Artists, curators, art educators and cultural workers at large, Clara Cheung and Gum Cheng founded C&G Artpartment in Hong Kong in 2007. Since then, this alternative art space in Mongkok has been nurturing the local art scene, addressing in particular local social and political issues through the practice of art, conceived as a potent agent of dialogue and change. Through exhibitions, public programmes, art initiatives and participatory projects, Cheung and Cheng have engaged various communities with the idea that art participates in the building of a more inclusive and collective society. Last November, Clara Cheung was elected as a district councilor for Happy Valley.
Caroline Ha Thuc: First of all, congratulations on your election. How do you balance your work as a citizen now fully engaged in politics and as an artist? Clara Cheung: I participated in the election as a citizen, but because of my cultural background I cannot separate these two roles. This background influences my perception of the world. The reason why I really wanted to run in Happy Valley is because I see all the potential to develop art and culture there, on a local level. There are many things that can be done because of the street culture and because of the residents, who are ready now to appreciate and participate in different art programmes.
CHT: Did you already engage with this community? CC: We have a small space in one of the alleys, currently displaying a circle painting done by a group of residents from Happy Valley. This is one of the community art projects I did during the campaign. It is a simple project, but it reflects the desire of the residents to connect with each other through the medium of art.
CHT: In this case, you seem to be working more as a curator. How does it differ from your role at C&G Artpartment? CC: I would rather say facilitator. As far as C&G Artpartment is concerned, I see it more as an experimental art space for both of us. We are also involved in an organisation called Art Together, which has been doing a lot of public art and community art projects, especially during the last five years, when it started to get annual funding from ADC [the Hong Kong Arts Development Council]. This platform involves C&G but also other artists.
CHT: Engagement with the community has always been part of your art practice. More specifically, from the start your work and activities have responded to the political and social context of Hong Kong. Your first exhibition, for instance, Back To The Basic, addressed Hong Kong’s Basic Law for the 10th anniversary of the handover. CC: I see C&G as an alternative art space in which we curate a lot of small projects and exhibitions with an experimental spirit. We do not necessarily sell the art works, so we mainly work as a non-commercial space. We usually invite artists to respond to a theme, but they are free to do so the way they wish. We do not restrict the invitations to political artists, nor even visual artists, and we also like to open up the field of art. For example, we recently made an exhibition addressing the controversial issue of the Moral and National Education curriculum in Hong Kong: we invited artists but also teachers and we chose to include voices pro and against the proposal in order to stimulate debate. Political issues can also be expressed in many ways, for instance through poetry.
CHT: Do you see art as a way to engage in cultural activism, especially in the Hong Kong context? CC: Yes. Since the Umbrella Movement, I think that many artists would agree about the fact that if we do not have the freedom of artistic expression any more, we will not be able to do anything, right? So, somehow, we have to go back to basic issues, to the foundations of the society, that is to say to political issues, in order to try to fix what we can. Maybe we will fail but we have no other option and have to face these problems.
CHT: Has this become particularly urgent since the Umbrella Movement? CC: In fact, we felt it even before. When we established C&G in 2007, we chose to make exhibitions to respond to current issues because we found that there were only a few spaces in Hong Kong where political and social art works could be exhibited. Many artists were eager to respond to the specific context of Hong Kong but could not find the space to express themselves. At that time we felt this need, but now this need has become an urgency.
CHT: What about the aesthetic dimension of the works? Does it matter or is it secondary? CC: Last December , we had an exhibition entitled ‘THE’ survey exhibition. We invited artists to present a work that would be “the most something”, for example the smallest work or the worst one. We did not mention it had to do anything with politics – actually we seldom do – but most of pieces turned out to be political, such as The Most Urgent Poster by Sushan Chan. Some art works were very conceptual, like Luke Chin’s stack of paper, but we also exhibited Ricky Yeung’s mural painting, which was aesthetically very strong. I think that the aesthetic dimension is unquestionable. We asked the audience to vote for their favourite work, and the most popular piece was The Most Chemical by To Yeuk x Lai Chun Ling, a foam installation made with ready-made objects. There is a pun in the title, which also refers in Cantonese to something very unstable and fragile.
CHT: It seems that you like questionnaires. Created for the Singapore Biennale, Am I A Ghost? (2019) is an interactive installation consisting of a phone booth and sketches. The viewer needs to answer a few questions about ghosts, and then dials the results. A flashing light appears if he or she turns out to be a ghost. In Cantonese, “ghost” also means “spy” and “gangster”, right? Are you playing on the ambiguity of people’s identities? Gum Cheng: The idea comes from the Umbrella Movement and the installation reflects the current political issues in Hong Kong. We like to use different ways to address these questions and yes, we love questionnaires that allow the audience to find their own answers.
