediately fall in love with their tender, quiet, profound letter exchanges. It was an unhesitating dive into intimacy. An immediate connection is drawn through lettering and discussing about each other’s family and home.
They share insights they derive from tiniest of things, given the opportunity to be shared through this exchange. “The evening light mottled through ancient glass falls in patterns across the dresser inherited from my parent’s home which has been the backdrop of our lives for almost twenty years”, says Lucy. They talk about the art they consumed, ones they recall but don’t fully understand, yet the colours vaguely remembered as a fleeting feeling not yet exported in HD. The sweet apologies of a shared understanding of time, punctuality, and consideration.
Iris’ sentiment about Mid-Autumn Festival and emotional blackmailing within the family really hit home as I imagine most Chinese people would feel the same. I can also resonate with the desire to be rooted in family rather than place. Her apologies of lateness in replying were almost like a planned suspense once we get to read her beautiful letter that revealed the deepest reflections of familial bondage, rootedness, and her experience of wanting to cry after eating locally grown vegetables, concluded with a poetic image of an uprooted tree (figure 5).
Every reply is followed by another thoughtful reply that gives all the warm fuzzy feelings. The resulting gallery of final images are a collection of emotional, witty, intimate depictions of home. The three individuals with three different mother tongues come together and form an evidently valuable exchange which makes me love the art of lettering even more intensely, and it was one I was sad to see end.
Figure 5: Iris’ photograph of an uprooted tree.
Making and unmaking our home – Instagram Takeover
Connecting again to home, the images by Seongsu Kim for Instagram Takeover chosen by Fion Hung Ching Yan 洪澄欣 somehow gave me the beautiful sense of the process of making a home despite their post-apocalyptic appearance. I often think home is made by the attention and care we give it. From the astronaut sweeping in the infinite darkness, to the observation of the odd matching green hose in the grass like a curious spot of paint on the walls, to the construction of a scarecrow using trash, to a silver gloved hand clearing out biohazardous rubbish, to what I image to be the usage of signage to mark a place as your own, assuming control over a space, to finally a mapping of place. To me, it was a beautifully dystopian yet humble story of homemaking. Upon reading Fion’s reflections of Seongsu’s project on Instagram, I see more of the destruction of the environment and our miniscule and laughable effort to make up for it. The astronaut is against nature, the sublimely destructive yet profoundly beautiful force, alone in his admirable yet pitiful attempt – like all of us eco-conscious individuals – to try to reverse the effects of our existence.
Seongsu’s images chosen by Fion.
Fion seems to visualise her experience of growing up around within Chinese culture so clearly, one which I can very easily relate to. Her surrealism reminds me of the photographs of Cerise Doucède, but much more cryptic, with sentiments hidden behind objects that are seemingly in plain sight but only she will know the real meaning/story behind it.
I struggle with confronting and retelling traumas that are inflicted by people still existing, especially my family. How does one make work that might expose things that prefer to be hidden away, of people you still care about, who will see the work and know what I’m telling the rest of the world? What are the ethics? Is there an advantage to bilingualism that experiences can be articulated in a language they don’t understand? I don’t have that, so where do I find the courage and freedom to let it all out, or is it right to do in the first place? Maybe that’s why the face is always hidden in Fion’s photographs. We want to be plain, direct, vulnerable, spill every thought, but the fight against reservation, taboo, ethics are still present in our abstraction of representation, hoping that people will understand its significance through motifs and similar experiences. I know the story she’s telling; at the same time I have no idea.
“The Skeletons in the Closet”. It reminds me of the being caught between the presumably loving presence of quiet proximity with one’s family, and the helpless inability to communicate one’s thoughts – the skeletons in the closet – to fulfil the desire of creating a strong foundation for a relationship based on the tangibility of language. Whereas her earlier projects are more directly reaching out to her family (mother) using the camera as a tool to connect and understand, the abstracted symbolism in her recent images seem to convey something more potent, deeper, darker, the dreadful frustrations of growing up in Chinese culture, knowing something is wrong but not knowing how to deal with it. I have a question for Fion, what’s the Chinese term you’re referring to for Omelette Social Atmosphere???
Fion’s images chosen by Seongsu.
Togetherness – Three Places. In a Moment of 90 seconds.
