香 HONG 港 KONG 嗓 SONG: Photographs by Madeleine Slavick

Aratoi Wairarapa Museum of Art & History till 10 May 2015

Reviewed by David Famularo

Wall and Water, Shek O, 2009
Wall and Water, Shek O, 2009

“Taoism is a philosophical, ethical, political and religious tradition of Chinese origin that emphasizes living in harmony with the Tao. The term Tao means “way”, “path” or “principle”. Taoist propriety and ethics tend to emphasize wu-wei (action through non-action), “naturalness”, simplicity, spontaneity, and the Three Treasures: compassion, moderation, and humility.” – Wikipedia

There is something of the simplicity and ambiguity of the Tao in this exhibition – presenting what is beyond the frame by what is not in it. Whether it is photography or poetry, Slavick likes to distil images down to their simplest essence. The philosophy of her work was well expressed in some of her comments at an artist’s talk she gave at Aratoi one Saturday morning.

“I want the perfection of a sense of balance, of movement. I like relationships. I like the complexity, the weirdness, the not knowing everything. I don’t need to know everything. I’m not a big Googler. If I don’t know something, I don’t automatically Google it. I just don’t have that in me.

“I like mystery, so that is a big thing that I am trying to create, a moment or a scene where maybe you don’t know what is going on. Maybe you might not know this is Hong Kong if I didn’t tell you. You may not know what time of the day it is. You may not have any sense of scale. I like appreciating it for just what is there. And I do want that restfulness, that sense of balance and a little bit more towards the quiet.”

Slavick grew up in an artistic family which partook in the classic road trips that were popular with post-World War II generations.

“We did a lot of travelling around, seeing the world in that way. One of the best parts of my childhood was seeing slides we took on our trips on our portable projector.”

In a way, this exhibition is Slavick’s own unique road trip slide show. Despite having lived in Hong Kong for around two decades, when Slavick speaks about the city, there’s still the same sense of awe and fascination of the first time visitor, although she obviously also h as a deep acquaintance with the landscape and people.

In English, the title of the show – Hong Kong Song – has three, one syllable words, and similarly three calligraphic characters in Chinese. The first two characters, “Hong Kong” literally mean “Fragrant Harbour”. The third translates as “Voices” or “Throats” and is pronounced as “Song” in Cantonese. It’s a clever word play, especially as the title can be read as “Hong Kong Voices” or “Hong Kong Song”, both of which are equally appropriate.

Hong Kong Song is not so much an objective description or commentary on the city, so much as a love song to it, expressing Slavick’s intuitive relationship with it as expressed through often small and incidental details.

“I’m presenting a lot of different natures of the cities – small every day things, big skyscrapers, the grey and pink of the sky, the blue sea, the neon and fluorescent lights at night. The flora, poverty, heat, insects, pollution, the incredibly beautiful, the joy in a crowd, the life that you sense in all that life around you. All that loudness but then you turn a corner and there will be a huge banyan tree full of cicadas. I love that really weird juxtaposition of different life happening.”

Peach blossom and string, Northpoint 2008
Peach blossom and string, Northpoint 2008

And yet there are hardly ever people in the photographs, despite Slavick’s obviously deep affection for the inhabitants of Hong Kong.

“I was married to Chinese person for 10 years and felt welcomed into community. The Chinese have a sense of circle and community. Once you are are a member of circle, there is a really strong sense of loyalty and friendship. One of most important things I learned was a sense of humility. It was a beautiful thing to be a minority there. I will always cherish that.”

The Cantonese slang term for foreigners is “gweilo” which means “ghost”. Whatever meaning Hong Kong’s residents attach to the word, a ghost in Western terms implies something that is there but not there, an apparition, something that is both permanent and impermanent, an entity permanently frozen in a moment of transition from one state of existence to another.

Ironically, a great many of Hong Kong’s own residents are in a sense gweilo, being refugees or the children and grandchildren of refugees from mainland China. I remember as a child hearing stories of how some would swim to Hong Kong from the mainland. I have never been to Hong Kong but wouldn’t be surprised if it is a city that feels like it is in a permanent state of transition.

There are few people in these images but plenty of ghosts – a temporary housing estate, a pair of red shoes worn for a wedding, fishing, farming villages abandoned in the 1980s with personal possessions still lying about as if the inhabitants left in a hurry only yesterday.

While there is no overt political commentary in Hong Kong Song, it is intriguing to speculate on what political subtexts do exist, something that appeals to me as an idea. Slavick arrived just after the pro-democracy Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 and left while the world’s longest Occupy protests were continuing in Hong Kong.

“Several of the images carry socio-political realities about the rich-poor gap, housing, income, and the accompanying book of the exhibition contains many stories about food insecurity, elderly people who are poor, the ways of the food banks, homeless people using 7/11 and other 24-hour-stores as their kitchen for free hot water etc. I worked for Oxfam for 17 years in Hong Kong and some of the information for the stories comes from my work.”

In terms of her aesthetic, Slavick sees herself not so much as a photographer as a writer. She rarely crops or manipulates her images.

“For me the image is really more about the graph, part of the word, the writing rather than the photo. I see the frame as a kind of page.

“I’m quite a slow person. I took a hundred pictures yesterday [in Eketahuna] and it exhausted me, to really stop and see. It sounds fun to take pictures but it is also work, and writing is work. Writing is a physical act to try to locate what you want to say. Whether stories or poems every word is so important and it becomes a physical act for me.

“The photographer who influenced me when started out in the 1980s was the Austrian Ernst Haas who said photography is a certain kind of loving. A picture you should be able to rest in it, sleep in it, and live in it.”

Man in Rain, Central 2010
Man in Rain, Central 2010