WE Curate: Two words. ‘Air pollution’. How would you convey this?

Blindly celebrating vanity and pleasures is a brusque insult to the art of photography – which has always been an important lens to look at history, changes and civilisation. For ideas and thoughts should be elaborated without words, the organiser of WYNG Masters Awards in Hong Kong uttered only one thing as the theme of the year – AIR. Hence these many translations of it by these aspiring Hong Kong photographers.

A reputable award in Hong Kong, WYNG Masters call for entries whose context is Hong Kong-related. Submissions are screened by judges including Zoher Abdoolcarim, Asia Editor of TIME; Abby Chen, Curator and Artistic Director at the Chinese Culture Foundation; Artistic Director of QUAD art and film centre Louise Clements, and Christopher Phillips, Curator at the International Center of Photography in New York. After ‘POVERTY’, the theme of 2012, this year’s submissions all embrace the issues with air pollution in Hong Kong – “one of the top public heath risks in Hong Kong” reads the theme statement. 

The minimal theme is proved a great way to leave space for creative freedom. These photographers offer different perspectives and aesthetic but none is less thought-provoking than the others.

Hong Kong in a Bottle by Tommy Fung

Can you imagine what would happen to you if you lived in a bottle? The lack of fresh air would result in dizziness, difficulty breathing and eventually death. This is happening in Hong Kong where air pollution is increasingly at a serious level. The air is essentially invisible to the eye, however once mixed with pollutant particles, it manifests in the form of smoke and haze. So, I used the idea of putting Hong Kong in a bottle with smoke emitting from it to communicate the idea that we are trapped in middle of a concrete jungle, walking in street canyons where the wind doesn’t blow. We are actually living in a bottle but we just have not realized it yet.

The Big Mist by Gao Ling

“The Big Mist seeks to create a global archive of ‘selfies’ that playfully engages our contemporary attitude to air pollution. The art project took the form of an open call, through social media, for creative photographic submissions responding to the theme of environmental air pollution in Asia. Sites such as Facebook, Weibo and Douban were used. Several dozen submissions from around the world, from Beijing to Hong Kong, Kathmandu to Berlin, London to Madrid, were received. An aim of The Big Mist is for participants to use performance and humour in the photographic form as a challenge to over-industrialisation and the pollution it brings. It also acts as a collective silent cry.”

Fashion Cover-Up by Leo Kwok

Hong Kong’s air pollution is mainly caused by motor vehicles. There are about 306 licensed vehicles* for every kilometer of road and they produce large amounts of particles and nitrogen dioxide which cause burning spasms; swelling of the throat; reduced oxygen intake and a larger buildup of fluids in the lungs — and in some cases death. You find people using such materials as facial masks, newspapers and tissue paper to cover their mouths and noses in order not to breathe in those harmful pollutants. We know that we cannot get rid of all the vehicles in the short run nor stay indoors forever. In my Fashion Cover-up project, I invited five people with very different characters and occupations and created five unique outfits for them. The outfits serve both to protect and beautify the wearers. Instead of showing the sad and ugly side of air pollution, which everyone knows, I prefer to address this social issue in an alternative way, one that will arouse our government’s attention.”

Last Glimpse of Hong Kong by Lau Ping Ping

“The thin air, though invisible to our eyes, we know of its existence. The air of a city, generally considered as the spirit of the city, is also invisible, but exists and is alive within us. Sixteen years has passed since the sovereignty rights over Hong Kong were returned to China. At that time, the people of Hong Kong, after coming through a centennial of adversities, felt that doomsday had arrived. From 1997 onward, principal officials’ accountability system, mother tongue tutoring, Asian financial crisis, SARS epidemic, 1st July rallies, Lehman brothers, 2008 financial tsunami, HSBC share price collapse, bird flu, moral and national education, air and light pollution…. to today, for the people of Hong Kong, the so-called ‘doomsday’, would certainly be the decay of the spirit of Hong Kong. Though invisible, it stays beside us, aloof.

If ever I have the chance to witness the last glimpse of piercing white light before the doom of Hong Kong, I hope that the people of Hong Kong, from every walk of life, with their limited days on earth, resolve with willfulness to live. Say goodbye to the outermost city of South China.”

The Roadsider – Siu Wai Hang

The aim of this project is to photograph collected samples of roadside vegetation from several districts in Hong Kong located close to or in landfills, container yards, and urban areas. The plants were easily collected, because the roots and branches were weak and fragile due to the adverse conditions in which they lived. Dust, particles, and toxic gases block the sunlight, and stop photosynthesis, killing roadside vegetation. The same toxins that roadside vegetation absorb, is actually what we breathe on the streets everyday in Hong Kong. The death of vegetation is a reflection of Hong Kong’s abominable air quality. Polluted plant specimens were photographed using a standardized typological photography methodology. Details of tiny particles and dust covering each sample of roadside vegetation are visible in each photo, emphasizing that vehicle emissions is a main culprit of air pollution in Hong Kong.”


Kursaleté Prints – Kurt Tong

“These 10 unique prints are some of the first samples of the latest printing technology known as Kursaleté Print. With that in mind, Kurt Tong is developing the next generation of photo imaging. Moving on from ‘ink squirted onto paper’, Kurt will be utilising dirt. Different adhesives are applied onto traditional Giclée prints and left on various roadsides in order for air pollutants to organically bind to the prints. Hong Kong was chosen as the first test city since it has one of the worst air qualities in relation to GDP per capital in the world. To give credibility to the technique, Saleté, French for ‘dirt’ has been chosen for its name. Future prints will also utilize burnt bugs in street lamps and reclaimed land dust.”


Tse Chi Tak – We Gift the Urbanites with Fresh Breeze

“Suburbanites from the North East New Territories are comprised of farmers, gardening enthusiasts, conservation docents and people who have live there as their ancestors had for generations. They are blessed with homes, fields and fresh air. In the project We Gift the Urbanites with Fresh Breeze, suburbanites gave their fresh air-grown plants to Hong Kongers living in areas affected by serious air pollution. Through this gesture, their hope is to share with the urbanites the idyllic atmosphere of their environment and their love for nature, and to remind them that plants are critical to air purification. The urbanites, in return, created a ‘sunny doll’ – a tradition adopted from rural Japan in which a handmade doll is hung in the window of one’s home representing a wish for sunshine and a blessing for the peoples of the countryside for the continued health of their plants and their future.

If development merely means building more big cities and converting green belt areas into urban ones, destroying suburbanite life and culture, such development can only bring temporary solutions in the form of a seemingly more comfortable life, more efficient consumption and easier planning. However, we are, indeed, over-drafting for resources that should be for future generations, leaving instead environmental damage that is irreversible. Spiritual development, therefore, is more important. It is achieved through learning to care for and bless each other.”

Levels of pollutants often exceed the limits set by the World Health Organization, Hong Kong lags well behind other urban centres like New York, London and Tokyo that have cleaned up their air. According to a University of Hong Kong study, air pollution has led to well over 3,000 premature deaths, more than 20,000 daily doctors’ visits and a monetary loss of 39 billion HKD a year.

As Asia’s leading financial centre, Hong Kong’s position is under threat as businesses relocate to alternative countries — siting mounting health concerns as a primary reason. Hong Kong’s government recently announced initiatives to tackle the problem of its polluted air, with the Environmental Protection Department slated to spend 627 million HKD on managing air quality in the current financial year. The impact of these approaches will be closely watched in Hong Kong.

WYNG Masters Award

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