Summer Reading: Year of the Plague at Para/Site Hong Kong

A Journal of the Plague Year: Fear, Ghost, Rebels. SARS, Leslie and the Hong Kong Story

Para/Site Art Space (G/F, 4, Po Yan Street, Sheung Wan, Hong Kong ), May 17–July 20, 2013

Browsing through the exhibition “A Journal of the Plague Year. Fear, Ghosts, Rebels. SARS, Leslie and the Hong Kong Story” provides a déjà vu of flipping through somebody’s diary—where narratives are punctuated by remnants of past events including cinema tickets and candy wrappers. Curated by Cosmin Costinas and Inti Guerrero, the exhibition rolls out an assemblage of artworks and artifacts about epidemics: postcards (related to the Yellow Peril of the old days), used props (a pair of toy glasses making fun of Asian’s “squinty” eyes bought by the artist Ming Wong for his film “After Chinatown”), old photos of Hong Kong when the 1894 bubonic plague broke out, old magazines and newspaper clippings scattered on the constellations of visual and textual narratives sharing the light cast by plague.

The humbly-sized things show a visual connection with disease; Firenze Lai’s paintings depict gloomily unhealthy figures in stiff gestures and weird corporeal proportions. Even for the painting of a playground, there is not even the least sign of vibrant life. Instead, a human figure with pale, dropsy legs is being encircled by a dead tree, a merry-go-round stagnated by sad colors and a bland flower bed that looks out of scale with human size. The educational print of a painting showing a man with a tumor on his face was produced by Lam Qua, a Qing-dynasty Chinese living in Guangzhou with expertise in Western painting. Lam worked with Peter Parker—an American medical missionary who started an ophthalmological hospital in Guangzhou—on a series of medical portraits. In “Tusalava” (Len Lye, 1929), a black and white animation that lasts for nine minutes stages the twitching and moving of the abstract shapes resembling our impression of microbes under the mechanical gaze of a microscope. James T. Hong shows a pair of peasant’s shoes said to have been worn by one of the victims of germ warfare, the transparent case around strengthening the claim about bacterial residues remaining in the exhibit.

Traces of SARS—which the exhibition stems from—haunt the exhibition site. The respiratory disease case cast a shadow over Hong Kong, where the gloom was deepened by the (non-SARS-related) death of Leslie Cheung, one of the most beloved public icons in Hong Kong. Part of the show is occupied by a small shrine for the actor/singer: the old tabloids with his face on the cover, his music hits in the 80s, the high heels he wore. The SARS-tormented Hong Kong was shattered by an estrangement constructed by surgical masks muffling people’s facial expressions. An absence of interpersonal touching was advocated—even indirect was seen as too intimate. Pak Sheung Chuen’s “3692″ (2003) is a witness of the routinized sanitizing of public space in Hong Kong during the peak of SARS. For the convenience to hourly (or more frequent) sanitizing, shared public surfaces prone to touching—like the button panels in elevators—were covered by transparent plastic sheets. Pak kept a piece of the flat plastic that once covered the password panel of his neighborhood’s front gate. The password was inscribed on the material due to continuous pressure and leaves too many clues for strangers who want to break into it; it is an example of state-of-emergency sacrificing security for anxiety. Sitting in the small partition screening, James T. Ho’s video “Taipei 101: A Travelogue of Symptoms” (2004) makes one nervous by the intermittent coughing in the narration of the film about the tallest building in Taiwan. The artist visited the third-highest architectural structure in the world during the peak of SARS, before he got home feeling unwell. Although probably not infected by the (once) new epidemic, he decided to review the mall’s spatiality, built on consumerism, with his physical symptoms. A U-shaped PVC tube from Amoy Garden was on the wall of the exhibition space, the type of pipe believed to be a culprit of the transmission and outburst of SARS in the neighborhood.

SARS was named as “atypical pneumonia” in Chinese (a lot of Chinese mainlanders still call it fei dian—”the atypical”) as it shared several symptoms with the latter, but back then the viral mechanism was still unknown. The unfamiliarity bubbled up a phobic circle suspending existing rules, creating a state of emergency where an opening for “atypical” policies were are allowed or even encouraged. After Hong Kong became the “epicenter” of SARS, people were not only overpowered by the unknown and fierce disease, but also the severe economic downturn—a cause for a protest by half a million people against the government’s impotence, which also served as the excuse to implement an Individual Visit Scheme which eventually led to an influx of mainland tourists whose cultural difference with Hong Kong locals created fiery frictions in the long run. The exhibition showed a newspaper cutting of an advertisement on Apple Daily paid for by a group of Hong Kong netizens who voiced their complaints about how the tourists and new immigrants from mainland China were contesting with the locals for public resources and space.

