ART BASEL HONG KONG OPENING MAY 23, 2013
in conversation with Amandine Hervey
Mur Nomade founder & curator
introducing Chan Wing Nga.

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First Art Basel Hong Kong is taking place in the city from May 22nd. About 250 art galleries originating from some 35 countries will present their highest quality works. With half of the participating galleries coming from Asia and Asia-Pacific, the fair aims at providing a portal to the region’s artists as well as giving an opportunity for galleries, artists, curator or collector to open dialogues.

This kind of show may well be controversial, but among its positive sides, and at the margins of it, many interesting events are taking place in the city. In particular, post-industrial areas which are hosting new galleries are opening their door for the public. A great chance to discover hidden and amazing white spaces far from the bustling centre. Aberdeen and Wong Chuk Hang is one of those : with more than 15 local and international galleries and artist studios to visit, the South Island Cultural District is indeed the newest destination for contemporary art.

Hosted by Koru Contemporary Art, one of the first gallery to open there, this is the place chosen by Mur Nomade, a French curatorial office, to present its artwork. Aiming at gathering artists from different culture and at encouraging creative encounters, Amandine Hervey, its founder and curator, is showing amongst others a very young Hong Kong artist, Chan Wing Nga.

Why did you start Mur Nomade and what is the main idea behind the name?
Mur Nomade is a curatorial office. I started Mur Nomade to work with artists from around the world and to conceive projects with them such as contemporary art exhibitions, artist residencies, collaborative art projects, workshops and outreach programmes. Mur Nomade focuses on projects encouraging cultural exchanges and creative encounters.
Mur Nomade is the French translation of ‘nomadic wall’. The idea behind the name is that Mur Nomade is not attached to a specific venue. This allows me to find the most relevant space for each initiative.

You also aim at opening dialogue between HK artists and others, just like you did with Régis Gonzalez and Tsang Chui-Mei: how do the artists / public respond to this?

Collaborative artistic projects are challenging at many levels and artists know it. When they accept embarking on those projects, they take risks and they are prepared to be shaken up, but they do so because they believe ‘1+1=3’ and they are convinced you can learn about yourself by learning about others.

Similarly the public is interested in cross-cultural dialogues because they stimulate creativity and experimentation.

How would you then define your role as a curator?

All the projects I’m proposing at Mur Nomade involve a dialogue and an exchange (cultural, personal, in between artworks and the soul of a space…) So I see myself as a database of images and stories and I find connections, which in some cases can be opposing forces. Possibilities of dialogues are endless therefore my approach when I curate an exhibition requires finding an equilibrium between freedom and discipline.

What do you think of Art Basel in HK?

I’m pleased to see its influence works both ways. In the one hand, with half of the participating galleries coming from Asia and Asia-Pacific, the fair provides a remarkable exposure to the region’s creative forces. On the other hand, it allows galleries from around the world to bring high quality works to Hong Kong.

To which kind of audience do you address to during that week?

As Mur Nomade is based in Hong Kong, it seems pertinent to me to focus more on overseas visitors during that specific week, as local audiences have more opportunities to access the work of Mur Nomade’s artists throughout the year.

You are presenting a very young artist, Chan Wing Nga : how did you encounter her work and why did you choose her during Art Basel?

I had the chance to collaborate for several projects with academics and university teachers, and this gave me the opportunity to discover Chan Wing Nga’s work when she graduated from the Academy of Visual Arts of Hong Kong Baptist University.

Chan’s work already shows a great maturity so it definitely meets the level of quality of works we can see in Hong Kong during the Art Basel ‘season’. Moreover it is particularly appropriate to exhibit Chan’s Intimates series at a time when audiences from around the world gather in Hong Kong because her photographs explore universal questions on what it means to be a woman, and at the same time they are based on the artist’s lengthy and passionate research on Chinese traditions and society.

What are your next projects?

This summer, Mur Nomade is offering a Travel Grant to a young Hong Kong artist to go to France. The idea is to work closely with the artist to define the scope of her research during this trip, to identify the major French collections that could be relevant to her creative approach, and to assist her in meeting local artists and curators.

