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(Re) Presenting – Queering the Archives- ‘Collecting Desires, Archiving Secrets: From Cultural Hoarders to Lost Judys’ by artist Hiram To

May 14, 2014 – Queer Histories Symposium, Darwin

The Queer Histories Symposium, as part of the
Asia Pacific Outgames in Darwin 2014 included a paper performed by artist Hiram To. A draft of this paper is attached in this memory post.

Excerpt from Historical Society of the Northern Territory
Patron: The Hon Austin Asche AC
PO Box 40544, Casuarina NT 0811

Queer diversity across race, culture and gender will be proudly debated by speakers from Fiji, Indigenous Australia, New Zealand and Samoa. Initiatives to queer the archives will be discussed (Australia, New
Zealand, the Philippines), and history practitioners will share insights into various technologies used in projects documenting queer life in the Northern Territory. Finally, to wrap it all up, an esteemed Hong
Kong artist, Hiram To will encourage us to consider notions of memory and desire in cinema.

The Symposium will take place on Wednesday 14 May, 2014, at the Double Tree by Hilton (the former Beaufort Hotel), Esplanade, Darwin. Registration for the event is now open via the website, at $20 waged
and $10 unwaged. or

Contact ALGA in Melbourne for related archival resources.




WORKING DRAFT ONLY         [Archives Copy]      


Collecting Desires, Archiving Secrets:

     From Cultural Hoarders to Lost Judys


(Note: To be talked through mostly)


This talk is a challenge. Being given a one-person platform and a relatively open brief of ‘archive’ had me thinking about this paper for some weeks. Moreover, as I realized after accepting, the symposium is a little out of my comfort zone— not because the premise is Queer Histories—  but  I have to admit that simply I am not a very ‘good’ example of a gay artist; or a good ‘Asian’ artist for the matter (you’ll probably be more aware as this goes on). As it turns out, it is a productive call, and it brings me to thinking out and differentiating my practice from what goes on as well as pinning down what’s at play in contemporary art today.


To start, I want to talk about the idea of ‘placement.’ For a long time now my work has been about identity and appearance, and it is often as much as where you want to place yourself, as well as others place you.  So I am interested in these frameworks of ‘conditioning,’ the types of cultural systems that I have had to operate within, and the ways I respond to them.


For the last decade and more I spent working in communications, but I feel I am always at a loss when it comes to communicating my own art career. When cultures seek to definite themselves today, I feel that it is often reduced down to a sense of essentialism. So, if you want to wade through ‘my’ categories like ‘Hong Kong artist,’ ‘Chinese artist,’ ‘Asian artist,’ ‘Australian artist,’ ‘Diaspora artist,’ ‘gay artist’ (you can start mixing these up and create different combos) ….  Basically, at the end of it if you can attach yourself to two or more of any categories, you are essentially an outsider to your environment.


Although I had visited the other Australian capital cities when I lived in Queensland, I had never visited Darwin.  But then, maybe a large majority of Australians hadn’t either. So, we are at a place where it was once side-swiped in World War 2 and Cyclone Tracy— kind of a hybrid of Pearl Harbor and Kansas from Oz, a tropical paradise, a place of renewals. If I weren’t incorrect, it is also the only Australian city that when you look outwards there are other countries close by apart from water. It sounds like the place in Australia that is actually closest with the rest of the world, and a good stomping ground to ponder about histories and its connections with other cultures.


Back to live where I am these days, when the sovereignty of Hong Kong returned to China in 1997, the city, which previously had rarely been bothered with archiving its own sensibilities, found a new religion. Surprisingly, this devotion of observing, measuring, analyzing, mapping and quantifying hardly abated, and today we see all types of activities attempting to scrutinize the existence of the city. (I want to show you the brief of a current exhibition The Scarlet Bauhinia in Full Bloom and maybe it will explain a little on what I am on about.).


Perhaps what is interesting about the scope of an ‘archive’ is that it is not only restricted to the physicality of a space that contains the material, or the collected objects and documents. In culture, it has been transformed into a ceaseless industry and marketing machinery in the constant reinterpretation of history for the marketplace. The ‘archive’ has entered into the realm of a ‘sensibility.’  In her essay Perspectives: Negotiating the Archive, Sue Breakell of the Tate Archive revealed the fallibility on our ever-escalating desire for categorising and sorting. She wrote, “the archive by its very nature is characterised by gaps…. Any archive is a product of the social processes and systems of its time, and reflects the position and exclusions of different groups or individuals within those systems.”   This system that Breakell referred to is no longer the results of social processes but seemed to have transformed into a new ‘industry’ in culture.


