Get famous when young: A letter to Hong Kong young artists

To supplement the inadequacy in art communications and discussions, five experienced front-line art practitioners – Ying Kwok, Jeff Leung, Sai Lok Chan, Yang Yeung and Leung Po Shan form Art Appraisal Club to discuss, exchange and write on exhibitions and features as a group every month.

Following last month’s discussion on how art environment changes the ecosystem for young artists, Jeff uses a letter to analyze the current local art ecosystem and the current climate these young artists are in.

2013 Graduation Exhibition, School of Creative Media, City University of Hong Kong

2013 Graduation Exhibition, School of Creative Media, City University of Hong Kong


Get famous when young: A letter to Hong Kong young artists

Dear young artists,

Eileen Chang once wrote, “Get famous when young!” It shouldn’t be difficult for you, as opportunities come right from the moment you graduate.

Fame comes with graduation

You are now in a situation totally different from that of ten years ago. From mid 1990s to around 2008, fresh art graduates either stayed in communities like local non-profit art space (e.g. Para/Site, 1a space and artists commune); or worked really hard to secure overseas’ residency / exhibition opportunities (especially for media artists). Nowadays, the graduate exhibition is in itself an opportunity. For your predecessors, graduation exhibitions were their very first show. It was an occasion for friends and family to come share the joy of graduation, with minimal ties with the local art scene. These days, you start searching for exhibition opportunities during your studies, and possibly grab a few in campus or through professors’ referrals. By the time of the graduation exhibition you would probably have exhibited elsewhere already, making you a seasoned pro.

Young artists in my generation were not conscious about the concept of “audience”. They would have done well if they had treated their tutors as one. Today, you think about reporters, parents, curators and gallery staff as your audience. You naturally leave your name cards next to your works, promoting yourselves like young entrepreneurs do for their creative business. In a way I think graduation exhibitions nowadays are similar to 17th century salon shows at the Royal Art Academy – works from members of various academies filled the walls, trying to attract commissions from the royal families or nobles. While there are no longer royals, at least one or two educational or cultural newspaper reporters will do a feature on the exhibition, with the splendid title of “The future of Artists”, along with interviews of a few art graduates. Secondary school students and their parents pay visits to the exhibitions to see and compare the education outcome of their prospective art institutions. Talent agents from art galleries start to keep an eye on these exhibitions too. Today art institutions in Hong Kong are similar to those overseas as both are frequented by commercial gallery directors. These art galleries support young artists by sponsoring cash prizes for best artworks, and further by inviting winners to setup their first solo show in their galleries. All these make a graduation exhibition so much like a Project Runway – comparison and contest among peers drives competition for interviews and exhibition opportunities.

If you are not onboard in Project Runway, nor recommended for Fresh Trend Art Graduates Joint Exhibition, there are still other channels through which you are “made artists”. Philippe Charriol Foundation Art Competition, and Hong Kong Art Biennials organized by the Government are long standing open competitions. The support from gallery directors brought about the Sovereign Art Prize and Hong Kong Art Prize. Or you may simply exhibit your works at Fotanian Open Studios and catch a visit from gallery directors. The competition for becoming a gallery artist is still keen, yet you stand a higher chance as there are more galleries now.

In mainland China both non-profit making and commercial galleries sell works to support their operation. Hence becoming a gallery artist has naturally become the first step towards an artist career. Unlike artists in earlier generations who had to work during the day, and continued at the studio for creative work till late at night. Being able to fully commit yourselves into creating art – I guess this is what Eileen Chang meant by “delightfully happy”.

2013 Graduation Exhibition, Faculty of Fine Arts, The Chinese University of Hong Kong

2013 Graduation Exhibition, Faculty of Fine Arts, The Chinese University of Hong Kong

Between the extremes of fames

Art critic Boris Groys mentioned in Going Public, “…Every piece of art is a commodity, we have no doubt about this. However, art is still shown to those with no intention of becoming art collectors. Actually these people have been the majority of the art-going population”. We are now at a time of art market globalization under thriving creative industries. Art is for the appreciation of the two audience groups in the proportion of 1:99. The 1% flies across the globe for biennials, exhibitions, to appreciate and collect your work, either for investment, or the future establishment of an art gallery. They consume the art production. On the other hand, the 99% may just watch and participate, but not collect, but they are from a more diverse background – general public, students, researchers, curators, critics, etc. They build the demand for biennials and art festivals, buy the artists’ monographs and painting albums, and facilitate art communications and exchanges.

