George Major, UK / Hong Kong

Residency Period: September 18, 2016 - May 31, 2017


Bio

Native of London, UK and currently residing in Hong Kong, George Major holds BA (Hons) in Fine Art and Philosophy from University of Reading, (2006) and a MFA in Art Writing from Goldsmiths College. (2012) His work approaches epistemology and historiography, and has been presented and performed at Chisenhale Gallery (2011), Whitechapel Gallery (2012), the ICA (2012), and the Barbican Centre (2013). In 2014, his collaboration with artist Maru Rojas, Urban Myths of the Near Future, was shortlisted for the Camaradas award, presented by the Mexican Embassy in London; as well, their Moby Dick Murder Mystery (bilingual) Floating Participatory Theatre featured at the Dieppe/Newhaven Art Festival. From 2008 until 2012, he was director of the itinerant gallery Squid & Tabernacle. S&T staged exhibitions, live events and film screenings in a variety of spaces including a disused tailor’s shop, a shipping container, art festivals and studio complexes. Between 2011 and 2015, he was a prominent member of the free alternative arts education initiative AltMFA, who as a group, exhibited widely, appearing at London’s Art Licks Weekend and Kurt Schwitters’ Merz Barn.

URL: www.georgemajor.com


On-hiatus Proposal Summary

George used to run with an athletics club when he was at school. He has always liked the idea of doing an ultra long distance running race although while living in London, he had barely broke into a jog in 15 years. Instead, he would walk everywhere, imaging the streets as a kind of palimpsest document of stories, myths and history, appended with literary references and creative possibilities. He developed an intimate relationship to his own city through walking, a source for many ideas for his art practice.

It was two years ago when he moved to Hong Kong that running suddenly came back to him; he entered a 50 km mountain race and since then, he has ran four 50km races, a couple of mountain marathons and so many shorter races that he has begun to lose track of them. He has explored more of the territory’s countryside, passed through more backwater fishing villages and isolated hilltops than many Hong Kong born people – to a point that he toyed with the idea of declaring that his artistic practice is now chiefly concerned with running.

George’s on-hiatus residency at RFAOH might be directly related to his obsession with running (an obsession his girlfriend finds “unhealthy”.) He will train for and run a 100km race as well as aim to beat his previous times in each of the other races he has done. Whether he will finally come to declare that “running”=”his art” or not, he hopes that his on-hiatus activity and its documentation as a creative exercise will be a chance to reflect on the impact of what he’s choosing to do, and reawaken his practice. He also wants to get to know his new city, a bit faster this time, than the 30 years he took for his hometown, London.


Final Report

I haven't thought much about art-making over the past year. At the start of the residency I was thinking about parallels between my hiatus activity and being an artist. Both, I think, require a similar mindset; bloody mindedness, ability to derive satisfaction from something that is not always fun and that can be hard to explain to others. Distance running is very much a lonely, solo pursuit where your main opponent is your own self-doubt. Yet it is also something that is done in big groups much of the time. This dichotomy may have some equivalence to being an artist. There is an unspoken rule at races that people congratulate each-other on their performances no-matter how badly they've done, there's a general camaraderie. I've never quite been able to work out how this compares to being an artist in a social setting around other artists.

Speaking of social activity. The past season of running I have become far more involved in the social side of the activity, but I've had increasingly little interest in writing about it, posting pictures on social media and so on. As far as running in races has gone - I had moderate success to start with. But, as I've written before, I overdid it and it stopped being fun for a while. I'm now really looking forward to when the racing season starts again, but as for art-making... I quit teaching at Christmas to concentrate on writing (I'm now editing magazines for a living), and that has opened new avenues for me. Over the past month I have got to know the city's art galleries a lot better than I did before. I think the gallery scene in Hong Kong is far less accessible than in my native London, had it not been for my writing work, I don't think I would have been able to make any gallery contacts. Not that I'm looking at getting a gallery show or anything. A vague idea has been knocking around in the back of my head though.

I've loads of bits of writing I've been sitting on for ages. I need to finish one or two of those. I'm doing some work for Hong Kong Art Gallery Association, so I'm really glad to be getting involved with art in HK at last. And I'm still running, I'm signed up to a 168km race in December and a few between now and then.

For a city of its size, Hong Kong is very lacking in art museums. I've a vague notion of doing a sort of HK reworking of Broodthaers' Musee d'Art Moderne Departement des Aigles - although I'm hesitant. I don't want to create a snarky/internet meme/bantz piece of work. I've not had much contact with London-based artist friends and former collaborators so far this year - although I did write a text for a publication by a group I used to collaborate with, in which I tried to sum up why I wasn't making art at the moment. I've reproduced the text below:

 

THERE’S NO HOME WITHOUT A HAUNTING

I am a sub-urbanist, I have gone out looking for the city’s grand narratives along my own nondescript residential street. For years I never looked further than I could walk in a day.

I was in London most of my life; a city of one thousand and one villages that have merged over time to create a single conurbation. On my tours of mundane suburbia I became interested in the origins of place names. Many places, according to various local myths, got their names during the black death. But in almost every case, the folk etymology was demonstrably wrong. Still, that the same untrue grand narrative was repeated so frequently suggested that the trauma of the second bubonic plague pandemic is still echoing around the collective subconscious even after centuries have passed. I moved to Hong Kong. For two years I enjoyed life in a ballardian high-rise apartment. The city seemed strangely familiar, but when I wandered my new local streets looking for stories, I found none.

