Shades of Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator in artist Kwan Sheung-chi’s mockery of an autocratic government’s intolerance for opposing opinions

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The objects and the ambience in each room are interconnected, a holistic approach that is a hallmark of the thoughtful Kwan, whose frequent collaborator – his wife and fellow artist, Doris Wong Wai-yin – features as an actor in his new videos.

Hong Kong artist Kwan Sheung-chi. Photo: Anthony Yung courtesy of the artist and Kiang Malingue

Significantly, their careers have coincided with Hong Kong’s recent decades of social unrest and political change, and their art crosses the boundaries of conceptualism, political and social inquiry.

Kwan’s works in the first part of the show include witty conceptual pieces such as Correction Pen Corrected With Its Own Content (2023/2012) – which is exactly as the title describes.

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More relevant to his new videos are his repetitive performances of 2003. In a series of school exercise books, Kwan has repeatedly written the phrase “I am Artist” in English or Chinese, line by line, page by page. He fills these notebooks as if it were a punishment, or calligraphy practice.

Such repetitive language is similar to the conditioning effected by repeating a religious chant or prayer, or being exposed to advertisements or political propaganda.

Kwan has internalised an early personal hope: to be an artist. However, this work foreshadows his continuing interest in manipulative power that can change human behaviour, the main focus of his videos.

The first of three rooms in the “Not Retrospective” exhibition shows earlier works by Kwan Sheung-chi dating back to 2003. Photo: Kiang Malingue

To effectively convey his message, he uses hyperbole, parody and satire, with his entire exhibition having an absurdist theatrical atmosphere, a world of doublespeak and of what is and what is not real hinted at in the exhibition’s title.

The show is partly a retrospective after all, since the first gallery is filled with older work. Also, as the audience leave the first room and enter the second, they see a video of a hand repeatedly writing “I Will Not Make Any Political Art. I Did Not Make Any Political Art.” Do we believe that because he says so?

In Defence of Kwan Sheung Chi (2023) is the most confrontational video in the exhibition.

Doris Wong in a still from “In Defence of Kwan Sheung Chi”, a video featured in “Not Retrospective” at Kiang Malingue gallery in Tin Wan, Aberdeen. Photo: Kiang Malingue

Standing at the actual lectern seen in the third room, Wong plays the role of a stern female government official giving a lecture in Mandarin to an (unseen) audience. She berates critics of the artist, telling us that “[ …] Hong Kong artist Kwan Sheung-chi’s creations represent our country’s artistic standard, and his efforts and dedication should be respected and appreciated. Any indiscriminate criticisms and attempts to suppress him are doomed to failure [ …] ”.

She continues with such doublespeak as: “ … These people have taken the opportunity to create double standards, turning black and white upside down, slandering and smearing him, and attempting to deprive him of his … artistic freedom [ …]”.

It is a wonderful parody in the manner of Charlie Chaplin’s famous monologue imitating a Hitler-like dictator in The Great Dictator (1940).

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In the video’s “defence” of Kwan and his art, it mocks an autocratic government’s insistence on dictating what is right and what is wrong, and its intolerance of opposing opinions.

Another video, called Resistance is futile. You will be assimilated (2023), is a chilling statement of might over right that uses dialogue from Star Trek.

Kwan constructs a warning video to humans projected in stark, large black and white text and spoken using voiced software: “[ …] Strength is irrelevant. We have analysed your defensive capabilities as being unable to withstand us. Death is irrelevant. We do not accept failure; we do not tolerate resistance. If you defend yourselves, you will be punished [ …]”.

A still from “Handover”, video art by Kwan Sheung-chi showing ice carved into the shape of a drinking glass being passed from one pair of hands to another and shrinking gradually. Photo: Kiang Malingue

In Handover (2023), a title referencing Hong Kong’s return to China in 1997, a piece of ice carved into the shape of a drinking glass is passed across three video screens by two pairs of hands. Their handling of the increasingly shrinking glass reflects the double meaning of its title, and perhaps the shrinking of an identity and open political space.

Likewise, the more conceptual Three black pens (2023) has three different hands holding pens and blackening each other’s hands. Is it a metaphor for art, writing and politics, that all actions have consequences in a hypercritical environment?

This exhibition demonstrates that Kwan’s artistic endeavours continue to be calm, subtle and original. To this reviewer, his artistic creations certainly “represent our country’s artistic standard”. Arguments against will not be tolerated!

“Kwan Sheung Chi: Not Restrospective”, Kiang Malingue Gallery, 13/F, Blue Box Factory Building, Tin Wan, Tue-Sat, 11am-7pm. Until Jan. 13, 2024.

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