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Lee Kai Chung 李繼忠

Of Myth and Memory / 關於迷思與記憶 /

By Christina Ko /

It’s research, but call it art – Hong Kong artist Lee Kai Chung’s practice questions the nature and reliability of archival documentation, and his latest focus is a chilling incident that should have been difficult to erase

The setting for Lee Kai Chung’s latest exhibition, The Narrow Road to the Deep Sea, at ACO art space, is small, and holds just five works. But the show’s impact on the mind is big. The starting point and impetus for these works, as with all of Lee’s output, is a historical incident – in this case the Nanshitou Massacre, a blip in our collective history that is little known and documented.

The Narrow Road to the Deep Sea by Lee Kai Chung, Installation view, 2020.Courtesy the artist and ACO Art Space.

The episode, which harks back to the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong during World War II, begins with an attempt at population control, in which some half of the city’s 1.6 million population were expatriated or repatriated. Of that 800,000, an estimated 100,000 ended up detained at a concentration camp at Nanshitou in Guangzhou, where they were subjected to bacteriological experimentation for germ warfare. Those who did not survive the ordeal were disposed of unceremoniously in an acid pond able to dissolve entire corpses en masse. 

History – both the well documented and the speculative – has often been fodder for art, but rarely does the actual research become part of the final product. In Lee’s exhibition, the facts that frame the incident are integral to the work, so much so that a limited-edition, self-printed catalogue is almost a sixth piece, an essential component that loans context to the whole. In other words, Lee’s execution of the research is more than just background intelligence – it’s as much a part of the artistic process as laying paint to canvas.

Though he may have identified as a researcher during the undertaking, Lee’s approach obviously differs from the average historian’s. “I’m not trained as a researcher or scholar, so my methodology has shortcomings. Or I might focus on something that isn’t typical, for example the texture of a sheet of paper,” he explains. “Using my own unorthodox methodology – which includes personal interviews, film research, picking up scraps here and there – I do gain a different perspective. But I’m not strictly able to differentiate that ‘this part is research, and this part is art’. At the minimum, though, the requirement that I give myself is to create a formal documentation of my research findings, because much of the material that I find cannot be communicated purely through visual representation.”

Still from Part I (George and the Swimming Pool), Single-channel video, 10min 26sec, colour, 16:9, stereo, 2019. Courtesy the artist and ACO Art Space.

Each individual work at ACO provides a different, non-linear entry point into the tale, using primarily video but also photography, performance and sculpture to showcase various human facets of the experience. In the centre of the room, the sole sculptural piece, The Digger, is a combination of a ready-made with a recorded performance. A small TV from a bygone era is perched on a medical supplies cart stacked with empty apothecary bottles. On screen, Lee is at Tokyo’s Toyama Park, the former site of a military medical school at which many medically mutilated bodies were excavated in the post-war years. He is digging a hole – a re-enactment of the manual labour POWs would need to undertake, and a reimagining of their concurrent internal struggles in dealing with the wartime culture of violence. The hole is eventually covered with a blue plastic canvas – a body of water – which itself becomes camouflaged by rainwater and dirt till it blends into the scene. A photograph of this debris forms the second work. “Instinct told me to dig a hole, not in an intention to excavate anything but to create a depression that can fit in my body, covered with a piece of ‘sea’,” Lee writes in the accompanying catalogue, and this instinct also connects the historical episode with a more personal one from the artist’s own past, during which his secondary school art teacher produced a skull excavated from beneath the school grounds and suspected to be from wartime as a prop for a life-drawing lesson. “Through hours of physical labour, I felt the buried consciousness of the living, the dead and the evil, as if [I were among] the refugees in Nanshitou camp, who dug their own graves.”

The chilling aura that permeates these two works transcends any need for background information, but the availability of accompanying historical information creates the same psychological response that today’s constant stream of breaking news does for those who are wary of the coronavirus – the more knowledge you have, the scarier it is. And once the words “bone-dissolving pond” have been placed in your consciousness, they are difficult to erase. Underscoring the visual of the blue sheet is the fact that the gallery floor has been carpeted in that same canvas, so that viewers must traverse this “deep sea”, under which lie stories untold and bodies unavenged.

Still from Part III (The Enka Singer), Single-channel video, 1min 45sec, colour, 16:9, stereo, 2019. Courtesy the artist and ACO Art Space.

