What’s in a Title?
A reflection on Photography in Transition, a panel discussion accompanying the WMA Exhibition Transition
Two artists, two takes on Hong Kong today. Both artworks comprise a series of photographs using imagery that might be immediately seen as overtly political: the Hong Kong flag and a succession of Hong Kong’s political rulers. In the public panel discussion “Photography in Transition”, the artists, Joseph Leung Mong Sum and Shek Ming Fai Phil, sat down with Sandra S. Phillips, Curator Emerita of Photography at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), for a conversation moderated by artist, researcher and educator Kalen Lee Wing Ki.
I focus here on two themes that emerged from the conversation, how the artists chose to respond to the idea of transition, and the way they used text with their images.
Lee started the discussion by addressing the title of the talk and the essay “The Death of the Viewer & The Two-Way Mirror” from the accompanying exhibition catalogue. In it, Hester Keijser noted her concern with what she was not seeing in the selection of work, that is, an engagement with contemporary forms of digital, computer manipulated images, of the two way image, of surveillance in digital culture, the ownership of the image and the transition in the nature of the viewer from human to machine.1 Concerns with big data, digital means of surveillance and the rise of the human machine interface are pressing and part of a globally urgent conversation right now. How was it that the very nature of photography as a medium in transition was not at the heart of this exhibition?
Keijser, writing from outside Hong Kong, might well wonder whether this has passed Hong Kong by. The answer is it hasn’t, it is possible to see all those areas addressed in the practices of contemporary Hong Kong artists, but admittedly not in this particular show. But many things can be equally pressing all at once, and right here and now in Hong Kong, the experience of living in and through a unique historical moment, perhaps nothing feels more pressing than engaging with that. Shek said the word transition could mean only one thing to him when he heard it, the ongoing political transition of Hong Kong from British to Chinese sovereignty. Whatever your political persuasion, to live here is to have a view on that process.
But the very fact of Keijser’s questioning, pointed up that knowing a locality from the inside, one’s lived experience of a situation and the complexities of that reality may feel urgent in a way that is not at all apparent from the outside. The historical specificity of Hong Kong can be read from the straightforward facts: Hong Kong existed as a British colony for 150 years, its current incarnation, officially the Hong Kong Special Autonomous Region of the People’s Republic of China (HKSAR), started at the handover from British to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, with a unique interim political system, the “One Country, Two Systems,” scheduled to last for 50 years. We are twenty-one years in, and suddenly in the last few years, the pace of change has accelerated. Hong Kongers find themselves in a time-limited exercise the like of which is historically unprecedented, and which will deliver enormous changes no matter what their concerns or wants.
Any process of change can be destabilising, and a rapid socio-political shift especially so. Living with uncertainty may feel overwhelming, perhaps especially to a younger generation for whom this transition may be one of the defining experiences of their lives. For Hong Kong artists then, it is little wonder that this is a topic that has a relentless urgency at present. And so Leung and Shek focused less on photography itself as a medium in transition but on reflecting on aspects of Hong Kong’ political transition. Both artists chose black and white photography, the very starkness of their images throwing them into direct contrast with the proliferation of most of the images we are exposed to on a daily basis, from individual social feeds on our mobile phones, to public advertising on billboard size scale.
Leung gave us The Flag of Hong Kong, Waving in the Wind, ten black and white photographs, printed on paper, framed and hung in a straight line, the prosaic title a literal description of the images. When questioned about both the lack of digitality and whether photography as a form had been undermined by the proliferation of touch screen mediated images, his answer was disarming: as a digital native he had never known anything but this proliferation, he embraced it as democratic but also as just a tool in a sea of choices. So he could make an aesthetic and technological choice to go against the flow here, the colourless almost bland quality of the images paradoxically making them stand out.
In the images, the flag is never flying straight out or hanging down limply but whipping around, caught in swirling movements where it takes on a more vertical abstract form, the bauhinia flower at its centre unreadable. Leung explained that for this sequence, the photographs were an opportunistic moment seized, quick unstaged shots, tilting the camera upward to exploit the sky as a plain background. The process itself was brief and technically simple, but points to what can be of critical importance in an artist’s practice: the ability to set parameters but still keep their practice open and experimental without pre-determining the outcomes; to embrace an “open-minded availability to chance”2
The artist seeks to partially anthropomorphise the flag, equating it to a gesturing almost sentient figure. This is what he suggests in his accompanying text and the individual titles which voice concerns for now and the future, e.g. Exposed and lay bare towards the unknown future or My vision is confused with anxiety and fear. The first title includes the date September 2014, a reference to a key contemporary event, the beginning of the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong. There is a disjoint here between the images and the text, perhaps deliberate, as if the text could shape the images into showing something they don’t convey on their own. Taken in order, the titles build into a prose poem. They might have worked better with the text literally written onto the photographs creating a dissonance between object and emotions within the image, but the intent is there.
