Hybrid Model: Hong Kong, Art, and Deterritorialization

When Frank Welsh wrote his outstanding one-volume history of Hong Kong, he titled it “A Borrowed Place.” In I Like Hong Kong… Art and Deterritorialization, Frank Vigneron, an Associate Professor in the Department of Fine Arts of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, continues that theme of borrowings, but places it at the center of the dynamic culture and art world of that tiny island that thrives at the crossroads of commerce and communication. “Does a Hong Kong cultural identity really stem from the cliché of ‘East meets West,’ which has been strongly attached to the idea most people have had of Hong Kong for decades, or is it exclusively the product of a Chinese background only masked by British colonization?” Vigneron asks, only to answer “neither!” Instead, Vigneron builds a compelling philosophical case that Hong Kong is a model case of true hybridization in which cultural elements lose their territorial context, that is, they become “deterritorialized.” Both a description of Hong Kong’s contemporary art scene and a manifesto for how that artwork could provide a solution to the world’s global tensions, I Like Hong Kong… promises, and delivers.

Vigneron insists that he’s not anti-globalization. He only wants a different kind of globalization, in which dominant countries no longer erase smaller, local cultures in a relentless cycle of “cultural leveling.” Rather than continue what economists call “late capitalism,” Vigneron calls for a new kind of humanism that recognizes the reality and vitality of the hybridization process that already takes place as cultures bump up against one another in an ever-shrinking world.

For Vigneron, Hong Kong provides the perfect laboratory in which to view how this hybridization works. Both simultaneously in and out of Chinese culture and language, Hong Kong inhabitants live under a “localized diaspora” of tensions and uncertainty. To assemble his argument, Vigneron calls on an army of philosophical heavy hitters. Jacques Lacan, Ferdinand de Saussure, and Julia Kristeva come to his aid in the name of sharpening a point on linguistics, just one example of the complexity and subtlety of Vigneron’s ideas. I Like Hong Kong… is not an easy read, but an essential one if you hope to understand fully the state of contemporary international art. Vigneron leavens this critical heaviness with a lightness of tone and a quirky sense of fun, such as his taking his title from a 1960s pop song performed by singer-actress Rebecca Pan. In that sense, Vigneron’s own writing is a hybridization of academia and, for lack of a better phrase, real life.

From an art history perspective, Vigneron hits his stride when he discusses his idea of deterritorialization. Vigneron points to examples of Chinese and Hong Kong artists labeled as pseudo-European for using chiaroscuro and perspective, as if the Renaissance trademarked those tools. Who “owns” those concepts? Why do we think anyone does? “Cultural hybridization in the domain of visual arts makes the life of art historians and teachers quite complicated,” Vigneron admits, “as they are still too often asked to classify artists into neatly packaged categories, if only to make their teaching better structured and therefore more easily digestible for their students.” The cost of that convenience, however, is a labeling that too often becomes a mislabeling. Vigneron wonders why Mark Rothko, for example, so often earns the tag of a “Zen” artist. “This reading of Rothko as ‘Zen art’ is far-fetched since his work relied on a Platonist view of the artwork as representing an idea,” Vigneron complains, whereas true Zen is truly idea-less. Vigneron sees all artwork “trapped in this discourse about East and West,” when instead there should be a merging—a hybrid—of the two when speaking of either. Talk about art should never know boundaries, as art itself is boundless. The work of Chinese artist Cindy Ng Sio-Ieng, such as her digital photograph of flowing ink in action titled Ink 9852 (shown above), embodies this free-flow of ideas. Like ink moving across a page, art ideas move across the globe uncontrollably. All we can do is watch and wonder and accept.

“When one gets involved, as both actor and observer, in the development and the actualization of such a unique local environment as the one of Hong Kong,” Vigneron concludes, “it is very difficult not to see in it a possible solution to the cultural and political woes of other regions of the world.” Tiny Hong Kong thus becomes a shining city on a hill serving as a beacon for the rest of the world to follow. The hybrid model of culture may need to become the standard operating system for the world if we hope to understand one another well enough not to want to eradicate one another. It seems like a lot to ask of a small country or even of as big a part of life as art, but I Like Hong Kong… will strengthen your faith that in culture may lie our collective salvation.

[Image: Cindy Ng Sio-Ieng. Ink 9852. Digital photography. 70 x 50 cm. 2010.]

[Many thanks to The Chinese University Press for providing me with a review copy of Frank Vigneron’s I Like Hong Kong… Art and Deterritorialization.]

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