Sunday, 31 March 2013

Poverty, Photography and Hong Kong

The photography award spotlights the issue of the working 
poor in our city with a Gini coefficient of 0.537.

Seven finalists are selected for this exhibition.

Art school students in front of the video programmes.

It lurks at street corners where people search the bins for tin cans, drives many working on two jobs to make ends meet, and forces the unfortunate to live in concrete potholes with constant risks of fire.  Poverty in this post-industrial economy of Hong Kong contrasts sharply with affluence.  Its presence does not require looking through the microscope, it is literally found under the sun if only one cares to pay attention.

The definition of poverty may be diverse and its severity often contentious, it is up to the government and concerned groups to define and interpret with different intents.  It is not our scope here to investigate, but rather through common sense, to take the photographic works as they are presented to carry out an artistic review.

Seven Finalist Photographers

Chan, Katherine Sim-kuen   Cleaner’s Life 

As I grew up, I developed an appreciation for the patience [sic – ‘perseverance’ in related Chinese text] of cleaners.  Their job is regarded by society as lowly, but it is a very, very important job. … In my project, I want to understand more about the working poor’s jobs through their office spaces and in their rest areas in order to record the truth about their treatment – how they are ignored by society, but worthy of respect.

The set of photographs in the janitors’ room is a subdued survey of their work environment, a place where their equipment is stored and garbage is held before the disposal trucks arrive.  Discarded furniture, hung-dry uniforms and odd personal items are captured through the lens under dim lighting as if the audience had sneaked into the room whilst the workers were out on duty.  All is quiet and an overcast of wispy smell is absent to complete a fuller picture.  It is an oblique voyeurism that does not entice much pleasure from onlookers.

Were the workplace not doubled up as a common room for the janitors, this humble-looking environs, suitably printed in small and odd sizes, would not attract much attention.  However this accepted practice, running as norm in the cleaning profession and depriving people of dignity, is what makes this series of work compelling.

Ko, Chung-ming   ‘Cents’ Mansion

…these underprivileged families – with average household income of less than HK$8,000 – must spend more than half their earnings on rent. …, these families also have to live with serious safety hazards such as potential fire threats caused by overloaded electricity wiring amongst subdivided units, blockage of rear fire escape staircases and poor hygienic conditions.

With the camera set at ceiling level, Ko seizes moments of the new poor in the city exemplified by the family units living in minuscule dwellings of 180 ft² in average.  Not for artistic reason, the angle from above is almost the only clear vista the entirety of each home (excluding the toilet) is recorded in a single shot.

Among the pictures, disturbing aura of calm but not contentment is registered on the faces of the inhabitants.  Moreover a relative orderliness, so difficult to maintain in a tiny place, demonstrates the fact that they too are ordinary do-gooders like the rest of us.

Wu, Rufina and Canham, Stefan   Portraits from Above
Various government departments keep files on so-called “unauthorized building works”, coding the huts with permanent markers and photographing them. … Very rarely do rooftop residents document their own spaces: the family pictures we saw were taken standing in a field of sunflowers, or in a village in the mainland, or down on the street beside someone else’s car, smiling.

Similar to Ko’s ceiling views, this cross-media assemblage is construed as impartially as possible to document the illegal roof dwellings ingeniously built atop run-down districts in the city.  As if celebrating the unsung designers, there are scaled floor plans and axonometric drawings to assist viewings.

The sleek presentation, almost too refined to feel at ease, begs the question if Wu and Canham were orchestrating for an impression of marvel.  Like ‘Cents’ Mansion above, they do not convey the baking heat, wintry drafts, odours and noises that prevail in real life.  But on appealing for empathy, unlike the above, they seem to falter all the same.  The exclusion of people from their habitats as shown from the photographs and drawings may be cool-inspiring but the gravitas on human deprivation are compromised through stylization.

Chan, Wai-kwong    Record

“To record” is fundamental to a photographer.  I’m merely recording things around me.  As far as the intent, content or connotation of the photograph is concerned, it shall be interpreted by the viewers.

The grainy monochromes freeze the moments of the underclass making their living.  The street scenes, rightly as the author affirms, are all around us but chosen by most to ignore.  The photographs are alternative portraitures of humble working people, agreeably journalistic and sentimental, offer the audience secure detachment for watchful gaze.

Tay, Wei-leng         North Point

The project ”North Point” examines this changing district and its history of migration, through the personal lives and homes of its inhabitants.  Looking at how family spaces, personal spaces and communal spaces define and are defined by the economic and social environment, the work highlights how people deal with the increasing price and difficulties of living in Hong Kong.

