View of “Hanart 100: Idiosyncrasies” at Pao Galleries, Hong Kong Arts Centre, 2014.

PICTURE HONG KONG’S cultural and political landscape in 1983. PRC Premier Zhao Ziyang and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher were still a year away from signing the Sino-British Joint Declaration that would return sovereignty of the region to China in 1997. At the time, no one in the colony thought it necessary to learn Mandarin. The film industry was pre-piracy and flourishing, with Jackie Chan’s Project A a hit at home and abroad. It was in this context, in December of that year, that Hanart TZ Gallery held its first exhibition in a basement in Kadoorie Hill. Hanart director Chang Tsong-Zung, known to friends as “Johnson,” borrowed the space from one of his uncles, and recalls the decision to leap into the art world as a bit of a folly.

Since then, Chang has become at once a pioneer and provocateur in the region’s art scene, championing traditional calligraphy and painting as well as contemporary art. In partnership with Hong Kong Arts Centre, he organized the germinal 1993 exhibition “China’s New Art, Post-1989,” which toured the United States from 1995–1997 and inaugurated a whole new agenda for what mattered in Chinese art in the wake of Tiananmen. (China’s first presentation at the Venice Biennale was also in 1993, in an exhibition organized by Achille Bonito Oliva, Li Xianting, and Francesca dal Lago.) Then in 2000, Chang and Claire Hsu cofounded the nonprofit Asia Art Archive, a platform for research, criticism, and documentation of contemporary art across the continent. In addition to running the gallery and various international projects, Chang is a guest professor at the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou. Hanart’s flagship space is now settled in the Pedder Building, the historic nine-story commercial tower that also houses Gagosian, Lehmann Maupin, Simon Lee Gallery, Pearl Lam Galleries, and Ben Brown Fine Arts.

So it was no small thing when, last month, the gallery commenced festivities to celebrate its thirtieth anniversary. For the occasion, Chang and Gao Shiming, a professor at China Academy of Art, put together the exhibition “Hanart 100: Idiosyncrasies”—“100” referring to the number of works in the show—as well as a two-day symposium held at the Hong Kong Arts Centre. Chang and Gao selected all the works from Chang’s collection to address two questions: “What is the ‘Chinese Contemporary’?” and “Where do the fractured domains of China meet?” Both could in fact be simplified into one, more direct, question: Who is involved in the “making” of that which travels under the moniker “Chinese contemporary art”?

During the symposium, the lectures and responses were crafted to address Chang’s idea that contemporary Chinese art comprises “three art worlds”: the “global” art world, the world of traditional art, and the world of socialist art. Among the panelists over the two days were Harvard Asian Art professor Eugene Wang, Asia Art Archive Head of Research and Programs Hammad Nasar, and Guggenheim curator Thomas J. Berghuis, as well as a variety of prominent cultural figures like the media theorist Boris Groys and the poet Bei Dao. The diversity of speakers and viewpoints prevented the discussion from becoming myopic or provincial. Conversations moved between English and Mandarin, with simultaneous translation, which muddled the dialogue for those of us not fluent in both languages. (An apropos Cantonese saying for this is “a chicken conversing with a duck.”) Still, participants in the three sessions valiantly chipped away at the thesis. The first group discussed this concept of three art worlds, the second addressed fragmentation and dispersion to places such as Taiwan and Hong Kong, and the third examined the Chinese avant-garde during the twentieth century.

The exhibition both concretized and confounded the core questions. SOME EXHIBITS MAY CONTAIN DISTURBING ELEMENTS read a sign in one of the rooms, in genteel Hong Kong style. Just beyond was Liu Wei’s painting You Like Pork?, 1995, which depicts a naked woman defecating. With a sly wink, the curators hung a 1940 calligraphy piece by Gao Jianfu across from Liu’s work, a potent illustration of the diversity of objects selected to prove the exhibition’s theses. It is impossible to initiate a conversation about the development of Chinese art over the past sixty years without the inclusion of paintings featuring Chairman Mao, and indeed such figurations sometimes provided a bridge between the “socialist” and “global” art worlds delineated in the show’s itinerary. The earliest Mao work included in the exhibition was Lin Gang’s Zhao Guilan at Meeting of Giants, 1951, the most recent Liu Dahong’s canvas Sacrificial Altar, 2001. The former is a celebration of the factory worker, while the latter references Renaissance religious iconography. This progression from a propaganda driven depiction of Mao to a critique of that godlike imagery reflects the social upheaval and transformation that has taken place in China over the past fifty years.