The remaining video works, projected on three walls, are vignettes inspired by or taken from oral histories Lee gleaned from survivors.

“In history, there are no sympathies,” he notes. “What historians generally seek is information. Mainland historians might take an incident and make it polarising – the Japanese invaded, thus they are the enemy. And this ‘us versus them’ narrative inherently creates bias, and as a result details that don’t support this narrative might be lost. In history books, you rarely read of the emotional side. But I feel that the value of the emotions can outweigh the information. “An oral history can give you a completely different story – for example, you can talk to someone who’s lived through the Cultural Revolution but whose daily life wasn’t substantially affected by historical events; they just continued their usual routine. The details of everyday life are what interest me the most, but these are also the aspects that are most likely to be cast aside.”

The Smoking Lady shows a woman, her hair cut short, enjoying a cigarette, a reimagined incident in which a young lady prepares to disguise herself as a boy and flee to mainland China in order to escape potential atrocities that could befall her should she be captured by Japanese soldiers. The Enka Singer is inspired by testimony from a Japanese veteran charged with handling corpses and the words of a popular doggerel chanted by refugees. The final work, The Remains of the Night, is a two-channel video with interacting dialogue, featuring characters real and imagined, suffering from hallucinations due to their dire circumstances. 

That the venue is dark and dank and uncomfortably immersive adds to the drama of the work as well as the viewer’s trauma, and that many will be encountering the facts of the incident for the first time works very much to the artist’s advantage – one wonders whether the effect would be quite so raw if the subject matter were one as well ploughed by popular culture as, say, the rape of Nanjing.

Still from Part V (The Remains of the Night), Two-channel video,, colour, 16:9, stereo, 2019. Courtesy the artist and ACO Art Space.

That history repeats itself is a truism. But the idea that the incident is tied to expatriation and medical experimentation also makes it strangely resonant with current events – a fact of which Lee is well aware, and which certainly influenced practical decisions. “When I started the project it was at the dawn of the anti-extradition movement, which seemed apt, because the issue at hand related to expatriating Hongkongers [to stand trial in mainland China]. The incidents aren’t exactly similar, and I can only say that the movement was an inspiration for me. Then, at the beginning of the year, I began to see concrete recurrences of incidents from that period: refugees who were taken onto ships and imprisoned there pending results of ingesting experimental pathogens are muchlike the passengers of Diamond Princess, though at that time, they were tracking how long passengers would live after having the contaminated food.”

In the end, it was the relevance to current times that convinced Lee that now was the time to show, as galleries across Hong Kong postponed exhibitions in the wake of Art Basel’s cancellation, and in spite of the fact that he regards the project as only half complete, and wishes to continue his research, finding further survivors who can contribute anecdotal evidence.  

Still from Part IV (The Digger), Single-channel video, 10min 30sec, colour, 16:9, stereo, 2019. Courtesy the artist and ACO Art Space.

“If 10 out of 10 indicates full marks for the wealth of verified material available relating to an incident, then in this case I’d give a score of 0.5,” Lee says, indicating just how sparse the documentation is. The reason, he suggests, is because the victims were “mere Hongkongers”. It’s natural that the offenders would erase traces of the incident to prevent being indicted for war crimes, but Hong Kong’s awkward status as a British colony at the time means the Chinese government might not ever have been particularly concerned with uncovering details, either. Further complicating the issue is the SAR’s complicated relationship with the mainland. “My identity as a Hongkonger is definitely a roadblock to accessing materials. Hong Kong is theoretically a part of China, but [at the archives] they would treat you as a foreigner. You’d need a reference letter, which you need from a mainland organisation. And that is sensitive for someone like me to get. And then they want to know what you’re looking for, and why.”

It’s a problem common to many of Lee’s projects, past and ongoing. The Narrow Road to the Deep Sea is the second in a five-part series that Lee has planned, traversing multiple wartime incidents that deal thematically with displacement.

The work that Lee executes is political in nature – it questions the absolute nature of archival documentation, its accuracy and availability, and also the cultural liabilities associated with various regions and governments. But at its core, his practice is as much about emotion as it is about revelation – about uncovering and recording aspects that are human and historical. “What is my purpose in dealing with history as a theme?” he ponders aloud. “Am I just creating a retrospective to shed light on a past incident to allow others to have context to critique current events? If it were us and this was happening today, how would we deal with the situation, and our emotions? My purpose, to me, is rather clear – to uncover the emotional side of history.”

