EXPLORING THE HIDDEN CITY – A Review of Visual Ethnographer Linda C.H. Lai

by JC Gonzo

“I’m going to tell you about Hong Kong…” begins Voices Seen, Images Heard, a telling example of the cultural identity reclamation and “self-made citizenship” that comprises of visual ethnographer and avant-historian Linda (Chiu-han) Lai‘s personal-political disposition. Her diaristic videos exploring cityscapes are psychogeographical extensions while simultaneously documenting, creating, and re-framing history. Lai’s work grants agency to the undocumented every-day experience of Hong Kongers and world-citizens at large.

Hong Kong is not unfamiliar to this. The small yet highly populated Chinese peninsula underwent dire anxiety when faced with political hand-over from British colonial rule to Chinese rule in 1997 (which ultimately was extended to 2046). A new wave of cinema that graced the 1980’s helped further define Hong Kong as a culturally independent, Westernized, diverse population. Soon thereafter, a second wave flourished as the political hand-over approached and the theme of identity and cultural reclamation was never more prevalent.

For example, in Non-place – Other Space we are presented with locations in Hong Kong and Macau no longer on the maps due to urban re-development, excerpted from Lai’s own video diaries. “Places and lived moments of disappearance return as the in-between, neither monumental, nor illusionary,” as Lai states. There’s an awareness of impermanence in her documentations, making her choice of video as the primary medium all the more intriguing. Video is not only as a tool to access the past, but to shape it, to communicate with it. Lai’s video diaries act as cultural footprints, traces altering the landscape. “‘Walking through’ is a precarious experience. One penetrates, dives into, emerges and immerses in… In one moment, I see, therefore the video camera records for me; in another moment, the camera sees and retains, then I discover. Automatism leads.”

Non-Place – Other Space (2009)

Frequently we are presented with appropriated imagery from Cantonese melodramas from the 1930’s through the 60’s. In Lai’s 3-channel piece Door Game, she reassembles and distills narrative to expose apparent gender-biased redundancies; the imposing of moral necessity and prescribed absolute truths through manipulation. “Banging doors can be highly symbolic narrative objects – or are they simply a mechanical measure, or just a slip of tongue?”

Door Game (2005)

Door Game (2005) 3-Channel Demo Reel

In conjunction with Theresa Junko Mikuriya for Hong Kong’s 2004 Biennial, Lai literally placed the audience in a position of authority over her usual subject matter with Push: the Quest for a Voice, In Search of a Body, a new-media interactive installation featuring a self-defined, self-motivated narrative “which explores the repressed voices of women.  The viewer embarks upon a journey into a world of hidden menace and lurking dangers, a vacuum space where the woman’s voice is suppressed and her face obliterated.  The narrative unfolds into a succession of images and scenarios in which the viewer participates to set the trapped woman free and to help her claim her voice and body…

The installation consists of a dark room lit only by the light emanating from the photographs projected on one side of the wall.  A keyboard, a mouse-sensor and a microphone allow the visitor-operator to interact with projected world through tactile movements.  The participants discover the world as well as their own navigation habits or patterns as they attempt to force through the unfolding narrative. This work is not an easy journey. It challenges the destination-oriented and pure functional use of the mouse for a quick click; it slows down the user in order that she will begin to discover what is on the surface of an image.”

Shanghai Saga: Other Skies, Other Lands (2009)

Shanghai Saga: Other Skies, Other Lands shows the city from two different viewpoints, one of world-citizen Linda Lai, the film historian and cultural theorist, and the other of Gina Wong, a businesswoman who splits her time between Hong Kong and Shanghai. Their individual takes on the city converge as their video diaries are edited together, visual letters to each other of their unique experiences of the same space, showing how their personal histories inform how they engage with Shanghai. The footage is interlaced with more appropriated footage in relation to geography and experience.

View and read on Lai’s prolific and multi-disciplinary career as an artist and curator in depth: Linda C.H. Lai’s “Floating Archieve”

Lai holds a Ph.D. in Cinema Studies (NYU) and is Associate Professor at the City University of Hong Kong’s School of Creative Media.

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