For decades, Leung Chi Wo has been exploring the history and historical sites of Hong Kong, mixing archival material with photographs, videos, texts and multimedia installations. While his research-based practice brings forth the contradictions and complexities of historiography, it also injects fantasies, intimacy and emotion into collective narratives. Time, and how to embody its multiple dimensions, is the artist’s main subject, reflected in the title of his new solo exhibition, Past-Future Tense, opening in May 2023 at Blindspot Gallery.
Caroline Ha Thuc: You have recently been to London to look for archives dealing with British plans for the future of Hong Kong after World War Two. What drove you to do so? Leung Chi Wo: I don’t really know why, but I always feel dragged to stories which read unreal but are true, or vice versa. And historical subjects are mostly such: they always claim to be real. They’re sort of far away and so close at the same time. And supposedly, I am part of a colonial history which has been erased and rewritten, and now denied as well. It is a contest and perhaps it is also a self-searching process.
CHT: For a long time, the history of Hong Kong tended to be neglected, but things have changed. Which erasure are you referring to? LCW: Since the 90s, Hong Kong studies have really developed a lot, but there is still plenty of room for historical exploration. However, I’m interested in it not simply because there is not enough work done, and neither can I make many contributions anyway. Rather, it is the subject being just around and so close to me that makes my engagement possible, sometimes even through physical experiences like visiting a site. From there, I can develop personal involvement, memory and projection.
Of course, I am sceptical about the official version of history. We may be more liberal with the premodern part, which feels more remote and less personal. More recent parts, particularly those that may be at variance with our own memory, will prompt more critical perspectives, sometimes emotional and sentimental, though. For example, the official views of the Hong Kong government on the 1967 riots before the handover now have shifted drastically.
CHT: It seems that now you are looking at history from a fresh perspective, choosing to focus on the British side. Why this shift? LCW: I don’t see it as a shift. It’s more of a pragmatic and convenient approach. I wish China and its Hong Kong government would have archives with similar transparency and accessibility. Anyway, I work with what is available to me. I’m not very determined and very often find something interesting totally by chance.
CHT: Archives can be dry and investigations burdensome. After so many years looking into archives, have you developed your own methodology of approaching and working with them? LCW: I find myself exploring, side-tracking and shifting my attention all the time during research. My artwork reflects this trajectory and, sometimes, people complain that it is evading any conclusion. Working with textual material, for me, is no different from dealing with ready-mades—my arbitrary transformation, perhaps, saves me from tedious research.
For my new exhibition at Blindspot Gallery, I have had several conversations with the new in-house curator Jims Lam. He introduced to me the term “seminaut”, coined by Nicolas Bourriaud for those artists who surf between times and signifiers. I didn’t know about that, but somehow I feel it is familiar.
ENEMY BOMBING by Leung Chi Wo, 12 marble sculptures, dimensions variable,
each element approx. 30 x 30 x 30cm, 2011. Courtesy the artist.
CHT: You work from different types of archives, images and texts. You especially like scrutinising texts and questioning their consistency. In We must construct as well as destroy (2010-12), for instance, you played with the ambiguities of the word “enemy” used in monuments, and verbal communication has always occupied an important part of your work. LCW: I like to draw an analogy with cooking. You have the ingredients but no less important – actually, the most important for art – is the approach. It is both technical and creative, rational and emotional. I am that kind of cook who prepares his own meals: “enemy bombing” [the work originates in repaired bullet holes in Hong Kong’s Legislative Council Building, which are said to have been created by an unknown enemy] is the egg, and I wanted to transform the egg so it no longer looks like an egg but remains an egg by nature or taste and smell. It becomes “MMONEY BBEING”, “BIG B MONEY MEN,” “BINGO BE MY MEN,” or anything you can turn to. It is a letter arrangement game, down to earth and banal while made of marble. I played on the paradox. It is actually a very formal approach—my artistic articulation can be fed back into the concept; perhaps that is surfing between ideas and realisations too.
CHT: On the other hand, photographic archives led you to develop many series and works about the anonymous people who make history without ever being recognised. Do you treat these sources differently? LCW: I think they are similar. It is a radical thought, but possible. The unknown passer-by in a photo remains unknown for a very long time until one day we recognise we are actually the unknown person in the background in each other’s photos. Once in a while, you hear this kind of true story. And [the fact that people believe something to be true] is a very important element of storytelling. This is why I like to see and employ photos and relics in my work. We all have goodwill to believe and we like to explore anonymity. That keeps the myth rolling and triggers our imagination: this can be me, you or anyone. Keeping the text away – only for a while; those who want to read will read – is just a trick to allow different interpretations.
