Seeing “those who parted by unexpected fate” (Excerpt)
Text: Zhang Zimu
I still remember The Relentless Voyage, a public event organized by Chung during his WMA exhibition. No event details were given except for simple security rules to obey on the sea. The other passengers happened to also be women. Wearing masks, we all sat quietly in our own chosen corners on the boat. In the one hour and a half journey, the only sight was the Hong Kong coastline gradually extending to the estranged and remote side. The sole familiar image was the bumping gesture and the taste of nausea rising within my body. With the projection of the exhibition, I first considered it a journey of “experience”, to feel what the refugees of forced migration experienced in reductionist ocean travel. The sense of moral ambiguity and bewilderment occupied the first half of my journey. However, in the casual chat after the returning trip, I was surprised to learn the drastic difference in participants’ feelings. One foreign artist felt complete liberation and ease as she was just out of the hotel quarantine. Even with a loaded mind, I still saw many surprising scenes, including a butterfly vigorously crossing the sea against the wind, a small ancient temple by the seawall and a man fishing outside a tent… All these subtleties were not to be reduced by the extrinsic frameworks like “return to” and “re-experience” history. Chung documented every such journey with video, sound and texts, as well as participants’ immediate feelings. These documentations may be merged into the following exhibitions, making another “Archive of the People.”
After researching historical archives and visiting historical sites, what Chung did was not to visualize historical data, nor to seek responsibility and make accusations. Rather he chose to do something possibly more difficult, by projecting and performing with his own body and senses to generate empathy. The two-channel video The Remains of the Night fabricated an intimate solace between two survivors of the Nanshitou refugee camp. When tongue was cut bit by bit, skin withered slowly, gnawed over by mosquitos with malaria…this absurdity of war was conducted rationally in the name of science. Yet two lives cast in the mess still had the opportunity to meet and watch the new year fireworks, to have an instance of liberation and transcendence, before their fatal fates. Different from passionate death lavishly rendered by patriotism, Chung distinguishes tender but tenacious and abundant humanity as well as affection amidst despair. If war is a means of dehumanization, the popular historical dramas are transhumanistic depictions of both heroes and enemies. Chung builds up a quotidian theatre with filmic writing on the debris of historical archives, in which the strangers that enter, regardless of identity, all behold rich affections and sensibilities, and are capable of making dialogue with modern viewers in different shores of the historical flow.
When I listened to an online discussion at HB Station, some audiences expressed their doubt over the ethics of Chung’s working method. Chung responded that he believed in personal instinct and motivation. The seemingly objective data and descriptions cannot get us closer to a real living person. This could be associated with how we understand “empathy”. According to scholars Hans A. Alma and Adri Smaling (2011), empathy is not pure psychological identification and “to be one”, as one individual can never really switch to be the other and experience what the other has been through. Therefore, they suggested, empathy was to place oneself in another’s experiential world, through the imagination of their own emotions (p.203-204). I sense such empathy in Chung’s works. When describing the burning experiment in a laboratory, he filmed his own arm with tattoos. The above-mentioned firework element was historical, it also stemmed from his visual experience of Japan’s summer fireworks during an artist residency program, as well as the then haunted news coverage of the tear gas smog in Hong Kong streets. Moreover, the artist himself had displaced his own body to enter the recreated historical terrain to sense and act. In another video The Digger, he went to the Toyama Park in Shinjuku district of Tokyo, one of the former laboratory sites affiliated with Unit 731, started digging a tomb for himself among passersby’s reserved manner or indifference, like many refugees, were forced to do so. When we look into the screens, are we emotionally much closer to the observers in history and in present times, or the forced tomb diggers? This is the openness of Chung’s works. The incorporation of his quarantine experience into the exhibition curation also shows a sensitivity for his own body while persistently executing a working methodology to access the other through the self.
Scholar and curator Jill Bennett (2005) wrote in a book on trauma and art, that this type of art is more transactive than communicative, “it often touches us, but it does not necessarily communicate the ‘secret’ of personal experience” (p.7). The distinguishing feature of Chung’s work also lies in the further entanglement with the “transactive”, putting the highly tenacious identities to overlap in an obscure and ambiguous space. In The Enka Singer, a Japanese elder, who participated in the Japanese student movement, performed the poem from Nanshitou camp in the style of Japanese traditional Enka; A Japanese friend of the artist acted as a young Hong Kong lady during wartime (The Smoking Lady), who smoked the last cigarette before she had her hair cut to disguise herself as a man and flee. In these performances that broke through the boundary of the epochs of geography, confined nationalities and body politics became dubious, their contradictions explicitly revealed.
This series of works was created from 2019 to 2020, parallel with rising global social movements and the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic. The imagination and conjecture of war have flooded social media, borders, as well as identities, which have frequently been the triggers for social debates. The narrative built around the Nanshitou refugee camp also contributed towards the shifting boundaries around being a “Hong Konger”. The Nanshitou refugee camp was built on the condition of the explosion of the WWII population in Hong Kong. After the Japanese army occupied Guangzhou, a large number of Canton refugees fled to HK and caused a resource shortage. The Japanese army aimed to reduce the Hong Kong population by publishing the repatriation policy, which used deceptive methods to send back 500,000 to 800,000 refugees to China, including a ratio of Hong Kong residents whose ancestral hometowns were in Canton. Many lost their lives during the sea voyage and later in the Nanshitou refugee camp. For the Hong Kong exhibition in March 2020, several review articles referred to these refugees as “Hong Kong refugees” or “Hong Kongers”. Among them, one article clearly stated the correlation with the Anti-Extradition Movement, describing a historical precedent of extradition to China, overlooking the misplacement of identity and borders in the event. When compared with Hong Kong-Canton discussions nowadays, this conversation on identities becomes rather intriguing. Chung openly confessed his inspirations stemmed from violent migrations in history and the drifting condition of Hong Kong today in terms of his own work. This reflection is not a linear comparison of past and present, but constantly opening up bifurcations on smooth narratives.
As I recounted my sea voyage from Sai Wan Ho ferry pier into the South China Sea, I only realised that we might have crossed the border through the sight of a boat hanging the Chinese national flag. While breathing cigarette fumes with the Japanese/Hong Kong/Canton lady, I sensed the artist refused to ascribe to the dichotomous thought behind geo-war and body-war. Facing the historical ruins and comebacks of new struggles, any clear border narration risked impotence and futility. However, using art as a means for border-crossing and chronotope-transpassing, as well as entering “The Narrow Road to the Deep Sea” with someone’s own physicality, makes it possible for us to see “those who parted by unexpected fate”—— as Chung once wrote in his work.
Bennett, Jill. Empathic vision: Affect, trauma, and contemporary art. Stanford University Press, 2005.
Alma, Hans A., and Adri Smaling. “The meaning of empathy and imagination in health care and health studies.” International journal of qualitative studies on health and well-being 1, no. 4 (2006): 195-211.