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C&G Artpartment: Looking back on a decade of Hong Kong art and activism

Gum and Clara Cheung are an artist/curator duo who own and operate C&G Artpartment, located in Mong Kok. Situated on the third floor of a walk-up in Sai Yueng Choi Street South, the gallery space is partially supported by a painting school operated by Clara and Gum.

They have also received funding from the Hong Kong Arts Development Council for their cultural exchange programmes.

Over a nine-year period they have mounted thematic exhibitions in a small adjoining space, a typical white walled gallery space – though appropriately scrappy under the circumstances – where many local and international artists have exhibited.

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Painting class at C&G Artpartment. Photo: C&G Artpartment.

Clara and Gum also maintain a vital collection of art books produced for the most part in Hong Kong, a collection that offers a much needed focus on local book-related artworks, photography collections and exhibition catalogs.

The gallery was (and still is) located very near the September 2014 Mong Kok occupation ground zero. Even before that period, C&G Artpartment’s artistic practice was based on the notion of social and cultural intervention.

Their first exhibition “Back To The Basic” in July 2007 addressed Hong Kong’s Basic Law within the timeframe of the tenth anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong to China. Being a numerically notable anniversary, the mainland and its cohorts had whipped together a multi-event spectacle. In contrast, “Back To The Basic” provided a modest but necessary balance, a small amount of breathing space in an otherwise oxygen-deprived atmosphere.

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Kwan Sheung Chi video and installation. The participating artists in “Back To The Basic” at C&G Artpartment July 2007 were: Pan Xing Lei, Leung Po Shan, Kwan Sheung Chi, Cheung Hong Sang (Enoch), Clara & Gum(C & G). Photo: C&G Artpartment.

C&G is now approaching its own tenth-year anniversary, and has to this date mounted more than 30 exhibitions, participated in cultural exchanges throughout Europe and Asia, and engaged in multiple street performances.

The most recent of these “Soil Play: Decongestants for West Kowloonization” (June 10, 2016 on Nullah Road) once again addressed one of the major concerns of (and subject matters for) C&G – the forever procrastinated West Kowloon Arts District.

C&G succinctly critiqued the bureaucratic impetus behind the massive undertaking in a statement about “Soil Play”: …the West Kowloon project has assured the preceding importance of hardware development over the software in policy making.” Another way of saying: the West Kowloon project (and its business and government backers) give precedence to the architecture over what will go inside it; or for that matter – who will go inside it.

We might consider one of the “Soil Play” artists, Doreen Chan’s work esoteric in her references to (among other things): “…passers-by picking up many oranges after a car accident of an old man at the wholesale market, and… the art piece with fresh oranges arranged in a pyramid shape in Tate Modern.”

But her manner of acting during this performance (such as neighbour, housewife, a typical Hong Kong woman) and laying oranges in patterns on the sidewalk does break with the everyday and offers a release from the usual functions of the so-called public space and the ever present commercial bias of “the street”.

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“Soil Play: Decongestants for West Kowloonization” was the first event in a monthly “micro guerilla art” series of street/public performances that intend “to safeguard Hong Kong’s local civilization, to promote local cultural characteristics and to develop the one (green) belt and one (pedestrians’) road.” Photo: C&G Artpartment.

Artists and Documentary Partners in the June 10th 2016 “Soil Play” event were: Chan Pui Leng (Peggy) and Yung Chi Hau (Edwood), Yu Wing Kei (Rik), Tang Wing Sze (Cindy) and Chak Ka Yi, Cheung Choi Sung (Samson), Tse Chun Sing and Brian Yiu, Man Mei To and Wong Chun Hoi, Doreen Chan and Cheung Chi Lock.

By addressing, as artists, the West Kowloon Arts District and its bureaucratic stasis, C&G Artpartment also bring a self awareness to their endeavours, as they are also a “cultural establishment” or an aspect of the cultural economy.

The baseline here is that both Clara and Gum take on the role of curators or arbiters of Hong Kong visual and/or conceptual art.

Recently, Gum curiously stepped back and forward from his mediated profile as curator. He did this by curating himself (and his own artistic practice) over a period of two years in a series of ten thematic exhibitions and/or performances, each of which was provided with a dedicated venue (besides C&G Artpartment).

The whole series was titled “Curate No More” which is a Cantonese homonym for a familiar yet vehement curse. The series has a tongue-in-cheek, sarcastic or simply humorous feel (easily witnessed in the title) though the subject matter also carries its “deadly serious” weight.

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A selection from Gum’s documentation/artist book titled “Curate No More – Gum’s Art Project (2013-2015)” of the project titled “Fortune Telling” initiated at the beginning of the two year project in which Gum buried a time-capsule that contained his predictions about the future of Hong Kong’s art environment and infrastructure. The time capsule was disinterred after two years at the completion of Gum’s entire project. Photo: C&G Artpartment.

