Archival Research as an Imaginarium where Past and Present Overlap: An Interview with Lee Kai Chung
Text by Linus Kwok
Translation by Valerie C. Doran
Stepping into the basement workshop of the City University of Hong Kong’s School of Creative Media, I was stunned into speechlessness when I saw parts of the famous bronze statue of Queen Victoria in the process of being polished on a worktable (Fig. 1). In reality, these were replicas made by the artist Lee Kai Chung. Using 3D scans of the original statue, Lee had specific parts cast in bronze, with the intention of using them as a medium through which to explore the relationship between the statue and the Hong Kong public. Watching the sculptures being rubbed and treated with an oxidizing agent that transformed their bright brassy colour into the mellow patina of old bronze, I experienced a curious emotion. This was the same artist who previously tried to donate carvings of the Chinese characters for “the people” to the People’s Liberation Army headquarters in Hong Kong (The History of the United Front (HMS Tamar) ): What was he up to now? Fast forward to 2020, and Lee’s project The Retrieval, Restoration and Predicament has already been completed. Since I was fortunate enough to become acquainted with the artist a year ago, I was able to follow his creative process as he worked on this WMA-commissioned project under the theme of “Transition”. Today I’m taking up my pen and paper for an interview with the artist.
Fig.1 Artist Lee Kai Chung polishing the bronze statue cast from a 3D-scanned model.
Questioning the Grand Narrative of history
When we become interested in a historical event, we can seek to better understand it through information we find on the Internet, in textbooks and in documentary films. Yet the questions arise: who compiled or wrote these materials, and is the content of such archives completely reliable?
It was during Hong Kong’s 2012 anti-national education protests that Lee Kai Chung first conceived of the idea of searching for records of Hong Kong’s social movements in sources other than books and newspapers. So he paid a visit to the Hong Kong Public Records Building in Kwun Tong. At first his search through the archives was driven mainly by curiosity, but after delving more deeply into his research, Lee became increasingly interested in the system of archiving itself, realizing that this system created a specific framework which impacted the way people conduct historical research: “I was questioning the grand narrative of history”. Serendipitously, Lee was also inspired to use his research into Hong Kong historical archives as an entry point for his own artistic creation.
Lee Kai Chung now laughs at his amateur researcher status at that time: during his undergraduate studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong he had little exposure even to archival and academic research. But he learned by doing, and gradually became clearer about both his research and creative directions. What began as a search for historical truth evolved into a focused investigation of archival details.
Lee brought up the term “fog of war”, a concept discussed by Hong Kong historian Kwong Chi-man as referencing the difficulties of recording the events of a war and the subsequent difficulty for future generations to enter into the circumstances of the time. “We are separated by this fog, yet we cling to it as truth; but in fact aren’t we just getting further away from truth? That’s why I attach so much importance to the perspective I bring to history and to the restrictions imposed by the system.”
Finding stories in details, using visuals to trigger emotions
The term “archival research” calls up an image of someone wearing gloves in a closed room with temperature and humidity control, carefully flipping through old yellowed documents. But Lee Kai Chung’s video works are rich in visual and historical elements, blending fiction and reality in ways that stimulate the viewer’s imagination. I was curious to better understand the process by which the artist is able to transform archival material into works that feel so vital and alive. “Often what captures my imagination is not the statistics, dates, locations or people recorded in an archive,” Lee says, “but rather the tactile elements of sight, touch and smell. For example, when I open a file that hasn’t been touched for more than a century, the dust that rises out of it carries so many associations. It’s this contact between the document and my own body that creates my point of entry. To me an archival file is very pure. The instant I touch it, a kind of cross-time connection is generated between us.” For an artist, in contrast to textual research, it is the visuality of art that can generate the emotional power to create resonance within the viewer.
In 2018, Lee Kai Chung won the WMA “Transition” theme commission for his project Retrieval, Restoration and Predicament, an investigation into the process by which a number of Hong Kong’s colonial-era bronze statues were confiscated by Japanese army troops during WWII, and the predicament that arose after their return to Hong Kong. This project also inspired his five-part research projects, the Displacement pentalogy, in which the artist examines diaspora groups around the world from different perspectives, placing them in a relational context with the state of contemporary Hong Kong society.
The current exhibition, ‘Once I Wake Up, My Body Is Old’, is the final entry in The Retrieval, Restoration and Predicament project. It includes the display of Lee Kai Chung’s first video work for this project, as well as a boat trip event and the launch of his new publication, I Could Not Recall How I Got Here.
The imagination, emotions and stories of an era penetrate time and space
Lee Kai Chung pointed out that Once I Wake Up, My Body is Old encompasses not only an exhibition of works, but also two public events that allow the public to reimagine history. Recently, many Hong Kong people have become concerned with issues relating to the sea and navigation routes. Lee believes that the boat trip event, which follows the sea voyage trajectory of four bronze statues seized during the war and then returned to Hong Kong, may create a resonance or correspondence with what is happening in Hong Kong today. “I live in Hong Kong, and when I create I pour my state of mind into my work,” said Lee (Fig. 2, 3).
