Representing Hong Kong in the 2011 Venice Biennale, Pak Sheung Chuen is an artist whose conceptual interventions delve into re-contextualization in various forms, providing a social commentary in the process. Individually these interventions are small gestures, playful, humorous, silly even, but seen in totality, provide a glimpse into his worldview, which is ultimately a utopian one.
In A Little Flower for the Passer-by (2005), Pak placed 5 one-dollar coins on the street in a flower formation in various locations, drew the stem and leaf in chalk, noting the date and took a picture. Later he would return to the same spot after someone had picked up the money and take another picture with just the chalk stem, leaf and date remaining.
In Waiting For All The People To Sleep (2006) Pak stood outside an apartment building at night and waited for all of its inhabitants to go to sleep, taking a picture at various times during the night, observing the light from an apartment to indicate whether someone was still up or not.
He also waited for a friend at a subway station for half a day, unannounced and without an appointment, until they by chance met up and took a picture.
Even a bus stop sign can become a work of art, when he by chance noticed the bus route numbers on a bus stop sign, which reminded him of someone’s mobile phone number. This sign has since been stolen by someone after this piece was published in a local newspaper: obviously someone thinks its a work of art!
These interventions depict a fascination with social connection, whether this connection is with strangers without actually meeting them or with a surprise meeting with a friend. In Going Home Projects (2010) Pak went one step further in setting up a booth at the 2010 Taipei Biennale museum lobby in Taiwan and asking a visitor on the spot to take him home (the visitor’s) that day.
This intervention (thankfully someone agreed to do it) reverses the roles of the artist and the viewer; where the viewer comes to the museum expecting to see the artist’s work, she ends up instead seeing the artist himself and taking him back home. Along the way each takes turns sharing parts of their lives and viewing the other’s, as they converse in this ‘mobile museum’. After they arrive, the original viewer, now in her own home, inadvertently becomes the artist in showing the place and her possessions, a performance of sorts.
In Resenting My Own History (2006) Pak took a 1-dollar coin and scraped it against the concrete floor, causing the image of Queen Elizabeth II to fade and published pictures of it in a local newspaper. This came about during an anti-government protest against the demolition of some colonial-era piers, landmarks connecting the 2 sides of the harbour in the middle of the city, and reminders of a recent past which also have become part of a collective memory.
What exactly he’s resentful of is unclear; is he resentful of the fact that Hong Kong was under British rule since he was born as the title suggests, and therefore is now happy that that it has reverted back to mainland Chinese rule? Or is he ‘resentful’ of feeling abandoned by the previous Government, which is the source of a pervasive identity crisis for a large portion of the population and the reason for these protests to begin with, and why there’s someone on TV every night, reminding people that “Hong Kong is part of China now”, even 19 years after the handover. To be fair, I don’t think its anyone’s fault; its just part of the deal signed 150 years ago.
Judging by another work, A Present To The Central Government (2005) in which Pak fixed a yellow cloth across the street for protesters to step over and then cut strips of it up and tied these as ribbons at various locations in Beijing, suggests he might not be so happy with the current status quo, but these works only express the feelings of the people around him, his activist friends, whom he felt a responsibility towards with his weekly newspaper column, but whose political views were ‘totally different’ from his own, which are actually quite moderate.
In Invisible Travel (2010) Pak traveled to Malaysia blind-folded or had his eyes closed the whole time, using his senses of sound and feelings of touch to experience the trip, which consisted of a group tour of the standard tourist destinations. The irony is that many of these sight-seeing experiences are so mundane, that it wouldn’t make much difference to have one’s eyes closed, since one would probably forget about it in 6 months time anyway.
In any event, Pak still had his picture taken at these destinations, and these pictures formed the core of his exhibition at Tate Liverpool ‘A Travel Without Experience’ in 2012, which incidentally was held in pitch black conditions. The only way to see these pictures was to take a picture with your camera/camera phone catching a glimpse when the flash goes off and see them afterwards (or if you happened to have a torch with you).
Just as Pak experienced Malaysia through his other senses, and only afterward with his eyes, through a copy of the original, viewers to the Liverpool exhibition had to experience it with their other senses and only afterwards with their eyes through a copy that they took.
“But I like it because you can interact with people who are completely unknown to you and connect with them.” Pak Sheung Chuen, 2010
In Resenting My Own History (2014), a reprisal of the 2006 version, Pak asked dozens of people to give a 1 dollar coin to a British person to take back to Britain and scrape it on the ground, causing the image of the Queen to fade on the coin and also leaving a scratch mark on the ground of England, which he says, ‘is reminiscent of the fading link’ between Britain and Hong Kong, and the mark that colonialism has left on the city.
The irony of this act is that as the image of the Queen fades on these coins, symbolizing the disconnected political links between the Governments of Britain and Hong Kong, new links are forged on a personal level between ordinary people, the participants in this case, of both countries.
In asking dozens of people from all walks of life and nationalities to participate in this activity, Pak goes against the current racist xenophobic tendencies that has reared its head in certain parts of the population of western countries; one that says ‘you’re not one of us if you don’t have our skin colour’. Actually Chinese and other Asians can be quite racist too sometimes; we all need to guard ourselves against this mentality and to rid ourselves of this disease if we have it, a disease of the mind.
Which brings me back to Pak’s utopian world view, one in which you could go up to a stranger, of another race maybe, strike up a conversation, have a meal, go back to their home even, without fear or embarrassment, a world of sharing and comradery, epitomized by the United Nations day logos and in practice might ultimately look like a Benetton ad.