Noise in the Dark: A Conversation on Xper.Xr
On the occasion of Xper.Xr’s exhibition “Tailwhip” at Hong Kong’s Empty Gallery, Jaime Chu, phoning in on a video call, joined curator and researcher Michelle Wong on a walkthrough. The show, which collects documentation, artefacts, and ephemera from throughout Xper.Xr’s nearly thirty years of activity in the industrial noise music and anti-art realms, is a rare window into Hong Kong's poorly-documented underground scene – colourful and full of petty spats that reflect the unruly energy of Xper.Xr’s multifaceted practice.
Jaime Chu: In “Tailwhip”, anti-white-cube Empty Gallery’s recent archival exhibition Xper.Xr’s output from the past three decades, the artist dedicates a 2021 reproduction of a mixed media painting – made from acrylic, Chinese ink, cement, mortar, and fake teeth; originally exhibited during a noise show at the now-defunct Quart Society, one of the first artist-run independent spaces in Hong Kong, which opened in 1990 – to the soon-opening M+ Museum. The tragically allegorical presence of the ever-looming, ever-completing, and ever-becoming M+ has only intensified since in the National Security Law came into effect in Hong Kong last July, as practitioners have been departing or resigning from positions of power, projects are getting defunded, and having a point of view feels increasingly pre-emptively guilty. Under these circumstances, “Tailwhip” seems to be a rare, disappearing opportunity to consider the archives of someone whose career – and now retrospective – connects these different spaces on a single timeline.
The shadowy and provocative Xper.Xr has been all over the place since he became active in the 1980s, starting out in Hong Kong and spending years studying and making art in London and Paris. He has, with the conviction of introducing alternative aesthetics to mainstream pop culture institutions, performed in Hong Kong’s first industrial noise shows, hosted extremely small-scale experimental cinema screening series (“I don’t believe we can’t even find a dozen people in this city with an open mind”, he once wagered), made fanzines for experimental music, brought avant-garde European artists like Hermann Nitsch (notable for his musical compositions, performances and association with the Viennese Actionists) and Laibach to Hong Kong, started an underground venue called CIA, co-founded labels, and got into drag racing.
I was born into the golden era of mainstream Cantopop, one of Xper.Xr’s main objects of criticism and parody, and the genre in the 80s and 90s has an outsized iconography that enjoys an afterlife in the global popular imagination pretty much apathetic to present reality, so that in this horse-shoeing moment, there is a simultaneous sense of mourning for the culture from that bygone era and the counter-culture it had inspired. Writing about Hong Kong from afar now, I am, of course, only noticing these reverberations from a distance. What was the show like in person?
Michelle Wong: It was dark (like Empty always is), but the gallery brightens up ever-so-slightly as you move inside and your eyes slowly adjust to the light. The vitrines are in the centre of the space, but you can also walk through and around them to wander and look for connections. There is a big projection screen on one side of the space that plays Xper.Xr’s performances, emitting an ambient flicker and sound. In other parts of the space, Xper.Xr’s works played on box TVs, another time stamp of the 90s.
What struck me was the connected creative milieu of that era – between the visual arts and noise scene; with the artist cooperative Quart Society being at the centre of “Tailwhip”, there seems to be that connection. Between the reproduction of Xper.Xr’s earlier works, the life-size pixelated printout figure of himself, and the listening lounge at the gallery – I think there’s some good momentum we can harness from a recent conversation between the artists Anthony Leung Po Shan, Lantian Xie, and Jane Cheung about metabolising the archive, pushing against the production of loss and scarcity and the romanticisation of disappearance. (For me, the larger question eventually is, what is or will be of cultural value in this place?)
Now that I’ve typed enough ... what impressions did you leave the walkthrough with?
JC: Who is Xper.Xr? There is always the fear that hoarders and lazy curators produce archival shows. (Maybe I am just cynical of a certain breed of retrospective exhibition that dumps a bunch of archival items in a vitrine and calls it a day.) There didn’t seem to be a language for reviewers and music journalists to talk about his work when he first started performing and releasing tapes and albums in the late 80s and early 90s. In turn, the writing either flounders in trite publicity-speak or the writers have to get creative themselves.
There is a report in an August 1990 issue of Youth Weekly about Xper.Xr’s rooftop show in January of that year, which was credited as the first noise show in Hong Kong, and it’s just a long list of free-associative phrases: “My impression of the Fringe Club show: space, performance, rocks, sand and mud, rope…fire, metal rod, electric drill…resistance…breathing without air, improv, religion, numb, hell, sexual feelings, sensual seeings, fuck your mom…pain… I can only lean on these fragmentary phases and the suggestive power of imagination to accurately represent who he is.” Maybe from the beginning, Xper.Xr’s disembodied presence has led his work to be more about the materiality than anything else.
For me, the most visible and loaded work (from what I could tell through the mediation of a video chat window) was the life-size reproduction of a pile of metal barriers from a photo of the spectacle of soccer fans rioting in London in 1994. Kaitlin at Empty Gallery, where “Tailwhip” was on view until 24 July, mentioned how Xper.Xr initially couldn’t get the barriers to pile up in a way that seemed organic, as they would’ve in a protest or in real use. The imagery is almost too overt in 2021, knowing what went down in Hong Kong in the past two years, but at the same time, you still can’t ignore the visceral pain by association. Two years ago, when the anti-extradition bill protests first began, the “Café do Brasil” show at Para Site, curated by Qu Chang, made timely connections to intellectual culture in the public sphere in the 70s, and I remember that a lot of discussions with friends about the show circled around the misalignment between what’s inside the galleries and what’s happening outside on the streets. Namely, one of the questions that kept coming up was, “what can do we do inside that we can’t do outside?”
