Hong Kong’s Bilderstreit

Shi Xinning, Duchamp Retrospective Exhibition in China (2000-2001), M+ Sigg Collection © Shi Xinning

It is a mark of Hong Kong’s deeply confused and inflammatory climate that amidst the continuous disciplining of an ever-stronger mainland mother, the city’s cultural elite keeps finding itself caught up in controversies over potentially ‘indecent’ and ‘illegal’ works of art. Among these, a painting by Beijing-based artist Shi Xinning, in which Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain enjoys close examination by the Great Proletarian leader, has been accused of violating the newly implemented National Security Law. The work is loosely based on a photograph of Mao visiting an industrial production fair sometime in the 1960s, with the replacement by the artist of one industrial object for another producing the imaginary documentation of Mao’s encounter with a work of the avant-garde. To this day, Duchamp has never had a retrospective in China, though the ‘Duchamp Effect’, as some theorists like to call it, has been no less internalized there since China’s first brigade of conceptual artists began to produce works often directly related to Duchampian concepts and imagery (a 2016 show at Beijing’s Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art with the title Duchamp and/or/in China investigated this). It was not until 1981 that Duchamp’s Fountain in its authenticated replica form, along with most of his other major works on loan from European and American museums, made their way to Asia as part of a retrospective at Japan’s Seibu Museum-cum-shopping mall.

Hong Kong authorities have been tasked with deciding whether Shi’s work and several others held by the M+ museum – set to open to the public on 12 November – are indeed ‘slandering and humiliating the Chinese government’ and ‘uglifying and defaming the country’s leader’, as the state-owned Ta Kung newspaper had it earlier this year. Accusations of this kind are likely to recur on a regular basis once the museum is in full operation. Another predictable but less interesting target has been Ai Weiwei’s 1997 photograph of him giving the finger to Tiananmen Square (a pseudo-critical gesture that he has done with other monuments from the White House to the Mona Lisa). The looming issue of censorship by soi-disant patriots is causing headaches and embarrassment on the part of the city’s cultural elite and those more cultured individuals of Hong Kong’s capitalist class who have invested some small parts of their fortunes into – and see a good deal of their social distinction reflected in – what will be the world’s largest visual culture museum. Most of the troublesome items are currently part of its Sigg Collection, named after the Swiss former ambassador to China, Uli Sigg, who partly sold and partly donated his collection of over 1,500 works of contemporary Chinese art produced between 1966 and 2012. A symbolic end point, one might think, since it was in 2012 also that Xi Jinping came to power and the terms ‘Chinese Dream’ (zhonguo meng) and ‘The Great Rejuvenation of the Chinese Nation’ (zhonghua minzu weida fuxing) began to circulate in official communications.

Unlike the world’s largest infrastructure project, China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which the US routinely portrays as a risk to American interest, the world’s largest visual culture museum has not yet been the target of foreign philippics. This may well be because contemporary art museums are always among the more entertaining sites of ideological production and display of state power, especially when their architectural spectacle commands nothing short of awe. Part of a by now 9bn USD (70bn HKD) development project, the West Kowloon Cultural District, the museum has double the exhibition space of Tate Modern and quadruple that of MoMA. It has thereby won the global museum race of the last two decades or so and is likely to upstage whatever objects it is – or indeed isn’t – going to house in its 17,000 sqm galleries. Designed by one of the go-to architects for tasteful museum spectacle, the Swiss firm Herzog & de Meuron, the institution’s scale alone makes M+ one of the more sophisticatedly cosmopolitan instantiations of the Great Rejuvenation of the Chinese Nation and of the Chinese Dream. Local officials and elites generally shy away from using either of these terms, though it is abundantly clear that Hong Kong is deeply implicated in them, and that Beijing has always dreamed on Hong Kong’s behalf.

Shi, who was born in 1969, painted ‘Duchamp Retrospective Exhibition in China’ in 2000-2001, at a time when the West thought it could still afford to be indifferent to China and when Hong Kong, despite its recent handover in 1997, had enjoyed utmost restraint from CCP rule. It was in the same year that the Chinese performance duo Cai Yuan and Xi Jianjun urinated on the plexiglass protected replica of Fountain at Tate Modern in an act of artistic vandalism others before and after them have also felt the urge to carry out. Back in the mainland, the shadow of 1989 had long given way to hedonism, and it would soon catch up with its Hong Kong counterpart, which today ceases to enjoy its social distinction vis-à-vis China’s rapidly rising upper and middle classes. Shi’s oeuvre is known for giving parodic expression to precisely this new-born hedonism in China by placing the former great leader into lavish settings of American pop and celebrity culture. In that respect, Shi was never far from official doctrine. It was none other than Xi himself who once reassured Obama that the Chinese Dream does in fact have a lot in common with the American Dream.

What has been so instructive about the recent controversy surrounding Shi’s Duchamp-inspired work for the collision between Hong Kong and China is that the fictitious event of Duchamp in China gives expression to an unspoken consensus in the magic formula of One Country, Two Systems. Everyone involved in the spat, from the city’s cultural-cosmopolitan elite, to outspoken CCP supporters, to paranoid democracy activists, is wilfully blind to a central question Shi’s work could inspire, on closer reflection: the social position of productive labour and the new working classes. As John Roberts articulated in his labour theory of culture, it is Duchamp’s staging of a conflict rooted in the urinal’s entangled identity that was able to collapse the modernist separation of artistic from productive labour.