“A Journal of the Plague Year. Fear, ghosts, rebels. SARS, Leslie and the Hong Kong story”, exhibition view, Para/Site Art Space
“A Journal of the Plague Year. Fear, ghosts, rebels. SARS, Leslie and the Hong Kong story”, exhibition view, Para/Site Art Space

Disease has long provided inspirations and metaphors for certain mentalities—at least Susan Sontag would agree with this. Patients are often delineated by the symptoms; for instance, tuberculosis patients’ rosy cheeks and fever were seen as a purification, just like a fiery puja sparked by inner passion. The metaphorical images of illness contributed a lot to cultural production, including the literature in the 19th and early 20th century (say, Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain and Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment). Disease takes control of one’s body—an “intolerable invasion” by a modern society of totalizing bio-political control. Illness is seen as a symptom of the assumed “uncontrollability” which is so conveniently superimposed on a community distanced by the fear induced, in its turn, by unfamiliarity: “Yellow Peril” was a racist term for Chinese immigrants in the early 19th century, while Japanese militarism during World War II was seen as a linguistic defense against worries about the “invasion” of Asians (mostly in the U.S.). The inside-outside corporeal dialectics about illness is externalized (or, as Deleuzians may say, “deterritorialized”) to a cultural cartography. The exhibition freezes this episode of politically incorrect history in a long wooden case, with postcards depicting comics about the Yellow Peril where most Chinese people are presented in Qing outfits with pigtails.

Illness attacks indiscriminately. Bodies are hence flattened to a homogeneity of contagion; this vulnerability makes us human. Being prone to the possibility of contagion, like breathing the same air and being in the same atmosphere, is our collective fate. However, with different medical policies, cultural productions, hygienic logics as undercurrents, geopolitical undulations form the cultural landscape of illness, just as Tara Donovan glued mass-produced styrofoam cups (in “Untitled”, 2003; not in the show) tightly until they deformed, constructing a complex tracing the vectors in supposedly well-controlled societies hit by a biological incongruity. Para/Site art space (the main venue of the show is an appropriate exhibit at the Civic Center and in the artist Warren Leung’s apartment in the same area) is an apt place to investigate the vectors and velocity of illness, as it is located in the same neighborhood of Tai Ping Shan street—which was seriously afflicted by the 1894 plague. The area was densely populated with Chinese people and, after the plague broke out, the colonial government had to forcefully purge the area—in a way incompatible with their earlier political conciliation—in order to avoid confrontation with Chinese customs and culture. This hygiene revolution started out as a state-of-exception, which eventually lasted for sixty years. The then-epidemic zone was “cleaned up” and the history of sanitation was buried under a park, while “washing the Tai Ping ground” is still a metaphor for thorough eradication, with a negative tone related to violence. The Hong Kong writer Dung Kai Cheung’s “Atlas” (1997) dedicates a chapter to the plague with real and phantom histories, partly told by the parrots that used to live there, and repeated the people’s discourse almost with a physicality of inscription. The writer attempted to trace the event where Tai Ping (“peace and security”) was spread like a plague at the time when Hong Kong was called Victoria City.

The numerous artworks and artifacts—including Ai Weiwei’s Chinese map made of canned baby formula, a knee-jerk reflex to the disputes about milk powder smuggled across the Hong Kong border to China—knit a multitude of narratives with their own contexts and objecthood; these ceaselessly merge and fall apart like hundreds of spiders weaving and fighting. Louis Pasteur is seen by many as a hero who brought a revolution to medical science; his findings on microbes remain accepted research. Hong Kong also suffers from a pasteurization of medical orders and narratives, where one single force determining an event is believed to be necessary, and anything else should be merely supporting actors to this centralism, just as the conspiracy theory of SARS was a scheme by the CCP to carry out the “real union” of China and Hong Kong. Although the science is believed by some to be a purified site to test social relations on the issue of illness, among all actors—human and nonhuman—“nothing is, by itself, reducible or irreducible to anything else” (1), even to relations per se. In science narratives/literature, no matter whether it is Pasteurism or the hygienist revolution in Hong Kong, “we find stories that define for us who are the main actors” (9) and we never have the right to choose the protagonists of the stories. This is not to say we have to shift the authority from to an unsung hero, but to understand the interplay of between culture, power, knowledge, social factors and nature that made the medical events enter the sphere of visibility. Microbes are isolated as a phenomenon to be “translated” in a science lab, making a gesture of complete division between nature and social relations; however, the findings need other actors (human/nonhuman) to render them visible in a world of humans “being-with” different objects and people, throwing us from supremacy—of being modern people conquering nature by constructing an order from a disorder—to an obscurity of a chaos of humming of the “orders” (161) that work like Penelope on building and deconstructing narratives and events…just like the dialogue and confrontation between the objects and explication notes.

“A Journal of the Plague Year. Fear, ghosts, rebels. SARS, Leslie and the Hong Kong story”, exhibition view, Para/Site Art Space
“Morakot (Emerald)”, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, video installation and green light bulb, 10:50 min, 2007
“Tennis Court”, Firenze Lai, oil on canvas, 2013

(1) Bruno Latour, Pasteurization of France, trans. Alan Sheridan and John Law, Harvard University Press, 1988, p. 158.

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