這是一項研究,但也可稱為藝術––香港藝術家李繼忠的實踐,向歷史檔案的性質與可靠性提出疑問,把最新焦點放於一件難以抹去而令人寒心的事件。

李繼忠的最新展覽「通向深海的狹道」在艺鵠舉行,展出五件作品;展覽規模雖然小,卻發人深省。正如李氏其他作品一樣,是次展覽的作品緣起自一件歷史事件,是次主角為「南石頭大屠殺」,是一段較鮮為人知,也未有多少文獻記載的香港共同歷史。

事發在第二次世界大戰的香港日佔時期,當時日軍嘗試控制人口,全城160萬人中有一半被移送或遣返歸鄉。在這80萬人中,約有10萬人最終被拘留在廣州南石頭的集中營,他們在這裡成為細菌戰的人體實驗品。在這場浩劫中死去的人,毫無尊嚴地被大批放進裝滿酸液的化屍池棄置。

儘管紀錄完善或全憑推斷的歷史很多時都被用作藝術元素,但研究本身卻甚少成為最終成品的一部分。在李氏的展覽中,構成事件的事實資料是作品中不可或缺的部份:有關資料為整個展覽建構了瞭解的背景,藝術家更自行印製了幾乎可視為第六件作品的展覽圖錄,其重要程度可見一斑。換言之,李氏的研究在執行些上不只提供了背景情報,它更與在畫布上作畫著色一樣,是藝術過程中舉足輕重的部分。

也許李氏在這次工作中自視為研究員,但他的手法卻與一般歷史學家顯然不同。他解釋說:「我所接受的訓練並非以成為研究員或學者為目的,所以我的方法有其不足。或者我把焦點放在一些非典型事物上,例如一張紙的質感。我透過非正統的方法,包括個人訪談、電影研究,還有在不同地方搜集各種碎片,的確得到了不一樣的視角。我沒有嚴格分辨『這部份是研究,而這部份是藝術』的能力。然而,最低限度,我為自己訂立的要求,是為自己的研究成果建立一套正式文獻紀錄,因為我找到的資料中,有不少難以單純透過視覺表達。」

在艺鵠展出的每一件作品均為故事提供了不同的非線性切入點,主要採用了錄像型式,也以攝影、表演和雕塑來展現對經歷的不同人性面向。展廳正中放置了唯一一件結合了現成物品和預錄表演的雕塑作品,題為《The Digger》(掘坑之人)。來自舊日的小電視放置在醫療物資的推車上,車上裝滿了空藥瓶。在螢幕中,李氏身處東京新宿戶山公園,前身是戶山陸軍軍醫學校,在戰後發掘出很多被醫學實驗殘害的遺體。影像中的李氏在掘坑,重演著戰俘當時需要進行的體力勞動,並重新想像戰俘在戰爭暴力文化時所經歷的內心爭扎。坑洞最後蓋上象徵水的藍色膠帆布,而這塊帆布最後因為雨水和泥濘而與場景混為一體。第二件作品是一幀拍下這些泥石的照片。

李氏在展覽圖錄中指出,是直覺告訴他去掘坑,而這直覺也關連到藝術家一段自身往事。在他的中學時代,美術科老師在課上拿出了一個從學校地底發掘出來,疑似來自戰時的頭骨,以作為實物寫生的題材。李氏繼續說明自己的動機:「沒有意圖要掘出什麼,但想營造一種可以由我身體裝載的消沉,並以一片『海』來遮蓋。經過多個小時的體力勞動,我感到自己已把在世者、亡者和邪惡的意識埋藏,就如我是南石頭集中營的其中一名難民,一同自掘墳墓。」

這兩組作品滲透著令人寒心的氣氛,參觀者無須擁有背景資料,只需透過伴隨的相關歷史資料便能產生心理回應,與今天懼怕新冠病毒人士面對不停播放的突發新聞的心境一樣:知得越多,越覺恐懼。「化骨池」這幾個字在你的意識中出現後便難以抹去。展廊地面鋪上了和藍色紙一樣的帆布,顯示出它在視覺上的重要性––觀眾必須越過這片「深海」,海裡面潛藏未有人說出的故事,也埋下了有仇未報的遺體。