There was not enough room to display all one hundred works at the Arts Centre, and so the exhibition continued at Hanart Square, Chang’s satellite space in an industrial building in Kwai Chung. On a quiet Thursday, a small handful of visitors walked around to examine works such as an early series of Zhang Xiaogang oil paintings Private Notes: Four No. 1–7, 1991, depicting disembodied figures in a studio setting; photographic self-portraits in Japan taken in 2001 by RongRong & inri; and a Leung Chi Wo installation, Domestic Amnesia, 1997, featuring what appears to be four antique doors encased in glass, made in the year of Hong Kong’s return to Chinese sovereignty. The works were better served in this setting, where higher ceilings made for a less claustrophobic viewing experience. The Hong Kong Arts Centre, where the main part of the exhibition was staged, was not built with large installations or vast canvasses in mind.

Two days after the exhibition’s opening, daily newspaper South China Morning Post reported that Chang intends to donate the one hundred works to a yet to be named organization in Hong Kong, and that the week prior he became a member of West Kowloon Cultural District Authority’s museum committee. If the collection does end up in M+, the WKCDA’s contemporary visual culture museum, it will be further ballast in Chang’s attempt to reorient the Chinese “modern” through this lens and to canonize these objects. Somehow, though, there remains a disconnect between the China of this particular art historical imagination and the one that Hong Kong contends with on a daily basis. At the moment, Hong Kong citizens are grappling with the news that a prominent news editor—who had been ousted from the newspaper Ming Pao in favor of a Malaysian editor that some feel is “pro-Beijing”—was attacked with a cleaver. Perhaps the “fractured domains of China” can only meet convivially in symposium settings.

Doretta Lau is a Hong Kong–based critic and the author of the story collection How Does a Single Blade of Grass Thank the Sun? (2014).

Inside Mint & Serf's studio. Photo: Oliver Correa.

IF CAVE PAINTING is the start not of art but of communication, graffiti is also not art. If art makes history, graffiti cannot be art.

I devised this solution—like all my solutions, one part each ill logic, viscera, and things I read for the purpose—to address the problem of why I so loathe gallery or museum shows of Citibank-able graffiti. It isn’t that I have a predilection for authenticity. Nor is it a category thing. Many of the artists I’ve loved longest are writers, too: Cy Twombly, Ana Mendieta, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Jenny Holzer used (respectively) ink and paper, blood and walls, markers and brick, and ink on skin to make work out of words. None of these works are to be confused with the long yawn that is “text art.” All have something in common with “real” graffiti, which once made history messy, which said to the winners, “You did not see me, but I was here.” Now you see graffiti next to the New Museum, and hear nothing.

Maybe my resistance to the art-ification of graffiti is because I don’t need graffiti to “speak to me.” For most of my life rap didn’t speak to me either, and my response was not to play like rap is poetry so that I could inflict my Comp Lit understanding on it. As per the excellent Earl Sweatshirt, “Rap music is rap music,” and graffiti is graffiti. It is writing in the purest or stupidest way, in such an (always illegal, and sometimes illegible) way as to render everything written unspeakable. Several summers ago a tattoo artist told me that graffiti writers don’t call each other artists or even graffiti writers but simply “writers,” and I almost understood something then. Graffiti says what it means.

To see it now I decided to spend some time with Mint & Serf, a pair of graffiti writers whose birth names are Mikhail and Jason. I went to them not because they are the greatest talents or most authentic voices of our time—or, if they are, I do not have the ears for it—but because they are white guys who hang out with white girls and go to the Whitney sometimes and show their new, huge canvasses on the white walls of the Bleecker Street Arts Club. In writing about their work, I don’t worry about colonizing, or like... cannibalizing, their way of life.

Made last year, these canvasses look rescued from the same stretch of 1990s anti-hero worship that produced Dan Colen’s “Trash” paintings. They are massive and cadaverous. Many were made in loose collaboration with a few of their writer-friends, and their tags pile up indiscriminately. Layers of paper and acrylic harden or peel scablike. Colors agglomerate and rot. Composition is a joke, each canvas a rotated corpse.