Duchamp’s Fountain, so understood, does three things at once: 1. it appears as common commodity object (a urinal), conjoined with 2. that object’s identity as a product of alienated productive labour (its conceptual identity) and with 3. its newly won status as non-alienated artistic labour (its subjective identity). Shi’s painterly iteration of Duchamp’s readymade staring Mao in the face (and vice versa), as well as his decision to copy the original work’s signature and date ‘R. Mutt 1917’, does a fourth thing as well. It offers a reminder, for those who need one, of the failures of any vanguard movement in the 20th century, whose aim was global working-class solidarity; the failures of the revolution of 1917 and of China’s 1949 version, deeply inspired by the former, but with an inverted logic.

Although in China today, strictly speaking, it is not the capitalist class that is ruling the game, this does not mean that the nation’s new working classes find themselves represented in the party, nor do they see their interests publicly articulated by their nominal adversaries, since the notion of class has been all but dropped from official speeches. The party continues to essentialize it and claim perfect unity between workers’ interests and its own. China’s discursive reality thus increasingly resembles what had always been a convention in Hong Kong, namely the complete absence of class as a category of struggle: a remarkable achievement for one of the world’s most unequal societies. Anyone who has witnessed the years of unrest in the city and its ongoing post-traumatic confusions ought to have noticed that it has never been the goal of any of Hong Kong’s conservative democracy activists and their sympathizers to forge an alliance with, or advocate solidarity between Hong Kong’s and China’s labouring classes, the former being accustomed to market despotism for much longer than the latter. Neither has Hong Kong ever had much chance – or shown any willingness – to become social democratic, so long as its government subsidizes the local billionaires’ property gamble, who in turn supply the masses with shopping malls, whose survival ultimately depends on spending from across the border. These same property tycoons have played a considerable role in shaping the new M+ Museum, and are therefore partly responsible, now perhaps to their own dismay, for letting works like Shi’s become part of its public collection, which could soon become degenerate.

It might come as no surprise that the question of class has not arisen in Hong Kong, where the last labour uprising in solidarity with China dates back a hundred years and where the relocation of manufacturing industry began in the mid-1980s. Any bargaining position for organized labour has been largely undermined by a growing casual labour market and atypical employment, or, as in the recent disbandment of the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions, by an unwelcome closeness to political aspirations of the wrong kind. It was not for nothing that the city’s great admirer Friedrich Hayek celebrated his eightieth birthday here as guest of honour of the Mont Pelerin Society’s meeting in September 1978. It had long been his fellow neoliberals’ dream to make Hong Kong’s model of minimal taxation, extremely low social spending and permanent austerity for the poor a ‘portable’ model (a term used by Quinn Slobodian in a 2017 lecture he delivered in Hong Kong entitled ‘How Neoliberals made Hong Kong the Measure of the World’). They never did worry all that much about labour uprisings, despite precarious working conditions under British rule. Naturally, art and big money have also always enjoyed the closest elective affinity here, such that capital’s dominance over all forms of public and private life continues to prevent not only the politicization of distributional conflicts but also the spilling over of such conflicts into spheres of cultural production.

The absence of a free electorate, in Hayek’s time still celebrated by neoliberals in conjunction with the ‘successes’ of what they insisted was mild but effective colonial rule, has never really ceased to be a defining feature of Hong Kong. This is especially so today, albeit now with a new uncanny twist: its former colonizers and their allies now routinely decry Hong Kong’s ‘undemocratic’ destiny under China’s ‘capture’, and are busy sanctioning officials for what they view as moral and political violations. The other twist is that the CCP has almost entirely given up its formerly restrained approach through a recent electoral overhaul that has Hong Kong’s police force ensuring that ‘patriots’ govern Hong Kong. But patriots, one may ask, of a regime whose national project of great rejuvenation stands for what exactly? As a reminder, perhaps, that 1949 was a lasting success in terms of national liberation but, ultimately, a failure in terms of class levelling?

If the increasingly direct influence of the CCP on all legal and ideological matters in Hong Kong will not give rise to a long overdue correction of the city’s appalling inequality of wealth, manifested most dramatically in the majority’s housing conditions and a house ownership rate of around 50% (compared to 90% in China and Singapore), then it appears that Hong Kong’s ultra-capitalist way of life has nothing to lose. Unless the neighbouring Chinese fleet is indeed steering its whole enterprise, Hong Kong included, toward a distinctly socialist rejuvenation, one that would have Hong Kong’s billionaire class lose some of its sleep, Shi Xinning’s painting of Mao’s rendezvous with Duchamp has little chance indeed of being understood as an amplification of the readymade’s proletarian gesture. More than one hundred years after Fountain itself was censored for upsetting bourgeois expectations, an invocation of its subversive potential might now turn out to be enough for trouble of an altogether not dissimilar kind.

Read on: Au Loong-Yu, ‘Alter-Globo in Hong Kong’, NLR 42.