Thou art worthy


Caroline Ha Thuc tells Lisa Cam that we have a unique contemporary art scene in Hong Kong, as she charts in her new book

Described as a 'cultural desert' by author Wang Meng in the 80s, there's no denying there's been a huge wind of change in Hong Kong's art scene over the past couple of decades. With galleries popping up in the hippest parts of town and now the new-look Hong Kong Art Fair – Art Basel – being held at the HKCEC on May 23 to May 26, it's a brave new world for contemporary art in the city, from our grassroots up to the big names. And with this increase in attention on art comes the bigger focus on the discussion which surrounds its development.

For Hong Kong-based, Paris-born arts writer, Caroline Ha Thuc, it's all about the discussion. In her new book, Contemporary Art in Hong Kong, she outlines some of the common traits prevalent in our city's scene and highlights who's doing what out there. But the book isn't categorised by artists – rather, Ha Thuc makes the connection between art and society, as well as delving into the socioeconomic factors that shape Hong Kong art and its stars. It's an attempt at creating a bible of sorts so readers can navigate their way around our city's vibrant contemporary landscape.

By no means, though, does Ha Thuc want to broad-stroke our art scene by cramming everything into one book. "There's always the tricky question as to whether there are characteristics to Hong Kong art," she says. "We don't talk about British or French contemporary art as a whole, so why should we discuss the specificities of Hong Kong art? I think that, nowadays, artists tend to use more universal topics and mediums. Here in Hong Kong they are still perceived very individually. But, at the same time, I think that Hong Kong is such a specific place. Taking into account the history and the culture of the city, it's really interesting to see the connections between art and such a society. This new book is really about that."

Ha Thuc first came to Hong Kong 15 years ago for studies and later left, only to return about two years ago and 'really see the difference in the art scene since then'. "I remember feeling very frustrated because of the art scene 15 years' ago," she says. "Where there's one opening every month now, there were hardly any galleries then. I didn't know where to look or even find works of art or artists. There's now a global renaissance, where the first wave was brought about by Chinese artists in the 80s and 90s, but, more and more, Hong Kong artists are taking an active part. So when I had this opportunity to return, I thought to myself 'this is the right time'. I'm happy because the art scene is moving and I want to be part of it."

Shortage of space in Hong Kong is also a discussion point in the book. Ha Thuc believes this lack of room has been a factor in the evolution of our contemporary art. "If a Hong Kong artist wants to create a big installation they must cross the border and have their piece produced in China – but they don't," she says. "Of course they create small pieces because space is definitely a factor, but that has become a style and attitude. There's a certain resistance to the mainstream and there seems to be a focus on the daily life of Hong Kong. The sheer act of participating in art is expressing what is unique about Hong Kong."

Ha Thuc's next project takes her into the Mainland to see how the rapidly changing society over there is impacting the 'first wave' of China's renaissance in contemporary art. In the meantime, though, we're just digesting her new tome and boning up before we tour Art Basel…

Contemporary Art in Hong Kong is published by Asia One Books and Nouvelles Editions Scala, priced $190.


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