This is the third finalist out of seven that takes its cue from the housing issue - one of the most pressing problems of Hong Kong due to the property price hikes in recent years.  Apparently uncorrelated, the plain-looking photographs throw sketches of a neighbourhood at North Point.  With written narratives, they tell the stories of different people from diverse backgrounds that are uprooted by a re-development project nearby.  The combined mosaic of pictures represents one of the many high-end property developments that destroys the existing urban fabric and modes of living in the city.

The photographs are executed like casual snapshots edited from a documentary film; their disparities are shared through common concern.

Chan, Michael   Elite

Hong Kong has been promoting ‘elitism’, turning quality education into talent education.  The government’s main focus is on the high-reputation schools and the graduating elite. … The government has forgotten that education is fundamentally democratic – for every student.  Each student, whether elite or ordinary, rich or poor, should be treated equally.

The staged photography of phantasmagoric tableaux in classroom underscores the poverty discourse with connection to equality, education and the elite.  It may be a contentious framework of debate, even a tinge of Fascism might be detected in Chan’s statement.  The concepts of elite and elitism have somehow intertwined according to the author.  But for sure, an inadequate education system invariably withholds social mobility; this is the focus to behold.

The theatrical compositions, akin to the genre of Julie Blackmon, Aneta Grzeszykowska and Jan Smaga, are enigmatic enough but the powerful visuals also muddle up the plot of argumentation the author intends to put forth.

Chow, Stefen    The Poverty Line

It is an examination of the choices one faces living at the poverty line.  I work with an economist, Lin Hui-Yi, to ensure factual and statistical consistency. … HK$44.96(US$5.77/EURO4.01) for food.  This is based on a per capita per day basis of a poverty indicator for Hong Kong (half of the median average household income), and low-income household food expenditure.

Another arranged set-play focuses on the quantitative comparison of food consumptions against the income per day of people below the poverty line.  The cold figure of HK$44.96 is represented as foods dished out on newspaper – the tablecloth of the underprivileged. 

The images make food for thought in a plentiful society we live today.  The no-nonsense arrangement of the shots is also a simple reminder of the 16% of our population, who lives on this meagre income.

Writings on the Wall

The works offer diverse points of reference to investigate on the issue of poverty in Hong Kong, which in turn represents only one extreme case of this prevalent problem found worldwide.  They may not offer any particular insight on what we are unaware of; frankly speaking, these photographs only allow the audience a steady gaze and a moment of reflection in an exhibition setting.  To some, this combined survey might help strike a chord that is lost in our daily grinds of personal duties.  It might lead to lasting awareness or even cause of action for some others.  The photographs here might be light saved for these purposes.

On the way out, messages by visitors to take home with.

The exhibition, however, also brought about a thought on the deluge of images we receive every day and its effect upon us.  We are inundated with images especially through the ever more powerful media of Facebook, Twitter and others.  The photographic works posted though powerful in general, they might not be able to overwhelm each and every one of us.  By studying the messages visitors jolted down by the end of the exhibition, there were an alarming few that display various degrees of apathy.  

Is there an antithesis of photograph-as-image that we have become too accustomed to?  Or is it the case that our eyes have developed a delayed reflex if not an immunity as we have seen too much?  Like the subject of painting itself, the vehicle of photography, ever popular due to the digital age, is slowly undermining itself with success.  Perhaps it would take a separate occasion to conduct a discourse on this phenomenon.  

It reads: The exhibition held here is too ironic!

Last but not all, a special tribute must be paid to the Swire Group.  It is one of the few conglomerates with businesses in many sectors that helps develop an economy of hegemonies.  These giant corporations create jobs at the same time driving out small enterprises, creating wealth whilst limiting social-mobility.  As one message from a circumspective visitor has rightly cast a spotlight on the irony that the venue sponsor actually gives rise to our predicament, there is a darkness permeated throughout the exhibition venue that seemingly tells as to who rules the reality registered on the photographs.

All works in this article courtesy of the photographers and the WYNG Masters Awards.  The quality of the photographs appeared here might be impaired due to reproduction.

Poverty in the midst of plenty is held from March 19 to April 4, 2013 at ArtisTree, Hong Kong.  Further information at

Article on urban design that stumbles on the social issues
 of Hong Kong at "Now and When: Australian Urbanism"

貧窮.攝影.香港          〈中文摘要〉





四月六日於 ArtisTree 舉行

Saturday, 9 March 2013

Liangzhu Musing by David Chipperfield

Pristine building lines set among vegetation,
the museum was open in 2008.

