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19 Sept 2019 / by Ellen Oredsson

From 1989 to Now: May Fung on Video Art

A woman smiles at the camera, sitting in front of a video projected on the wall of a gallery space. The video shows a blindfolded woman walking in front of a traditional Chinese temple with her arms stretched out in front of her.

May Fung with She Said Why Me in the M+ Pavilion. Photo: M+, Hong Kong

Hong Kong filmmaker May Fung has been active for over forty years in the Hong Kong film and arts community. Her work She Said Why Me (1989) is currently on view in the exhibition Five Artists: Sites Encountered. It depicts a woman walking blindfolded through the bustling streets of Hong Kong. These images are interspersed with black-and-white archival footage of women in various public contexts. The constant shifting of sites and the sense of unease displayed by the blindfolded woman clearly express the anxiety felt by the city’s residents—especially women—as they attempt to explore their collective identity during a period of political uncertainty.

Fung recently gave a talk in conjunction with the exhibition. Below is an edited transcription, touching on her creative process and the history of video art in Hong Kong.

May Fung: The present situation in Hong Kong reminds me of my younger days. My work She Said Why Me was made in 1989, the year of the June 4th incident. I was thirty-seven. Leading up to and in response to the Tiananmen gathering, there were all kinds of demonstrations in Hong Kong. I was very active. Whenever there was a demonstration, I would go to the street with my video camera and film everything.

She Said Why Me was made in the latter half of 1989. At the time, many artists in Hong Kong, including me, didn’t think that art could help with anything. What was the point of making art?

In the US and Europe, video art started in the 1960s and 1970s, but it didn’t start in Hong Kong until a bit later. I began making experimental films in the 1970s, using Super 8 film. In the mid-1980s, I turned to video. There were not a lot of people making video art, because nobody knew what it was. Those of us who were doing it tried to organise workshops and run exhibition programmes for art spaces. We would organise our own screenings for very small groups. Nobody else cared, so we cared. Because of these continuous efforts, more people became interested. This eventually led to Videotage, which I founded in 1986 together with Ellen Pau, Wong Chi-fai, and Comyn Mo.

Still from a moving image work depicting a young woman viewed from the back from the shoulder up. Her head is turned over her shoulder, looking back at the camera. She is standing on a Hong Kong street, and the street and traffic on the road is visible behind her.

May Fung, She Said Why Me, 1989, VHS transferred to digital (colour, mono sound), 8 min. M+, Hong Kong. © May Fung

Interestingly, because of the June 4th incident, overseas artists started to become interested in what people were thinking in Hong Kong. In 1989, a German video artist called Hartmut Jahn came to the Goethe-Institut here. At the time, there were a handful of video artists—including Ellen Pau and me—who were very active, so we were treated as pioneers of video art in Hong Kong. We gathered together, and he ran a masterclass with us.

When we created, we tended to respond to what was happening around us. Instead, Jahn suggested that we look at historical footage of Hong Kong. I watched a lot of footage. The images that stuck with me the most were those of women, which I incorporated into She Said Why Me. When I watched the historical footage, I always asked: why did the people filming frame the women in the ways that they did?

She Said Why Me switches between historical footage and footage of a blindfolded woman making her way through present-day Hong Kong. The blindfolded woman represents me, but she was played by a friend because I was holding the camera. When you’re blindfolded, you can’t see things, but you can feel. I used touch to search my way through the city.

Still from a moving image work depicting a woman wearing a blindfold. She walks in front of a traditional Chinese temple entrance with her arms stretched out in front of her, feeling her way forward.

May Fung, She Said Why Me, 1989, VHS transferred to digital (colour, mono sound), 8 min. M+, Hong Kong. © May Fung

The relationship between me and Hong Kong was one of space and identity. At the time, Hong Kong was still under British administration, and there were a lot of British buildings. While creating the video work, I specifically looked at the architecture. There were the historical Chinese temples, and there were the colonial British buildings. These are very different kinds of architecture, which signified the space in Hong Kong that affected my identity. I represented both in my video.

The most challenging part of the process was figuring out how much historical footage I should use. I tried not to overuse it, and I had to be very selective. I used many historical images of women, such as footage of a famous Chinese political figure, Soong Ching-ling. She was sometimes called the mother of communism in China. I treat her like a hero, because she gave up her capitalistic background. I also inserted documentary images of women from demonstrations in Hong Kong. These women put themselves into a political situation to show themselves publicly, to say something for themselves.

In one of the historical videos, there’s a woman who looks back at whoever is behind the camera. I tried to shoot a similar image in the present, of the girl looking back. For me, this is a very emotional shot. In a way, it looks like I’ve asserted myself. Does it mean that I felt settled with my identity? I don’t know. It’s still a way of searching.

A video projected on a white wall in a gallery space in front of a bench. The video shows monochrome footage of a demonstration in which a woman holding a sign is being grabbed by a policeman.

She Said Why Me installed at the M+ Pavilion. Photo: M+, Hong Kong

When I was younger, I didn’t really care about politics. My works from my late twenties and early thirties were usually about myself, my concerns about motherhood, and what I should do as a woman. My first video work was called The Second Sex, and it took inspiration from the book by Simone de Beauvoir. It’s about two women and what kind of life they decide to live. One is a housewife, and one is a woman working in a bank. Then I made four video works in a series called Thought. All these are about myself, about wanting to be a mother, relationships, my depression, the kinds of psychological problems a woman could have in her thirties. It was a kind of therapy, as art can also be therapeutic.

Then one day, I thought, I’ve talked enough about myself. I looked at the world around me and I tried to address it in my work. I made video installation works about the environment, which was an issue that really touched me. I got involved with art education. For the past twenty years or so, I’ve been very involved with activism. Sometimes I still make video art, such as my recent short film The Greenest, which is about plastic bottles. It was a gradual process, from being quite focused on myself, and then focusing on society at large, my community, and the world.

Now, there’s a movement outside. I’m no longer a filmmaker. I stand aside and watch the young artists creating images. Thirty years ago, I was one of those people. I took my camera out all the time. Now, I step back and let the younger people take images of our present environment. I can be someone who appreciates, which I think is just as important.

The above talk has been edited for clarity. This article was originally published on M+ Stories.

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