November 2021 | Volume 23 No. 1
A Brief History of Art
“Chronology is our mental scaffolding for organising historical reasoning. It provides us with a strong sense of the continuity and incidences of time in order to understand historical causality,” says the introductory page of the Hong Kong Art Timeline, a project put together by the Art History Department in collaboration with Asia Art Archive.
The aim is to provide a brief overview of selected happenings in Hong Kong art history and it is the first project of its kind to provide a temporal map showing these events – social and political as well as art-related – from the 1930s to present day.
Timeline supervisor Dr Yeewan Koon, Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Art History, said the project came about, partly, because of COVID-19. “Usually for my Hong Kong Art Workshop, I do a ‘speed-dating Q&A at Art Basel Hong Kong’ but this year Art Basel Hong Kong was cancelled. I had to revamp the class and came up with this idea of timelines, which evolved into a digital platform,” she said.
The project is made up of the ‘Mothership’, which is the timeline itself, plus ‘Satellites’ which are case studies by students from the Department’s Hong Kong Art Workshop class. “The purpose of the Satellites is to provide insights into the inconsistencies, overlaps and disruptions that have occurred along the way and which cannot be shown on a linear timeline alone,” said Dr Koon.
Their areas of focus are: independent art spaces in relationship to activism; women artists as institutional builders; minorities in Hong Kong’s art world; the development of art criticism; and the relationship between grassroots art education practices and local knowledge.
Satellite Timelines provide case studies with different areas of focus which collectively help form the moving parts of a history of Hong Kong art.
While COVID-19 may have been the unexpected spark that got the project up and running, seeds for some kind of timeline project were sown as early as 2015 at a workshop on Teaching Hong Kong Art History held at Asia Art Archive, during which several scholars expressed their frustrations over how some people consider teaching Hong Kong art history to be problematic.
Explained Dr Koon: “As the field of Hong Kong art history is relatively young, there are some who believe that it is impossible to teach – or at least teach in the conventional methods of survey art courses. There is simply not enough secondary research on the subject.
“There was also a debate regarding who gets to write a survey history of Hong Kong art or whether we need a survey book in order to study Hong Kong art,” she continued. “Art history survey books form canons and narratives of a linear development of styles. This is an approach that has long been questioned by many art historians (not only in Asian art) and is once again under the spotlight as debates continue regarding the decolonisation of art history in the classroom.
“Canons tend to exclude more than they include, and there is a long history of bias that favours male artists and values that reflect structures of power. For Hong Kong art, there are concerns that without some sort of foundational entry point, such as a survey text, how can students and nonspecialists learn about Hong Kong art?”
The social and political events on the timeline were chosen for their relevance to shaping the Hong Kong art world and include the creation and development of museums and galleries, government policies, art schools and changes in financial and education sectors. There are currently more than 400 highlights and these will continue to grow as new events take place.
Dr Yeewan Koon (left) introducing the Hong Kong Art Timeline in the Hong Kong Art Workshop.
Putting it together
Dr Koon supervised the project, supported by Michelle Wong from Asia Art Archive, but she also gives much credit to two students. “The technical and hard work was done by students Yi Ting Li and Nicole Nepomuceno,” she said. “They did the heavy lifting and I am incredibly proud of them. Other students also contributed with their projects. Overall, it was a small team and we worked hard to produce this because we believe this is an invaluable tool for lots of people.”
Asked how the timeline would grow and whether there will be more Satellites, she said: “We will be hosting a workshop with invited guests from different institutions to discuss this question. But yes, there will be more Satellites – the aim is to grow those in the future. Each of those Satellites has bibliography and has questions that open up the possibilities of future research.”
In conclusion, Dr Koon expressed her aspirations for the project: “I hope the timeline will be useful for anyone interested in Hong Kong art and Hong Kong. And I hope other institutions will contribute to the timeline too so that it can grow. Far too often, we are reinventing the wheel because we are not sharing our research. I hope this project can facilitate more networked conversations and research.”
Learn more about the Hong Kong Art Timeline here.
I hope other institutions will contribute to the timeline too so that it can grow. Far too often, we are reinventing the wheel because we are not sharing our research. I hope this project can facilitate more networked conversations and research.
DR YEEWAN KOON