'On | Off Art' podcast by Jiete Li.
Podcast ON|OFF ART hosted by Jiete Li. 1hr08min conversation in Mandarin. Released on April 23, 2020.
J: What is the concept behind these disguised effects?
Q: In the current virus outbreak, each of us to a certain extent, has been adapting to a new normalcy of socialisation and migrating from physical to virtual formats. These days I have also been working from home, which has felt much like a performative act. Like, every morning I need to demonstrate to my colleagues that I have started my work already. In a similar vein, many online behaviours have become very entertaining, if not a performance.
I have been thinking how could we encapsulate this performativity of our online practice, as in the ambiguity between living and acting? Inspired by the new fetish of people picking virtual backgrounds during online meetings, today I have attempted a replica in this video with a glitch.
J: In terms of covering yourself up, you have transported yourself to the background. This seems to contradict the usual approach when performance artists push themselves forward into the spotlight. By enacting the contrast, are you implying a sense of self-removal?
Q: As I move from non-art fields into the art world, I have been pondering much on how to delineate the borders between artists & non-artists, art & non-art, performing & living. I feel like practising performance has helped to root my art in the realm of self-reflection and make direct intervention into our visceral world. Today I could be speaking with you as Queenie, as your friend, but also possibly as an artist. Is our dialogue now also a type of art-making?
J: Yes, I do feel so. How about this red visual? I could see your face, but also some Chinese national leaders’ headshots. Why have you juxtaposed yourselves with these senior figures?
Q: This responds to the central theme of my practice which evolves around Hong Kong and its relationship with sovereignty, expanding to a macro reading of geopolitics. This visual was shot in Tiananmen Square when the image of national leaders were made into cheap, tacky keychains, which I found as interestingly absurd, if not contradictory. But where are the citizens? In one of my pieces I declared an alternative, personified 'nation'.
J: Queeniland is also a work that caught my attention recently. Queenie is your name, which means you named a new nation after yourself. Can you tell us more about that?
Q: In the UK, I realised that Queenie may not be a native English name as it was not recongised by most English-speaking people. The name was popularised mainly during pre-97 colonial Hong Kong, and likely served as a grassroot tribute to the Queen within the British royalty. Carrying an English name that isn’t familiarised to the English population seems to be a dilemma to me, and perhaps resonates with the dilemma of Hong Kong.
Triggered by global geopolitical failures, in Queeniland I asked what political ideal is, and introspected the notion of nationality and anarchy, i.e. how one is pre-assigned to a political ideology without choices and how this assumption could be challenged. You once asked whether Queeniland is a refuge to me, yet I rather feel like an absurdity. Even the ’national anthem’ of Queeniland took the form of a dark children's rhyme - one just can’t be too serious.
J: I recalled that in your installation you put a postcard sent from Queeniland - Not sure who you are writing to, an imaginary audience or specific recipients?
Q: In the end I did mail twenty-something postcards out to different places in the world. Some of the recipients shared the postcard in their social media, turning the conjured content into a deceptive reality. I even asked myself, was it real or not? If the creation lives within me, I could be the only one that actually had visited the place… I really enjoyed toying with the transitory space between authenticity and fiction.
J: In your postcard you mentioned weeds as nourishment of your land. You also have a photography series on urban weeds which you developed through your travelling. What do ‘weeds’ symbolise?
Q: The first thing I observe when I step on a foreign land is always their weeds - which to me is the most honest manifestation of the region's inner state. My initial documentation is void of purpose. Gradually the subject has inspired what the core of my curiosity is. To me the spirit of weeds lie on their autonomous and nomadic vitality; how they evade the Anthropocene, survive in drainage covers, concrete, plus the like; and subvert contemporary urban planning. We often find weeds along boundaries, kind of guerrilla, left behind by the city, yet self-empowered amidst triviality.
J: is this a metaphor to yourself? Why do you feel so emotionally attached to weeds? Does this relate to your background growing up in Hong Kong, which is a highly developed metropolitan city?
Q: All I want is just to look inwards, make art from that and converse with my audience. I have no intention to turn weeds into some sort of religion; instead their beauty lies in a type of ‘anti-planning' arbitrariness, like how the Hongkongese chanted ‘be water’ during the anti-extradition bill protests. Meanwhile, urban greening is rather scant in my home city. Perhaps weeds are my closest proximity to nature.
J: You will participate in the upcoming Venice Biennale of Architecture soon. What is your exhibit about?
Q: I’m not quite sure if Covid-19 allows the Biennale to happen... but the production is ongoing. Collaborating with an architect, we attempt to stretch the relationship between nature, humans and data. We have been looking into how daily lives have ceaselessly migrated into virtual networks, and how our accumulation of data has been manifested tangibly in the global boom of data centres. This contemporary architectural typology, however, exists in an idiosyncratic pattern in the highly urbanized and dense context of Hong Kong. How would these mushrooming architectures transform futuristic urban planning? Would our city one day be designed to cater for our data, instead of our physical traces? We speculate that perhaps one day, there is no human in cities, but weeds...
J: Weeds also carry a reference to your observations of the Hong Kong anti-extradition law protests last year. Could you share your personal experience?
Q: I was back to Hong Kong last August, and spent much more time than expected to adapt to the very depressing social sentiment. Sometimes I would find myself in a fully packed train which was absolutely silent, whilst the flashing content on everyone's hand-held screens was always protest-related. Graduating from Ruskin and returning to the core of the protest, I could not but ask myself: what is the role of art and how should artists respond? It might be easier to observe and make art at the periphery. Yet with emotions flooding, the only thing I could do is to be a Hongkonger. Artist is just a type of identity, yet most important to me is how we could fully experience the moment and understand the people.
