Saturday, 14 May 2011

Memories of King Kowloon (九龍皇帝的文字樂園) – Q & A Session

 Graffiti works ‘Memories of King Kowloon’ held at ArtisTree from April 20 to May 31, 2011.

Tsang Tsuo-chui (曾灶財), aka King Kowloon, (1921-2007) entered the gallery proper and became an establishment in Hong Kong.

Is this banner, near the exhibition venue, with improvised red paint on silk screen printing a piece of graffiti art?

Q: Is King Kowloon's Scribbling an art form?

A: In today’s ever loosening boundary of art, Tsang’s unique calligraphic writings certainly contain all the hallmarks of what constitute art:  they are visually expressive, able to provoke thoughts and imbued with creativity uniquely related to the spirit of the author.  Even to the critical eye, his stark calligraphy is comparable to monotone writings by Banksy, John Fekner or polemical catchphrases by Bob and Roberta Smith.

But when interviewed by COLORS Magazine in 2005 on freedom of speech, he remarked by stating: “They should just give me back the throne.  I am not an artist – I am simply the King”.  If disclaimed by himself as an artist, this opens up a new debate of whether an artwork can be made under the process of unself-conscious efforts.  Imagine a 2-year old child who has no concept of art but is told that his/her doddling is a painting.

A clumsy protection of Tsang’s work by the government at the Star Ferry pier.

Much of Tsang’s graffitis had been painted over, again by the government. (Photo from Apple Daily)

Cool and sleek decoration tamed the subversive nature of
graffiti writing.

In contrast, this was how unglamorous the ‘artist-in-action’ looked in reality.

Q: Why is there a major exhibition after 4 years of his death and many of his works obliterated?

A: At face value, the exhibition is a celebration of his unique form of graffiti.  In deeper thought, it is a silent outcry – an evidence of failure by the government on its arts policy.  It takes a sharp eye to uncover the public appeal of King Kowloon and raises his works to new heights.  It is analogous to the ability of a shrewd businessman being able to spot an under-valued asset and exploit it to the full.  Of course the Swire group, being the major organizer of this event, is among the best in the exercise.

 Highly stylized display of Tsang’s belongings.  It was all anti-climax upon close inspection of the items in the lit boxes.

Inside the boxes, the viewer was met with irrelevant idol worshipping mentality.

Q: What is the significance of showing his belongings that have nothing to do with his calligraphies?

A: Clever conceit not suppressed, the inclusion of Tsang’s T-shirt, restaurant receipts and Coca Cola can has no artistic connotation; nor do they tell us much about his life.  It only nurtures the trivialization of thoughts common in this community. 

Among some products riding on the fad of Tsang a few
years ago is mobile phone design using his style of writing.

 Tsang’s calligraphies began to acquire notable monetary value since Sotheby’s auction in 2004.

Tsang was given the role of beggar in the movie – Lavender. 
It is the worst of stereotypes, exploitations and insults on the senile graffiti writer.

 General view of artworks dedicated to or inspired by Tsang.

King of Kowloon Forever by Birdy Chu - Example of an expedient piece of artwork using the concept of the emperor’s seal. 

Q: How to avoid being accused of exploiting on Tsang?

A: The first ones to spot Tsang’s phenomenon and develop from it were genius enough to be free from accusation.  But knowing that Tsang and his family were prone to be taken advantage of, anyone of high ethical standing and reputation today should keep a safe distance from Tsang’s works.  Unless you are obsessed with his works like the man himself and can never let go.

Art student participation that can never go wrong - it is a nice touch to include student artworks inspired by Tsang.

Had anyone considered not to put the writings behind glass and frame?  It almost looked as morbid as the government intervention at the Star Ferry pier.

A more honest and daring approach to graffiti art held from May 7 to June 5, 2011.  Graffiti writings with different media were demonstrated in videos.

Q: Is this a good exhibition?

A: By definition, street art is best seen in its natural habitat instead of an air-conditioned venue of clever display and ultra dark lighting like this in ArtisTree.  On the whole, the exhibition felt pleasant enough though the setting was more suited for high-end fashion show.  Perhaps this sanitized gallery outlook could be modified to simulate street environment with traffic and public noises?  Perhaps works of a few local graffiti artists could be included?

The answer is a calculated ‘No’.  Swire, as part of the old establishment, would do the utmost to prevent the promotion of graffiti art.  It is not a surprise that the word ‘graffiti’ only appears once in the entire exhibition catalogue of 56 pages.  The exhibition only targets to feed on the collective memory of Hong Kong people, a homogenized sentiment that can be contained, and a nostalgic conservatism that the establishment prefers.

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