Hong Kong Pavilion: The Black Box of Venice Geopolitics
During the British occupation of Hong Kong, the development of cultural policy was strongly biased in favor of recreation and western performing arts. Only after the establishment of the Hong Kong Arts Development Council (HKADC) in 1995 did the visual arts sector of Hong Kong get a more transparent channel for applying for government funding and support. Thus, until the handover in 1997 of Hong Kong to China, Hong Kong art and artists were invisible, both in the local context as in the international art scene.
There was a temporary change around 1997, when many Hong Kong artists responded to issues of cultural and national identity in the wake of the transfer of sovereignty to China. Surprisingly, this search for a cultural identity by local contemporary artists remained underexposed for a whole decade, until the civic movement to protect the Star Ferry’s clock tower in 2007 brought the issue of Hong Kong’s cultural identity to the fore.
Meanwhile the HKADC adopted a more pro-active approach to policy on the development of Hong Kong arts after the appointment of Dr. Patrick Ho as the HKADC chairman in 2000. He clearly emphasized the need for a rapidly increase of the visibility of Hong Kong arts. Inspired by the 48th Venice Biennale, which had witnessed a large increase of the number of participating artists from Mainland China, HKADC proposed to establish a Hong Kong biennale pavilion in 2000. Thus while Hong Kong artists were rather underexposed and slow to adapt to the post-colonial era, the Chinese state machine quickly started to construct the representational identity for Hong Kong.
Wong Shun-Kit, the chairman of the HKADC visual arts committee in 2000 and the co-curator of the Hong Kong pavilion in 2011, recalled part of the commission in 2000 was to conjointly organize international art biennales or triennials in Hong Kong itself. HKADC hoped that the efforts devoted to both the internal and international platforms would result in a better status of Hong Kong contemporary art both locally and internationally. Hong Kong started to participate in the Venice Biennale as a collateral event since 2001. However, no international biennales or triennials were developed locally in Hong Kong.
The main objective of the HKADC has been to place Hong Kong on the international art map by showing a specific “Hongkongness” The type of Hongkongness promoted and adopted by the institute can be easily recognized in previous participations in the Venice Biennale and is characterized by notions of “the experience of the private” (as described by curator Johnson Chang) and collective memory. Except the exhibition “Star Fairy” of 2007, which involved a stronger political statement and institutional critique, none of the Hong Kong exhibitions have had a profound or direct relation to important current social or political issues in Hong Kong. Since 2009, the HKADC has also adopted a specific approach to promote this Hongkongness; namely through solo exhibitions opposed to group exhibitions. The “art-star” system is believed to be the ultimate way of securing a quick raise of Hong Kong art. This is again endorsed in 2013 by the curating institution M+.
The selection process for the Venice Biennale, organized by HKADC, has been severely criticized ever since 2001. Previous concerns were focused on procedural justices, the languages requirements for proposals (either only English or both English and Chinese proposals were accepted), and for interviews (whether English, Cantonese or Mandarin could be used during interviews). In 2013, however, the HKADC abandoned the existing selection process with an open call for proposals without any consultation of the art sector. M+ was directly appointed by HKADC as curating institute for the Hong Kong pavilion of the 55th Venice Biennale. This is a downfall compared to the earlier open call scheme and it was described as a “black-box” administration, emphasizing the lack of transparency.
Mr. Nittve, the co-curator for the current Hong Kong pavilion, asked the Hong Kong cultural scene not to confuse the longing for “political democracy” with “artistic democracy” in a public forum in 2012. The Mainland Chinese government has recently announced to provide more funding for contemporary art exchange projects between Mainland Chinese and Hong Kong artists, when the tension between Hong Kong and Mainland China became more apparent. Can “art” however really be neutral? If not, how can one unlock such a black box in the stateless state Hong Kong?Clara Cheung