An artwork inspired by street badminton leads to a conversation between artist Shirley Tse and urban researcher Sampson Wong about public space in Hong Kong.
In 2019, Shirley Tse represented Hong Kong at the 58th Venice Biennale with the exhibition Shirley Tse: Stakeholders, Hong Kong in Venice. One of the exhibition's installations, Playcourt, consists of multiple sculptures that form a surreal, makeshift game of badminton—a work based on Tse’s memories of playing street badminton in Hong Kong as a child. On the occasion of the show's Hong Kong edition, Shirley Tse: Stakes and Holders, we invited artist and urban researcher Sampson Wong to join Tse in conversation about badminton and public spaces, from the colonial legacy of the sport to Hongkongers' knack for transforming private spaces into public ones.
The Meaning of Badminton
Shirley: I’d like to start with a brief introduction to the origin of the scene in Playcourt. The idea of making the shuttlecock sculptures actually preceded the framing of the work as a badminton game.
My family is part of the Chinese diaspora—my mother worked on a rubber plantation in British Malaya during colonial times, and her cousin grew vanilla after emigrating to Tahiti. Combining these two colonial products, rubber and vanilla, to form a badminton shuttlecock seemed quite meaningful for an exhibition representing Hong Kong. Later, I discovered badminton itself was also a colonial sport originating in British India.
The game scene in the installation was inspired by the courtyard of the exhibition venue in Venice. It reminded me of my childhood experience of playing badminton on the street. My brother, sister, and I would grab a few rubbish bins and use them as a net across an empty alleyway. While preparing the Venice exhibition I was steeped in the idea of agency and negotiation under the concept of ‘stakeholders’, and it occurred to me that street badminton is an act of reclaiming the public domain. I became convinced that Playcourt needed to allude to the actual act of playing badminton, not just include the shuttlecock as a sculptural object.
Sampson: Speaking of rethinking colonial history and colonialism, one significant moment in the past decade or so was the demolition of the Queen’s Pier in Hong Kong. At the time, protesters offered the rationale that it should be preserved as a monument not only for its importance in colonial history, but also for its ‘grassroots’ character. It was a place where successive governors of Hong Kong and members of the royal family had landed, but also a place for people to relax and engage in public activities. This is also a kind of post-colonial reflection.
Leading up to its demolition, citizens tried to reclaim the pier and highlight its characteristics as a public space. There are photos of demonstrators and other citizens playing badminton on the pier. They used badminton to express that this public space belonged to them. That scene left a deep impression on me. I had just graduated from university, and it inspired me to go on to investigate public spaces.
Many think that Hong Kong’s colonial nature is reflected in our managerialism, meaning that we follow the rules and don’t dare breach them. However, some have come to feel that Hongkongers’ response to managerialism, while submissive, is not necessarily passive—that there is a subtle undercurrent of resistance. The demonstrators who reoccupied that public space by playing badminton on the street reminded me of this.
Shirley: I appreciate how people can break through boundaries and make use of space in flexible, imaginative ways. However, this flexibility largely comes about due to a lack of resources. Therein lies the contradiction. The lack of space encourages people to be creative, but without this problem, they wouldn’t have to find solutions in the first place.
Sampson: This is indeed a dilemma. For example, I have an artist friend who loves to explore Hong Kong’s urban scenery. When I interviewed him, however, I learned that he started his explorations because he lived in a subdivided flat and had no personal space.
The Agency of 'Play'
I saw someone playing badminton in an empty lot in Lam Tin a while ago. The wind was strong, and they looked a little pitiful. Interestingly, people are willing to take on the challenges of playing badminton outside just to have some space to play. These challenges also change the way the game is played.
Shirley: From another perspective, if a child had never tried badminton indoors, they might think that wind is just part of the game and not see it as a problem.
Sampson: I agree. You can give a child anything, and they’ll have their own way to play with it. ‘Play’ is itself a kind of agency.
Many spaces in Hong Kong are privately owned, so the act of playing badminton on the street reflects how people understand public space. They feel that public space is not something given by someone else—that the point is not who owns the rights, but whether or not they can make the place public. Shopping malls in Hong Kong are one example. They are absolutely privately owned places, but last year during the social movement, citizens often gathered in malls to sing. This changed the original purpose of the malls, temporarily transforming them into public spaces.
