The child in Tang Kwok-hin’s recent works
By: Yeung Yang
In the artist statement of the project Offhand-over (2016), Tang Kwok-hin says, ‘To count every single belonging during a journey; to count what remains of values and magnanimity during the decline of an era.’ In Tang’s practice, words that accompany works often capture a state of heart and mind that he is in during the process of making. They do not necessarily illustrate the works, but stand alone as textual compositions in their own right. This particular artist statement is not the only time in his practice when he expresses how the present is out of grasp, his being challenged by it and his need to make sense of the purpose of life in face of circumstances not up to him. The push and pull of demands from within – seeking belonging, and the demand from outer social realities – seeking connection with the times, have been underscoring his recent practice.
In this essay, I propose that the figure of the child in Tang’s recent works has become his method of access to the present. These works are not about children or childhood. Instead, the child, in her varying states of being, is a key with which the artist maintains an indeterminacy in the changing present, particularly in the relation between himself and the world. The incongruences in how the child appears address the complexity of the question. In face of indeterminacy, one might drown in fear and despair, or react with apathy, cynicism, or antagonism. Tang, instead, produces hope. This kind of hope is not the hope frequently circulated in commercial practices like advertising, where images of jolly children configure an optimism packaged in established and past values for adults’ consumption. Tang’s kind of hope is open as produced by the child, for no one, however hard one tries, could foreclose how a child’s life would unfold. Without suggesting what is hoped for, or a particular object of hope, Tang’s hope is produced in time, co-extensive of life in its constant transformation, directed to the future. (Note 1)
1. Child – the child becoming social
Child (2018) is a mixed media installation using found objects, photographs and sound. (Note 2) On the walls are ten mirror plates inscribed with select phrases from the Hong Kong Chief Executives’ Policy Addresses since the 1997 sovereignty changeover. The plates are common objects in local commercial culture – given as gifts to a newly opened restaurant or a doctor’s clinic to congratulate their inauguration. The epigraphs are often idioms that carry wishes of success. In Tang’s installation, some phrases are rallying cries articulated as imperatives, like ‘Welcome New Challenges’ (Note 3) and ‘Collectively Strategise to Invent New Skies’ (Note 4). Other phrases could be read as both descriptive and prescriptive, eg. ‘Observe the rule of law; Grasp opportunities and encounters; Make a choice’. (Note 5) All of the plates share a line, ‘For the safe-keeping of the people of Hong Kong’. (Note 6)
An altar is in front of the mirrors. A bench faces the altar and the mirrors behind it. They evoke the intimacy and solemnity of spaces of worship. At the opposite end of the installation, on the upper corner of the wall, are three black and white photographs of three boys. They are found photographs on the internet of the three men who had been the Chief Executive of HKSAR since 1997. (Note 7) The way they are placed is analogous to the way ancestors of a Hong Kong family are commemorated at home. One could imagine the men voicing out the phrases in the formality of rhythm and tone, while visually they are present as children. Sight and sound are out-of-sync, and is interjected by the voice of a seven-year-old girl in conversation with the artist, played back as an audio recording from the altar.
I find the voice of the girl giving definition to the space by way of what she says and how she says it. The content of the conversation itself begins from the girl’s school life. It then moves into her experience of crossing the border into China, and learning Putonghua. Tang would ask a question, eg. ‘How do you say “going to school” in Putonghua?’ or ‘How do you say “father” and “mother” in Putonghua?’ The girl would respond with a tone of lightness, a manner of spontaneity, and between giggles, with her attention moving in and out of the line of conversation that the artist carves out. In relation to the other elements in the installation, the conversation makes the process of the girl’s socialisation by schooling apparent. And yet, the carefree attitude in the way she speaks keeps the conversation open-ended – her responses are unpredictable and can therefore rupture its contours at any moment. Her voice, by moving in the gallery space while also partly sheltered by the altar and its intimacy, weaves together the grand narratives of deliberate policies in the context of historical change and the miniature and the individual narrative from the child self. The voice, with less inhibition and pretension compared to the adults’, suspends the ideological content of the epigraphs and the well-oiled politicians’ speeches, equalising them, in an idealised world of the children that belongs to the girl and the politicians as children.
