Sunday, 9 January 2011

Shall we issue everyone in Hong Kong with a spray can?

I have thousands of photographs like this.

Blurred snaps from the tops of trams and buses as we rattle around Hong Kong. I wonder why I do that: click away at the streets that run east to west across the top of Hong Kong Island.

I started out thinking, maybe I am trying to capture the architecture, street scenes, or people - how three million of them can walk in the opposite direction down the same street as me.

But I no longer think that is true. Now I think I'm trying to find something that is missing.

Probably I have just reached a stage in the life cycle of the temporarily exiled English, when I am merely missing English stuff.

Not Marmite or M&S knickers. They are here, as are most of the world's goods, piled up around Kowloon. I maintain you can buy anything from England, you just have to know where to go.

So it's not material goods. Maybe it's the everyday social stuff between people. Like awkward English behaviour - who goes through doors first in public places? Or the shuffling queue in the post office, where I can while away the hours listening to pensioners who are going to die quicker than be served still manage to lean over their walking sticks, bravely smile and whisper, 'Never mind, mustn't grumble'. It could be that, and I suspect a lot of it is. But the Hong Kongers are often as curious to watch as the English, so I have replacements to keep me wondering.

I think now, the stuff that is missing is a bit of what I like to see a society create. A continuous low rumbling note of challenge, confrontation and provocation.

Take art. I miss art. I miss the type of art that threatens all manner of instabilities. Art which reaches for extremes.

Here, there are galleries who display Hong Kong artists and specific interest art. Very nice. Then there are calligraphy exhibitions and beautiful landscape paintings. Lovely. They all prove my point.

The landscape paintings for example, are about artists mastering visual techniques and conventions, then repeating those same features through the centuries. (With a tweak here or there in brushwork.) It is as if every time the visual images are repeated, the art and maybe the artist become more virtuous and honourable themselves. It is all about continuity, coherence, order, safety. That is laudable and maybe it helps give a society a great sense of stability and progression. I'm not knocking it.

But it's not a very threatening form of art. It doesn't try and upset me. It doesn't press any buttons regarding my insecurities. That is what English art of the last few decades has tried to do. That's what I miss. Artists who work at those boundaries. Sometime they succeed. It's okay when they don't succeed as well, because they still take me safely to the point where I know I am English. When I respond in a suitably English manner, maybe at the sight of a plastic woman perched on a toilet, by rolling my eyes, tutting, and moaning about it. (My exact response brought about by bits of cut up fabric all over the floor! Hi, Polly!) So I think I miss a little bit of me, too.

Now I'm thinking about it, maybe I miss something even more vital to life than the output of thousands of artists who emerge annually from extended courses at art schools to irritate me by switching a light on and off.

I miss something much more immediate, and that is the street level art that challenges and disrupts a daily urban experience, so that walking to the Co-op potentially becomes a grimy tour round humanity's failings, aggressions, energies and desires.

I never imagined I would say it, but I miss the vibrancy and unpredictability of graffiti, urban art, protest art, people who draw on snail shells and send them down high streets, and even guerrilla gardeners, bless them. They all make for an unstable, threatening and provocative society.

Mind you, I am very unreliable. I shall get back to England and tut at the state of the back lane, then think Constable painted the most lovely pictures ever.


nappy valley girl said...

You're right, there isn't any graffiti in Hong Kong. I actually remember as a child coming back to England after growing up there and being shocked by all the graffiti and slogans (it was the 1970s, and there was quite a lot of National Front about). I think it totally goes against the Chinese culture.

I love your pictures from the trams - all those landmarks such as Alexandra House and the Supreme Court building, still there just as they were 30 years ago.

sharon said...

Unfortunately most of the graffiti here takes the form of 'tagging' which I find to be little more than wanton vandalism having no artistic or intellectual merit at all. The occasional piece of 'real' graffiti is a welcome sight in the concrete sprawl of our cities.

Pimenta said...

Some "vandalism" made in lanes of HK.
Shy, but there.

Grit said...

i think you would see much that has changed too nvg! do you get the opportunity to come back?

hi sharon, we have a fantastic piece of happy art in smalltown over a concrete wall, which always makes me smile. but i agree, the indiscriminate and boring tagging over traditional Victorian brickwork? not so much.

pimenta, THANK YOU.

nappy valley girl said...

Last went back in 2002 and yes, it had changed hugely. That's why I appreciate the few things that do still remain, like that Supreme Court building.

On the air pollution issue, this was bad even when I lived there - ie before the real industrialisation of Shenzhen. Children definitely suffered badly with asthma. I don't remember the then British regime doing anything about it either.