Another example is the so-called ‘Sai Wan Pier’. This was originally called the Western District Public Cargo Working Area and was not a public space. However, with people from neighbouring areas going there to relax and the owners of the pier not seeming to mind, it gradually transformed into an important public space. More and more people who didn’t live in the area began to hear about it, and it eventually earned the nickname ‘Instagram Pier’. This shows that privately owned places can, under certain conditions, also be public ones. Often, all it takes is for us to pay attention to a place and intervene in particular ways for that place to become ours.
Shirley: ‘Ownership’ is an important concept in stakeholder theory. For example, if we realise that the air around us belongs to everyone, then our care and concern for it is justified. Putting pressure on the polluters and the structures that support them is therefore not an intervention, but an act of rightfully caring for something that is ours. Perhaps, in Hong Kong, people are not too concerned with the idea of ownership, since all land is owned by the government. As long as a certain number of people persevere in engaging in activities in a particular place, that place is given a ‘public’ status.
Characters from All Walks of Life
Sampson: I noticed that many of the human-like figures in Playcourt are supported by tripods and music stands, and fixed in place with sandbags. This brought to mind the people hawking broadband on Hong Kong’s footpaths. They use sandbags and cable ties to affix their banners and promotional devices on the ground and railings, emphasising that the space belongs to them. The sculptures in the installation made me think of people handing out flyers on the street, selling broadband, and even just passing by. How did the ideas behind these sculptures develop?
Shirley: It dates back to my previous solo exhibition in Los Angeles, Lift Me Up So I Can See Better. That exhibition was inspired by the story The Happy Prince. The protagonist lives a carefree life in the palace and is turned into a towering stone statue after he dies, at which point he finally sees the people suffering outside of the palace walls for the first time. This inspired me to explore different viewing angles in the exhibition. When people find themselves in different positions, the world they see may completely change, so I used the extendable nature of tripods to create a range of sculptures of adjustable heights. When creating Playcourt, I thought of using these sculptures as a badminton net. After all, if rubbish bins can turn into a net, why not sculptures?
The Relationship between Sculptures and People
Sampson: These sculptures are like different people; they feel like characters from all walks of life. Normal badminton matches usually only have two or four people taking part, but when you play on the street, you can add or subtract people as you want—you could even have ten people playing.
Shirley: On that idea of ‘characters from all walks of life’, [guest curator] Christina Li actually asked something similar. She asked me, ‘Are these anthropomorphic sculptures actually badminton players or are they other characters?’ I would describe them as an ‘optical net’. A net doesn’t need to be an actual physical net—as long as the players know what they’re referencing, anything can be a net. So, are these sculptures the subject or object? My answer is ‘both’. On the one hand, they can serve as a net and be considered the object; on the other, they look like people and could be the subject. There is no standard answer. The viewer can imagine it either way.
When it comes to sculpture, people usually think of it only as something that physically exists. For me, though, the focus is not just on the physical entity, but also on the relationship between the sculpture and the viewer. When viewers experience a work in person, they will walk around and discover different aspects of it from different angles. Even if the sculpture is completely symmetrical, they’ll discover this symmetry by seeing that it’s the same from any angle. The same is true for public spaces. Perhaps, as you said, the point isn’t the ownership, but how people relate to it and how they use the space.
Sampson: The bleachers in Playcourt also give me a feeling of familiarity. I used to see these kinds of bleachers at ball courts. I see them less and less these days, so I’m glad someone still remembers them. They’re not that comfortable to sit on, but I have so many memories associated with them.
Shirley: They are the simplest kind of seating you find at sports fields. Maybe they’re not meant for people to sit on for that long, since a game is usually only about an hour.
Sampson: Very few people in Hong Kong actually watch the games on public sports fields. They’re usually sitting in the stands doing their own thing. I love going to Southorn Playground to see what different things the spectators are doing. The sculptures in Playcourt also seem to be like that. They’re part of the game, but doing their own thing. The mix of people existing in public spaces is like that.
Shirley: Public spaces play the role of facilitators of whatever people are doing. They have intended uses, but whether or not people want to actually follow the rules and use them like that is up to them, just like the bleachers, which were intended for people just to sit and watch games. This again echoes the concept of the ‘stakeholder’. A person must have agency and feel ownership in order to scrutinise the rules.
This article was originally published on M+ Stories to coincide with Shirley Tse: Stakes and Holders.