As for the mechanics of curating or what we vaguely refer to as “the art world”, Gum, by taking his show on the road (so to speak) deftly mimicked the branded international art circuit’s travelling show, while conversely demonstrating a creative self-reliance and DIY attitude that shows that this kind of city-wide exposure need not be limited to the grossly over-funded or seriously well connected. Artists, on their own, can get things done.

Clara Cheung of C&G Artpartment was kind enough to answer a few questions for the purposes of this article.

Q: Does your artistic practice have other concerns besides the social/political? 

C&G: Everything is relational, so yes, of course my artistic practice would influence me in certain ways.  One major discourse of contemporary art is built upon leftist critical theories, especially when one looks at art in public, art for the community, etc. After the umbrella movement, the political diversity within the artist community was widened or become clearer.  It is no longer only about supporting the left or right, which is also the case for HK people as well.

Besides the social/political concerns, I practice art because, in the first place, I enjoy it. It is simply the aesthetic experience and therapeutic quality in art-making that sustains my practice.

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C&G Artparment gallery. Photo: C&G Artpartment.

Q: What effect will your art/activism have on the political future of Hong Kong (in particular in 2047, the end of the “one country/two systems” agreement?) 

C&G: Honestly, I don’t believe what I do in the arts can have much effect, [or] can directly effect anything.

However, I do see the therapeutic quality of art. For example, after I threw 1,000 eggs on my body as a protest on the day when 689 (Chief Executive CY Leung) presented his policy address in 2015, some friends told me that they cried when they saw the video documentation.

It is just one example, but I do believe that art can help develop a common [non-verbal] language amongst a group of people that addresses something unspeakable.

On the other hand, I am currently working on various small scale art exchange projects. Such exchange projects do help emphasise and develop Hongkongers’ identity.

The reason is simple: when you are outside of HK, you think even harder about your nationality and identity. On the other hand, the audience and practitioners from the place you visit usually like to start the conversation about where are you from.

Let’s put it this way: artistic practice can’t directly affect politics, but it has the “soft power” to develop Hongkongers’ cultural identity, which must be strong, in order, in the long run, to maintain and nurture our autonomy.

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C&G Artparment library. Photo: C&G Artpartment.

Q: What was the reaction to your artistic initiatives amongst the supporters of the Mong Kok occupations in 2014?

C&G: At the beginning, I joined the “occupy house building competition” initiated by Wooferten (another activist/artist organization previously located on Shanghai Street, Yau Ma Tei). I wasn’t there when one of the houses was torn down by other protesters. This was the time when the protesters (especially in Mong Kok) had the big debate about what kinds of activities should be restricted at the occupy site.

There were different moments during the occupy period, where different things/actions would be appropriate or not appropriate.  Simply put: when the police confronted the barricades, of course one should not be focused on doing documentation, or still life painting, etc.

But, during all the many “normal days” when there were so few people within the occupy zone in MongKok, I invited people outside of the zone (on the pedestrian area) to enter the occupy area, to do a 10-min portrait sketch together with me (we sat opposite each other and drew each other, and then exchanged our drawings as a gift).

Those who participated enjoyed it very much. There also were passers-by who only observed but didn’t participate. This activity went quietly, with about 10-20 people drawing each time I did it.

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C&G Artparment gallery. Photo: C&G Artpartment.

Another time (during the earlier period of the occupation: October 2014) I put some crayons, paper, an easel, tape, plus a very simple sign to ask people to do still life drawings of the plants in the middle of Nathan road.  After 2-3 days, people in the area simply participated by themselves, and attached the plant drawings to the easel; very simple and spontaneous.

Q: Have you witnessed any kind of change in younger peoples’ (or indeed “the general public”) attitudes towards “culture” in your lifetime?

C&G: Yes, with the increasing numbers of art practitioners and exhibition visitors in town (in the past 20 years), more Hongkongers are concerned with local art and culture.

To me, HK’s recent democratic movement (since the Queen’s Pier clock tower incident) somehow overthrows the previous major discourse of Hongkongers’ cultural identity as the “in-between.” That kind of “in-between” quality was also linked with the “flexibility” and “adaptivity”.  Hongkongers used to be proud of this, but I see that attitude is changing and Hongkongers are, at the moment, reforming our local identity.

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HKFP Writer

Andrew S Guthrie

Andrew S Guthrie

Andrew S Guthrie was born in New York City, lived for most of his life in Boston, and moved to Hong Kong in 2005. His book of poetry “Alphabet” was released in April 2015 through Proverse Publishing Hong Kong, and his cultural history “Paul’s Records” was released through Blacksmith Books in October 2015.

C&G Artpartment: Looking back on a decade of Hong Kong art and activism