The severed arm of a bronze Queen Victoria statue lies idly on a raised platform, clasping a sceptre. It’s a humbling position for the royal appendage to be in, but for its artist Lee Kai-chung, it symbolises a history reimagined.
Lee turns any concept of archival authority on its head in his solo exhibition “I could not recall how I got here.” The multimedia body of work, which was a recipient of the 2019 WMA Commission under the theme of “Transition,” delicately traces the historic journeys of bronze artefacts taken from Hong Kong during its occupation by Japan in the final years of World War Two.
These items, which Lee has recreated, included the Queen’s crown, a piece of her thrown, and her aquiline nose, seized by the Imperial Japanese Army to satisfy their wartime demand for copper.
The commission project – called “The Retrieval, Restoration and Predicament” – gives audiences a seat at the table of history. Its purpose, Lee said, is to redefine a narrative often shaped by archivists but leaving little room for public interpretation.
“Filing is already a way to compose history itself. They have absolute power. Nobody can really reject that. We, as readers, can only passively read the history from their perspective,” he told HKFP. “Art is a good channel for exploring archiving and history, and we should open it up to other people.”
Lee added archiving should be people-centric and shaped by those who are impacted by it the most: “It’s about power relations. If the history book is only written by authorities or academics, ordinary people can only read it,” he explained.
“For me, the government records office always reflects the official record. We always unconsciously put ‘archive equals history’ – but it’s not completely equal. Archives are just part of the history, and what I’m concerned about is what are the other parts? They exist in society, but are fragmented and scattered.”
“The ideal status of archiving is everyone can do it themselves and, on the whole, we can compose the most comprehensive and complete history. But that is very ideal,” he added.
Lee said he had the idea for the proposal over a year before it was accepted by WMA Commission. He began the project last May.
As the audience weaves through the exhibition, they experience Hong Kong’s post-war history unfolding at various stages. It begins with a murky video of a building being destroyed, projected onto a block of wax, alongside stills from poorly-kept reels of footage taken from government archives.
Curator Vennes Cheng told HKFP the objective of this section was to introduce the audience to a version of history that was incomplete and obscure.
“All transitions start with destructions,” she said. “That’s something we’re going through at the moment,” referencing Hong Kong’s 23 weeks of protest calling for democratic reform and police accountability, among other grievances.
The next stage of the exhibition featured reconstructed parts of the bronze statues, either damaged or prised off, sometimes as a gesture of humiliation.
“Whenever there are historical raptures in Hong Kong, the Queen Victoria statue always [gets] targeted, like in 1996 and there a couple of weeks ago – the protesters put a black flag on her,” Cheng said, in reference to a pro-democracy flag reading “Liberate Hong Kong, the revolution of our times” which was draped at the foot of the sculpture in September.
Upon being sold back to Hong Kong in a public auction after the war, the missing parts were restored.
But Lee challenges these restorations in “I could not recall how I got here,” offering up the severed parts to the audience as fresh canvases ready for interpretation: “The whole project is about a cycle – how materials circulate in different countries and go back to their origin,” he said.
“We cannot restore something back to what it was. The process of rebuilding, retrieving or restoring is based on a modern context… I always considered, why do we need to restore something just because it’s broken, or destroyed?”
Lee began by photographing the originals and processes the images in a computer programme to create 3D models, printed using wax. A founder then casts the mould into a bronze statue.
Also among the artefacts is a spherical lens with “Made in Occupied Japan” stamped across its exterior – a term used on luxury goods and other products for export from 1945 to 1952 when the Allies occupied the country.
“It’s something a coloniser would do to its colony in order to exert its power and demonstrate who the ‘boss’ is,” Lee said, adding that he used the lens to film three disparate 16mm videos, presented in the final section of the exhibition.
“I wanted to present it from the perspective of a coloniser. This lens is more than an artefact. For me, it’s an eye to look back at this part of history.”
For over a decade, activists, politicians and scholars have called for an archives law arguing that it would help preserve key documents in Hong Kong’s history and increase the government’s accountability. They have also criticised the existing access to information framework as inadequate and called for reform.
“We don’t have an archive law. It’s been discussed in public but the government hasn’t shown any interest in enacting the law,” Lee explained. “The officers can just destroy records no matter how important they are, and they don’t receive any legal consequences.”
The result is poor record-keeping and documents that are too dilapidated to be legible. For the pair, art offers a solution, one that extends beyond the confines of academia or government archivists into a truly public domain.
“You find documents or materials that you can’t read,” Cheng said. “When our history is being shuttered, and we need something else for reflection, then art archive provides a space for us.”
She gave the example of the Goddess of Democracy – a 10-metre tall statue that stood in front of the portrait of Mao Zedong at Tiananmen Gate in Beijing for five days in 1989 before it was torn down during the bloody crackdown of mass pro-democracy protests at the square.
Over the following decades, the figure was recreated by multiple artists across the world. The first replica, according to the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, was made on June 18, 1989, by more than ten artists and 60 students of the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts, so that people could mourn the dead.
One of the most prominent replicas is one created with fibreglass in 2004. At 2.4 metres tall, it has been used during candlelight vigils at Victoria Park in Causeway Bay on the anniversary of the massacre.
Art archiving occupies a bizarre limbo between documenting and subverting history – but for Lee and Cheng, it is a necessity.
“The major reason I do this is because something is missing,” Lee said. “I still recall the first time I went to the Public Records Office in 2013, it was so fascinating. There’s so much stuff kept in the office. But at the same time, it’s so fragmented – a lot is missing because just before the Handover, the British government took away a lot of documents. Now, the office needs to purchase a copy of those records that are produced in Hong Kong. For me, recreation is one of the ways to fill in those gaps.”
Lee is the recipient of the 2017/2018 cycle of the WMA Commission on the theme of ‘Transition’. The purpose of the commission is to create an opportunity for visual artists to develop a new body of photography-based research work around a certain theme of the year, relating to a social issue important to Hong Kong. The theme of the next WMA Cycle is “Light” and an international selection panel will choose the Commission recipient, who will be awarded an HKD$250,000 grant for their project.