Frater by Leung Chi Wo, Sewing machine, black & white negative film, 1967 Hong Kong 50-cent coins, low speed-motor and steel frame, 55 x 65 x 146.5cm, 2015. Courtesy the artist and Blindspot Gallery.
CHT: In parallel to your research on archives, you keep looking for old, mundane objects that embody the past, such as the sewing machine that you used for Frater (2015). How do you identify the right ambassadors for your time travel? LCW: So much is by chance. I allow the objects to find me, but I do spend time exploring the interpretations of an object. Of course, there are hints too. In Frater, I had some parameters, such as the 1967 riots and my family story. Sufficient time is also a crucial factor: you can leave an object for some time and see how more research can give it a chance [at being used].
CHT: How much do aesthetics matter in this process? LCW: A lot, as in the surfing experience I mentioned before. But aesthetics are not only about looking good. They are about the judgement that you feel right: something makes you happy after you made that decision.
Shenzhen Mine 1973 by Leung Chi Wo, Video projection, photographs, sound, found objects, electric fan, press button switch, dimensions variable, 2015. Courtesy of the artist.
CHT: More generally, how do you look at objects, beyond the historical narratives they carry? LCW: I work on the narratives with some arguments and ideas. That brings me a whole bunch of materials – text, objects, photos – but it doesn’t guarantee to make any sense. That’s the moment when I must work as an artist. Indeed, sometimes, I get stuck as I find it does not work, even when I try. Then, I have to go back to look for additional materials. In Shenzhen Mine 1973 (2015), a vintage domestic fan blows a magazine cover out of the way of a projector, allowing video to be projected onto a wall when the audience presses the button. In the beginning, it didn’t work. The wind didn’t go in the right direction. A simple act would have been to add a card to channel the wind in the right direction. But I felt: no, it’s so ugly to have this only for this reason. It’s too practical and rough. So I looked for a small book published in the same year [depicted in the piece]. And I was lucky and happy to find a little primary school art textbook that did the work.
A Countess From Hong Kong by Leung Chi Wo, Belilios Public School uniform, cloth hanger, 1967 Hong Kong 50-cent coins, vinyl record This Is My Song by Petula Clark (1967), motor system, 19 x 68 x 134cm (still), 2016. Courtesy the artist and Blindspot Gallery.
CHT: I remember being confused when I saw the installation A Countess from Hong Kong (2016), consisting of a vinyl disc spinning so that a schoolgirl’s uniform that hangs from it is swung from side to side. It linked the theme song of Charlie Chaplin’s last film A Countess from Hong Kong (1967), featuring Sophia Loren, with a student leaving Hong Kong, arguing that both had to escape the city: one for immigration purposes, the other because of her involvement in the 1967 riots. How much do you wish to make these connections visible? LCW: I think I like to build layers of reading and the structure grows along with the search for materials and stories. I was just looking for anything that happened in Hong Kong in 1967 apart from the riots, which were regarded as the main narrative of the time. I wanted to seek parallel worlds between politics and everyday life. And that Chaplin movie popped up. After all, the connection is interpretative, not assigned. I work on things available to me. That schoolgirl is actually the sister of one of the most powerful pro-China political figures in Hong Kong. I just made a pun from the title of the movie and created a piece of sculpture that connects everything by means of physical transformation.
CHT: For that exhibition, Something There and Never There (2018), you did not add any wall label, avoiding a contextual reading of your work. You were also the curator, just like for this new solo show. Is this the best possible way to display your research? LCW: I am not always sure that people really know what I intend to do in my art; most know what I do, though. Besides, I came from a time when a curator was a rare species in Hong Kong. I have to self-curate very often: that’s the reality and spirit of artist-run space—the origin of Para Site. I always say I know how to switch to energy-saving mode when resources are very limited. After all, I’m not a researcher in the conventional sense of the term, and I know the audience will spend less time perceiving my work when the source text is beside them. That said, the text is reincarnated in different materials like wall labels for the Museum of the Lost.
CHT: Overall, would you say that your work aims at generating knowledge, in that case knowledge about the 1967 context of the riots? LCW: I think I am more conscious and hope to raise questions about the available knowledge.
CHT: Sound is important in your practice. In your series This is My Song (2016), the song of the same name by Petula Clark seems to embody a specific period. Is this a way to trigger collective memory? LCW: I always compare sound recording to photography. It brings the absent back to the present. I am unsure if I want to hit on the collective memory, but I like to see it as a piece of time. Actually, I didn’t know this song before I worked on it. I have no memory of it. I think music and vinyl records are very common [ways of measuring time] today.
