With all the current international economic woes from Ireland to Greece, from Japan to the United States, Hong Kong holds an exceptional position. Largely autonomous since the UK handed it back to China in 1997, the city has accumulated a surplus equal to eighteen months' government spending. Statistics tell the story: The Hong Kong economy grew 5 percent last year; spending on education will increase 7 percent this year; retail sales grew 23 percent in the past year; and, even as the government predicts economic growth will slow down because of the sluggish world economy, the city's budget remains balanced. Into these comfortable circumstances rushes Will Kwan's first exhibition in his native city.
Kwan, who moved with his family to Toronto in 1981 at age three, has gained a following in the West by dressing down transnational corporate greed and political corruption. He has said, "I am interested in unpacking myths of universality; those forms that circulate visual culture that we see everywhere—flags, clocks, envelopes." Clocks That Do Not Tell Time, 2008, the centerpiece of this exhibition, consists of eighteen standardized clocks arranged in a grid telling time around the world, evoking those that signify global reach in corporate lobbies. But rather than showing the time in New York, Tokyo, and Paris, it refers to such locations as Wilmington, Delaware (home to some 6,500 corporate headquarters taking advantage of its status as an onshore tax haven), and Tembagapura, an Indonesian city built in the 1960s to house the workers at the Grasberg mine the world's largest gold mine and second largest copper mine. Workers there went on strike last year asking for "revenue transparency"; ultimately, police were called in and violence ensued. The installation is designed to make us wonder why Tembagapura is cited rather than Paris or New York, and then help us discover why. And this it does. But in Hong Kong, this sort of critique is drowned out by the city's incredible prosperity. Though Hong Kong is not immune to corruption—and has work to do toward offering better support to its elderly—residents of its public housing receive two months' free rent and their electric bills are subsidized; last year every Hong Kong resident received six thousand dollars from the government. Kwan's default of critique sits uncomfortably next to the city's realpolitik.
Kwan describes his work as the "visual representation of research," and it stands in the long shadow cast by projects such as Hans Haacke's Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, A Real-Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971. The difference is that most of Kwan's art in this exhibition and the work of others in his camp is not situated in real time when it comes to here-and-now Hong Kong; as a result, the sense of relevance flags. (Haacke's work is not only site-specific but, more important, time-specific—remember the last part of that title: A Real Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971) Kwan fares better in Untitled (Art I UN), 2011. Last May, Art Basel became the majority stakeholder in the Hong Kong Art Fair known as ART HK, and eventually ART HK will be rebranded as an Art Basel event. In this text-based work, Kwan hijacks Art Basel's visual identity and runs off a string of phrases like ART I UNCOMPROMISED, ART I UNCATEGORIZED, ART I UNCAPITALIZED, ART I UNAUTHORIZED, and so on. He sparks speculation about what the Hong Kong art world could become were it not overtaken by the international-art-fair juggernaut. The city may have unknowingly sacrificed a part of its autonomy to become another cog in the global art market just at the moment when autonomy—cultural, political, economic, or otherwise—seems to be its greatest asset.