The Two Phases of Independent Art Space Development in Hong Kong

by CHEUNG Mei, Crystal LAI Project Researchers

It has been 30 years since the first community art organization started in Hong Kong. Hong Kong Arts Festival will be celebrating the 30th anniversary next year. Hong Kong Arts Centre is 25 years of age. Zuni Icosahedron, Fringe Club, City Contemporary Dance Company, and Videotage were all established between early to mid ’80s. At that time the government did not have a strong infrastructure to support art. These organizations did not emphasize too much on their non-mainstream position. However, before the establishment of Hong Kong Arts Development Council, their independence in terms of finance should be remarked. Whilst art groups in the 90’s who maintained their "alternative" position in fact incapable of surviving independent, being relying on public funding.

The three decades of history is not long. Yet a retrospective is not easy, due to the neglection of archiving. To collect data by interview will subject to how cooperative an interviewee is. The case is even more difficult with art spaces that no longer exist. The lack of uniformity in data collected is inevitable. Nevertheless, a simple retrospective is still worthwhile.

At that time, there was very few non-profit visual art organization initiated by artists and run its own exhibition space. The now disfunct Workshop and Quart Society are early example of art groups responding to artist’s quest for space.

The First Phase

Workshop is one of the earliest art groups which operated an exhibition venue. According to one of the founders Yeung Chun-kei, Workshop started in 1983 with a darkroom in an old building at Hollywood Road, Central. The members used to study under the same teacher. They set up the space as a gathering place. Workshop was the site to many exhibits between ’84 and ’86. After collaborating with City Contemporary Gallery in an installation exhibition, Yeung no longer satisfied with pure photography and turned to mixed-media creative activities. In view of inavailability of exhibition venue, he then developed the darkroom into an exhibit-studio space.

The 40 sq. m. space featured artists from Hong Kong, France, US, and even Mainland China. The work was mainly photographic, sometimes installation art was shown. Exhibit period was relatively long. At that time there were very few cultural page reporters. Usually one week was used on preview for the press. And then it took some time before the article was published, and even more before the audience came.

Despite the hard work, exhibits at Workshop came one after another. There was no clear program direction. The curatorial work was shared among the members, depending on individual member’s own concept and interest. The members shared the workload and the costs. Having a day-time job, sometimes they worked over-night on exhibit. Apart from the art circle, they had occasional visitors who followed the reports in the press. Workshop had run a three-year open studio program. Every few months different artists were invited to take part in a residency. The response was quite good. Yeung Chun-kei remembered the second year is ’89. Workshop invited an artist from Guangzhou to reside, right after the June-Fourth incident.

Workshop lasted until ’96. The members after all the years lost their momentum, becoming less active. They were faced with the uncertain ’97 issues. On the other hand, Workshop’s funding application was declined by the Hong Kong Arts Development Council. So the members decided to end the organization.

Quart Society was set up in 1990 in mid-level, Central, by artists Yank Wong, Choi Yi-yuen, Choi Ho-chuen, Fung Kwok-leung, Hui Ching-suen, Law Yuk-yu and Yeung Tung-lung. It aims at promoting contemporary Hong Kong art, organizing and presenting visual art exhibitions, and exchanging information and opinion in the related field. Between ’90 and ’92, Quart Society held more than 20 events, including Art of Refugee Artist/Work by Nguyen Dai Glang, Frog work by Kwok Man-ho, Tapestry Weaving Workshop, Works by Yank Wong, Blue Wail in Concert, and June Exhibition. Quart Society was chaired by Yeung Tung-lung, with a membership of 150.

City Contemporary Dance Company (CCDC) established a gallery and theatre at their headquarters in mid 80s. Though not totally run by artists, the emergence of the complex was a response to the artist’s quest for multi-facet form and content in contemporary art. CCDC was set up around ’84 and ’85 in Wong Tai Sin. It was the first performing art organization formed by local artists. According to the now Manager Kwong Wai-lap, though at that time there was also Fringe Club and the annual Fringe Festival, after several years of running, artists were not satisfied with the format. Therefore when CCDC gallery and theatre was started, they were welcome by the art community. Artists Chan Ching-wah and Josh Hon, art group Sand and Brick, even political group May Fourth Action were among the art workers who performed in the venue. Cross-disciplinary performance and exhibition flourished there.

CCDC venue was started as a flexible and uncompromising space to accommodate different form of art. In the early ’90s, due to lack of resources, CCDC was unable to maintain the venue. Also the then Urban Services Department set up a number of multi-purpose exhibition venues in various parts of the city. The unfavorable location Wong Tai Sin was attracting less audience. To Kwong Wai-lap, the decision to close down the venue was hasty and regretful.

The Second Phase

The physical space in the first phase were more instrumental, quite different from those in the second phase in the mid ’90s. Para/Site is located in the old district of Sheung Wan with a mission of community and art. The location itself is a major discourse. The program of Museum of Site (MOST) in Kam Tin, the New Territories, is closely tied with the history and environment of the area.

The emergence of "Oil Street" echoed the practice in US and Europe concerning the recycled usage of abandoned premises for cultural purpose. The success of SoHo, New York, demonstrated the value of old factories and commercial buildings. Apart from the cheap rent, the off-centered location as a statement also is also attraction to the art community. Artist Commune, Z+, and 1aspace were among the 30 art groups and artists in the community-driven art village.

Artist Commune was in a former morgue adjacent to the old government warehouse premises in Oil Street. The opening show aptly played with a death theme, recalling the history of the place. Z+ is run by performance group Zuni Icosahedron. Z+ defined itself as an "undefined" space, to emphasize on the flexibility of the space. 1aspace focuses on the curatorial creation and the language of exhibition.

Oil Street returned to the real estates market one year after it was started. In New York, when SoHo was too expensive for artists, they moved to Williamsberg on the other side of Manhattan River. In Hong Kong the tenants of Oil Street managed to negotiated with the government for a re-settlement plan in the former Cattle Depot. The 90-year old preserved building cluster was renovated by the government and rented to the artists. To some this was a triumph of the art community. To others, artists were assimilated by the system. After all, space is still the most important issue in the discourse of art space. With the coming of Cattle Depot, the government-community relations become an issue apart from space.

The Cattle Depot Artist Village does not represent all the independent art spaces in Hong Kong. Whatever it is needed, Hong Kong will have more SoHo, Williamsberg, Oil Street and Cattle Depot. What bewildered us is that after 1aspace and MOST, for the last three years, there is no exciting new art space in sight. A lack of resources, a lack of space, or a lack of creative energy?

(Translated by Howard Chan)