Globally, the parameters of cultures have expanded geographically and ideologically, overlapping and overflowing in every direction in recent times. If you are on the e-flux mailing list, you will have noticed the high number of institutions, exhibitions, projects and initiatives out there today attempting to archive and map every possible corner of the world and its experiences, both historical and contemporary. Recently, I received an exhibition notice for a project called Ten Million Rooms of Yearning. Sex in Hong Kong, a multi-venue exhibition created by the Parasite space in Hong Kong. The project is said to explore

“ways in which desire is experienced and sex is had, hidden, fantasized, altered, and replaced by various factors. From family structure to class, power relations to various identities (racial, sexual and beyond); from seclusion and solitude to the many worlds of contemporary subcultures, and from architecture’s role in shaping intimacy to capitalism’s over-determination of Hong Kong’s embattled public space.”


Judging by the title of the project, you would have thought the city is either so incredibly repressed, or having sex in Hong Kong is no longer in fashion, just like you shouldn’t be upturning the collar on your polo shirt. Without trying to focus too much into details of the exhibition, what fascinated me is the way the title of the show offers an all encompassing agenda of identifying and archiving the entire topography of why the city’s inhabitants are shying away from sex.


It goes on:

minuscule living spaces, general density, financial burdens, and extended time spent living with one’s parents do not favour intimacy to develop. The public space is oversaturated by promises and arousals of various desires so that cruising and the uncontrolled, spontaneous interactions between individuals and bodies are exiled from every corner of this regulated public space.”


The exhibition brief goes on to explain:

Within a wide selection of local, regional and international artists of various generations, the exhibition also sheds light on seminal art historical figures from Hong Kong, tracing a history of representation of eroticism beginning with the work of a few crucial modernist artists, and pointing out, in the process, to the many vocabularies employed in the city’s post-war art history. 


I want to highlight this particular exhibition because, from the title at least, of its seeming over-determination to be an ‘archive’ of how sex is represented by the visual arts in Hong Kong. The surprise is the inclusion of a number of senior Hong Kong artists working in the modernist model—of which sex seems to be last thing their work are meant to be about, and overseas artists (who had never lived in Hong Kong) exhibiting works about sex in the city. Amongst the list is the well-known Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama; the relevance is a bit lost on me, but maybe like Kusama we all see doubles?


I want to cite this example as this project is just one of the many I came across which had been measuring, mapping and documenting every corner and crevasses of culture around the world. They are all legitimate practices, and like the history of histories, everyone wants to be the first to create the grand narrative; and in this case, about sex. On the other hand, can we contemplate this phenomenon like a meme, a self-replicating condition of mimicry about a wholesale-style ‘claiming’ of the subject?


In the American television docu-series Hoarders, people with the condition of OCD— Obsessive Compulsive Disorder manifesting in hoarding— are featured in the show. These contemporary ‘descendants’ of the infamous Collyer’s brothers— usually linked to some kind of post-traumatic stress disorder— fill their homes, and beyond, to the brim.  Essentially, the voids in these hoarders’ inner selves are compensated by their behaviour of acquiring and accumulating, all in preparation of that rainy day. The horror houses of these hoarders are way beyond the special effects teams of any film studios are able to conjure, while the perpetrator is inevitably oblivious to the sight, smells and dangers of their collection. On the TV show, the participants are confronted by the jolt of having to deal with their haul within two days, some under the pressing desperation of their homes facing condemnation or on the brink of confiscation by the city councils.


For hoarders, the archive is never complete. Memories fade, but objects are well served as the ideal insulators from the world. Cocooned in their netherworld of shopping, bric-a-bracs and even bags and bottles of bodily matters, there is always a gap in what they need to acquire, that one more item to add. Conversely, hoarders can also be the imperfect perfectionists, and supposedly when the process of archiving becomes out of control in their own personal systems, they simply give up on the sorting and allow the nature process to take over.


Like hoarders, an entire archive ‘industry’ appears to have been given rise through the acceleration of art fairs, auctions and collectors around the world, and the visual arts as the purveyor for this new fairground of gimmicks. The art market and auction houses have long created their own histories in pumping up prices of works and artists. Cultural institutions also construct versions of histories and family trees according to their preferences as their institutional templates.