You may well see the differences in artistic taste between these two groups through media reports. In between two extremes lie two parties: one giving an interpretation of the local art and culture through contemporary art exhibitions (such as Alliance francaise de Hong Kong, Hong Kong Eye Exhibition Tour and Hong Kong Pavilion in La Biennale di Venezia); the other treat art and cultural actions as “Happy confrontation” (similar to the western concept of Tactical Frivolity) put forward by organizations like Woofer Ten and Tsoi Yuen Tsuen Art Festival. Both parties strive to construct the “Locally Hong Kong” discourse and cultural symbols. That said, the art industry itself is no longer a secret. Professors might not cover it in any course, but there are still plenty of art publications – ranges from art theories to survival guides and art gossips. Books like Geijutsu Kigyoron by Takashi Murakami, Money Games in Art by Kevin Tsai and Seven Days in the Art Worlds by Sarah Thornton unveil to the general public how the art world operates.

Young artists like you are always labeled “youthful” and “independent” under media limelight. Reports go on and on about how you respond to the society as well as the art market. These concise reports portray a clear individual image for contemporary artists, but lacks the ‘groups’ prevailing in other creative categories like music and drama. What attracts me most to young groups among you is that they aren’t much “made artist”.

They don’t exhibit in galleries, and they don’t appear on newspapers in the name of resistance. They may be famous on media for just 15 minutes, but they successfully inspire critical thinking towards the market and the society. Similar to Complain Choir of Hong Kong (2009-2010), a group of local creative minds follows the American Park(ing) Day Group by covering a roadside parking lot with grass every year, just to picnic and sing. They operate without core members, their numbers fluctuate, they are all from different backgrounds, and it did not matter whether they were artistic. They managed to strike a cord on the absurdity of having both rapid living pace and a crowded living environment. And realizes their actions by re-imagining how we can utilize city space creatively.

“Street Art Movement” was initiated by two post-90s young girls, by gathering participants at public space on an irregular basis to enjoy culture in the mode of a flash mob: they draw on MTR trains, and collectively capture moments of daily life for city dwellers in a book. “We are poor, but we have good taste” is their slogan. Emphasizing the practice of popular art activities apart from the high-end artistic taste, they sit on footbridges to enjoy egg tarts while singing and dancing. To them everywhere was like a flea market – a public space for night life for the public. Their life was art – without clear forms or declarations in response to social issues; yet they ‘do’ art.

Eileen Chang also said “Be famous when young! Time runs fast even if one can wait”. Perhaps we are all swimming in the great tides of times. A joke came up chatting with friends who are artists: “When it comes to Hong Kong contemporary art, curators and reporters only know those few “young” artists around their 30s. You are called a “middle-aged” artist before turning 40.” When local young artists become famous, their counterparts on international stage gave way to young collectors. Are we still going to follow the western tide, drifting in the same direction?

I mean, after being famous for 15 minutes, when you are not young anymore, you still continue your artistic life. Have you ever imagined how to meet the tides prevailing in creative industries, to become a gallery proprietor or even start up your own art museum? How far can you actually go just for creativity’s sake?

'Confession: He is my SUN, He makes me shine like diamonds', Wong Ka Ying, 2013

‘Confession: He is my SUN, He makes me shine like diamonds’, Wong Ka Ying, 2013

Wong Ka Ying graduated from the Faculty of Fine Arts in the Chinese University of Hong Kong in 2013. The focus on her works has always been explicit and radical approach. She dares. When she graduates, she shows what is in her mind in a picture of her naked self: “Teachers don’t like me, my father doesn’t like me either. I always got fucked up by boys. I hate men the most! Is there anyone out there who would keep me as concubines?” listing her mobile phone number and email address in her resume, to respond to the dilemma she was facing at that time – truly conflicting yet innocent.

Her work “Confession: He is my SUN, He makes me shine like diamonds” spreads revolutionary ideas under the name of the national hero, blending hot social topics and personal passions