Xper.Xr’s barricade now also brings to mind Kwan Sheung Chi’s Iron Horse – After Antonio Mak (2008/2020) in the recent exhibition of Ha Bik Chuen’s personal archive, which you curated. What connections do you see between the two?
AS I NEGOTIATE THE GLARE OF SPOTLIGHTS WHILE PEERING AT DOCUMENTS UNDER REFLECTIVE SURFACES … WHAT KIND OF WORLDS DO PRACTICES AND EXHIBITIONS THAT LEAN INTO THE DISPLAY OF ARCHIVES AND DOCUMENTS OPEN UP?
MW: It was slightly uncanny see to how Xper.Xr’s barricade and Kwan Sheung Chi’s Iron Horse speak to each other from two different exhibitions in Hong Kong at the same time. And of course Kwan Sheung Chi’s 2008 rendition of the work included an attempt to collect all of Hong Kong’s “iron horses” at the museum, that always brings a smirk to my face. What seems to have emerged from these past few exhibition seasons in Hong Kong is a constellation of shows that put art objects, artist interventions, and archival documents together, with curatorial gestures that blur the boundaries between the three. “Café do Brasil” (Para Site, 2019), “’Non-history: Archive as detour” (Fringe Club, 2020, curated by Vennes Cheng), “New Horizons: Ways of Seeing Hong Kong Art in the 80s and 90s” (Hong Kong Museum of Art, 2021), and “Portals, Stories, and Other Journeys” (Asia Art Archive at Tai Kwun Contemporary, 2021), to name a few. At the artist cooperative Quart Society, active from 1990–91, Xper.Xr made sparks fly between his angle grinder, hanging white cloth, his gory painting with teeth donning its frame, and a half-dead chicken. Now, a USB stick contains the entire Quart Society “archive”.
I share your fear, and cringe at “vitrine complex”. The question I often find myself asking as I negotiate the glare of spotlights while peering at documents under reflective surfaces is this: What kind of worlds do practices and exhibitions that lean into the display of archives and documents open up? At times, the answers are so thrilling you cannot but ask for more: a glimpse into the creative and cultural milieus that have shaped our own; sheer disbelief at how and why people did what they did. And sometimes, a knowing recognition of ourselves in these documents – our desires, aspirations, struggles, and doubts, but most of all, a certain reassurance that if they managed, we also ought to try.
JC: It can’t be a coincidence at all that artists and curators in the region have been turning towards archives, history, and critical fabulation, whether for material or as methodology in their practice, to give shape to contexts that feel inarticulable otherwise. And since postmodernism has failed to account for the ongoing crises of narratives in “post-colonial” settings – maybe I do lack imagination – I don’t think we need more world-building from art; we need smarter ways for art to hold the stories we have been told accountable, and I don’t mean more moralising or teaching.
I think what’s remarkable about encountering the life and artefacts of someone with as much zeal as Xper.Xr is the combination of violence and humour in his approach to noise (and its experimental fringes), which shows how protest, as a form, is the antidote to consumption. Hong Kong is basically the banner child of “the art of protest” these days, but we know that protest is so much messier than that. There is blood on the infamous hammer that flew off its handle and hit the artist’s childhood friend, who was standing in the audience at his noise show in 1993. When “Voluptuous Musick”, his first full-length album that parodies mainstream Cantopop and Western hits first came out, it was completely bizarre – the cover rips off the name and likeness of Cantopop superstar Leon Lai, and there are only ten tracks when he advertised fifteen, not to mention that the “songs” were nothing like what their titles, stolen from 80s Billboard hits, suggested. But he never explained. That’s another important distinction between an essentialising curatorial statement and a compelling archive: the refusal to resolve confusion and contradictions. It encourages reading for context, which is necessarily expansive, rather than for meaning.
MW: I understand the ideas of “postmodernism” and “post-colonialism” within the rubric of academia, and as concepts that get deployed in curatorial manoeuvres. But when it comes to everyday life and the avalanche of information and news that circulate around us, I struggle to comprehend them. Modernity does not seem to end, and imperialism certainly has not. Protests, too, are often consumed more than we would like.
With our shared vision and experience of the past few years, it is impossible not to see the objects Xper.Xr and Empty Gallery put on display in “Tailwhip” as objects of protest and demonstration. But this very display also calls to me, poetically, that these objects have lived a life other than being objects of protest and demonstration. And it is this matching and mismatched existence that I find to be a move of possible strength and resilience.
The making of worlds, for me, emerges most energetically from practices (some call them art, but more often they exceed this category and its surrounding discourse) that knowingly or unknowingly flip a finger to existing paradigms of morality, judgement, and the delineation of disciplinary boundaries, but are themselves also embodiments of paradoxes. Maybe that’s why these practices create confusion and refuse explanation, but they become legible if we stay with them for a little longer. Much like how one sees Xper’s disregard for existing protocols through his performances, which were intended to shock audiences, in contrast to his desire for risk, shiny trophies, and luxury goods – he once worked at a Comme des Garcons store, got fired, took them to court, won the case, and now gets an annual subsidy to buy CDG. Practices like these demand a different vocabulary, a different lexicon for acting in the world.
I like how you say that we need to hold the stories we are told accountable. And for me, this means going back to historical research; to attend to the noise in archives and the stuff that has yet to become archives – to narratives that are fragmented, refracted, hidden. In some ways, I feel we need to have faith in the past – not to treat it as the only truth and reality per se, but as events that have left traces that we can pick up and make sense of. I like to think, in some ways, this attitude and commitment to making sense of the past will help us inhabit our present – and thus shape our futures – more deeply.
"Xper.Xr | Tailwhip"
Empty Gallery, Hong Kong
14 April – 24 July 2021
JAIME CHU is a contributing editor at Spike based in Beijing.
MICHELLE WONG is an art researcher based in Hong Kong.