When place becomes both all-important and unessential is where we meet at the crossroads of the Internet, diaspora and community. This is where Tomato Grey situates itself, the energetic and self-aware collective of six artists, who span not only spatial geographic time zones, but also the cultural continuum between the fast-paced metropoles of Hong Kong and New York.
The first "official" meeting of the group for the White Box Gallery exhibition "Tomato Grey: 18 Degrees of Acclimation" took place in front of a computer. Crammed around an Internet "Skype" conference in my office at NYU, the New York participants and Gallery Director Juan Puntes waited patiently as the Hong Kong-based artists connected, were online, offline, then online again. Is everyone here? Yes. Present. A grant had come through, possibilities hung in the air, and the night was just turning to 11 p.m., while across the digital connection, the day had already begun anew.
The Tomato Grey artists are a dedicated and driven lot. They refuse to be categorized, but instead model themselves after the figure of a tomato and the color grey (the spelling of "gray" in British English) what they call in their collective's statement: "neither a fruit or a vegetable, while grey is an achromatic color." Their artwork in turn spans the amalgam of medium and plays with the genres of decorative art, media, public art, performance, pop culture, and everyday. Neither are they bound to one thought path or conceptual umbrella. What does tie them together is the overlapping connections of Hong Kong, New York, art, and the desire to promote an awareness of the work of Hong Kong artists in the Chinese diaspora, and specifically New York City.
The question of identity is one that has found a new emergence since the 1997 handover of British Hong Kong to China. With a unique history spanning a post-colonial past and SARS, amid questions about rapid modernization that is overtaking many larger urban areas in Asia, Hong Kong is rich with personal and collective memories and unique pop cultures, myths and traditions all its own and what Tomato Grey artists consider separate unto itself from that of mainland China. Some Tomato Grey artists are holding onto memories of a Hong Kong past, while others are intimating at their unease about the cultural collisions and erosions possible in the near future.
While the "Asian diaspora" in its very terminology brings about an idea of a nebulous overlap of identities, hybridity, and the notion of an in-between space, the artists of Tomato Grey often comment on not feeling "Chinese" or "British" enough, telling stories among themselves of travel fiascos involving dual passports and embassies. This double force of alienation is also something that the artists feel separates them from others of the Chinese diaspora and is unique to their collective identities.
For Samson Young, the specifics of that Hong Kong artistic voice is one that is meant to counter the notion of a disappearance of Hong Kong in the thought imaginary. He explains: "I think it is only just recently that artists from/in Hong Kong are coming to the realization of the importance of a Hong Kong artistic voice - almost ten years after the handover. This is a part of the city's intellectual community's resistance to the fading of what is considered to be the essence of Hong Kong - whatever that might constitute. I am not sure where I stand politically, but I think it is interesting how such a self-awareness and identity crisis is triggered by the act of de-colonization; or perhaps we are actually being colonized anew?"
Young is an artist who grew up in Australia and now spends his time between Hong Kong and New York, traveling 7 to 8 times between the cities a year. His work spans from iPhone orchestrations to video to interactive multimedia sound installations. Often playing with everyday objects of his i-generation, he utilizes digital sounds in ambient works. The work shown in 18 Degrees of Acclimation reflects his classical music training in combination with a desire to reinstill musical form and content into the aesthetics of sound art. He notes: "To generalize, sound art as it is currently talked about often rejects musical narratives, and so I wanted to see if I could employ the expressive strategies of sonic art in a work that actually seeks to render the essence of a set of canonic classical pieces." The work alludes to his interest in tinkering with technology, a trait exhibited since his youth, with 47 handmade sound devices looking like computer motherboards installed on the wall. Each of the devices that make up the work titled Beethoven Piano Sonata, nr.1 - nr.14 (senza misura) tick and blink to the tempo from one of the movements from Beethoven's piano sonatas numbers 1-14 - defying genres, disciplines and form.
As part of the Tomato Grey artist collective, Teresa Kwong, a full-time arts administrator and curator is also defying conventional lines of demarcation between presenter and presentee as a participating artist in the exhibition. For Kwong, the medium in which she works is the conceptual medium of curation and film. In Kwong's curated film program of seven short films "Visible Secrets: Hong Kong's Women Filmmakers," she explores the relationship of the filmmakers to a time passing and the impending future to come or what she terms: "Hong Kong's social and political arena between 1995 and 2009." From personal histories to their relationship to the collective histories imbedded in memory, iconic place, and the notion of revisiting an ever-changing Hong Kong, the filmmakers and female protagonists in the films "all [deal] with cultural identity, history, family and space of the postcolonial Hong Kong."
