- Hong Kong Art: Culture and Decolonization
David J. Clarke, who teaches in the Department of Fine Arts at the University of Hong Kong, has already published his firsthand observations and reflections on contemporary art in Hong Kong in his Art and Place: Essays on Art from a Hong Kong Perspective (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 1996). His new book, Hong Kong Art: Culture and Decolonization, presents his original writings and previously published journal articles in order to offer "a contextual analysis of Hong Kong art around the time of its 1997 return to Chinese rule" (p. 8). Thus, unlike his 1996 book, Hong Kong Art is more focused. It also has a more ambitious goal. As Clarke puts it, despite the fact that the "Western master narrative of art history" (in which it is assumed that "progress is the monopoly of Western culture") has been undermined to some degree in recent years, "the writing of art history is still largely being done from Western sites, and modern and contemporary Asian art—for instance—still largely falls into the blind spot of European and American [End Page 120] academic discourse" (p. 8). For Clarke, in order to globalize art history as a discipline, it is important to maintain "a multiplicity of perspectives" and to gain "an insight into the local nature of meaning that rules out the possibility of a panoptic mastering viewpoint" (p. 9).
Consequently, Clarke is concerned with the "localness" and "local turn" of recent Hong Kong art, particularly in the highly politicized ambience of the 1997 handover of sovereignty. In other words, the book is concerned with a variety of intimately related issues in the arena of cultural politics: decolonization, globalization, history, and memory and its erasure. To prepare for the core theme of the book, Clarke gives a concise discussion in chapter 1 of the "cultural hybridity" of an earlier period with reference to Wucius Wong and Luis Chan in order to highlight the tension between Chinese traditionalist and Western modernist cultural narratives. What is refreshing is Clarke's convincing argument that the colonial government associated the paintings of Lui Shou-kwan, Wucius Wong, and other artists of the New Ink Painting movement with positive value because their works combined the Chinese and the Western and because they were "apolitical." As Clarke puts it, their works enjoyed institutional support from the colonial government precisely because they connoted "an image of Hong Kong as a place where 'East meets West'" and provided a "perfect veil for the realities of colonial life" (p. 37). The other kind of hybrid art, that of Antonio Mak for instance, was largely ignored presumably because it offered "meanings that are difficult for civic ideology to appropriate" (p. 37). The different artistic receptions enjoyed by the two different groups of artists in colonial Hong Kong remind us that "we can identify differences and even antagonisms between various artistic phenomena to which the term hybridity might be applied, and thus highlight some dangers in the discriminate and blank use of the term" (p. 14). Clarke's discussion thus can serve as a model for any discussion of similar situations, such as colonial art in Korea and Taiwan under Japanese rule (e.g., see Jason C. Kuo, Art and Cultural Politics in Postwar Taiwan [Bethesda: CDL Press; Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 2000]).
Chapter 2, "Living in the Shadow of the Future," deals with the artists' concern for the expression of local identity in the pre-handover period. As Clarke writes, "The national and ethnic narratives most commonly used in fashioning cultural identity were not available to Hong Kong-ness, and indeed were ranged against it in what had now become a fractured field of competing cultural paradigms. More oblique strategies for invoking a sense of local autonomy in cultural terms therefore came to predominate" (p. 40). Among the many examples given by Clarke, one can cite Reunification with China, I am happy. Reunification with...