CHT: These installations are often dynamic, built on repetitive mechanics. It seems that the action is trapped in the past, in never-ending, sometimes violent movement. What are you suggesting with these repetitions? LCW: I think I began to consider the relationship between destruction and construction from the project. We must construct as well as destroy. The notion of violence has gained a place in my artistic agenda. It took a couple of years for me to elaborate on it in the work, and it was Untitled (Love for Sale) (2014) that allowed me to deal with the complexity, both technically and conceptually. In this piece, the audience would press a button to hear but not see a pile of newspaper fall, as their view of it was blocked, and I really enjoyed that. Mechanical repetition, at a certain point, puts you into a state of contemplation. It can feel very creepy, yet sometimes therapeutic too.
CHT: At the same time, by displaying these repetitive actions today, you create a bridge between the past and the present. What is your conception of time? LCW: I used to think it was linear, but now it is getting more circular—things can repeat, return or reincarnate. Maybe it’s an age issue.
CHT: Would you say that we are stuck in this repetitive process? LCW: It looks like history really repeats itself. Most humans don’t learn any lessons, and recent events such as the war in Ukraine have impacted me a lot as they keep rolling in. I am not sure if we are stuck, but the sense of helplessness is unprecedented.
Opening of the Kam Ngan (Gold and Silver) Stock Exchange, March 15, 1971 by Leung Chi Wo, Archival inkjet print, 52 x 82cm, 2021. Courtesy the artist and Blindspot Gallery.
CHT: I am thinking of your ongoing series of photographs of clouds, which also features in your new exhibition. Is it time that you’re looking to capture, as a metaphor for purity?LCW: The Date Series (2017-) are photos taken at the sites of violence. It represents a dilemma. What you see seems nothing but actually it is everything if you consider what is under it.
I began photographing the sky more than 25 years ago. It was a time when I looked at the urban skyline and found myself greatly alienated. I didn’t realise the city had changed so much high up there while I had mostly spent my time with my eyes on the street level. Further development happened when we [Leung and his partner Sara Wong] lived in New York in 1999 and 2000: the famous landmarks didn’t impress me but their negative space did. I started to transform such spaces. Now the world has changed drastically, and maybe only the sky remains the same. It is this sense of purity that creates the dilemma. We hope nothing happens when we look at the sky. It looks beautiful, but I feel sorrow looking around, especially when we are pushed to forget things that happened a few years ago.
CHT: This series is a good example of the issue of contextualising a conceptual work: how much do you say about the story behind it? LCW: This series draws on two extreme aspects: very abstract beautiful images on the one hand, and a random collection of violence in the city on the other hand. The only connection is me physically visiting sites of violence half a century later on the same day, capturing these beautiful skies. For me, it’s a very strong framework, almost self-justifying. What I need to do is to search for violence, match the date and visit the site. It’s like a ritual.
CHT: Are you here influenced by conceptual artists like On Kawara? LCW: I hated his work when I was young; it’s so boring. But I found many years later that it is such an amazing thing to be able to focus on something simple. Obviously, it is also an age issue.
CHT: Are there any artists who deeply influenced your practice? LCW: Not many, but I always think artists from the Arte Povera movement informed my aesthetics.
CHT: Humour is important in your practice. Why? LCW: I always thought that the political cartoon is one of the most powerful art forms. When the most horrible thing happens, the artist can still resort to humour. When the reader really laughs, it’s the saddest moment. It’s the absurdity. It’s almost like an explosion.
Berlin by Leung Chi Wo, Boiler, book, crystal, coin, postcard, stuffed toy, steel frame, 138.5 x 64 x 56cm, 2023. Courtesy the artist and Blindspot Gallery.
CHT: For Past-Future Tense, you have said you want to “project the future in the present past”. What do you mean? LCW: I have been thinking about the past future lately. How did people in the past think about today, which was their future? There are so many what-ifs. It’s fascinating or unbelievable to think: what if my father had empathy with the leftists at the beginning of the riots on the same street where he went to work? My father was born in South America; what if he didn’t return to China? These are all tales now.
This exhibition covers different subject matter, from personal recollection and the history of violence to the coincidences of politics, but all relate to my subjective perception of my immediate surroundings—the city of Hong Kong and its people in the past looking at their future, sometimes passively. I have tried to focus on tangible objects and to exhibit sculptures and collages on the future in the past tense. There are also extended Date Series and My Random Diary. The latter is very much about anxiety: sometimes you try to live your life as normally as possible, but you know it’s no longer the same.
Featured image: Gather The Tears (detail) by Leung Chi Wo, Aluminum alloy, glass, craft knives, book, music stand, 137 x 62 x 62 cm, 2023. Courtesy the artist and Blindspot Gallery.