City University of Hong Kong, Run Run Shaw Creative Media Centre, 1/11 – 2/23/2014, http://hknent.com/
I was quite excited when I heard about this exhibition as it seemed to be the first larger exhibition at RRS CMC since my arrival in September. In addition to that I myself live in the Northeastern New Territories (NENT) which added another layer of interest.
The main space on 3F is filled with documentary photographs from the villages in NENT. It is a mixture of portrait and landscape photography. It has quite a romantic feel to it, as big part of the images is accompanied by one or two paragraph long captions describing childhood memories, feelings of loss and longing. Complementary to the main space, there are installations by ‘folk artists’ living in the NENT – a painter, a carpenter and a sculptor. The folk art section has a naïve feel to it, but I understand that the point is to show individuals from NENT to give a voice to those who would have nowhere to speak otherwise and not pick the best artworks… All is rounded up by some documentary videos introducing the artists and their workplaces.
In addition to the show there is a series of discussions about the situation in NENT (land confiscation/gentrification/commercial real estate development) accompanied by documentary movies. The discussions are taking place in Cantonese, so my participation is ruled out there, and I did not make it to any of the movies either, but I understand the value which it has for the community which was part of this project – an open forum for sharing and spreading ideas.
Overall I felt the tone of the exhibition was oversentimental. The ‘pure and simple life of villagers’ was exalted and contrasted with the destruction caused by commercial interests. The romantic ideals of a countryside life were themselves not the main issue of the show, the problem was the lack of artworks that would invest the same amount of energy into anger and accusations of the institutions and companies behind the negative changes. If both of these sides would be equally present in the show – an emotional, as well as a rational/descriptive part – then one could talk about a balance. I admire the grass-roots activity which lead to this exhibition and it is great that the community was strongly involved. The exhibition gave a good feel on how the impacted people want to present their feelings about their situation, mediated by involved artists (photographers). I expected the participating professional artists to provide an outsiders view, which would be more objective, and probably more critical of the forces behind the whole situation.
However I did enjoy the exhibition and even in its existing form, it made a great contribution in spreading the word about the NENT situation. I can’t get rid of the feeling that it could accomplish much more if the driving forces behind would be pinpointed in a more direct way. I have two explanations why this did not happen. Either it was a certain king of blindness because of close involvement of those participating and curating the show. Or it was a simple act of censorship, respectively self-censorship, giving way to ‘harmony’ instead of confrontation.