Artist, writer, and curator Wong Hoy Cheong reflects on the Cities on the Move exhibition, twenty years on
George Town, Malaysia, 2017
When you google the phrase 'cities on the move', the first search result is linked to the energy and technology company Siemens. The overview on its home page states that urban communities will face explosive growth and collisions of forces, and how the company can offer cities 'strategies and tools to ensure that they will become social, cultural and economic hubs'. The second search result is a 2015 event titled Cities on the Move organized by the New Cities Foundation. It convened thinkers, designers, and planners to discuss issues of urban infrastructure and mobility. Another search result is a 2002 World Bank report, Cities on the Move: A World Bank Urban Transport Strategy Review, focusing on the sustainability of urban transport with an emphasis on equitability and accessibility for the poor. The rest of the search results point to various websites directly or indirectly linked to writings and archival information on the Cities on the Move exhibition.
However, it is the three results I mentioned that interest me the most. I find it uncanny that the phrase 'cities on the move', used by Siemens, the World Bank and an NGO should encapsulate ideas and issues not dissimilar to those put forward in the Cities on the Move exhibition mounted twenty years ago at the turn of the last century—namely, that cities are catalysts for innovation, transformation, and contestation, as well as sites for sociocultural ferment, discourse, and engagement.
Sometime in early 1997, if I recall correctly, I received an email from Hou Hanru and Hans Ulrich Obrist informing me of a project they were working on. They told me they would be coming to Kuala Lumpur (KL).
During the visit, Hanru and Hans engaged with artists, writers, architects, and opinion makers, asking questions and gathering information. In between and after meetings, we drove around Kuala Lumpur with wide-eyed wonderment and bemusement, soaking up the showy outcomes of the economic boom years in Southeast Asia. We visited the streets of the old city, with its bustling Chinatown and Indonesian and Nepalese immigrant traders; the just-completed shimmering glass-and-steel César Pelli–designed Petronas Twin Towers punctuating the haze-filled sky; the prizewinning bioclimatic tower by architect Ken Yeang, rising up solitary by the highway, on a large, empty plot of land; and a newly opened hotel and shopping mall, capped by a sand-colored pyramid and heralded by a six-story-high lion-headed sphinx at the entrance, where we savored the most enormous tiramisu I had ever seen.
Mid-1990s Kuala Lumpur, like many Asian cities, exuded optimism and dynamism. It thrived on new money, opulence, and an assured sense of economic and social mobility for all those who flocked here. New high-rises, banks, highways, flyovers; even a Gotham-like capital city rose from cleared oil palm plantations and peat marshes outside of Kuala Lumpur. Relentless piling, construction, and traffic jams clogged the roads, and up to two million legal and illegal migrant workers from other Southeast and South Asian countries came to seek a better life. Malaysia roared arrogantly, and was catching up with the Four Asian Tigers: the newly developed economic powerhouses of Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. 'Malaysia Boleh!' (Malaysia can!) was the catchphrase of the generation. 'Asian values' was the ideological posturing, affirmed by the Bangkok Declaration of 1993 and passionately propagated by Malaysia’s prime minister Mahathir Mohamed and Singapore’s prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, both septuagenarians at the time.
The first permutation of Cities on the Move emerged at the Vienna Secession, with the heightened, hypermaniacal, everything-is-possible fervor of the 1990s on full display. Unfortunately, by the time the exhibition opened in late 1997, that optimism and joie de vivre had evaporated. Asia was in crisis, in a state of financial meltdown. One after another, currencies, economies, and markets tumbled spectacularly. Fortunes vanished. Banks collapsed. The economic bubble had burst. Doom and a foreboding sense of unrest permeated much of Asia, soon to erupt in violent proportions in Indonesia and Malaysia over the years that followed.
In 1897, one hundred years before the Cities on the Move exhibition, the Vienna Secession was founded by a group of Austrian artists, sculptors, and architects who had resigned from the Association of Austrian Artists. Above the entrance of that iconic building is the phrase 'Der Zeit ihre Kunst. Der Kunst ihre Freiheit' (To every age its art. To every art its freedom).
It is no coincidence that Cities on the Move was first installed at this venue on the eve of the hundredth anniversary of the Vienna Secession. The exhibition curators posited their own form of rebellion and 'secession', particularly in terms of curatorial imagination and objectives, and in how the exhibition was designed and installed. Rethinking the entangled relationships among different art trajectories and their engagement with urban economies, daily life, and the city was especially crucial.
