In the era of the selfie, instant photography can be regarded both as having been ahead of its time and as redundant. The tale goes that inspiration struck Polaroid inventor, Edwin Land, when his three-year-old daughter asked, while on a family holiday, why she couldn’t at once see a picture that had been taken of her. For Land’s daughter, as for today’s Snapchat or Instagram users, instantaneousness was critical.
‘A Permanent Instant: Instant Photography from 1980s–2000s by Hong Kong Artists’, at Blindspot Gallery, focused on the period in which instant photography was enjoying its moment in the sun among Hong Kong artists. This coincided with one of the most critical periods in the region’s political history: after the signing of the Sino-British Joint Declaration in 1984, which set out the terms for the return of sovereignty over Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China, Governor Chris Patten was keen to push for rapid democratization. The Hong Kong public was torn, with doomsayers predicting the stifling of freedom of speech while patriots welcomed the return of the city to her motherland. Filling one half of Blindspot’s former industrial space, the works on display wove together a dual narrative of free-spirited experimentation and disquietude, which would come to define the decades bookending the 1997 handover.
Difficult to archive and associated with the idea of impermanence, Polaroid was perhaps the most apt way to document a city on the cusp of change. Even in its heyday, Polaroid never enjoyed the same ‘serious’ reputation as other forms of photography: professional photographers used it but, more often than not, for test shots. What Polaroid did allow for, however, was easy experimentation, as artists like Joseph Fung and Hon Chi Fun showed. By tampering with the emulsion surface, Fung imbued his photographs with a painterly quality. Hon went a step further (or back): by inserting paper cut-outs behind the film, the artist created surrealist vistas filled with elemental motifs.
The images in ‘A Permanent Instant’ are also concerned with perspective and how easily it can be manipulated. An appropriation of Zhang Yimou’s 1991 film Raise the Red Lantern – in turn adapted from Wives and Concubines (1990) by Chinese novelist Su Tong – Blues Wong’s Raise the Red Lantern (1995) asks us to question the reliability of the narrator: in this case, the photographer. There are always at least two narratives to the same event: the official and unofficial versions. ‘A Permanent Instant’ provided a human side to the all the public flag waving and slogan chanting from the 1980s to 2000s. Yet, rather than setting them off against one another, the exhibition shows how easily public sentiments flow into, and invade, the private realm. Almond Chu’s self-portraits are intensely intimate, yet it is also possible to interpret the poses – variously suggesting agony, wanton abandon and thrill – as sentiments that permeated the public’s consciousness in the days leading up to the handover. They also anticipate the narcissistic undercurrent of today’s smartphone culture – a predicament echoed in Wing Shya’s Kaboom (2000s), a video piece that flashes up a dozen or so Polaroid close-ups. But perhaps this exhibition’s ultimate triumph – and greatest irony – is to demonstrate the lasting power of nostalgia that this ‘instant’ medium exerts over a generation of Hongkongers.