If not having had a crush on Liangzhu artefacts years ago, a casual traveller like myself would not include Liangzhu Museum as a place of interest in Hangzhou.  The fair distance of 20 kilometres from the city exacerbated by the poor transportations would probably deter the less tenacious mind to make the trip.

Eventually apprehensions gave way, it was the leaning towards David Chipperfield - the architect of the building that tipped the scales in favour of this visit.  As it turned out, potential visitors could be rest assured that the half-day excursion to the museum was worth the journey.  The exhibition contents would make an eye-opening experience of a lost civilization and the architecture was an exemplification of modernity fused with cultured sensitivity.

Cartesian Expression

Mausoleum-like building with few visitors on a cold December morning.  Two views of the bridge links that precede and terminate the visit (entrance to museum on left and exit on right).

With a protracted bridge link leading to the museum portico, visitors might feel intimidated by the windowless enclosure notwithstanding its overbearing stone-cladded appearance.  Overlooked even by professional designers at times, architectural appreciation starts with the experience of approaching its entrance.  Chipperfield’s incorporation of this two-minute walk, dramatic it surely is, prepares the visitors for the transition into a lost civilization of 5000 years.

Museum entrance proper at the other side of the portico.

Upon entering the portal is an ample-sized courtyard finished with Iranian travertine stone - the material uniformly installed throughout on the interior and exterior.  This open-skied enclosure, as revealed later, heralds a series of three other courtyards each embedded with different characteristics.  These open spaces are strategically bisected with indoor galleries where archaeological remains and other materials are exhibited.

Though a single-story building, the circulation of traffic is never linear.  As the architect has well illustrated on his sketch, one is enticed to roam freely from room to room via the courtyards.  It is through these open spaces that visitors are re-connected with time and nature - the quintessential components for the making of the famous jadeite artefacts.  Apart from being the metaphysical loci, these colonnaded courtyards also act as anchors of orientation for visitors.

 Man-made site on left ( Sketch illustrating fluid circulation intended and courtyard as centrepiece.  (drawingsDavid Chipperfield Architects)

Essentially north-south orientation allows an optimum 
of sunlight to enter the courtyards.  
(drawings David Chipperfield Architects)

The museum is located in the town of Liangzhu where numerous archaeological sites were uncovered from the 1930s.  Buried in a bog-like setting, it perches on a man-made headland and is surrounded by lush planting.  The massive landscape of waterways is not designed just to please the eyes; it forms an extroverted arm of a relatively secluded being.  In the same light, the incorporation of courtyards with implications of open view, runs the risk of distraction to the exhibits if not accusation of self-aggrandizement.  Far from this claim, the low-lying building configuration amid the park surroundings is barely noticeable; its fiercely low-profiled presence demonstrates severe restraint comparable only to the architect’s demeanour.

The angular building is formally made up of four elongated boxes.  As if slid longitudinally to form the basic volumetric relationship  the boxes were then carved open and inserted with five landscaped courtyards (one of which is not open to public). By actually being in the galleries and outside spaces, one is able to be evoked on the effects of the elements and temporality upon the artefacts.  The sequence of circulation terminated on the small island ultimately reinforces the same theme only with greater magnitude.

Courtyard with water lily pond and donut-shaped rings. 
They have their unmistakable origins in
the Liangzhu relic of bi-disc (left).

Deciduous trees and shrubs planted in the cloistered courtyard. 
Stone ‘planks’ pertaining to the ceremonious chisels (right)
used by the Neolithic people are found.

Negotiating on Culture

Through the inspection of Chipperfield's works, it is not difficult to realize that context plays a critical role in the design process.  This observation is much in evidence from his more recent works of Turner Contemporary in Margate and Kaufhaus Tyrol, Innsbruck where the architect has applied the means of scale, materiality and detail articulations to respond to surroundings.

This respect to context is not literally translated as homogenization with the immediate environment,  nor is there patronization to the locals by adding surface treatments.  Rather, the responses to the context in the physical and abstract senses are well researched, analyzed and manifested with high-order thinking.  It is in the same sense that the discourse of history is well played out with his repertoire of architectural vocabularies.

Portal to the museum with blank wall behind (left) and
typical entrance doorway of hutong dwellings in Beijing (right).

Landscaped courtyard of museum (left) and
rural courtyard architecture of Shanxi province (right).

