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Out of the Shadows and Into the Sunshine: A Reflection on the Contemporary Art Scenes of L.A. and Hong Kong

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I still recall the looks of confusion and astonishment that night in Venice a couple of years ago. It was at the opening dinner for Tsang Kin-wah’s one-person exhibition in what is unofficially referred to as the Hong Kong Pavilion at the 56th Venice Biennale in 2015. I had just given a speech and praised the artist and the fantastically vibrant contemporary art scene in Hong Kong. This was not the first time I compared the current situation in Hong Kong with the one in Los Angeles in, say, the 1990s, but this time, it certainly had an effect. After the speech, questions were fired at me from left and right! What exactly was I implying? Hong Kong and Los Angeles are, after all, fundamentally dissimilar!

Yes, of course, there are major obvious differences, from self-evident things—one is the world’s most vertical city while the other sprawls like an endless, flat network on the other side of the Pacific—to the equally obvious cultural, linguistic, and political disparities. And yet, we could also note that the self-image of both cities is based to a significant extent on the movie industry and popular culture. Moreover, both cities are about the same age—founded in regions that were once sparsely populated—and, in many ways, defy nature. But the core of my comparison is more specific than that; it stems from an embarrassing discovery I made nearly 35 years ago. I realised, on my first trip to Los Angeles, that many of the artists with whom I felt a particular kinship—such as Ed Ruscha, James Turrell, and John Baldessari—and whom I, from my European perspective, automatically assumed to be New Yorkers, were in fact deeply rooted in a completely different world: the American West Coast. More specifically, Los Angeles. The exhibitions of their art we saw in Europe, however, came from New York galleries such as Leo Castelli, and the magazines in which we read about them, Artforum and Art in America, were published in New York. I realised then that I was not the only European who suffered from this delusion—and, later on, that this misconception persisted. In the 1980s, more and more artists from Los Angeles were getting international attention—Chris Burden, Paul McCarthy, Mike Kelley, and Charles Ray, to name but a few—but again, they were being re-, or rather, de-contextualised. Los Angeles was still not to be found on the international art map.

Five canvases with text on them are displayed side by side. From left to right, the text says: this is evil, this is the last evil, this compounds and solidifies evil, this drains evil from the world, now that this has been done it will never have to be done again.

Mike Kelley, Apology (from Australiana), 1984. Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Denmark. Art © Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts. All Rights Reserved/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

I began to discern an interesting link between all these profoundly disparate artists. They were connected by virtue of their very differences—not only to each other, but in relation to the prevailing trends, styles, and categories that were being fed to the market by the critics. There were no pure examples here of Pop Art, Minimalism, or Conceptualism, artistic movements or styles well established in and identified with New York. Instead, there were original hybrids and incompatible strategies. Another link between these artists was that they all came—artistically—from Los Angeles. And what attracted me to them was that impossibility of categorising them, their ‘impurity’.

Naturally, I wanted to know more and to understand the context from which they came, and started looking for books and exhibition catalogues. But lo and behold, there seemed to be next to nothing. No major exhibitions had been organised to define the obvious singularity of the Los Angeles artists, and the only book on the subject, Peter Plagens’s Sunshine Muse: Art on the West Coast, 1945-1970, was published back in 1974. There were many possible explanations, ranging from the art market’s (i.e., the publishers’ and galleries’) comparative lack of interest in what they saw as provincial California, to low self-esteem, or the difficulty of choosing which artists to include in, or exclude from, an art scene that could best be described as a network of friends who gave mutual support to each other across generations.

Oil painting on Masonite of a blue circle against a maroon background. The circle has a smaller light purple circle with a bright red border in the middle, and is filled with even smaller concentric orange dots.

Billy Al Bengston, Buster, 1962, oil and sprayed lacquer on Masonite, 152.4 x 152.4 cm. Collection Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego. Museum purchase, dedicated in 2002 in honour of Thomas S. Tibbs (1917–2002), Director of the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art from 1968 to 1972, 1971.21. © Billy Al Bengston, 1962.

This is where I saw potential, if not a mission: to produce an exhibition attempting to outline developments in the Los Angeles art scene since the late 1950s and early 1960s from a distinctly European outsider perspective. To fill out the picture around the artists who were already fairly well known in Europe by presenting more of the extraordinary, singular oeuvres that would not yet have been highlighted internationally. To show Ed Kienholz together with, say, more local hipster legends such as Wallace Berman and George Herms, and highlight the super-cool Billy Al Bengston and Joe Goode together with Ed Ruscha. Gradually, after years of research, the exhibition Sunshine & Noir: Art in L.A. 1960-1997 began to take shape. Forty-nine artists and an artist collective, more than 200 works and installations, plus two installations with a total of 44 single-channel videos curated by the artists Paul McCarthy and Diana Thater respectively. The exhibition was produced by the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art outside Copenhagen in Denmark and shown in Germany and Italy. Then—contrary to the original plan of showing it only in Europe—Sunshine & Noir moved on to Los Angeles at the Hammer Museum, where it was the farewell show for legendary museum director Henry T. Hopkins before his retirement. ‘This is the exhibition we never managed to get together ourselves. It took an outsider to do it,’ he said in his speech at the preview.