Fig.2 Lee Kai Chung, The Retrieval, Restoration and Predicament, 2018, Single-channel video, 31’28” (Film still)
Fig. 3 Lee Kai-chung solo exhibition ‘Once I Woke Up, My Body is Old’, 2020, WMA Space (Installation shot)
I made the observation that the narrative descriptions of the different characters in his video really bring history more vividly to life, allowing the audience to communicate more actively with the past. Lee responded that historical imagination often comes from life experience, and that for this reason the timing of this exhibition is also extremely important: “My works usually feature minor characters who are telling their own stories. Though most of them were conceived by me, they also are projections based on real life. I believe these emotions and stories are able to penetrate through time and space. This is also the reason behind my decision to organize a public event related to boats at this particular time.”
Different people arranging history in their own ways
Lee’s new publication, I Could Not Recall How I Got Here, which was launched during the exhibition period, has given the artist the opportunity to re-organize his body of work and to include his research reports as well analytical essays by a curator and an art critic responding to the project. In addition, there are six small books containing the stories of the six war-time characters, imagined by the artist, who appear in the videos. During the book launch, Lee held a reading session where five actors read aloud from the video scripts, which were rearranged in such a way as to allow the six characters to engage in a dialogue with each other.
Lee’s new publication has been designed by Renatus WU, founder and book designer of the Hong Kong-based independent publishing house MOSSES. According to Lee, “When we were designing the book, we wanted to present the material in a new way. This is not a typical bound book: rather, the pages are loose and presented in thick paper folders, like archive files, so it’s possible to rearrange them in different orders (Fig. 4, 5).
Fig. 4, 5 Lee Kai Chung, I Could Not Recall How I Got Here (Hong Kong: Mosses, 2020)
Lee noted that his book I could Not Recall How I Got Here is presented as a work of art in itself, with a design that is calculated to disrupt our usual reading habits. This is not a case of the artist dispensing knowledge from top to bottom: rather, readers are encouraged to re-arrange the content and imagine history in their own way. “Each person should be able to present history in his or her own way,” said Lee. “The sentiments expressed by those six people are not limited just to them. If you take their statements and put them in the contemporary context of Hong Kong, there will be an overlap.” The first page of each book also begins with a particular character’s point of view, while the artist’s research report adopts the perspective of The Narrators. As Lee explained, “During the Japanese Occupation of Taiwan in the 1930s, Taiwanese narrators added their own voiceovers when Japanese silent films were shown, using this narration as a means of spreading anti-colonial ideas.”
Lee frankly acknowledged that some historians might reject his research as not being up to academic standards. Yet he believes that no conflict exists between history and stories. History can be presented in different ways, making knowledge easier to generate and more accessible. And both stories and art can serve to inspire people’s interest in historical events.
Historical research as a process touched by daily life
Only recently returned from an artists’ exchange in Mainland China and having subsequently experienced a period of isolation in quarantine, Lee said he has come to see that during his long period of historical research, his creative work not only involved the appreciation of the subject matter and the process, but more importantly both inspired him and allowed him to experience moments when something touched him deeply, transcending both words and knowledge.
“Ultimately, I do my creative work for the sake of love, for the sake of learning to how to identify the things that I love; and to find goodness” said Lee. “Beauty is also a kind of goodness. And I am deeply moved by the beauty of ordinary things.” It is in this sense of being deeply moved that Lee finds the motivation for his work.
Lee believes that his research methods have also influenced the way he looks at other things as well. “Recently I’ve been trapped in a state of sadness and displacement, separated from the people I love. We should always reflect on what we do and why we do it, whether it’s for our own benefit or just to prove that we exist; if everyone were trying to make this world a better place, so many things could be simplified and cause less pain. This is an age of selfishness and excessive self-interest. Right now, the world has been on pause for a year, but next year it will move at a different speed, both backwards and forwards. I believe we are on the verge of entering an age of philosophy, a time when we will rethink our relationship with nature, as well as our relationships with one another.
LEE Kai-chung performs artistic research on historical events, political systems, and ideology. Through research, social participation and engagement, Lee considers the individual gesture as a form of political and artistic transgression that resonates with existing narratives of history. LEE was awarded his Master of Fine Arts from the School of Creative Media, City University of Hong Kong in 2014 and received The Award for Young Artist (Visual Arts) from the Hong Kong Arts Development Council in 2018. Recent exhibitions and projects include “Internationale Kurzfilmtage Winterthur” (2020, Winterthur, Switzerland), “Predicament” (2020, Beijing, China) and the 12th Shanghai Biennale, “Proregress” (2018, Shanghai, China). Lee’s work is collected by M+ Museum.
About the Author
Linus KWOK (b. 1997) is a graduate of Birmingham City University, UK, majoring in photography. In 2019 he was an intern at WMA and is now a freelancer.