CHT: I tried three times and am definitively not a ghost. What is the secret? CC: There are hints on the wall but there are actually 27 possibilities to turn out to be a ghost. There is a logic behind it, but it does not matter if you are a ghost or not. The ambiguity that we try to underline here is about who you trust or not. I believe trust between people is essential in community building. We now encounter strong mistrust issues, and I never experienced this so much in Hong Kong before. On the street and especially when you are within a protest, we feel we need to look around to see if we are safe or not. I think that kind of feeling did not exist in the previous 1 July demonstrations. It has been growing slowly but surely since the Umbrella Movement.
CHT: During the Umbrella Movement, you participated in an “occupy house building competition” in Mongkok and also drew portraits of people in the streets. What did you learn from that time and how is it different now? CC: In the current protests we see less art activities on site. The situation does not allow that because the public space is not “occupied” by protesters. We do see a lot of artists involved, but in different ways. For instance, in July there was the G20 newspaper advertisements project, involving a huge collaboration of artists, designers, editors and others. Some of them continue to organise exhibitions here and there. We helped to set up the crowdfunded exhibition Stand with Hong Kong at G20 in Foo Tak Building [in Wan Chai], showing 19 copies of open letters printed in international newspapers such as The Washington Post. Later on, we were busy running for the elections.
CHT: How does the current situation impact your work? GC: As artists, I think we are quite in the front line, and this is why Clara ran for the elections. Now we would like to participate more in overseas exhibitions, to tell the world what is going on in Hong Kong.
CHT: Clara, you recently mentioned a change in how Hong Kong people define themselves, in line with the recent democratic movements. The local identity has always been a key issue in your work: how would you perceive it today? CC: Yes, this issue is key for us. In 2017 we participated in a project called Residency East Asia Dialogue, organised by Chiaki Soma, a Japanese producer. She created a platform to encourage dialogue among artists and curators from the region. In Hong Kong we talked about the topic of the myth of identity, and Taiwanese artist Chen Guan-Jhang responded with the concept of liquid identity. I think this would be relevant to Hong Kong, as it reflects its openness and hybridity.
CHT: Are you interested in particular in pre-colonial Hong Kong in the search for the roots of its identity? CC: There is a famous character called Lo Ting who is half human, half fish and whose story is linked to the mythological founding of Hong Kong. Some ancient texts from South China include a few lines describing it. In 1997 and 1998, Oscar Ho organised two exhibitions at the Hong Kong Arts Centre revolving around this figure and, today, many artists and cultural workers are reviving this story again. I myself created Lo Ting Toy Story (2016), an art work featuring Lo Ting represented as a mermaid toy. The work and performance aimed at paying homage to my grandmother, who was a hawker selling fish on the street. I tried to relate myself to her, even though I do not know how to catch fish. At my age, I feel closely connected to this story of Lo Ting. I went to a street in Yau Mei Tei and told the story to passersby, offering them the mermaid toy I created, provided they would tell it to someone else.
CHT: Do you feel that Hong Kong people do not know enough about their past? CC: In the… education [that was formerly taught in the city], we did not come across Hong Kong history or local stories. Nowadays, kids know more, but what they learn remains the official narratives. It is important to promote mythical stories such as Lo Ting, which represent at the same time the old Hong Kong and the liquid identity I mentioned earlier. I think traditions and local stories come back, but they are still mainly supported by cultural workers.
CHT: An important part of your activities deals with the revitalisation of rural Hong Kong, especially though Art Together. Why this focus on the countryside? CC: People have the urge to go back and reconnect with nature: this is why we organise events in the countryside. I think this is also about reconnecting with the soil, which is where you grow and reconnect with your identity. Many cultural workers have been working in that direction, and we collaborate with people like Natalie Lo Lai Lai, who is a farmer, but also Monti Lai, who is growing rice in the north of Hong Kong, together with researchers from Hong Kong University. We have developed a series called Revisiting Hong Kong Sustainable Art, which encompasses art practices connected to the soil, the source of life. We try to research all Hong Kong art practices that have been dealing with this issue for the last 30 years. It is not only about being environmentally friendly but also about concern about where we are from.
CHT: Many people living now in Hong Kong were not born in Hong Kong. What does it mean for them to come back to the soil? How can you integrate all these migrants who are part of Hong Kong? CC: People who live here must directly interact with the natural elements of this place. No matter if you were born here or not, if you choose to stay here at this moment, you are connected with the local physical elements, that is to say soil, water, air and so on.
CHT: Let’s finish with humour: it seems that you like to introduce puns in your works. In Singapore you played with the word “ghost” and its different meanings in Cantonese, and with Curate No More (2013-2015) you mix the term “curate” with a Cantonese homonym that is a vehement curse. Are you concerned about non-Cantonese speakers? GC: Yes, we like humour. At least when we create art works, we feel happy. As far as our puns are concerned, it is fine if you do not understand everything. We would like to create art works with our own style and own humour. We would be happy to spread this kind of humour, which is quite Hong Kong in style. Even though you cannot understand all the meanings, I am sure you can grasp the spirit. We tend also to give a little background context but we like to leave things open for further exploration.