錄像作品的餘下部份投射到三面牆上,這些短篇片段是李氏向倖存者收集口述歷史時被啟發創作,或直接取材。

他指出:「歷史中沒有同情。歷史家想要的是資料。中國大陸的歷史學家對某事可能作兩極對立的處理––日本人侵華,所以是敵人。這種『誓不兩立』的論述形成了固有的偏見,因此,不支持這種論述的細節便會流失。你絕少會在史書中讀到有關情感的一面;他們只想要資料。但我覺得情感的價值可以比資料更重要。」

他續指:「口述歷史可以給你截然不同的故事––例如你與經歷過文化大革命的人交談,會發現歷史事件也許沒有對他們的日常生活產生重要影響;他們只繼續像平時一樣過日子。我對日常生活的細節最感興趣,但這些細節也是最可能被擱在一旁的角度。」

在《吸煙的女人》中,觀眾可以看到一位蓄短髮的女士在吸煙,這是李氏對可能發生事件的想像:這位年輕女子正準備把自己喬裝成男生,在被日軍俘虜前逃返中國大陸以避開可能在她身上發生的暴行。《演歌歌者》的靈感來自被控以處理屍體罪命退役日軍的證詞,還有難民營流傳的打油詩。最後一件作品《長夜將盡》是互動對話的雙頻道錄像,包括了真實和虛構角色,各人因為悲慘的環境而出現幻覺。 

展覽場內昏暗、潮濕,還有令人不安的氣氛,不僅為作品營造出戲劇性,也加強了觀眾的創傷感,加上不少觀眾將是首次面對有關事件,都為藝術家製造了觀賞作品的有利條件––我們可能會懷疑,如果主題選用了流行文化中已經常取材的題目(例如是南京大屠殺),作品效果能否如此震撼。

歷史的確不斷重覆自己。但展覽主題的事件與遷徙和醫學實驗相關,令它和當今發生的事情有著詭異的共鳴––李氏也很清楚箇中事實,而且肯定有對實際決定有所影響。「項目開始的時候,也是反修例事件之初,當時我認為很是合適,因為課題正是與把香港人送走(到中國大陸接受審判)相關。兩件事並非完全相同,而我只能說那場運動是我的靈感來源。然後在年初,我開始看到那時期的事件正在重現:難民被送上船囚禁,等待吸收實驗病原體後的結果,就像鑽石公主號的乘客一樣。雖然那時候他們所追踪的,是乘客在進食被污染食物後還可以生存多久。」 

到最後,事件與現時情況的相關程度說服了李氏現在是時候開始展覽,因為全香港的展廊都在Art Basel取消後把旗下展覽延期。李氏認為自己的項目只是半完成,而且希望繼續探究,尋找其他可以提供軼事證據的生還者。 

李氏認為相關文獻極為稀少,他說:「如果以10分為滿分來表達經證實資料的豐富程度,本項目只可得0.5分。」他認為箇中原因,是受害者「不過是香港人」。犯事者很自然會把事件的蛛絲馬跡抹去來避免因為戰爭罪行被起訴,但香港當時的英國殖民地地位也很是尷尬,中國政府也許永遠不會特意找出所有細節。令情況更為複雜的,是香港與中國大陸的複雜關係。「我的香港人身份在存取相關資料方面肯定是一大障礙。理論上,香港是中國的一部分,但是[在歷史檔案館裡]他們會把你視為外國人。你需要一封由中國大陸機構簽發的推薦信,而對我這種人來說,要取得一封推薦信是頗為敏感的事。然後他們會想知道你在找什麼,還有為什麼要找。」

李氏有很多過去和現正進行的項目都面對相同問題。《通向深海的狹道》是李氏已規劃的五部曲系列之第二部,橫跨多項以流離失所為主題的戰時事件。

李氏所執行的作品在本質上是政治性的––作品質疑了歷史檔案的絕對本質,它的準確性和可讀取性,以及不同地區與政府的相關文化責任。在他藝術實踐的核心,情感與啟示的重要程度不相伯仲,同樣與揭示和紀錄人性與歷史面貌相關。 

他把想法宣之於口:「我以歷史為主題的目的到底是什麼?我的回顧創作是不是希望做到鑑古知今的效果?如果事件的主角是我們,而事情發生在今天,我們會如何處理這種情況和自己的情緒?對我來說,我的目的很是清晰––––就是呈現歷史的情感面貌。」

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