interview and portraits by JOHNNY LE
photography by PING HOH AU
hong kong island is a nerve center of global geopolitical struggle, and the artists living there are often seen as a threat by the authorities. an alternative art scene finds new ways to operate, like tiffany’s speculative place, a semi-clandestine art space on lamma island.
JOHNNY LE — How does it feel to be arriving in New York City from Hong Kong, from one island city to another?
TIFFANY SIA — The topic of the so-called deaths of New York and Hong Kong has become a controversial debate in both cities, yet they involve radically different situations. The elites have fled New York City in the wake of Covid-19, and the death spiral of the economy can be felt in the vacant retail spaces across the city. But in Hong Kong, people have fled — and are continuing to do so — because of fear of political persecution. And while the people in New York City are still deeply traumatized from the first intense wave of Covid-19, I’ve heard that many of my friends, who are artists, are finally finding the city more affordable — although survival is a complex subject, given the scale of homeless people in New York City right now. Both are failing their people despite their image as successful global cities, and both have also been touched by huge protest movements. Black Lives Matter graffiti and signs hanging in people’s windows are monuments to the events of last summer. In Hong Kong, any remnants of political graffiti have been erased by the city’s municipal authorities — the words are essentially censored. Hong Kong is going through a moment of erasure. Yet in the wake of such hugely powerful movements, there is a palpable postmortem reckoning in both cities of social disenchantment. What of the energy of resistance now?
JOHNNY LE — How does it feel to be temporarily leaving Hong Kong, where you spent most of last year?
TIFFANY SIA — It’s strange to watch the news about Hong Kong from afar. Returning to New York — the other city in which I grew up, and where the other half of my community is — is like moving to the other side of the looking glass of the news. When 50-plus former pro-democratic lawmakers, activists, and academics were arrested in Hong Kong a few days ago, that news was quickly buried by the attempted coup at the Capitol in Washington, D.C. These crises happening simultaneously in both cities really knocked me out, and I feel like I’m constantly chasing where I live in the news cycle.
JOHNNY LE — Hong Kong is almost like its own island of multi-cultures. What’s the mythology of this incredible city?
TIFFANY SIA — Hong Kong emerges out of this mirage in the Western imagination built from composites of Blade Runner, Wong Kar-wai films, gangster movies, and video games. Even banking ads and travel-booking sites often feature the Hong Kong skyline, as if the city is a visual shorthand for global finance and travel. As a city, it’s a place that feels familiar but exotic. But also, in the last year, Hong Kong has become synonymous with contemporary protests and resistance tactics.
JOHNNY LE — For artists, what is the political climate like in Hong Kong?
TIFFANY SIA — What can I tell you that the news doesn’t already say? Sometimes what is excluded in such moments is more powerful — hauntingly so. Choosing to answer this question by shadowboxing through metaphors should convey the strangeness of this invisible and fenceless place of fear. My practice relies on the obtuseness of how I speak, to hide in plain sight. For me, it is essential to try to create a new language — to disrupt the modes in which news from far away can be absorbed in a way that numbs people to the events in the noisy news cycle. Would me discussing the political climate and its severity, in the context of this interview, help anyone understand the events any better? The notion of exile is complicated in Hong Kong because it’s becoming a harsh and violent political reality for more and more people. As a descendant of a political exile myself, it is very painful to speak of the notion of exile.
JOHNNY LE — Lamma Island is an incredibly paradoxical island to me. I visited Lamma Island around a decade ago and was amazed by how much of a multicultural hub it was, being so close to Hong Kong Island. What does it represent for you?
TIFFANY SIA — Lamma Island is home to the Kamikaze Caves dating from the Japanese occupation during World War II, connecting mountaintop lookouts surveying the South China Sea to the shores through a circuit of dynamite-blown tunnels. These caves were used to conceal speedboats that were launched by the Japanese navy for suicide missions against enemy ships. Lamma Island is also where the earliest signs of human life in Hong Kong can be found, dating back 4,000 years. A power plant there supplies Hong Kong Island with electricity. So, there are all these interesting, overlapping histories and paradoxes. It’s also known as being a hippie island for a certain crowd of Hong Kong expats, and it was the former home of the dissident poet Ma Jian.
JOHNNY LE — Tell us about Speculative Place, the experimental artists’ residence space you created in Hong Kong, and whether you see it moving to other locations?
TIFFANY SIA — Well, I was on a hike one day and stopped to tie my shoes when I spotted a paper sign on a pylon marked “For Rent” that was advertising the house I currently live in, where Speculative Place is. And happily, that space happens to be on Lamma Island. Speculative Place was started in 2018, and we’ve since hosted over 16 residents. I wanted to create a kind of alternative arts space — inspired by Light Industry in Greenpoint [Brooklyn] and Green Papaya Art Projects in Metro Manila — to give artists, researchers, writers, and filmmakers a place to work. It was also to create a space for our geographically dispersed community and to create new opportunities for cross-disciplinary collaborations. Speculative Place intentionally operates in a semi-clandestine way to protect the time of our residents. The art world and the economy at large are quite extractive for artists, writers, and other creative people, and this is our way of controlling that and mitigating additional demands and obligations. It’s also where my partner and I live. Although I haven’t publicized this yet, Speculative Place, as a residency and project space, is hosting a series of “remote” residencies and collaborations this year. In the near future, we are looking to leave Hong Kong and rethink things more broadly: what does the notion of place and culture mean across diasporas and in the context of threatening or changing political circumstances?
JOHNNY LE — Could you say that it’s a project about utopia?