Under this process, the information or the art can literally be seen as a MacGuffin, a prop that Alfred Hitchcock described as merely an object that propels the narrative forward, without being of inherent value, or alternatively, the secret that motivates the action (according to the filmmaker Yves Lavandier). In this sense, there is really no rationale of inclusion or exclusion in this ‘archiving,’ much like the behaviour of a hoarder. A hoarder wants them all and is be reluctant to part with any of its sum. This self-protective mechanism is their ultimate secret. (Examples of MacGuffins include the package in The 39 Steps, the matchbook in North by Northwest, and the statuette in The Maltese Falcon). 


I have been told I am a hoarder (as you can see here…) so I want to now go to my archive and show you some of my uses of archive images beginning in 1994 in Australia. These works make use of archive images from a spectrum of sources from the cinema, television, history books, magazines, etc. (As an artist whose practice began in the mid-1980s, I was very much influenced by the conceptual practices of ‘Pictures Generation’ (Barbara Bloom, Jack Goldstein, Louise Lawler, Sherrie Levine, to name a few…). 

The Skin I’m In (1994, 2002)

This work features a suite of photographically enlarged, hand-tinted photographic postcards purchased in Leeds, England, which was said to have to have been found in an abandoned shop in Gibraltar. Accompanying the images is a drum set, where the drum skins are masked by images of tinted clothing. This is the second version of the clothing images.


Notes on the work

Richard Grayson, for my exhibition essay, wrote:

In The Skin I’m In – the ‘I’ appears to have been entirely removed or consumed. Only the inanimate remains, even though we are made powerfully aware of the absence of this missing body. The ‘I’ is not there, but we are left with the representation of the clothes that the ‘I’ has used to both cover and define its moving flesh and muscle, and self…


Most of the surfaces in The Skin I’m In have another veneer on them- the walls have been covered with another colour, the drums sealed with images of clothing, which once concealed another body. Lastly, the images of the sailors have been tinted by a previous hand and inscribed with a script describing distant shores in another language.



In Visible Differences (1994-95)


Notes on the works

Cheung King Hung, in the catalogue essay, wrote:

In In Visible Differences, the artist’s observations on the interplay of art, entertainment, power and politics are filtered through the memory of celluloid history. To’s fascination with the Orient- as mirrored in Hollywood’s studio system- carries bioth scorn and affection.  The wall-mounted glass disks contain Technicolor close-ups of Caucasian actors made up as Oriental characters in popular Hollywood films made since the 1940s. The images underpin the then current view of Asia as a potential threat to western freedom.


Hiram To deliberately flattens these exaggerated cultural representations between thick glass disks using a centered, full-face likeness to mimic the shape and design of coins. Whereas the dreamy images recall days of racial American propaganda through cinematic entertainment, the enlarged, ice-cool medallions point to a recent and significant economic role for Asia in the game of cultural currency that characterizes western and Asian politics. Etched on the glacial surfaces of these portraits, defacing each face, are deep scrawls of textual fragments, and in truth they are photographically-captured signatures of Australian curators, editors and museum directors who spearheaded Australia’s diplomatic ties with Asia in the mid-1990s.


In another work In Visible Difference (1995-2002), another set of actors are featured. Pale, bleached out images of Aidan Quinn, James Wilby, Joe Dallesandro, Linus Roach and Mitch Litchtenstein, who portrayed gay characters in a number of gay-themed films from the 1980-90s, appear on the disks, obscured by rapidly scrawled numbers and information. These ghostly close-ups disguise who these men are as actors and individuals, coinciding with the invisible and silenced roles that gays often play in mainstream society.





I Love You More Than My Own Death (2007)


Notes on the work

The show explores our fascination with spectacles of power, greed and self-interest, qualities that are often associated with deceit. The project refers to a scandalous moment in the history of the Venice Biennale, when in 1993, a then New York-based, independent curator, Christian Leigh, produced the exhibition ‘I Love You More Than My Own Death.’ After the opening, Leigh disappeared, leaving a trail of unpaid debts. Consequently, artworks in the shows were detained by authorities for five years. Leigh, a ‘shape-shifter’ with a former career as a teenage dress designer, resurfaced in the late 1990s as C.S. Leigh, a film auteur living in Europe.


The story of Leigh is interwoven with the histories of Ching Ling Foo and his rival, Chung Ling Soo. Ching was a Beijing-born magician who found fame in the United States in the 1900s, while Chung Ling Soo, his arch enemy, was a Scottish-New Yorker who masqueraded as a Chinese conjurer for nearly two decades until he was shot to death in one of his famed tricks.