Annysa Ng in turn underlines the unique post-colonial past of the former British territory through her critical use of decorative art and fashion, working between Chinese and British cultural signifiers. Her 2D works bedeck Elizabethan collars onto black silhouetted forms adorning detailed traditional Chinese robes amid a blank setting. The faces of the forms, which defy the colonial physiognomy reference, remain purposefully indecipherable and ambiguously featureless. Her 3D work, as shown in this exhibition, are less direct reflections on identity and her background as a Hong Kong artist. Ritual consists of a convex mirrored dome, in which viewers can see themselves reflected, that is encaged by an antique iron bed frame draped with delicate white tulle and airy Japanese lanterns. The conceptual installation calls to the artist's interest in the cyclic cross over from the consciousness of wakefulness to the dream state of sleep, in which the self is given free reign to perpetually reconfigure and continuously re-imagine itself.
Themes of change, alienation, and a re-emergent and reconfigured everyday also impose an underlying tone of urgency onto the works of artist Kaho Yu. Yu's photographs included in this exhibition continue the artist's interest in examining the relationship of modernism and the long continuing effects of the turn-of-the-century industrial revolution on everyday existence through the often sterile and alienated urbanized landscapes he reveals through his long-exposure stills. From empty asphalt parking lots to the void of the dark-enveloped street at night, in Yu's captured images, everyday modern day advancement emerges as stagnation.
18 Degrees of Acclimation also presents work that artist Pak Sheung Chuen created during his residency in New York City as an exchange artist in resident with the Asian Cultural Council in 2007-08. Feeling a sense of homesickness and loneliness in the city, he sought to provoke a relationship between himself and the public through multiple interventions. His work Measuring the Size of the Sea Storing in a Library had the artist searching through the library branch for book covers and inside covers that depicted the seascape horizon. The artist then signed out the books and lined up the multiple horizons to create a large encircling sea of books on the grass of Central Park. This project was one among a series in which the artist had hoped to create as guerilla solo shows for each library branch in New York City. Reaching out to the unsuspecting viewership, Chuen's work insists and asserts itself to be heard by the otherwise anonymous public.
Tomato Grey artist Bing Lee is no newcomer to creating artist collectives. He led the way to the formation of the Hong Kong Visual Arts Society; Lee helped grow Epoxy Art Group within the 1980s New York Downtown arts scene; and he also was one of the co-founders of the artist collective Godzilla: Asian American Art Network during the 1990s, which grew nationally to a roster of over 200 artists and would bring visibility to Asian American artists.
Lee explains: "The geographic distance in latitude between Hong Kong and New York is 18 degrees apart, as the title of the show 18 degrees acclimation suggests; that our adaptation of cultural/political climate changes should reflect in our works one way or the other." Yet the artists of Tomato Grey avoid blanket statements of cultural authenticity or essentialism. Instead, they leave a subtle track for the viewer to distinguish and decide.
Titled Tropicana Cabana and Black Bean Soup, the mural Lee has created for 18 Degrees of Acclimation follows a series of past murals named after what the artist calls a bizarre food menu. Other titles include: New Lime and Mustang, Dried Parsley and English Brown, Nachos and American Cheese. The idea of intermixing and the everyday menu options may call forth the idea of accessibility, diversity of cultures, as well as pairings of visual colors.
Lee integrates his pictodiary imagery - icons which he has created daily since 1983 - within his murals, often placing the pictographs in patterns that can be read as braille, but are otherwise alternatively undecipherable or ambiguous in meaning. This double-play on language and signs came from a conversation the artist once had with a friend in which his friend had seen a Chinese film and could not understand the language of the film, yet drew from it his own interpretation.
The works of these artists cannot easily be piled under one aesthetic or generalized categorization. However, it is the very interaction of the artists - the desire to have contact with one another and to push their agenda for Hong Kong-New York diasporic artist visibility - that creates their interconnection and meaning to the specificity of their group and collective mission. They form a force that desires their diverse voices to be heard and yet requires that they unify under the solidarity of their common Hong Kong-New York diasporic experience. Localism becomes critical in the transnational nature of their diasporic collectivity.