- The Local and Global Politics of Contemporary Art
As I write this review, protesters have recently gathered in nearly unprecedented numbers in Hong Kong (over a million according to the organizers, in a march that extended more than a mile in length) to protest the "evil law" that aims to allow extradition requests to be honored in Hong Kong. For outsiders like myself, this seems like much ado about little since extradition treaties are normal among states. But for insiders, the implication is rather different and the law has caused an enormous political backlash. If it becomes possible for residents of the Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong to be legally extradited, that will open the floodgates for the Communist Party to call anyone they want to the People's Republic to face a judiciary that is not considered by these residents to be independent. While the protests do not seem to have impacted Hong Kong's current leader, Carrie Lam, images of the protest have been broadcast all around the world, including the cover of the New York Times and the vote on the law has been delayed as protests continue. This is soft power in action—even if the protesters cannot change the outcome of this legislative process, they are demonstrating that they do not support it and that it is being forced upon them so that everyone will know that the law is violating the will of the people.
In his expansive volume on recent art practices in Hong Kong, Frank Vigneron tries to zero in on this political dynamic in the art works made in the Special Administrative Region over a decade. Even in the face of shifting power dynamics and market-driven economy that tends to marginalize artists, many contemporary artists of the city seek to promote social change through their work. This book provides a subtle and theoretically-rich analysis of a variety of contemporary art and artists, or "plasticians" as the author usually [End Page 266] refers to them. Written by Frank Vigneron, Professor and Chair of the Fine Arts department at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, it presents the complexities of contemporary artistic production in Hong Kong, from traditional painting and ink art to relational aesthetics and, in the process, situates contemporary art in Hong Kong in relation to a variety of art world trends from mainland China to Europe and North America. Vigneron is a highly knowledgeable guide, having chronicled much of the development of contemporary art through his art criticism, his academic articles, and his previous book, I Like Hong Kong: Art and Deterritorialization (Columbia University Press, 2010). The main contribution of this new work is to shift from a primarily theoretical model to one that chronicles social and political developments and institutional structures that undergird the field of contemporary artistic production.
Vigneron was born in Hong Kong and is an artist himself (one of his three PhD's is in art production) but he is also something of a philosopher, who cites primarily Western theorists who have written on art and society, from Giles Deleuze and Félix Guattari to Slavoj Zizek and Nicholas Bourriaud. But his lodestar in this volume is Pierre Bourdieu and it is fair to say that this analysis sits somewhere between art history and sociology, which is provocative territory and well-suited for an analysis of culture in a city like Hong Kong, with its colonial past, capitalist ethos, and special political status. Vigneron is clearly responding to some of the most potent issues of the era, in which global contemporary art is getting made far beyond the domain of Europe and North America and local traditions can both contrast and harmonize with an emergent global culture. How is it possible to account for artistic developments in Hong Kong between 2005 and 2014 to readers, like myself, who have never visited the city and who may have seen the works of a few of its more notable...