The trio of sculptures, playing on game show sets and optical illusion, presents the three stages of a magic act – The Pledge, The Turn and The Prestige – as they have been interpreted by novelist Christopher Priest. Each piece can be seen as a stand-in for Ching, Leigh or Chung.


The cultural and mythical connotations associate with these luscious fruits— the aforementioned mango (unseen in northern China population in the 1960s), the sub-cultural linking of the peach with sexuality and homosexuality, and the Greek mythologies of the pomegranate (also known as the “Chinese apple) create a complex and intricate set of narratives which span social and political histories, literary folklore, and allegorical tales.   The depiction of luscious fruits, serving as a McGuffin* (as coined by Alfred Hitchcock), reveal an intricate set of narratives which span social and political histories, literary folklore, and allegorical tales.


In this exhibition, Hiram To is presented as an early Twentieth Century showman. In Shoot The Moon,’ he plays a take on James Cagney’s portrayal of the legendary American music-man George M. Cohan. A suite of litho printing plates, entitled Eight Models, returns to the myths of Ching, Leigh and Chung, where their stories are both metaphorically and physically transported back to the point of their construction and distribution.







Fortune Landscape (2011)


Notes on the Work

These two panels entitled Fortune Landscapes make use of film stills from the movie Soldier of Fortune (Edward Dmytryk (Dir.), 1955) depicting Hong Kong in the background. Along with Love is a Many Splendored thing, these two films were the first Hollywood films made on location in the city. Referring to Hong Kong in a period of western movie-making history from the 1940s to 1980s where the city was a place of desire, mystery and occasionally dangerous, the images have been tinted and printed onto mirror Plexi, and are overlaid with images of flowers taken from floral arrangement instruction cards from the 1960s, which belong to my mother.


In Fortune Landscapes, the artist adopts the dual viewpoints of an outsider observer and of an insider. The frame of the work offers the experience of ‘looking in’ and ‘looking out,’ as if peering into the passage of times passed through a floral arrangement. It is as much about how the ‘outside’ form perceptions of the East, as it is about how ‘we’ play-act specific ‘stereotypes’ in defining our own identities


Hal Foster, writing in the October journal in 2004, described “the archival artists seek to make historical information, often lost or displaced…”  It is, he continued, “concerned less with absolute origins than with obscure traces… these artists are often drawn to unfulfilled beginnings or incomplete projects-in art and in history alike-that might offer points of departure again.” 


The last project I want to discuss is

Garlands (2012)


Notes on the Work

In Garlands, rather uncharacteristically I took on my own family history and my earliest memories of my mother’s Doris Day records, and later, through the character Esther Blodgett / Vicki Lester as played by the legendary actress Judy Garland in A Star Is Born.


Building a fictional narrative that crosses into my family experience, I invited my mother to pose in a series of portraits based on vintage studio shots of Judy Garland. The completed work, rendered on a glittered ground, flirts dangerously with sentimentality. Yet, the images are intended to function beyond the easy definitions of ‘drag,’ ‘camp,’ or ‘kitsch’. If sentimentality can be summarized as the expression of uncomplicated emotions at the expense of reason, these works are the opposite as they deal with conflicting feelings and memories on shimmering surfaces.


A second series, Vessel, presents photographic images of floral arrangements also created by my mother in the Ikebana style. The images draw upon childhood visits to my mother’s flower arranging class at the YWCA. My mother belonged to the first generation of cheongsam wearing-office ladies in Central, a generation of new ‘feminist’ in Hong Kong (re: the character So Lai Chun in Wong Kar Wai’s In The Mood For Love).


Flower arrangements at home would be a feature of all the festival occasions of my early years. At the same time, these temporal displays would serve as totems of time, underpinning the cultural values and psyche of the era. Vessels refers not only to the vases and basins in varying forms and shapes that contained the floral arrangements; it is also a reference to ourselves as receptacles of learning, where much of the content is often short-lived or changing, like the plant life they hold. The floral arrangements in the images are not in full views— cropped to be seen from a particular vantage point— the diffused, Kodakchrome-coloured photographs have been printed on mirror, effectively masking the silver’s reflective ability, a reference on the return of visiting spirits.





Hiram To, Doris, 2012
Ink on canvas, oil pastel, pen, crystals and thread © Hiram To