So, what was the picture that emerged, and what has it got to do with the art scene in Hong Kong today?

Oil painting on canvas of a painted dark blue milk bottle standing on a ledge in front of a large, olive green square.

Joe Goode, Milk Bottle Painting (Green), 1961–1962, oil on canvas with oil on glass milk bottle, painting: 171.5 x 167.6 cm, bottle: 22.9 x 8.3 x 8.3 cm. Collection Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego. Gift of Ansley I. Graham Trust, Los Angeles, 1995.10.1-2. Photographer: Pablo Mason. © Joe Goode, 1961–1962.

In simple terms, Los Angeles could be described as an art scene where, for decades, artists had not really expected to be acknowledged for what they were doing. Society was focused on entirely different things—even culturally. The art institutions were weak, and collectors were few and far between. Those who did collect preferred to buy art by artists from other countries or other periods. To exacerbate the situation, the L.A. art scene was overshadowed by the nation’s art metropolis—namely, New York. If it wasn’t happening in New York, it was regarded, by definition, as provincial, especially in the 1960s and 1970s. And ‘provincial’ at that time was definitely a pejorative term. Artists who chose to stay in that environment—and there were certainly many reasons for living in L.A.—had to more or less resign to flying ‘under the radar’. Their audience consisted mainly of artist colleagues and a handful of others. This could obviously be frustrating, but in some sense, it was also liberating. They did not need to succumb to the dictates of the market or critics and adapt or package their art. The result was a long list of bodies of work that are literally without comparison.

And on the day when, to put it sweepingly, the idea of a centre of art collapsed, when the notion of mainstream art became a broad delta, or perhaps even an ocean, it transpired that this very place and its artists were perfectly equipped to deal with the new situation. Los Angeles stepped out of the shadows and suddenly looked like a creative hotbed. Two or even three generations of artists suddenly appeared to be ‘the exciting new thing’ on the international art scene. Some were rediscovered—for instance, Larry Bell and John McCracken—while others were astonishingly late ‘breakthroughs’—like Paul McCarthy—who, after more than twenty active years, were ‘discovered’ in the group exhibition Helter Skelter: L.A. Art in the 1990s at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art in 1992. And others—like Bruce Nauman and David Hammons—were reattributed to their Los Angeles roots. Ultimately, when L.A. stepped out from the shadows, it brought into the sunshine a long list of remarkable, singular, strongly individual, and irrepressibly diverse artistic practices.

Video still of a man dressed in a chef’s uniform and wearing a mask with a sinister expression, holding a red stick and a ketchup bottle. His uniform is covered in red splotches.

Paul McCarthy, Bossy Burger, 1991, performance, video, photographs, installation. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. © Paul McCarthy.

For readers who are familiar with the Hong Kong art scene: does this seem familiar? Replace ‘the 1960s and 1970s’ with ‘the 1980s to 2000s’ and ‘New York’ with ‘Beijing’ and you will find a surprising number of similarities! What has been—and still is—happening in Hong Kong since 2010, albeit on a smaller scale, is the very same process of rediscovery, late breakthroughs, and a discovery of a young art scene with a long list of remarkable, singular, strongly individual, and irrepressibly diverse artistic practices.

Left: Red, white and blue canvas bag has been cut into the shape of a shirt and stitched onto a background of red, white and blue canvas. Right: A white ring shape has been stitched onto a background of white canvas. A triangle of red, white and blue canvas has been stitched onto the ring, looking almost like a diamond.

Left and right: anothermountainman / Stanley Wong, [redwhiteblue]∞, 2001, red-white-blue canvas, set of 5 pieces, each 89 × 117 cm, edition of 25.M+, Hong Kong. Donation of anothermountainman (Stanley Wong Ping Pui), 2017

Then again, there are obvious differences. But if we were to delve deeper, I am certain we would find even more similarities in the histories of the two cities. One of these could be the blurring of genres—I am thinking of film director and actor Dennis Hopper’s photographs and paintings, and, of course, of Ed Ruscha, who under the name of Eddie Russia gave Artforum magazine its graphic profile in the 1960s—a strategy we recognise from Hong Kong, although in the opposite direction, in the practice of Stanley Wong, aka anothermountainman, in the borderland between design and art.

The dinner guests in Venice may have been dumbfounded, but I daresay my comparison between Hong Kong and Los Angeles was rational. And what is more, the comparison inspires hope for the future, at least when it comes to art. In Hong Kong, we have only seen the beginning...


Translated from Swedish to English by Gabriella Berggren
Image at top: Tsang Kin-Wah, The Infinite Nothing: 0, 2015, multi-channel video and sound installation, 6 min. 19 sec., dimensions variable. Image courtesy of the artist.

Lars Nittve joined the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority in January 2011. He was formerly a director of the Moderna Museet from 2001 to 2010 and the first director of Tate Modern in 1998. Nittve has almost 40 years of international experience as a director, curator, and educator of the arts, serving at the University of Stockholm, the Rooseum in Malmö, Sweden, and the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Humlebaek, Denmark. Nittve was awarded an honorary PhD at Umeå University in Sweden and he was named professor at the same university in 2010.

After leaving his post as Executive Director of M+ in the spring of 2016, Nittve continues to work as an external advisor to the project, while also providing strategic advice to other museums around the world.