The poetics of the text may need some work but to be fair this is not typical of Leung, whose practice outside this exhibition often combines photographs and handwritten lines of text in a much more successfully poetic manner. He is surely aiming for the idea that,
“No image, no matter how contrived, can expose the content of an obscure contemporary reality without extensive commentary. But photographs can do something that may be even more valuable, they can mediate a poetic response to the world that acknowledges the real beyond mere instrumentality”3
Leung wanted to make sure his artwork was accessible to a general public perhaps not schooled in visual literacy. But to go too far down that route may compromise an artist’s intention and more significantly, underestimate the audience. If the content is truly embedded in the artwork, it will be accessible, even if obliquely. An artistic experience, even one which we may not be entirely capable of articulating or intellectually processing, can still strike a chord and be powerfully enriching. We have to trust that people make the connections, for as Thomas McEvilley says, we possess “a marvellous mammalian brain which instantly reads out these many different codes… and produces a sense of the work in which all these factors are represented… Content is a complex and demanding event.”4
An artwork draws us in, intrigues us, makes us ask questions. If the artist chooses to make the image paramount then the title or additional text are identifying supplements that the viewer may or may not be drawn to read. That is not to say that titles or accompanying texts are unimportant. They are ways to give a viewer extra layers of content, or drive the viewer back to the image, re-looking to see if it matches up with what the text claims for it; to add to that “complex and demanding event.”
Leung’s series drew out another aspect of the image text discussion. An audience member shared that she hadn’t even realised the images were flags, she hadn’t seen them as such without the text, she was so used to seeing flags depicted as rectangular, at most a slightly wavy rectangle with a pole or straight line attached at one side. She invoked that most often used flag image in contemporary life, the emoji flag on our phones, its format exactly as she described. Her comments brought home that reality and image are not the same thing. The photograph is a decontextualized space in which the “explosive energies compressed in a photograph, encourage the viewer to puzzle out its literal and conceptual contents.”5
In Louis Daguerre’s Nightmare, Shek gave us a series of nine distorted black and white headshots. However these were not straightforward images but photographs of black and white laser printouts of existing painted and photographic portraits. They were installed in a row on individual white tables, a museum specimen-like presentation, angled slightly upwards but not so much that we didn’t have to lean in to see them clearly.
Phillips and Lee took time out to explain the daguerreotype, named after Louis Daguerre, ensuring that everyone could engage with the context of both Shek’s title and certain visual references in the work. The daguerreotype was the first publicly available type of photograph. It was a unique image made on a chemically treated, mirror finished metal plate. It wasn’t an image that could be reproduced, there were no negatives to be reprinted as positives, but it could look negative or positive depending on the angle at which it was viewed, with the silver base of the plate either reflecting or absorbing light. Hence it could look silvered, and Shek exploits this knowledge by linking his overall name for the series and angling his printed copies so that areas of ink catch the light and show as silvered, and then photographing that image. Disorientatingly, the printouts were angled so we can never see them clearly, tilted so they appear silvered, to have reverted to foreshortened negatives.
If the daguerreotype ushered in the popularly established belief of photography as a means to capture reality, then Shek’s series moves along the parallel continuum that has debunked that myth for almost as long. The artifice is made apparent, the artist lets us see the corners of the originals angling away from us. The silvering has become fixed, we can no longer be rid it by changing our angle or tilting the image, just as we can’t straighten the image to remove the foreshortening. It isn’t the real image of a person at all. We may recognise the images but they are several times removed.
The nine titles followed a format: number of days in bold, followed by a subheading giving a name and dates. These are the first and last titles, and two from in between,
Sir Charles Elliot (Administrator)
26 January 1841 – 12 August 1841
4 years and 356 days
9 July 1992 – 30 June 1997
7 years and 245 days
1 July 1997 – 12 March 2005
Counting in process
1 July 2017 (Incumbent)
Much is contained in these titles: the passage of time; of a particular period of time from the mid-nineteenth century to now; of a period of tenure from days to years; the names switch from English to Chinese, to hybrid English and Chinese; the titled, formal Sirs to the plain, shortened, informal Chris and Carrie; the lone female at the end of a succession of men. None actually give us the job title of these people bar the first one that tells us he was Administrator and the final is incumbent. But of what and where? It might seem obvious to those of us in Hong Kong and in this moment, but within a few generations this moment will all too soon seem as distant as Sir Charles Elliot’s 198 days.
This is a partial lineage of Hong Kong’s colonial and post-colonial rulers, 35 to date of various nationalities, from Administrator (1, British) to Colonial Governors (28, British), Commanders (2, Japanese during the WW2 Japanese occupation) to Chief Executive (4, Hong Kongers). In his selection, Shek includes the first, leaps to a century later, then the last seven, up to and including the present day; a condensed history accelerating up to the present moment. Do the titles aid or hinder the artworks? Might they serve the viewer better by asking more of them, perhaps by only giving the bold part rather than the additional subtitle? The panel were divided. Perhaps with an eye to future oblivion, Shek described his titles as anchors. I caught myself thinking how the complete sequence could become a rich text piece without the images and just the numbers.