From the indigenous culture, Chipperfield has managed to integrate Chinese idioms into the design of the museum.  As seen from the above sets of images, the blank wall and abrupt change in direction at the entrance pay homage to local domestic architecture.  The trick deployed here might serve different intents, nonetheless it adds to the suspense of arrival by deferring the real entrance further afield.

Of all the inward-looking architecture in China and indeed the Middle-east, closed courtyard is indispensable and it is where the spirit of life flourishes.  On the incorporation of courtyards, the architect explains:

“Since it is a museum, and is an exploratory environment, we want to create a sequence of indoor and outdoor spaces that would take visitors on a journey through the ancient culture.  The reference to Chinese courtyards relieves the linear route while referring to architectural traditions.”  
(Architectural Record, April 2008)

 The Serpentine Gallery Pavilion, London by Peter Zumthor, 2011.  This building of self-effacing envelope, transition and reflections on nature shares the common denominators with Lianzhu Museum.  (photo∣ 

New Thoughts from Old School

View out to the man-made island (left) and
landscaped courtyard from the bridge (right).

David Chipperfield has often been referred to as a minimalist architect, a term that carries the association with fashion and hype.  The retail projects for Valentino and Dolce & Gabbana might add to this impression.  However the epithetic labelling could be a curse, like a candle that burns on both ends.  It induces a false sense of vanity that a serious-minded critic finds his works hard to agree with; on the other hand a fashionista might be engrossed in his elemental approach with little reflection.  Both of them only manage to obscure the course of his mission.

The building looks deceptively simple in design.  With robust ideas at hand, it is the outcome of a rigorous process of elimination.

The portfolio of Chipperfield’s works including this museum shares the common threads of heavy thick walls and inward-looking severity.  Commenting on glass and steel buildings while taking a direct riposte to Norman Foster, he sums up his values of architectural design in simple terms:

“You always have to dig a hole in the ground and pour a lot of concrete into it.  How much does your building really weigh, Mr. Foster?”

“If I thought architecture was nomadic and light-footed I’d be very interested, but it’s not true.” 
(the Guardian, Feb 6, 2011)

Without sleek curves and metallic shininess, it took a succession of projects abroad for Chipperfield to be accepted at home.  His paradigm in architecture, firmly rooted in the tradition of the Modern Movement, is not dressed with austerity to shock.  Through his robust pursuit of the tired language, modern architecture is given a new lease of life that is emblematic of his own style.  And far from being a reductionist, Chipperfield might be apologetic to be an intellect on architecture who is at once puritan for the untrained eye and esoteric to be delved upon.  Like his soft-spoken manner, his architecture requires careful examination to deduce meaning; it is a process that is hard to win true admirations from the mass public.

Two videotapes of the visit to Liangzhu Museum are as follows:

Digging into Liangzhu

Part of the Liangzhu relics on display were unearthed from the excavation site No.198 at County Wu, Jiangsu Province, 1973.  (imageLiangzhu Museum)

Ancient bibelots and well illustrated materials from the dimly lit galleries.  The 3D film show with rocking chairs is entertainment for family visitors and fun seekers alike.

The history of Liangzhu culture dated as early as 3300-2200BC during the late Neolithic era.  It was in this period of time that the civilizations of Indus Valley and Egypt had emerged; and the first writings of Sumer in Mesopotamia were recorded.  Discovered in 1936, the lost world of Liangzhu was originated in the region of Yangtze River Delta.

Evidences of agriculture and hierarchy of society are found.  Among the relics of potteries, lacquers and weavings, jade carvings are the most well-known artifacts with sophisticated design and workmanship.  However, no traces on remnants of languages are uncovered.  An introduction of Liangzhu culture is located at the following:

The official website of the museum below offers very limited information in English and frankly its contents do not do justice to the quality within.

大衛.祈柏菲的良渚思維  〈中文摘要〉

並不是因為距離和交通之便誘發筆者參觀杭州良渚博物館,事實上兩者絕非理想。當初考慮此行原於滿足早年對良渚文化的興趣。而最終排除各負面因素付諸行動還是押注對於博物館的建築師 - 大衛.祈柏菲(David Chipperfield)之期盼。考量得失,館子無論建築設計及展品質素均值得花上半天時間及承受少許顛簸



在祈氏作品中不難發現場境脈絡(context)在設計構思的重要。他的反饋絕非奉承當地品味或對應現場同質處理(homogenization),卻是高層次地作實體及概念上的回應。從本土建築,他引用了中國元素,植入玄關照壁和改變軸線導向。另外展館的庭院格局及細節亦浮現低調的東方魅力。(八年四月Architectural Record相關訪問。)