Later in the year, Mur Nomade will invite to Hong Kong an overseas artist to collaborate with a local artist to present a two-week cultural exchange programme entitled Confluence involving a workshop, an exhibition and guided tours for students and the general public.

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Chan Wing Nga – Intimates.

Although the economic development in China during the last thirty years has handed women opportunities for greater freedom and to free themselves from the social shackles that have long held them down, they still suffer serious discrimination, often from a return to the customs and practices of the past, particularly in the countryside.

“In more than one way, women have seen their status regress, obliged to re-engage with a male environment that holds them locked in precarious circumstances”(1). Women have always been considered inferior to men in China and the higher value placed on males results in a greater number of abortions of female foetuses in the (illegal) practice of prenatal selection.

Chan Wing Nga was born in Guangdong province in China. At the age of 4 she left China with her family to join her father in Hong Kong, where he had moved during the 1980s. A young graduate from the Academy of the Visual Arts at the Hong Kong Baptist University, through a series of six portraits she has expressed the female Chinese identity weighed down by its burden of suffering and tradition. Her research is more psychological than aesthetic. Intent on incarnating as closely as possible the female condition, she has chosen to work with hair, a material that is both highly symbolic and ambiguous as it is assimilated with the human body.

Worn long by women, hair perfectly represents the weight of femininity handed on from mother to daughter. In China hair also represents emotions and is associated with all sorts of rites. It is not rare, for example, for a Chinese person to shave his or her head following the death of a relative. Among women, the passage from girlhood to a marriageable age is marked by a change in hairstyle: around the age of 14, a girl takes a new name and receives a hairpin during an exclusively female ceremony. For the Yao minority, living in the South-East and South of China, hair is a criterion of beauty. Yao women only cut their hair twice during their lifetime – at the ages of 18 and 38. As part of their heritage, they also receive locks of their mother’s and grandmother’s hair, which they plait into their own.

In parallel to her in-depth research, Chan decided to buy locks of hair sold on internet. Most sellers come from the disadvantaged classes and the trade is so widespread that some journalists refer to a ‘Hair Road’ on which hair is transported from South-east Asia and India to Western hair salons. However, Chan is not interested by this socio-economic aspect of hair, preferring to focus on its emotional charge. Patiently glued together, she then crochets the sparse locks to create large parures of hair similar to sculptures that express the powerful presence of the many women who have unwittingly contributed to them.

Four of the photographs that make up the series Intimates are portraits of the same woman wearing this heavy, pernicious ornamentation that either entwines around her neck or stifles her senses. “As soon as they can speak, [girls] are directed towards a life of submission, taught to say yes in the humble tone that is suitable for women” (2). Her mouth is therefore obstructed, her eyes covered and her ears shrouded, thus blocking all possibility of communication and attempt at self-expression. Before her betrothal, a girl is traditionally cloistered and made to wear a sort of rope around her neck, which is apparent here in the form of this tentacular necklace like chains of subjugation. The black-and-white tones of the photography allow the viewer to concentrate on the emotional charge of the works and to become aware of the expression of the invisible through a profusion of nuances.

The mouth, ears and eyes – the young woman’s senses – have been transformed as a result of her female nature, smothered by society and, perhaps, also by herself. The burden she bears is as much imposed upon her as it is created or imagined by herself. Almost an apotropaic figure, this muzzled character is in fact a projection of woman, an expression of all the myths, traditions and fantasies the artist is aware of. When we know that each lock of hair contains the DNA of a particular person, we imagine hundreds of living women wrapped around the model’s neck, oppressing her. It would therefore be women – not men – that enslave one another.

Chan’s work contains no violence. Probably as part of her search for an ideal identity, her gaze is a mild one, almost melancholic. The barriers and constraints incarnated in the hair seem to be worn by the model almost with docility. The sadness and suffering it represents, which lie at the heart of the artist’s creative process, seem concealed beneath appearance and abolition, fear and expiation. Whereas these images are evocative of non-fulfilment, they are also filled with promises: like an expectation, we feel a sense of imminent deliverance for this woman, while a veil of incredulity seems to pass before her eyes.

