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Man with a sandwich board advertising the 2014 Fotanian Open Studios in Hong Kong (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)

HONG KONG — Over 250 artists in 88 studios participated in the 2014 Fotanian Open Studios, and it proved to be a sprawling event spread across roughly 21 buildings and three consecutive weekends in the gritty Fo Tan industrial neighborhood of Hong Kong. When I say gritty, I’m not exaggerating. This is where those everyday things you use in your home and eat in your kitchen are mixed, packaged, sanded, and finished. The smell of varnish merges with the aroma of a sticky rice wholesaler, who is right next door to an international design studio. You see, and especially smell, these contrasts while trudging up and down more than 24 dusty, dirty hard concrete levels — and that’s just inside one building.

While Hyperallergic reported on last year’s event, this year’s exposition was the biggest yet, which meant that unless you wanted a marathon experience, you could view only a fraction of what was on display. The festival also included lectures and workshops on topics as diverse as “Stress Management For Artists” and “The Revival and Future of Photography in Hong Kong.”

Though the organizers made a valiant attempt to organize, it was difficult to find coherent information on who was showing what, and I encountered scores of locals trudging around just as disoriented as I was. It was essential to ferret out the one or two locations where bilingual fold-out maps were being requisitioned before proceeding. In case that didn’t work out the best bet was to follow the crowds and hope for the best. Another oddity was that many artists did little to promote their participation or identify their work. They preferred to sit back and put their creations on display — with little secondary materials — for the crowds who happened upon their studios.

Sai-Lok Chan’s luminous piece “The Solitude of Art Making is Just Enough to Fill in the Loneliness of Existence” (2014)

Sai-Lok Chan, a critic, educator, and artist, displayed “The Solitude of Art Making is Just Enough to Fill in the Loneliness of Existence” (2014), a luminous embroidery frame piece set in silk on an acrylic board. The piece was part of a larger curatorial group program by A.lift Gallery, Out of Light, that explored innovative ways to play with light.

Li  Mingwei, “Unfolding the Possible Xi” (2010)

Li Mingwei filled an entire room with stacked folding nylon reclining lounge chairs based on the assumption that the most private space is your own bed. He explained that the first public housing block design (Mark 1 Block 1) in Hong Kong was conceived around the concept of a set amount of square meters per person, and this concept continues to be used for many government projects concerning public and private space. Using the nylon folding bed as a sculptural tool, he has set up similar installations in France and Shanghai.

Hiiuyu Tse, “Photo from Detouring within the Space of Memories” (2012)

Tse Hiuyu, who was proudly raised in Hong Kong’s public housing projects, showed her sensitive black-and-white photographic essay “Detouring Within the Space of Memories” (2012). It explores the imagined remnants of her grandmother’s Alzheimer-induced memories. As is common with many people suffering from the disease, her grandmother would often wander out and go missing as she looked for some place still mapped in her mind. Tse became intrigued by the idea of photographing what that place might look like and produced a series of poetic, allegorical images.

Kwong Wing Kwan, an artist working in a variety of mediums, displayed her latest works in progress — fresh off the easel. Taking an image, she Xeroxed it into segments, altering them through burning and other disruptive processes. She then pasted the Xeroxed squares onto a surface grid to further disrupt the pictorial plane. Kwan focuses on everyday imaging technologies. For her tiny business card she used an X-ray image of her teeth on the same oval X-ray shape and format used by dentists.

Kwong Wing Kwan, part of “Clear Air Turbulence” series

Until the 1980s most Hong Kong inhabitants had no clear stake in the island, but the looming handover from the British to mainland China changed all that. This was echoed in the nascent art scene, which connected artists to developing global trends but reinforced a kind of cultural schizophrenia as they negotiated between dual British and Chinese identities. The government decided to tackle the problem head on, launching a series of studies on the growth, expansion, and place of the cultural industries within Hong Kong proper, resulting in the building of the massive West Kowloon Cultural district.

The Hong Kong government introduced new development policies aimed at shoring up decaying industrial buildings, thereby hiking rents. Artists fear that Fotanian will turn into Beijing’s glitzy 798 cultural district, with some refusing to participate in open studios as a form of silent protest. But as China’s mainland millionaires snap up more and more real estate in Hong Kong, art districts like Fotanian are essential in supporting a healthy arts culture.

Fotanian Open Studios took place January 11–12, 18–19, 25–26 in the Fo Tan neighborhood of Hong Kong.

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Ellen Pearlman

Ellen Pearlman is a writer and new media artist who lives between New York and Asia, where she is a PhD candidate at the School of Creative Media, Hong Kong City University.