Wall Demolition in Progress: On 'Art Writers@Oi!'
By: Evelyn Char
Before starting on this piece, I browsed the website of 'Art Writers@Oi!'; and reading letter after letter in the mailbox, an image came to mind suddenly: A grand hall inside an old building in Europe, spectators form a circle, and in the middle are six dancers. The dancers change positions constantly, composing various body sculptures, while with language they connect the multiple realities from the ancient times to the future. I am referring to the work by choreographer Alexandra Pirici at Skulptur Projekte Münster 2017. At the end of the performance, the dancers line up in a row, transformed into a Google search engine in human flesh. Spectators are invited to suggest any keyword, with which they will then conduct a search, and pronounce aloud the search results.
To me, the 'Art Writers@Oi!' mailbox operates just like that human Google search engine. Although the nature of the mailbox implies a lack of instantaneity, the questioning and answering on both sides of the mailbox can be seen as another performance. After all, in this era, with a smartphone, one can easily obtain tens of millions of search results within the split of 0.001 second. Most questions can be answered immediately, there is no longer the need to go through the entire ritual of writing a letter and waiting for an answer. Among the incoming letters there are a number of questions that I can immediately convert into search keywords, such as 'Are there any performance artist in Hong Kong' and 'What are the definitions of Graffiti and Street art' which can easily be answered by inputting 'Hong Kong/performance art' and 'graffiti/street art' into the internet search engine. Even so, I am surprised how many people still preferred to send the questions to the mailbox. My question is, why would people want to use the mailbox, a slow, ancient channel that is very much a test of patience?
Looking at the emerging KOL (Key Opinion Leaders) culture of the recent years, there is no lack of interactive operations, such as replying to audience’s comments in live broadcasts, or calling on the audience to share experience on certain topics through private messages, which are then converted into public content on the platform. They all see a precedent in the letter to the editor. As stars no longer exist, KOL rises as a substitute, and the public follow these KOL’s social media accounts, yearning for interaction with them, out of a craving for the object of desire and psychological projection. In Hong Kong, the KOL culture and art criticism are two entirely separate operations. Art critics seldom engage in strategic self-marketing; while they are visible to the public, they are merely names without a face or a body. The absence of 'image' means that they cannot become objects of desire. Despite that, I think that the establishment of the 'Art Writers@Oi!' mailbox is founded upon a desire: it may be the desire for meaning in the midst of incomprehension, or it may be the word 'art' itself, and to be closer to it permits the accumulation of cultural capital. Admission to art exhibitions in Hong Kong are mostly free of charge, they are easily accessible. However, a certain level of basic knowledge is required for the reading of contemporary art. Simply viewing does not bring people closer to art, but on the contrary the frustrating feeling of rejection may be the more common outcome. As a result, most people would readily admit their artistic illiteracy. Thus, for the many people who have no access to this knowledge, the chance to talk directly to professional art critics seems to be a precious opening for them to approach their object of desire.
On the other hand, in terms of the institution (Oi!) and the independent art writers (Vivian Ting, Yeung Yang, Jeff Leung Chin-fung, etc.), the creation of a mechanism, i.e. the mailbox, to enable dialogue between the public (outsiders?) and art critics (professionals?), may very well stem from an anxiety of the dangers of staying within the ivory tower. While the majority of contemporary art is still presented in the form of exhibition, in recent years, from art museums to alternative art spaces, there has been an emphasis in public participation, and exhibitions are generally accompanied by public programmes. At the same time, the strong demand for community art leads to the exploration of this particular area by alternative art spaces and even public institutions such as Oi! which is managed by the Leisure and Cultural Services Department. Community art in Hong Kong can be traced back to Evelyna Liang’s Art in the Camp project, and for more than thirty years, many art activities continue to advertise 'Community' and summon 'the public', which is a reflection that contemporary art still exists within a certain sacred boundary, and does not coincide with the reality of ordinary people. Thus this emphasis of the necessity of 'being grounded' and 'going into the community'. In the past few years, prompted by Art Basel Hong Kong, the local art scene has enjoyed a seemingly prosperous time. However, contemporary art is like a besieged city. If you knew anyone from without the city, you would understand how many people still find the city in a state of depression. In the eyes of the public, there is no art in Hong Kong other than the annual art fair. Compared to the production and display of art, art criticism’s difficulty is two-fold. Firstly, while artistic activities are thriving, strangely the field of art criticism is shrinking. During the so-called demise of printed media, there is a continued decrease of art review columns in newspapers and magazines. Although various online publication platforms have since emerged, these new cultural columns often lack professional editorial planning and execution; while there may be an increase of reviews, they do not play in role in promoting and complicating criticism itself.
The shrinking of the field results in the even lower visibility of the traditionally minor discipline of art criticism. The other difficulty faced by art criticism is illustrated in the first question of the second month: Why are you (art critics) so difficult to understand? Interestingly, compared to other Chinese-speaking regions, Hong Kong’s art criticism is not particularly profound, which is to say, in general it tends not to interpret art in theoretical and philosophical terms. Take for example Art Appraisal Club’s discussion at Oi! on 10 July. Art critics Vivian Ting, Jeff Leung Chin-fung, Anthony Leung Po-shan, Yeung Yang engaged in an in-depth discussion on Leung Chi-wo’s work in Once lost but now found (Oi!), from the utilisation of space, how the two narratives in image and language complement or interfere with each other, to ethics in creativity and the artist’s creative context, a discussion which was technical but not exclusive. The problem here is that when readers are too seldomly exposed to contemporary art and have little knowledge of the language, it is inevitable that it all sounds like Greek to them. Imagine if the object of discussion is Marvel movies: it would be favoured by the readers even when discussed in technical terms. It seems to me that the gap between contemporary art and the public is a structural issue related to the mechanism of art production, and cannot be solved by art criticism. Yet within the industry there is a prevalent view that in additional to professional analysis, criticism and questioning, art criticism must also take up the important responsibilities of promoting art and audience development. When people confuse the functions between criticism and promotional reportage, art writing falls into an embarrassing situation, where art critics are pressed to invent some magical device to fulfill all these demands, in order to conform to a Hong Kong-style utilitarianism.
I still insist that marketing is not the responsibility of criticism. Instead of forcing art criticism to please the readers and attract audience, it would be better to allow criticism to stay in the ivory tower, and let critics produce their public meaning through in-depth inquiries based on professional knowledge. If the critics decide that they could bridge the gap between the public and art, unconventional writing such as the 'Art Writers@Oi!' mailbox might be a better option. This attempt has attracted inquirers with different levels of art knowledge: from the more informed observations ('How does "check-in" help to promote art knowledge?' 'Why are there less women artists at Oi!') to the more astonishing queries ('How does one express love through art?').
While inquirers receive answers to their queries, art critics in turn also gain an understanding of the audience’s real thoughts and questions. But if we want to continue breaking through the city walls, first of all this cannot be a short-term project. Then we also have to solve two problems: Firstly, how do we continue the discussion in spite of the one-way flow of knowledge; is it possible to develop more organic sharing platforms? Secondly, how do we disseminate and popularise such public-oriented knowledge after its production? This might require assistance from professionals familiar with social media operations. I look forward to seeing the wall demolition continue, until the day comes when the audience can connect to the art criticism they once considered incomprehensible.