A city’s history, culture and collective memory, including the taste and smell of a place, provides human beings with a sense of belonging – an intimate and familiar feeling that gives us a sense of security that we all long for. From Longing to Belonging is an ongoing exchange project between Hong Kong and Gdańsk, Poland. Despite being thousands of miles apart, they are surrounded by the sea and both cities puzzle over their own identity.
TEXT: CoBo Editorial Force IMAGES: Courtesy of the artists and organiser
The first part of the exhibition took place in ŁAZNIA Centre for Contemporary Art in 2014 and was curated by Kwok Ying and Jolanta Woszczenko. The second part travels to Hong Kong two years later with a new presentation. Due to the complex political histories of the two cities, people in Hong Kong and Gdańsk have mixed feelings about their own countries. The exhibition provides an opportunity for us to understand the complexity of the state of mind by going into the artists’ stories. It also enables us to become more aware of what is happening around us.
Jolanta, can you tell us more about Gdańsk and how there are parallels between the city and Hong Kong when it comes to the issue of identity?
J: Gdańsk is a Polish city on the Baltic coast. Its history is complex, as there were periods of Polish rule, Prusso-German rule, and self-rule when it was a ‘free city’. Between the two world wars, the Free City of Danzig was in a customs union with Poland and located between German East Prussia and the so-called ‘Polish Corridor’. Both Kwok Ying and I think these political circumstances strike up an interesting dialogue with Hong Kong’s own situation. Before the Second World War, many Germans lived in Gdańsk, but after the war they were asked to leave and Polish people started rebuilding the city because the Russians had destroyed it during the war. In terms of belonging, since their parents don’t have a tie to the city, as they aren’t from there, and the buildings were new.
K: There is the story of Michał Szlaga from Gdańsk. We chose the topic of belonging because it’s an emotional state that’s common to everyone. When Jolanta told me the very complicated history of Gdańsk, I could easily reference it to Hong Kong’s because most families are originally from somewhere else, either mainland China or all over the world. And both of the cities are by the sea.
If both cities have such similar history, then what exactly constitutes personal identity?
K: I think that gives us an even stronger reason to build our own identity and safeguard it. The shipyard in Michał’s artworks was very important in Polish history after the war. The cranes became the symbol of Gdańsk 15 years ago; previously, it had been a lion. Then, in 1998/99, the city decided to sell the land to developers to build new houses and also to sell the cranes for parts. Michał and the people of Gdańsk are fighting to keep the cranes as the city’s symbol. They believe the city should take care of them and they should still be the symbol of Gdańsk. When I gave tours to kids, they were shocked that the cranes could disappear.
We are talking about the process of creating a collective symbol that becomes the city’s identity, so there is a lot of individual attachment, at the same time, it’s also interesting to see how identity comes into being when it doesn’t have a link to blood or soil…
K: We can build our own belonging with our conscience and choices, like Michał has. He started this work in 1999 and is devoting his life to the shipyard. People who came after the war started to think of Gdańsk as their city after a few years, but why did it happen so quickly?
It’s similar to Hong Kong. When it was returned to China, Chinese people might have thought we had reclaimed our city, but Hong Kong people had a very different attitude.
K: Yes, totally. First of all, we, as a generation, grew up with an education under British Colonial rule. So, when we returned to China, the Chinese culture, education and everything else was very different to what we had been taught. A very obvious example was the writing and the language. So, even though we are Chinese in terms of blood, history and our ancestors, there are so many different types of Chinese people, and we were at the edge of both the land and the culture.
When you started curating this exhibition, did you come across any theories or discussions about how we create a collective identity?
J: I think during this process we’ve found that belonging is only temporary, and is sometimes determined by how old we are, where we live, and even what friends we have and the school we attended. For me, it’s very obvious. I was born and raised during the Communist era, but we now have democracy and the children cannot even imagine what it was like back then. We didn’t have candies or fruit and wore the same clothes, which was quite nice as no one was jealous. There were good aspects, like people from the villages had an opportunity to go to better schools, but there was also a very bad side. It’s impossible for the children to imagine it now.
Can you tell us more about Honorata Martin?