The gallery space was transformed into a laboratory for experimentation. Over one hundred works were installed in the airy hall, each held in constant tension by a metal scaffolding structure, with a mezzanine floor designed by Yung Ho Chang. The works on display include talking durians, a jockey golf course, intricate toothpick structures, sleeping pods, a tuk-tuk, a catapult on a bicycle, architectural models, sculptural photographs, decorative lights, pickled vegetables, plastic utensils, and toys. Works conversed and clashed with each other in a cacophony of forms, sounds, and sensations. There was a palpable sense of relentlessness in the exhibition. It was overwhelming, with little respite. Navigating through the exhibition became a heightened sensorial and physical experience, not unlike negotiating many a city in Asia, particularly one with 'post-planning' developments, as postulated by Hanru some years earlier in a conference in Shenzhen, China.
There was vigorous debate among those who were involved in and those who saw this first permutation of Cities on the Move. It was an experiment that provoked strong opinions. Some artists were infuriated by the inability to view their artworks without being obstructed by other installations. A few even withdrew from the project along the way. Critics were perplexed and yet curiously captivated by the curatorial selection and strategy. The exhibition was both condemned and praised. Some museum professionals were aghast at the cluttered display, and opined that it would be inconceivable to mount such an exhibition within their galleries. Yet, despite the mixed bag of reactions, Cities on the Move generated an unprecedented interest in the art community, and travelled to six other locations: PS1, New York; CAPC Musée d’art contemporain de Bordeaux, the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Copenhagen; Hayward Gallery, London; Kiasma, Helsinki; and Bangkok.
Over the next two years, the curators and artists experimented with new strategies as they closely followed the unfolding sociocultural, economic, and political crises in Asia. The project mutated and reinvented itself with each venue; there were new commissions and artists, new groupings and themes. In Hayward Gallery, the previous structure of a Russian avant-garde fashion design exhibition was half demolished and de/reconstructed by Rem Koolhaas and Ole Scheeren as an exhibition space. In Bangkok, the city sprawl itself became a site for the experiment.
The last installation of Cities on the Move closed in Helsinki in January 2000, amidst relief that the millennial Y2K bug had not wreaked worldwide havoc as technology soothsayers had predicted. Asia underwent massive changes over the years spanning the inception of the exhibition in 1997 and its conclusion in 2000. Governments fell in South Korea, Thailand, and Indonesia. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund bailed out and helped restructure economies in Asia. Hong Kong was returned to China. The Reformasi (Reformation) movements in Malaysia and Indonesia resulted in moral and political crises in both countries, with detentions and thousands of deaths in the latter. The rhetoric of so-called Asian values so fervently advocated by autocratic leaders had dissipated. Cities on the Move, which had premised itself on pre-crises maniacal optimism, could neither foresee nor avoid the waves of political and financial tumult enveloping Asia.
What differentiated Cities on the Move from other blockbuster exhibitions was that it engaged with the city as both a site and a catalyst. It recognised the indomitable march of technology, globalisation, migration, and the emergence of Asia as a new cultural, economic, and political player. It was an exhibition which was borne of and fed off the optimism and anxieties of the turn of the twentieth century. It straddled the shift between the analogue and the digital, the fax machine and the e-mail, the landline phone and mobile phone. Cities on the Move captured that zeitgeist, the tense and palpable zone of flux between two centuries where the urgent needs of the present became inextricably intertwined with dreams for a utopian future.
This text will appear in an anthology, edited by April Lamm (Sternberg Press, forthcoming 2018), which collects anecdotes, portraits, and impressions of Hans Ulrich Obrist by his friends and collaborators. All images courtesy of Cities on the Move exhibition archive at Asia Art Archive. This article was first published on Podium, M+ Stories.
Wong Hoy Cheong is an artist, writer, and curator born in George Town, Penang. He has participated in exhibitions internationally, including the Venice, Gwangju, Istanbul, Taipei, and Liverpool biennials. In 2011, Wong was awarded the Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Creative Fellowship. He was one of Newsweek’s ten ‘Mavericks & Rebels’ trailblazers of Asia in 2010 and named to Asiaweek’s list of ‘Leaders of the Next Millennium’ in 1999. Wong has lectured at institutions all over the world. For his work as an educator, Cornell University named a scholarship after him in 1993. Wong studied literature, education, and fine arts at Brandeis University, Harvard University, and the University of Massachusetts (Amherst).