Although the titles led back to the subjects’ roles and the historical continuity of Hong Kong, the photographs themselves are not there to drive us back to a historical record, an official history, but to let us examine what an image can tell us. In a time when we are saturated with images how do we look anew and decode the meaning already there. The original images are of a type, a certain look that has been cultivated for centuries, from painted portraiture of the wealthy and powerful, to the contemporary photography of the boardroom, the corporate headshot. With the technological acceleration of our times, photographs may be digitally deceiving, manipulated and manipulating. But we live with and read images constantly. Whether photography is used in an attempt to deceive or to enable us to see the complexity of reality, we might argue that today we live in a moment when the image is seen as “becoming more real than reality”6. In Louis Daguerre’s Nightmare, with or without the titles, we know the type.
So although these two series are tethered to the political moment and the attitudes and experiences of the artists who created them, they also reach for the poetic and for timelessness. In a recent radio interview, Doris Salcedo said that although her artworks are drawn from political sources, at the end of the day the work is an artwork first, not a political treatise, not a documentary although it may be a document, and whatever its origins it has to stand as an artwork.7
Both the artists here were engaged in this process, this witnessing of the moment, attempts not to make sense of uncertainty or to find answers, but simply to register that we are here, we are living through this moment, and this is how it feels to at least one individual. It is the attempt that resonates, allows another person to find affinity. One of the most celebrated of contemporary artists (and whose medium is photography) Wolgang Tillmans’ assertion that “you always have to find the whole in extreme detail”8 seems key here.
Shek explained how at the very least he had the opportunity, the obligation even, to witness. In the way he combined historical knowledge of the medium and interrogated the images, his artwork aligns with Lyle Rexler’s assertion that,
“The most conventional of photographs lead double lives, functioning one way at their creation (and for some unspecified length of time while they remain aides-memoires) and another when they are fully untethered from their originating worlds. Pointing at first towards a future in which they will keep some image of a thing, situation, or person alive, they necessarily become emblems of death, pointing backwards to what no longer is. They testify.”9
The key tenet of the WMA is “to spark discussions of social issues of great importance to Hong Kong through visual images, with a view to fostering positive change.” Using photography as the visual medium to reflect on a topic makes it very accessible and in this public forum, guided by Lee and the panel to be inclusive and engaging, the foundation goals were clearly met.
The participant who spoke from the floor about the flag said eloquently what artists must surely long for, that it made her look again, reconsider what she sees and question it. And in that vein, the last words must go to a dialogue between artist and viewer. In answer to a final question full of genuine concern from a local resident, not a question about art or photography, but a question prompted by what the art was holding up a mirror to: “What’s next for Hong Kong?” Shek answered, “I don’t know and that’s not my job. But as an artist I want to maintain an awareness of perception.”
1 Hester Keijser, “The Death of the Viewer & The Two -Way Mirror,” in Transition (WYNG Foundation, 2018).
2 Roger Malbert, “Postscript,” in An Aside by Tacita Dean (Hayward Gallery Publishing, 2005), 69.
3 Lyle Rexler, The Edge of Vision: The Rise of Abstraction in Photography (Aperture, 2013), 191.
4 Thomas McEvilley, “Thirteen Ways of looking at a Blackbird,” in Art & Discontent: Theory at the Millennium (Documentext, McPherson, 1993), 87.
5 Mary Price, The Photograph: A Strange, Confined Space (Stanford University Press, 1994), 92.
6 Roxana Wax, “Alfred Stieglitz: So Real it Becomes More Real than Reality,” in Graphicine, March 2, 2014, http://www.graphicine.com/alfred-stieglitz-so-subtle-that-it-becomes-more-real-than-reality/
7 Doris Salcedo in conversation with Tim Marlowe, “Doris Salcedo: Colombian artist honouring the dead,” in In the Studio, April 11, 2018. https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/w3cswccw
8 Emily Witt, “The LIfe and Times of Wolfgang Tillmans,” in The New Yorker, September 10, 2018 https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/09/10/the-life-and-art-of-wolfgang-tillmans
9 Lyle Rexler, The Edge of Vision: The Rise of Abstraction in Photography (Aperture, 2013), 195.
Kay Mei Ling Beadman
A visual artist and researcher based in Hong Kong. Her art practice is multidisciplinary including painting, text, video and installation. She has exhibited in Australia, China, Hong Kong, Serbia, Singapore, South Korea, Sri Lanka and the UK. In 2017, she co-founded the artist-run initiative Hidden Space and is currently a PhD candidate at the School of Creative Media, City University of Hong Kong, researching visual culture and the representation of mixed race identity in Hong Kong.
Beadman has also worked in the fields of conservation and language education, specialising in medieval architectural sculpture in the UK, and developing English language literacy programmes for the Hong Kong Education Bureau.