2. The Spine Passerby – child selves shared
Tang’s interest in the child’s process of learning could be discerned in the earlier work The Spine Passerby (2011). The project makes it possible for multiple child selves in both children and adults to learn from each other. The project was first conceived when Tang was invited to make public art in Shatin Park (known as ‘Spine Park’ in ‘ancient times’ according to the artist). In response, he sought help from artist Stephanie Sin to put on the costume of an ape and play the role of one in the park to interact with the park users. Tang was the videographer. The ape spent four hours a day, five days a week for ten weeks in the park. The edited summary documentation of the project shows the ape learning from her interaction with strangers in the park, eg. children giving her such objects as an umbrella to play with, the ape covering herself up with newspaper after observing others making shelters out of cardboards, the ape learning to sing, eventually speaking about her identity with the ‘I’, telling a child she is an ‘ape’ and not a ‘gorilla’”, etc. In the eighth week, she began drawing. She also read the newspaper and sat on a wheelchair to be pushed around the park. Adults activated their capacity to ‘make-believe’ that children are best at to interact with the ape.
On the last day, the ape had a chat with an uncle who had been in the park to see her every day, and who brought her small bananas. ‘I am 80 years old, but I am like an eight-year-old,’ the uncle said. ‘I will take you to the restaurant one day.’ It is a moment of recognition and friendship, to endure in time. Tang also interviewed a father and daughter about how many times they saw the ape in the park and if they might miss her after the day. ‘Yes,’ the father said. The problems Tang has been grappling with emerge: When does the artist become the ape, and when does the ape become an artist? How does she/he affect others? What is it that affects others?
In a specific video named Gossip taken in the course of the project, which the artist posted on Facebook, a girl rocks on a bouncy metallic rider in the park. The ape rocks on another one about ten feet away from her. The video was labelled ‘10th week: Leisure accrues?’ The two-minute video records a chat between them. It is the girl doing the talking mostly. The audio is not very clear but she could be heard talking about getting a plane ticket to go somewhere. The ape mostly responds by nodding and making an ‘hmm’ sound that signifies agreement or acknowledgement. It is not clear if the ape is learning from the girl or vice versa. The artist has left a message on Facebook that says he finds the child not so different from the animal in this incident. For me, it is more interesting how both are in control and not in control of the situation, affecting and are affected by each other. It is this performativity that conjures an indeterminacy for the moment. There is no certainty as to what will come up next in the conversation, but the ape empathises with the girl, as if she, too, were a child.
3. Belly – the child between sleep and activity
Tang’s reflection on how much societal values impose themselves on the human acquires a level of sophistication in the artistic language in the project Belly (2018), a mixed-media installation at an old and unused school at Chuen Lung Village. (Note 8) The installation spans over two rooms. In the inner room is a video of a child sleeping. The projection takes up the entire wall. A piece of glass the size of the child’s belly is placed on the wall – it gives texture to the image. The child is present in her breath. Follow the rhythm, and one is in her calm, one’s calm. In front of the projection, on the ground, is a bed mattress embedded in an elevated wooden floor. It is not clear if it is a zone of comfort or a challenge, for sitting or lying there could be a way to rest, but also to be immersed in the tension between choosing the baby or the adult, presented as seven videos of villagers of Chuen Lung speaking about their lives on the opposite wall.
It is also a choice between future-present and the past. In the outer room opening up to the entrance of the gallery is a roughly one-foot-by-one-foot installation of a fish tank with a brick inside. The artist picked up this brick that fell from a wall of his home. His intention was to create a mountain and a river through the projection of light upon the water, as a response to the impressions Chuen Lung village made on him: ‘reflections, light, wave, water, green, etc.’ (Note 9) The layer of green moss growing on the brick was not the plan, he said, but he loved that. (Note 10) The wall near the fish tank is lined up with wall-to-ceiling wardrobes full of hanging clothes and closed drawers.