J: She’s a leading performance artist in Poland and a very good photographer. She did a project where she went back to her roots and walked around Gdańsk for over 440km in two months. Honorata didn’t plan her trip or know where she was going to sleep, so she relied on other people, or strangers that she came across. She didn’t take any personal items with her either. It is her personal story, of how you can see things without having security. Belonging is one of the most important things we need in order to live. This is also a story about Poland. It’s sometimes nice, sometimes not, but that’s life. We are all different.
It is interesting that she built trust and received help every time she came into contact with someone, and also that she accepted the help as well.
J: Yes, people saw her on the street and invited her in. She was like a pilgrim. The second piece of her work on display is a video documentary of her performance at the closing of From Longing to Belonging in Gdańsk in 2014. She lived for 24 hours in the gallery. The performance might be interpreted as an attempt to analyse the process of making one’s home in unfavourable circumstances. Yet, it can also be seen as a gesture of solidarity with the people of Hong Kong, because the show was actually opened in Gdańsk while there was the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong.
How did the Polish art circle receive the 2014 show with its Hong Kong-Poland conversation and dialogue?
J: It was interesting to see what people thought about belonging. Normally, people don’t think about it too much because they consider it too basic a topic, that’s universal and obvious, but if you go deeper, you can see that it’s actually very complicated. Even the kids were very interested about the cranes and Gdańsk. They were touched by the work and found out we have lots of things in common, not just as human beings, but also as people living in Hong Kong and Gdańsk. They really enjoyed the work of Warren Leung Chi Wo and found ‘My Name is Victoria’ very interesting. The paintings of Tse Yim On, on the other hand, were very difficult to understand because it was a very personal view of both history and cultural connection.
K: Yes, it included a lot of Hong Kong’s local culture. It was very much for an Asian audience because the icons he uses are ones that we grew up with and are, therefore, different from those that people in Gdańsk are familiar with.
Tse Yim On uses free association in his work. It’s like a mind map. He has different elements and story references and then puts them together, and arranges them all on a two-dimensional canvas surface. For the exhibition in Poland, he gave a lot more references about where the icons came from and we printed this out as a diagram so that people could read it, and say: “Oh, that’s the figure of the leaders from China” or “That is the Hong Kong public housing”.
How are Hong Kong’s artists contributing to this dialogue?
K: Over the last two decades, Hong Kong has experienced changes and social and political challenges. Our city is no longer the same, especially after the umbrella revolution. With our colonial past and future unknown, signed off on the paper, where does this lead us? The exhibition features leading artists with international exposure and experience who have all established themselves during these challenging times.
I chose the artists as a response to the Polish artists’ work. For example, both Michał and Warren use a lot of historical references in their work, so it’s interesting to look at them together. My name is Victoria is a contemplation of the royal name – Victoria. Warren collected messages from over forty women named “Victoria” who told the story of their name. This was then compiled as a monologue that was voiced over mundane scenes filmed during his walk along Victoria Road in Kennedy Town, where the British first landed in Hong Kong.
On the other hand, Tang Kwok Hin provided a very different angle on the issue of identity and what we really long for. He was born and raised in a walled village in Kam Tin in the New Territories, which is where the biggest indigenous Tang Clan in Hong Kong originated from. This makes him look deeper into the relationship that exists between various aspects of life. His artwork focuses on the theories of occasion, space, time and the hidden rules that prevail in daily life, and explores the relationship between art and society by means of a collage. He also tries to give new meanings to some ready-made objects through both exploration and reconstructions. The work that’s showcased in this exhibition continues Tang’s usual practice of reflecting social values embedded in quotidian images and commodities.
You have been to Gdańsk, so can you tell us one common thing between Gdańsk and Hong Kong in terms of both cities’ identity?
K: Along with the issue of identity, one thing that Gdańsk and Hong Kong both share is the sea. I think the sea is symbolic of mixed feeling, as we associate it with a voyage, the mother of life, but most of all, it’s never stable, as it’s always changing and always deep.
Thank you both!
From Longing to Belonging
Curators: Ying Kwok, Jolanta Woszczenko
Leung Chi Wo, Honorata Martin, Agata Nowosielska, Michał Szlaga, Tang Kwok Hin, Tse Yim On
Venue: CMC Gallery, L3, Run Run Shaw Creative Media Centre, 18 Tat Hong Avenue, Kowloon Tong, Hong Kong