Friday, September 17, 2010

The Paradox of Photography

(HK Gallery Guide  September 2010)

Amid the buzz over new media art in the last few years, photography in Hong Kong seems to have only reemerged from the sideline of the city's art map in fairly recent times. From a local perspective, exhibitions such as City Flauneur: Social Documentary Photography at Hong Kong Heritage Museum are collaborative efforts in redefining the voice of Hong Kong photography for a wider audience. At the commercial end of a number of galleries have come to feature more popular international photographers, as well as up-and-coming ones who draw serious attention from art critics and collectors.

The question remains whether such moves induce a genuine reflection on contemporary photography as an art form, or if they are largely to tap into unexplored potential of the art market. The arrivals of galleries like Upper Station and Blindspot put photography under the spotlight for the summer--they also put select Mainland Chinese and Hong Kong artists in a more popularized and commercial context. North: a photo exhibition about contemporary China, the last show at Upper Station, featured five Hong Kong photographers who explore the socio-cultural codes in today's China in their works. The presentation of artworks struck what appeared to be an easy balance between artists' sensitivities and audience acceptance: it highlighted a certain homogeneity of subjects, voices and motifs that resonate with popular perception and feelings of China among many Hong Kongers. For the lack of conflict, it is hard to see if the viewers would look beyond the deceptive accessibility of these works and probe deeper into the artists' intention. 

The showcase of internationally renowned artists in recent shows, such as Candida Hofer at Ben Brown, Margarita Dittborn at Connoisseur Contemporary and Edward Burtynsky at Sundaram Tagore illuminates different facets of contemporary photography for the local audience. While Hofer's photographs of public spaces that are centers of cultural life may be distant epochs for some, Burtynsky's photographic depictions of industrial landscapes--some of which are set in China--should stir a stronger sense of urgency and amazement. Yet the question of audience appreciation remains: How far can these works reach the pool of art lovers in Hong Kong, other than regular fine art collectors and the more informed gallery goers? For those who are less familiar with conceptual photography like Dittborn's photomontages, how do they find solid entry points into this genre? In this context, it would be curious to see if galleries will invest more effort in promoting contemporary photography that they feature beyond the commercial aspect.

The relationship between promotion of photography and reflection on the art form may stay paradoxical for some time to come. For Blues Wong Kai Yu, co-founder of pH5 Photo Group, Mainland Chinese artist Maleonn is a case in point. Well-known for his staged, dramatic photography in China and in the West, Ma had his last exhibition in Hong Kong at Metro Art Gallery in Jockey Clubs Creative Arts Center in 2008. His present at Blindspot this September should generate considerable publicity, though attention does not necessarily lead to a wider understanding. 'The Hong Kong audience has yet to grasp the changing definitions of realism and documentation in contemporary photography in the West. Community galleries in Hong Kong have made a lot of effort to educate the audience, while the work for commercial galleries has an essentially different focus. We will have to wait and see if the openings of these new galleries will give that much-needed boost to contemporary photography in Hong Kong,' Wong says.