Interviews

The Artists Who Gave Domestic Workers Toy Grenades

All images from the Sun Yuan and Peng Yung's series "Hong Kong Intervention" (2009) (Courtesy of the artists and Osage Gallery)
All images from the Sun Yuan and Peng Yung’s series “Hong Kong Intervention” (2009) (courtesy the artists and Osage Gallery)

HONG KONG — As part of the inaugural edition of Art Basel Hong Kong, Yuko Hasegawa, fresh from curating Sharjah Biennial 11, has curated a section of the fair dedicated to large-scale works titled “Encounters.” Seventeen galleries are presenting, with such names as Liam Gillick (Kerlin Gallery), Raqs Media Collective (Project 88), MadeIn Company (Long March Space), and Haegue Yang (Kukje Gallery). With the title of the section in mind, Hong Kong gallery Osage will feature a project by Chinese artist duo Sun Yuan and Peng Yu in 2009 titled “Hong Kong Intervention,” which focuses on Hong Kong’s domestic workers, a majority of whom come from the Philippines and Indonesia.

For the project, the artists gave a number of domestic workers a toy grenade, asked them to photograph it in the home of their “masters,” and take a portrait of themselves with their backs to the camera to protect their identities. The result was a series that explores the line between a so-called “master” and “slave,” and the underlying anxieties that exist in a society ordered along certain hierarchies.

The context of an art fair is a challenge for a project like this, given the issues surrounding inequities in wealth and power that arise from it, and the act of positioning these images as artworks for sale when the artists do not necessarily consider their project “art.” In this interview, the artists talk about the work and what it means to them.

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Stephanie Bailey:  How did the idea for “Hong Kong Interventions” come about?

Peng Yu: You can see that many Filipino domestic helpers gather in Central Hong Kong during the weekend; they either sit quietly, participate in demonstrations, or play card games for leisure. Although they have accepted their employment contract, they still ask for more rights and benefits. Hong Kong society on one hand needs this type of low-cost labor, but at the same time it is felt that giving the Filipinos more benefits is not in the interest of local people. In a small place like Hong Kong, this contradiction is a common problem. Whether it is is seen as an act of art or war, the intention of this project was to bring about the potential for change.

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SB: How did you come to define the parameters or rules of the project?

PY: One hundred Filipino domestic helpers were given cameras and asked to photograph their places of work—any place there that they felt was an interesting setting. But the photograph must contain the toy grenade we gave them.  After that, the photographers had a photograph taken of their back. The domestic helpers became the artists—they chose the setting, created a scene in which the grenade was placed, and documented it to produce a still life. Other than a copy of the photographic prints, no payment was given from the artists to the participants.

SB: How did the context of Hong Kong inform the project?

Sun Yuan: I had noticed the contrast in Statue Square between the surrounding business and commercial environment and that of the Filipino domestic workers. My thoughts were that there needs to be a way to solve this problem. Capitalist methods of donating through charitable means will not erase the guilt. One must have a more comprehensive resolution. This is only a suggestion, but could bring help about the necessary imminent change.

SB: I wanted to ask about the idea of ‘”intervention” and the idea of intervening into a transient workforce of migrant labor in an urban (and neoliberal) space such as Hong Kong, essentially, in your case, as outsiders.

PY: We always felt the translation “interventions” was not the most appropriate, but as our English is not very good, we have let the gallery do the translation. The term seems to refer to something that is too artistically conceptual. What we really meant is ‘strategy’, such as ‘progressive strategy’ or ‘attack strategy,’ with the meaning of a military operation plan. The English translation ‘intervention’ sounds as if the migrant laborers are intervening in city life.

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When working on the project, we did not consider it a work of art. Rather than focusing on executing artistic techniques, I am more concerned about the role the project would play in society and the reality of the project, even though the project itself is artistic in its nature.

SB: Does the fact that you come from China inform and affect the way you respond to your work as artists and your perspectives on the world?

SY: It is completely unavoidable that one’s thoughts and experiences are influenced by their direct environment. Regardless of the political or cultural environment, all these reactions are a natural instinct, which one can only either adjust to or wholly reject.

SB: You have said in a joint statement that you are interested in the invasion and occupation of a community in covert and effective ways. How does this translate to your approach to “Hong Kong Intervention”?

008_backPY: What we are concerned about is the effect it brings to art; what it brings to the reality of the situation apart from art, and if a miracle could happen outside of that reality.

I wanted to enter Hong Kong homes forcefully, allowing these mechanisms of art to become a platform of conspiracy for the Filipino domestic workers. There is a similar relationship between artists and institutions.

SB: How did the project develop and evolve over time?

SY: After this work entered the collection of the Singapore Art Museum, a large part of the proceeds were donated to Hong Kong aid agencies for foreign workers—in particular, the Mission for Migrant Workers, an organization committed to assisting migrant workers who are in distress, and the Bethune House, a temporary shelter for displaced and distressed domestic helpers of all nationalities. It was an ideal outcome.

This interview is part of a larger interview originally conducted as research for an essay by the author for a forthcoming issue of Yishu Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art.

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