The pre-linguistic child here, her breathing, gives ambiguous and multiple meanings to the space. In relation to the interviews of the adults, the sleeping child is apathetic: her world inaccessible to them, their worlds at a distance from her. In relation to the brick in the fish tank, the child becomes a presence on the line of life the artist is drawing in the space: the presence of nature generating life that precedes the human. Both suggest rupture – the child may suddenly wake up and cry, which is a more abrupt and violent kind of rupture compared to that of the speaking girl in Child. The force of nature breaking out from the brick on an infinitesimal scale may also be read as a kind of rupture. Without the baby, the installation would have easily become nostalgia for a past. It is the child’s breath that allows the artist to access the village as it is now, and as it may be in the future.
I find this iteration of the child more powerful and enduring than that in previous works for several reasons. First, it is less dependent on language, but more on involuntary body movements, with the potential to communicate more than what can be put into words. Second, it is less polemical and contextualised in specific political topics – where contentions limit, nature cracks open. Third, the child becomes a vehicle through which the questioning of history and the humanly-devised could be asked – and it is through questioning that the artist seeks his place in relation to the world, keeping it unresolved.
4. I call you Nancy – the absentee child
I would like to end with I call you Nancy (2012) and Nancy (2012-17), in which an absentee child is configured. This project consists of a video work that builds a fictive narrative about the artist’s unborn younger sister, whom he calls by the name of ‘Nancy’. The video is silent. It frames his mother’s hand flipping over a photo album made of images of women by the name of Nancy that Tang found on the internet. The artist statement reveals that an abortion causes the loss. Through his mother, Tang reaches out to his sister; and through his imagined sister, he reaches out to his mother. The piece is personal: it gives the artist a way to access the present as not only emotional loss, but a future without his sister. The piece is also social: it produces a world that connects his life with strangers in the world – strange made familiar. Death determines absolutely, but memory is immortalised, retained and perpetuated to be infinitely open – anyone could be a Nancy; there would always be more Nancy’s.
When it comes to hope, there tends to be an emphasis on what is hoped for. In Tang’s figuring of the child, it is more the indeterminacy in the structure of hope that is maintained. Hope becomes possible precisely because disappointment or failure is possible. In the way the child appears in his work, consistently but unevenly, hope is distributed in such a way that activates each and every individual’s capacity to perceive and preserve indeterminacy as the structure of hope itself. (Note 11)
Tang’s artistic language does not seek dialectical deliberation, but rather, shows where moments of aliveness are. In this latency, his art lives; art lives.
Note 1: I am inspired by anthropologist Hikokazu Miyazaki’s analysis of the idea of hope as method in Fijians’ negotiation with their government in The Method of Hope: Anthropology, Philosophy, and Fijian Knowledge (2004). While the goal of the Fijians is to achieve indeterminacy by producing hope in their interaction with government officials, in Tang, the indeterminacy is achieved by configuring the child.
Note 2: The first iteration of Child was in 2016, as a solo show, in 100ft Park. The 2018 iteration was a part of the group show Kotodama presented at Parasite Art Space.
Note 3: In Cantonese, this phrase is pronounced ‘jing4 zip3 san1 tiu1 zin3’ (迎接新挑戰).
Note 4: In Cantonese, this phrase is pronounced ‘kwan4 caak3 san1 tin1 dei6’ (群策新天地)
Note 5: In Cantonese, this phrase is pronounced ‘zung6 faat3 ci4, zoeng2 gei1 jyu6, zok3 kyut3 zaak6’ (重法治, 掌機遇, 作抉擇)
Note 6: In Cantonese, this phrase is pronounced ‘hoeng1 gong2 si5 man4 wai6 cyun4’ (香港市民惠存)
Note 7: The first Chief Executive Officer of Hong Kong Special Administrative Region was Tung Chee-hwa (1997-2005). The second one was Donald Tsang Yam-kuen (2005-2012). The third one was Leung Chun-ying (2012-2017).
Note 8: Hi Hill! is an Art Promotion Office of the HKSAR project. Site-specific works were made in the village of Chuen Lung to last for five months. Tang’s is one among thirteen groups of artists who presented their works there.
Note 9: Author’s interview with the artist, September 23, 2019.