Intimates explores how women relate to one another, starting with Chan and her model. The two young women resemble one another and are one another’s alter ego, evoking Chan’s underlying duality, as she is both drawn to tradition and at the same refuses to submit to it. A first series of photographs, which Chan did not select, shows both model and artist side by side, joined by their hair.

More generally, the solidarity felt between women has always been a pillar of Chinese culture and is still extant today. These strong links, which are constructive but also oppressive, are perfectly embodied by nüshu, a script that was used exclusively by women in the south of Henan, and probably developed at the end of the Song dynasty. At the time, the villages were very remote and the illiterate women were secluded from one another and subject to the authority of their husbands. Nüshu allowed them to communicate secretly and rapidly led to the writing of poems and songs. It was learnt by all women and passed down to their daughters, to the extent that a woman who did not know nüshu found herself excluded from the female community. It was written on silk, fabrics, objects, handkerchiefs, and other materials, which were generally burned or buried with their author. Nüshu disappeared in 2004 with the death of its last practitioner. Chan traced the history of the script, a writing system based on simplified Chinese characters, and learned it herself. The fifth photograph in the series shows the artist sewing hair into nüshu characters on her forearm. The fabric is so light that, in another expression of women’s suffering, she seems to be embroidering her own flesh. This photograph differs from the others in the series by its close framing and soft lateral lighting. In this only self-portrait, Chan seems to wish to share with us, in a stolen moment of intimacy, this – her secret.

It is interesting to compare Chan’s work with that of artist Man Yee Lam. Born in Hong Kong but living in California, this artist of Chinese extraction made an installation titled Cocooning – Self-Combing Woman in which she holds herself prisoner with silk thread, in an expression of the long battle she fights with her condition as a woman. The city of Shunde, where her family is from, is known for silk weaving and the women there play an important role. Empowered by the value of their work, some have chosen to remain single in preference to submitting to the authority of a husband. They call themselves “self-combing women”, in reference to the combing ceremony that takes place when a young girl marries, in which a new comb is passed through her hair as a symbol of her new status. These women thus maintain their autonomy but pay the price of celibacy as they are trapped in their work and isolated from the rest of society. Like them, Lam fights for her independence but feels trapped by the unequal struggle: if autonomy means renouncing marriage, what sense does the lure of emancipation have? Like Chan, Lam feels tugged between a tradition that she reconstructs and her desire for freedom.

Continuing to explore the place of women in Chinese society, Chan will soon leave to study the Mosuo ethnic group in Yunnan, in the south-west of China. This minority people of about 30,000 individuals is organised in a matriarchal society: the mothers are the heads of the family and pass their name and goods down to their children, whereas the notion of the father is non-existent. The men and women do not live as couples and, each night, the women decide which man they wish to spend the night with. Archaeologist, anthropologist, sociologist…Chan wishes to re-create ties with Chinese traditions to build an ongoing history and weave solid links between the past and present. By replacing Antiquity with tradition, she makes the words of Shi Tao her own: “Antiquity is the instrument of knowledge: to transform consists in knowing that instrument but without becoming its servant. […] Knowledge that is closely linked to imitating is bound to lack breadth, so a fine man only borrows from Antiquity to found something in the present.”(3)

Caroline Ha Thuc.
Hong Kong
(Translation Timothy Stroud)

 

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(1) Isabelle Attané, En espérant un fils… La Masculinisation de la population chinoise (Paris: Editions de l’Institut national d’études démographiques, 2010).

(2) Marcel Granet, La Civilisation chinoise (Paris, ed. Albin Michel, 1968).

(3) Shi Tao, Les “Propos sur la peinture” du Moine Citrouille-Amère, Pierre Ryckmans (ed.) (Paris: Plon, 2007).