Speaking of the inability to find a sense of togetherness, let’s move onto brief moments in time where Terry Ng 吳漢曦, Edwin Chuk Yin Man 竺諺民, and Emma Lambert created that feeling whilst being distant in every other sense. It was looking indepthly into the Miro board where they shared their thoughts and ideas as well as final images, that I discovered all the effort and consideration put into this project. Although the results add up to 270 seconds, it amalgamated from much more than that. I’m reminded that it’s a hard task to form concreteness from several themes and key words that everyone interprets differently, but as the process develops, it takes a single moment (hah) of everyone going “Yes, that’s the one” to start creating. You can see through their communication that they made the effort to be present for each other in these planned moments of 90 seconds, resulting in contemplative yet dynamic images of the disparate locales of UK and Hong Kong, including Poland! It reminds me of the anti-social media sensation BeReal, but a much more thoughtful, orchestrated moment of shared time.
Emma’s first moment consisted of a picture shot per second of the 90, then layering them together, split into a 30 second triptych. I thought it was the perfect interpretation and was very satisfying to see the result. I only noticed the layering after reading her insights and contemplations about the images on the Miro. Terry’s first moment GIF reminded me of the sleepless nights I use to spend looking out of my 7th floor bedroom window on a mountain into the streets of Fo Tan, incessantly wondering how cars are still roaming around at 4am, and why lights from random wall openings in the building only its naked form of raw concrete and iron bars opposite to me, are switching on and off. Hong Kong is a magical, unstopping place – fruitful even, or especially, in the dead of night. Edwin’s pictures on the other hand, captures the rare stillness of Hong Kong encountered in his everyday passages, exaggerated by the dimness of light and quietness of black and white. Not a single person in sight, only light bulbs. I was shocked to read that Emma’s second moment (figure 6) was taken at 11:30pm. Photography is truly fascinating in how it lends a fresh perspective of our everyday, and how the lack of control or giving in to chance breeds new insights and ideas.
Figure 6: Emma’s second moment at 11:30pm. What??
It was refreshing to be able to dive into their whole process, getting lost (in the best sense of the word) in their idea sharing and responses to each other. The result is three shared moments, but beyond that, there are shared explorations of each other’s homes through Google Maps, each other’s local histories through archives, and even finding out more about their own homes through another set of eyes from the other side of the world. I also loved the work they shared that didn’t turn out quite as they expected, like Edwin’s underexposed photographs of a theatre rehearsal where the light bulbs became the protagonists, which seem to have carried on into his first set of images.
I can feel a sense that the three of them all had trust in the process, they all continued thinking of each other even when ideas didn’t really work out, they were all invested in the collective process of mutual learning. I love how they find magic and new connections in each other’s pictures, like Terry’s interpretation of the seeming randomness of Emma’s choice to capture the sun behind the clouds, as a full circle moment going back to the initial idea of 90 seconds being a moment according to the sundial. The sense of togetherness that they all felt within those moments is reminiscent of the wholesomeness of distant lovers looking at the moon.
Loved this image of “Dapper Gentlemen” that Emma found in Brugges, Belgium in 2019. Couldn’t stop staring at their proud swaggy faces, imagining the way they carry themselves everyday, their interactions, group dynamic, and their individual identities.
Concluding thoughts :’)
It’s difficult to summarise all I’ve learnt through attending this programme. There’s too little time and not enough excuses to deep dive into the other projects (like I did here for Power of Place) that fascinated me so much after attending the symposium sessions. I’m just so happy that this relationship between the UK and HK is made so fruitful, so generous, so loving through this unique programme.
The depth of connection exposed through transparency of process throughout this programme is an immense takeaway for me. This is exaggerated through Florence Lam and Nicola Dale’s project “I Become A Question For You”, turning the ubiquitous awkward language of video calls into a performance. Another highlight for me is the Back/Forth project with Clara & Gum in Sheffield and Mark Chung in Hong Kong, which was just so much fun, so touching, so many rabbit holes opened. I kept thinking about their conversation days and weeks after it, I’d very highly recommend watching the recording for a conversation full of lovely humour and insight. Another artwork I keep going back to is Hicham Gardaf’s The Storyteller, a beautiful re-telling of the life of a storyteller concerning translation, language, and education. For me, the film expanded the notion of how one can spend their lives, what one can do for a living. The journey of an artist, creative person, storyteller, is never predictable, at times unexplainable, full of mystery and perpetual change of perspective for what the future holds.
After a whole month, attending every symposium session, I still haven’t gotten to the bottom of every project. It’s crazy how much knowledge was derived, all these artists and organisations I’ve discovered, the amount and quality of artworks that are creating lasting repercussions, through my purely digital engagement of this programme. I have immense gratitude to everyone who was involved in creating Peer to Peer: UK / HK. A wonderful memoir has been collated of the organisers and artists’ reflections. Super duper special thanks to Núria for giving me the opportunity to write for Open Eye and thank you to the team and Sarah for saying yes, it’s been a more than wonderful journey.