Hong Kong Now!

Exhibition: Hong Kong Now!
Anderson Gallery, School of the Arts
Virginia Commonwealth University, Virginia, USA

Essay by Robert Hobbs, The Rhoda Thalhimer Endowed Chair of Art History at Virginia Commonwealth University

Gretchen So’s years of study, first as an undergraduate in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, and then in the Yale University graduate program in New Haven, Connecticut, have provided her with the vision to undertake the project of chronicling change in Hong Kong over a several year period. A color photographer who prefers to work with a medium-format SLR camera, because of the clarity of detail it offers. The commercial subtext provided by this film is a crucial component of her work that transforms the environs of Hong Kong into its simulacra.

Working In the tradition of Cartier-Bresson, So subscribes to the theory of the decisive moment, even though the moments recorded in her photographs are distilled through a sensibility acutely aware of the need to isolate and heighten the contradictions and disruptions that separate the Hong Kong of her childhood from its present incarnation. So explains:

I started photographing Hong Kong because I feel a responsibility to make a visual record of the city in such a crucial period … I noticed … that the spirit and vitality of the city seemed to be weakening. A great many changes are taking place on many levels, and they deserve, need, to be recorded.

The most important element in this photo-documentary project will be to describe the balance between what is happening now and what is going to happen. These descriptions should imply no judgment, though they will be filled with my own (controlled) emotion.

Despite the artist’s pessimistic view of changes occurring within the territory, her laconic images do not provide a negative view. Neither negative nor positive, they emphasize the hyperreality that the Italian critic Umberto Eco equates with postmodernism.

In fact, the dramatic elements of change that have provided Gretchen So with such a poignant modus operandi often appear in her photographs as strangely haunting stage sets. The photographs imply that the authenticity of both the past and the present are counterfeit, underscoring the postmodern dictum that there is no reality, only models of reality.

This distancing makes Hong Kong subject to an acute uncertainty that can be seen in the proliferation of stages that populate So’s images. Assuming the form of natural history tableaux, they are stand-ins for nature, Disneyesque replicas of religious shrines, and quaint, picturesque images of local restaurants and shops that look as if the city has been conceived in quotation marks.

Color provides Gretchen So a means for escaping the closed circuity of documentary photography. Instead of assuming the look of truth associated with monochromatic images, color disembraces forms from reality, turning them into simulacra. When So points out that “Colour is not a decorative gloss on events; it is content,” she indicates its importance to her entire work, even if she does not recognize the extent to which this “decorative gloss” has come to represent an important aspect of Hong Kong’s so-called fictive reality.

Her aim to give a contemporary picture of Hong Kong may be more prescient than imagined. The following statement indicates a desire to chronicle Hong Kong’s transformation, which she does in the contradictory fashion of emphasizing its unreality:

Focusing on the city’s culture, the photos will give a general sense of how Hong Kong has changed. It will be a portrait of the city, not of its individual inhabitants. The crowd is perhaps conspicuous by its absence. But the photographs do not deny the existence of people. On the contrary, everywhere the viewer will find the vividness of their presence. The unseen people – perpetrators or victims or deserters of the scene – is the reason why these photographs have been taken.

The lack of people in many of these images gives them a surreal quality akin to Atget’s work and to the deserted urban scenes concluding On the Beach, the 1960s film that presents a desolate world after nuclear destruction. When people do appear in So’s work, they begin to resemble mannequins or actors whose roles have already been scripted by the artificial sets provided for them. Their marginal role as ciphers of humanity devolving into cyborgs is poignantly conveyed by the billboard presenting an image of diverse peoples from the Orient waving across a concrete barricade to prospective viewers. Hong Kong, the most densely populated city in the world, is eerily deserted in So’s photographs; the real is replaced by the simulational, suggesting the prospect of a postcolonial Hong Kong that is as much a construction of outside forces as was the British colony. These outside forces have established inroads that undermine the territory’s reality, making it a postmodern showplace, a capitalist chimera, and a bizarre dream situated on a stretch of barren rock. So admits that

“my photographs depend on the eye, using a machine that records with unforgiving candour the quality of the mind which that eye informs.”

Her statement provides a legitimate account of the ways that the real has been depleted in the late twentieth century, so that it has come to represent a slippery conjunction of signs whose meanings are constantly being deferred to still other signs – and in the case of So’s photographs – to mediated images of reality, such as billboards, quotations of traditional Chinese gardens, and historical shrines that look like their ersatz counterparts.

Excerpt from: Hong Kong now! / essays by Robert Hobbs ; curated by Robert Hobbs and Chip Tom.; Richmond, Va. : Anderson Gallery, School of the Arts, Virginia Commonwealth University ; Seattle ; London : University of Washington Press, c1997.