Arriving at esea contemporary—a reset of the Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art (CFCCA) and its controversial recent history—there was little on the outside to locate the venue or signal its inaugural exhibition, Practise Till We Meet, curated by Hanlu Zhang. The mood inside was low-key, being press day. But the visitor was not so much greeted as confronted with a declaration on the main wall of the entrance area: ‘No somos más grandes que Nuestro Contexto.’ Or, ‘we are not greater than our context’, glowing in a neon red, cursive font. Speaking of context, the work was originally created by artist Mimian Hsu against the backdrop of Costa Rican cultural hybridity, but mounted in the newly minted ‘Communal Project Space’, one senses acutely the ‘we’ of a beleaguered organisation. It is a bold statement, and hopefully a knowing nod to esea contemporary’s ongoing endeavour to make good with its publics. It is perhaps also an act of contrition, found in the ‘esea’ of the organisation’s lowercase name: optimistic if a little self-conscious, it seems to suggest, ‘yes, “we” are taking on this new identity marker of East and Southeast Asianness despite not knowing how it will go’. I have a soft spot for gestures of humility (very ‘ESEA’ of me), so I may be reading into things.
Self-reflection continued in the two clusters of performative research-artwork shown beside Hsu’s statement. To one side was ‘Proxy Conference: On Boat’ (2023), a piece by Asian Feminist Studio for Art and Research comprising a digital map slowly scanning over imagined territories of relation—Care, Trust, Deny, Seek—and a video conference with anonymised participants (as animals, vegetables) speaking aloud their diasporic dreams and discontent. On the floor to the other side was ‘In 1875 We Met at the Docks of Liverpool / 1875 於梨花埠遇上’ (2021), a two-channel video by Yarli Allison that narrates the displacement and desperation of Chinese indentured labourers (‘coolies’) in the early 1900s. Placed on a cushion next to this piece is the new publication Experiments in Care and Collective Disobedience, a thoughtful collection of texts on solidarity, grief and compassion across the Asia-Art-Activism network. Together, the artworks in the Communal Project Space needed to make a clear first impression on behalf of esea contemporary: they told and told some more about the irresolution of diaspora. The implicit and repeated ask of the visitor to sit and listen felt didactic, which was compounded by my knowledge of the organisation’s eagerness to reinvent itself. So despite their eloquence, I was fighting a niggling sense of tedium before I even entered the exhibition space.
Wordiness continued to flank the visitor there, with the brilliantly chaotic ‘Australia’ project (2017) by Liu Weiwei on one side and the sobering ‘Vulnerable Histories (A Road Movie)’ (2018) by Koki Tanaka on the other. Both works made extensive use of speech to argue the pros and cons of migrating to Australia from China and to explore the under-acknowledged racism against Zainichi Koreans in Japan, respectively. The two projects spanned seven screens with several hours of talk, of campaigning and chatting, lectures and confessions. All the talking became overkill by that point, which is a shame, as they were riveting works in their own right.
To my delight, the last group of works towards the back of the gallery were non-verbal, beginning with Isaac Chong Wai’s ‘Two-Legged Stool’ (2023). A joke in sculptural form of plastic and mirrors, it ridiculed Deng Xiaoping’s famous 1984 quote about Hong Kong’s handover from the British: ‘There was some talk about a “three-legged stool”. There are two legs, not three’, thus excluding Hong Kong from its own narrative. Another work of his, ‘Rehearsal of the Futures: Is the World Your Friend?’(2018), re-enacted small moments of the Hong Kong democracy protests in slow-motion, stretching time, making hope last just a bit longer. To end my meanderings of the exhibition was a group of works by Audrey Albert, key of which was the photo series Matter Out of Place (2017-8). Family snapshots were paired with images of defamiliarised objects held by a raised arm—a reed brush, a coconut, a concave maybe-shell—as if endowing them with unspoken powers. After the verbosity, there was solace in the muteness of lucite, skin and husk; textures have no need for words.
Going back to the difficult ‘we’, there has been an eruptive force around ESEA as a term in the last three years. The coalescing of ‘other Asias’ is still ongoing and the resulting energy is still big and unwieldy, factors that were clearly at play in Practise Till We Meet. With the near-impossible task of demonstrating what ESEA is, the exhibition relied heavily on written and spoken text, such that—the small group of works by Chong Wai and Albert notwithstanding—there was little to keep one from feeling talked at. Again, this is ‘ESEA’ of me, but I absolutely sympathise with the immigrant impulse to ‘do more’ and come down a bit hard. Finally and somewhat paradoxically, the ambitious breadth of the exhibition highlighted its attendant gaps, namely a more explicit focus on Southeast Asia and its hybridities. Yet overall, the exhibition is a self-aware and promising start, which I report with huge relief. But paraphrasing the scholar Shih Shu-Mei, having a concept like Sinophone or ESEA is not enough; it has to do the work. So here’s hoping that esea contemporary understands that their reparative journey will need to reach further, beyond representation and towards tangible deeds that return trust into the organisation’s fold.
Practice Till We Meet is at esea contemporary, 18 February – 28 May 2023.
Sunshine Wong facilitates socially negotiated art projects and sometimes writes about them. She lives in Sheffield.