TIFFANY SIA — While some have suggested “utopia” as a word to describe the aspirations of the space, I’m quite skeptical as to whether that notion is scalable and even achievable in this lifetime. What we offer to residents is something more mundane: a space in which to live, work, and even rest, with no obligation to create. Sometimes for us that means taking on the role of a tour guide or studio assistant. For me, the most dynamic collaborations and creative work come in moments of rest, friendship, and living. The project is deeply informed by the paradoxes and layered history of Lamma Island but ultimately stitches together a geographically dispersed community of people from across many islands.
JOHNNY LE — Tell us about your short experimental film Never Rest/Unrest.
TIFFANY SIA — Never Rest/Unrest is actually two films in one. I intentionally withheld subtitles, so that audiences who do not speak Cantonese are kept at a distance. And for those who understand Cantonese and/or know Hong Kong, the film will appear extremely familiar. Triggering even. Never Rest/Unrest takes up Julio García Espinosa’s provocative concept of “Imperfect Cinema” to explore anti-colonial filmmaking — a revolutionary kind of film language — aiming toward an urgent, process-driven cinema that resists the dominant crisis narratives pushed by news journalism. It’s also specifically about creating a visual form that is anti-spectacular. I shot it all on my iPhone from June through December 2019, during the peak of the Hong Kong protests. Never Rest/Unrest aims to disrupt image-making tropes of documentary filmmaking, hiding under the disguise of images that appear to be “nothing,” that are seemingly unremarkable. Some people misread it as Instagram Stories, which I sort of love. I love having highly critical, potentially seditious material that is considered as “nothing.” The film’s underlying message, though, is: what does the spectacular make us do? How does it coerce us? So, the short experimental film resists that and instead strikes toward capturing images that are more scalable via the body and everyday time. It attempts to create a “complicated picture,” the moments in between trauma and violent escalation, making images that require an effort in terms of interpretation. The film is constantly challenging aspect ratios of how we receive information or propaganda. I film on the subway, where you see the news. And through phones, you see livestreams. On computer screens, you’re also receiving the news. From the outside, images of the protest will look like “unrest,” but that word “unrest” feels so unspecific, and it is also a term that allows these political events to be easily co-opted. Instead, the film tries to illuminate a time of not resting — which is truly how insurgent time is experienced and lived. Hence, the title: Never Rest/Unrest. From the outside, the film is about unrest. From the inside, it will remind us of a time when we were indefatigable.
JOHNNY LE — Could you describe the zine you created, Salty Wet?
TIFFANY SIA — Salty Wet is a chapbook, a zine, that was published by Inpatient Press in 2019 — somewhat as an accident. It began as a Google doc, assembling texts that I’d written over a few years and snapshots of pieces I was working on at the time. My publisher leaked it as part of a test run at an art book fair. I had been writing “in the dark” all these years, and suddenly this piece was out. And that was my strange introduction as an artist: an accident. Salty Wet is the literal translation of the word “perverse” or “perverted” in Cantonese, and I’m interested in the way that redaction, what is unseeable and censored, has both the quality of seduction and taboo-like porn, and also strikes me as an interesting connection to politically sensitive material.
JOHNNY LE — And what about the sequel, Too Salty Too Wet 更咸更濕?
TIFFANY SIA — I wrote and edited Too Salty Too Wet 更咸更濕, the book-length sequel to Salty Wet, during the shooting and making of Never Rest/Unrest, and it’s the first book to be printed by Speculative Place Press. It takes up Barthes’s question: “Who will write the history of tears?” It’s a short oral history of tears in and outside of Hong Kong. The book is about news addiction, and it is a critique of dominant and powerful crisis narratives, propagated by the news, and even social and political theory. In the book, I attempt to thread historical narrative with a first-person account of political entropy. I ask the question: how do we make sense of our ongoing time lines? Contrary to the title of the book, which in Cantonese means “even more perverse,” Too Salty Too Wet is about the deadening of erotics and eros in the time of trauma and upheaval. The book is about the relentlessness and excess of our times — and living.
JOHNNY LE — Is having your portrait featured in Purple dangerous for you?
TIFFANY SIA — In Cantonese, the saying, “giving face” (畀面) means to give respect. So, this act of letting you photograph my face is a sign of respect. Certainly, being photographed should be a concern for any of us who live in a time of ubiquitous facial-recognition technology. For one, women’s images in the media are more vulnerable to being co-opted and exploited. Our faces sell — we represent brands — and in more malignant forms, in the porn industry and online, our images are more likely to be circulated against our consent in leaks such as revenge porn. In terms of my practice, I increasingly control how much my face is Googleable or how much I am photographed. On one level, it’s a stand against the co-optation of women in the circulation of images at large, but it’s also to distance my face from my works, my film and writing, because they are more broadly about political subjects and less about myself. I want people to immerse themselves in the first person when reading my work or to see it as a gateway to other voices. But my work is meant to deal more broadly with history and ongoing political time lines, and to act as an antenna.
JOHNNY LE — What do you hope for the future generations in Hong Kong?
TIFFANY SIA — As Hong Kong is a former British colony and a major port for world trade, its history is a fictive process. Historically, the people of Hong Kong have not been the architects of their own future. I hold out hope for historians who are yet to be born to carry the legacy of Hong Kong, to preserve and log the culture of this place. We must preserve and protect what is under threat of redaction, erasure, and disappearance. What is to become of Hong Kong will be a dispersed and complicated project. We must hold faith in the archives to show what this city was and is, as it transfigures. Derrida once said, “Every time I let something go, I live my death in writing.” Although Derrida is speaking about authorship in general, we can borrow that concept to reflect on the meaning of political authorship. The Hong Kong community must now be committed to archiving and preserving what is left in the form of materials and stories — told specifically by the people who live them.
[Table of contents]
by Olivier Zahm
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