Later on I moved to an older part of the city. My new apartment was a little run-down but surprisingly cheap, given its central location and large size. I joked that maybe something terrible had once happened there. Hongkongers are generally very wary of potentially haunted houses. You can bag a real bargain by checking the database of addresses where murders and suicides have occurred. I decided it was best not to look up my new address on the database. Just this week I learnt that when the third bubonic plague pandemic reached Hong Kong in 1894 the outbreak was centred on the village of Tai Ping Shan, which stood metres from where my apartment was later built. I learnt that my neighbourhood played an important role in Franco-Swiss scientist Alexandre Yersin’s discovery of the plague-causing bacillus.

According to the story I heard, unclaimed corpses were left in the local temples during the outbreak. I had already noticed that during the Hungry Ghost Festival in August, when offerings are burnt in the street to appease restless spirits, my new neighbourhood became very active and the air filled with smoke.

Tai Ping Shan Street is now home to a mixture of hip coffee shops and traditional coffin workshops. The area is popular with young French-speakers. But back in colonial times it was an overcrowded, unsanitary slum. When the plague arrived the British burned the village to the ground. (Hong Kong, 3 November 2016)"


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King of the Hills

Time to rehydrate.

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There are a few music festivals in Hong Kong, mostly quite small; a couple of weeks ago we spent a Saturday afternoon watching bands on the bohemian little island of Lamma. But this past weekend was Hong Kong’s only big festival, Clockenflap. I don’t know why it’s called Clockenflap. 

It seems the promoters had a tough time on the run-up to the event with two headline acts dropping out at short notice and slow ticket sales. On Saturday it rained heavily and relentlessly all day. Bands were playing to small crowds of depressed festivalgoers. I was drenched and cold by the end of Saturday night. 

This was not the best way to start what was to be a busy weekend; Sunday morning was the first race of the King of the Hills (KOTH) Mountain Marathon Series.

KOTH is a venerable HK institution that has been going for decades. The whole thing has a wonderful community around it, it is very cheap to enter (entering the series of four races costs less than registering for some single events) and there are beers on the finish line. All good stuff.

Unfortunately, the department of the Hong Kong government in charge of the countryside aren’t so keen on KOTH. The number of competitors has been tightly limited to about 600 runners, and the race is no-longer allowed to use some of the rougher more remote trails that used to make up the course. This means that Sunday’s marathon was reduced to a half-marathon (albeit one with 1000m of climbing and descending, plenty of mud, rocks and a couple of stream crossings).

It was wet and slippery, but cold and clear. A beautiful morning for a run. I wasn’t expecting much as I had been out the night before. On the other hand, I wasn’t feeling much pressure to perform so I relaxed and enjoyed the race. This is the best way to be. I finished in 1 hour 52 minutes, in 12th place overall and was back home and showered in time to have breakfast and head back to the festival.

It turned into a lovely afternoon with Jamaican mento and Cantonese thrash metal in the sunshine, followed by the Sugarhill Gang and Chemical Brothers in the evening.

But I was in pain on Monday morning.

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A more successful weekend

After last weekend’s disappointment I took five days of rest before heading to Lantau island for my longest run yet. This was a 70km race with a very civilised 8.30am start time. It was a beautiful clear morning, with light rain forecast for the afternoon.

There were 400 solo runners entered plus around 30 teams running the course as a four-person relay. The first 12km included the two tallest mountain peaks on the Island, so everyone set out at a very relaxed pace. The promised rain never materialised and I saw a lot of good runners drop out in the heat. I took it very easy on the long downhill between 35 and 40km in an effort not to overheat.

The aid station crews were doing a brilliant job and the atmosphere along the route was great. Here I am approaching the 50km mark, happy in the knowledge that my girlfriend was waiting at the aid station with a bottle of cold, flat Coke (turns out flat Coke is the ideal endurance sports drink; loads of calories, sodium and caffeine). 

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Now I was heading for a long 20km slog with no aid stations. Pepped up on Coca Cola and having kept my powder dry in the early parts of the race I retook a few places I had lost while going slow. As darkness fell, I enjoyed the sensation of the world being reduced to the pool of light cast by my head-torch and focused on keeping a steady pace as I ran into the night.

With 9km remaining, the course passed through a village where the locals were holding their annual race-day street party and handing out snacks and drinks. After that, I was on my own until the finish line.

I was glad to have finished having recorded a respectable time. I have a few lessons to learn before my 100km in December. This was the first time I had to run with a pack loaded with so much mandatory equipment; headlamp, spare headlamp and spare battery, energy gels, plus enough water for the long stretches between aid stations. My pack stripped quite a lot of skin off my back, so I need to work on packing it more comfortably for next time.

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George Major wrote on Nov 8:

11 hours 40 minutes for this one. Luckily I came across some campsite toilets at just the right moment, although running in Hong Kong is sweaty enough that needing a pee is the least problem. I think I was a little over-reliant on sugar during the first half; I need to be able to burn energy from fat if I'm going to make it round my 100km race in December (not sure what time to expect from that one, the weekend just gone a friend ran a 168km race in 36 hours).

co-director (s) wrote on Nov 7:

So really, how many hours do you run for these long races? Like 10 hours plus? You run on flat Coke and snacks and water all these hours? Do you just pee anywhere on the course? This is beyond my world and I'm learning so many new lingoes too.

co-director (m) wrote on Nov 3:

Congrats George. Flat coke eh? Maybe I should try that to help me through my afternoon.