October 2019, Hong Kong.
Posters, Lennon walls, 'yellow economic circles', roadblocks in all possible forms, wind chimes made by empty tear gas cans... many protest gestures to me were astonishingly artistic. I almost questioned what's the point of reading those years of BFA. But then I was reminded that these responses were made out of an intuitive impulse rather than any artistic intent. Perhaps in this vein, artists could take a step further and channel discussions toward the plurality of meanings that one behavior may contain, bringing in references to trigger further imagination.
J: I saw that you just changed another masking image in which you were wearing an Art Police T-shirt.
Q: Yes, police force is a very politically sensitive topic in Hong Kong especially after the Umbrella Revolution in 2014. That's why when I saw this T-shirt selling in a museum shop I was almost shocked: how is art aligned with police? Is art colluding with the Power, or is it implying the role of art to be surveillance and monitoring? I am deeply confused.
On the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong's handover, I decided to put on this T-shirt and attended the flag-raising ceremony in Beijing's Tiananmen Square at 3am. This was how the work "Free riding Mobike to T.A.M" came by.
J: I am curious about your immediate response after witnessing the flag raising ceremony.
Q: When I arrived I only saw an army of selfie guns waving in front of me. So crowded. At the end I could only witness the ceremony via people's phone screens in the air. It seems like the physical attendance does not really matter, and what the visitors cared the most was their digital capture.
J: The notion of nationality has been brought up several times in our conversation. You once highlighted our involuntariness to be committed to an assigned identity. So what’s nationality to you?
Q: It’s hard for me to stop reflecting on such an eerie concept. I was born in British-colonial Hong Kong. On our handover day in 1997 my family just moved to a new flat and I still vividly remember the fireworks I witnessed just outside my housing estate. Overnight my identity was flipped from being a British National Overseas citizen into someone living in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region reigned under the rule of ‘One Country, Two Systems’ by the Chinese Communist Party. Yet what is the root of Hong Kong, when it was nothing before the colonial era? To me we might have four options: Being Chinese, HongKongese, emigrating to foreign countries or perhaps, embracing an anti-strategy like ‘Queeniland’? To me only the realm of art could allow such a wild speculation.
J: Nationality can be revoked in one night. But how about culture?
Q: Absolutely, nationality could be manipulated, but culture is much more intricate, such as languages. I feel like though Hong Kong has been growing into a highly developed economy with a dominant capitalist ideology and a prevalent materialistic lifestyle, it’s not uncommon for Hong Kong to be addressed as a cultural desert. Certainly one of the main responsibilities of local artists is to re-define the culture of Hong Kong, reformulate our story and archive the history accurately. But these are all in progress.
J: One of your works explored the immigration phenomenon of post-90s Hong Kong generations. Though they aren’t familiar with the colonial experience, many of them chose to pursue residence in the territory of Hong Kong’s former coloniser.
Q: I made this series when I was studying in the UK and interacted with this specific demographic there. I called them Quasi-immigrants since they were yet to obtain the British right of abode. The work explored their implicit emotions, a deeply-rooted culture of Hong Kong, and an equally strong denial of their attachment to their home town. I intentionally erased human traits in the still shots, but rather let the objects speak via their intermitting homes in London. You could feel that they have a very complicit way of treating their ‘quasi-immigrant’ homes. Meanwhile, I was recording my loneliness when I kept staying at different homes during school breaks.
J: Are they people with no roots? Seems like they didn’t regard Hong Kong as their home anymore.
Q: Physical department doesn’t mean a literal farewell to one’s culture & values. In this vein, what is ‘home’? I recalled a friend told me that, ‘whenever we left home, home would forever disappear’. This is because time will either change us, or the cities that we once left behind. Nothing stays immutable. These quasi-immigrants are all exceptionally intellectual and competent. They apparently care about Hong Kong a lot, but decided to leave unconditionally. This could be a really worrying trend if Hong Kong continues to lose home-grown talent. Ultimately, could immigration solve all questions?
J: Many countries are doing special acquisition schemes to retain talents. Do you think everyone should shed certain responsibilities to one’s own nation?
Q: From the protest movement in HK emerging last year, to the coronavirus outbreak now, I feel that possessing a global perspective is essential. The discussion of Hong Kong should be extended internationally with lessons to be shared from all perspectives, say Mainlanders, Singaporeans and more, just like how this podcast could bring practitioners from all backgrounds and nationalities to interact with each other. Indeed we also need to remember our homework of being a world citizen to consider issues that are beyond national boundaries and specificities. Like how Covid spreads across the world - how could we respond as a unified whole?
J: This reminds me about the book I’ve been reading recently- Yuval Noah Harari's Sapiens (2011), which suggests that the foundation of every nation is just fiction and story-telling, from how we spread rumour to form basic societal units that then grow outwards. Despite its fictiveness, more and more people will fall into the ideology, triggering the rise of nationalism and such. Human history then becomes fragmented, maybe even leading to devastating results. On one side, we both are aware of our own identities as a HongKonger and a Beijing girl. However we could still be able to collaborate and extend our dialogue beyond regional frameworks to discuss bigger topics.
Lastly, we all know that artists struggle to make a living. So what’s your next step?
Q: I have never expected to be economically sustainable via my art. I see being an artist as an identity instead of an occupation. No matter what job I have, my art practice would not be affected. Using a non-art means to support my living, it seems like I could also keep my sensitivity to the wider world instead of digging into the art-circle bubble. Most importantly, it helps my art to be liberated from commercial considerations. At the end I just hope to keep making.
Q: Making art is perhaps my most authentic participation and response to global happenings and conversations.