“We’re anti-pop,” says Mikhail, more than once. He has sunless skin and drinks 7/11 coffee; his sneakers have no discernible brand. “Anything too colorful or too flat, we go back in with black. Or I’ll fall asleep and when I wake up, somebody’s ripped half the painting off and started over.” Sometimes, he says, their friends get so fucked up while doing canvasses and coke that before they know it, FBI agents are showing up for work at the Federal Building across the street. He laughs. “You know, we never think about what it’s going to look like the next day. It can’t feel like we did it during studio hours or some shit.”

Mikhail is the one who shows up on time and talks me through the work—one day in the studio on south Broadway, another day at the gallery. Jason, who has long dark hair and a scampish grin, is the one who meets us an hour later at the Waverly Diner and brings me two hits of acid because I had complained of not knowing where to buy it. Mikhail (who grew up in Brighton Beach) is the one telling me how communism failed while Jason (from Bensonhurst) informs me that Canada is pretty much socialist and their roads are in perfect condition. As he says this, Jason is emptying the lead from bullets so that his sawed-off Walmart rifle can fire blanks.

Left: Inside Mint & Serf's studio. Photo: Oliver Correa. Right: Mint & Serf–painted Hermés Birkin. Photo: themirf.

I can’t think of who they remind me of until I realize it’s two guys I’ve never seen, one of whom is never photographed. In 1994, for this magazine, Glenn O’Brien interviewed two bigtime graffiti writers, Cost and Revs. From his introduction: “Cost and Revs are a couple of New York kids. White Kids. New York etched in their accents. Being in their mid 20s, they’re getting a little old to be kids, but they’re kids as long as they keep doing what they’re doing.”

At ages thirty-five and thirty-four, Mint and Serf are really pushing this theory. Like Cost and Revs, they believe they are “the most outlaw art in the city,” although their virulently anti-cop stance is estranged from any critique of America, capital, or state. Like Cost and Revs, they believe the art world is “too safe” and full of phonies. Like Cost and Revs, they are nonetheless talking to a writer from Artforum about it.

Another thing Mikhail says a lot is that graffiti is a lifestyle, not a form. To explain this old chestnut to a new generation, their hardcover monograph—Support, Therapy, and Instability—contains a long essay by “Peter Pan” (they and their friends call themselves the Peter Pan Posse) that is a seriously remarkable artifact of American masculinity. Peter Pan mocks creative directors and “corporate types” for giving writers money to do big commercial projects or product design but not knowing stuff about Warhol, and also for wearing $100 flannel shirts, presumably because $100 is a lot of money to not spend on drugs. Peter Pan says it’s lame to get a job, mandatory to get wasted, and easy to get “mediocre rich girls” to pick up the tab. (While I am no fan of mediocre rich girls myself, I can’t wait until one writes a memoir in which she casually mentions the “mediocre hoodlums” she used to fuck.) Peter Pan refers to “meaningless collaborations” with brands as “whoring,” implying that only the “feral, secretive” graffiti performed “in the streets, in the snow storms, in the shadows” is actual fucking.

Well, anyone who’s done sex work knows the feeling. The final analogy is all too apt: In New York, it is hard to find the contemporary artist—or perhaps “creative” of any kind—who is neither a wife nor a whore. If the graffiti writer chooses not to marry up, joining a system of institutional legitimacy and patronage, he will instead sell every shred of illicit magic to make more magic and pray it stays illicit or he’ll really have nothing left. His graffiti is a pornography, one that is more honest about the artist’s life for not being art itself. He does fills for Big Pharma billboards; he decorates a cologne bottle for the New York Yankees; he charges a few grand to tag an “edgy” Birkin for the younger-than-him wife of a suit.

When I ask Mint about these projects, the bravado seems to wear off. He says he does not want to seem ungrateful to brands who had paid his rent. But the frustration drips and seethes from every licentious work around us. On a couple of the canvasses, the word VENGENCE appears—repeatedly, always misspelled—in black unstyled letters. There are a thousand other words, but that is the one I recognize.

Sarah Nicole Prickett is the editor of Adult magazine and a writer based in New York.