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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recent comments

On May 11 2017, marisa commented on Catching up... Vegans... Fun: What?!? No photos of the runners in fancy dress! I'm intrigued. Definitely make sure it's fun. [...]

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A little exploring

On Tuesday I had a free day, so I decided to go exploring; heading up a mountain that had long been on my list of places to visit and stopping for lunch at my favourite beach.

Sharp Peak is the pointy one to the left of the picture. To reach it I ran along a nice forest trail before the final steep climb, scrambling over boulders. At the top, an elderly gentleman was making tea on a gas stove. He had a very fine porcelain tea set. Classy mountaineering.

The descent took me along the jagged ridge on the horizon, before bombing down the scree escarpment to the sea. Here there is a string of three lovely beaches (I think they’re the nicest in Hong Kong.) These beaches are only accessible on foot or by boat. The boat ride can get a bit hairy, the stretch of coast is aptly named Tai Long Wan; Big Wave Bay.

I was banking on getting lunch at the beach, but the little restaurant there was closed, so I had to head a little inland to a nearby village.

The route back to the road started out across this shonky bridge:

Anyway. Running as a mode of exploring is fine, but the previous weekend I headed to Plover Cove Country Park (a place I’ve raced through a couple of times) to do some slower-paced exploring of the area’s abandoned villages.

There are several such villages and an old British garrison in the area. They were once thriving farming and fishing communities, the largest had a population of around 2000. The whole area is pretty odd; an abandoned world within sight of Shenzhen container port, one of the busiest places on the planet.

When the Cultural Revolution ended and imports started crossing the border from mainland China in 1976, Hong Kong’s agriculture and fishing industries collapsed overnight. No-one saw the collapse coming; there are stacks of building materials that have been sitting untouched for 40 years in the shells of half-built houses. Some of the village houses look as if the owners simply walked out and never returned:

There are ghost stories about some of the villages. In one village, compasses stop working and supernatural happenings are rumoured to have driven out the last few residents.

Village elders still return and put up decorations for Chinese New Year, Mid Autumn Festival and other occasions. A couple of villages have had some restoration done and a few people have returned to live in the area on weekends, opening restaurants for hungry hikers.

I think I’ll do some urbex posts in the new year, perhaps I’ll start with a visit to Gin Drinkers Line; the wartime defensive line that catastrophically failed to defend Hong Kong in December 1941.

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The big one

This was the race I’ve been building up to; 100km with over 6000m of climbing, reportedly the toughest 100km race in HK and my first attempt at the distance.

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Here is the start/finish, the last 5km of the course ran along the ridge in the background, Pat Sin Leng. But I had a lot of running to do before getting there.

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We set off on a beautiful morning at Plover Cove Reservoir, the sun stayed out all day. A few runners were caught out by the heat, but conditions were pretty nice. 

A nice thing about running long distances is that going at slow speed it is easy to chat with the runners around you. For the first 20km I was among a pretty sociable pack of runners. And the scenery was lovely.

I was aiming to finish inside of 18 hours. The week before the race I made an elaborate chart of the split-times of runners who had finished this course in 18 hours in previous years and used it as a basis for planning my day. 

I also arranged to have some support waiting for me at two of the aid stations. Here I am leaving aid station 6 wearing a fresh pair of socks, approaching the 60km mark, just before Tai Mo Shan, the tallest mountain along the route.

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I reached the summit of Tai Mo Shan at nightfall. The next aid station had some good potato soup on offer, which really hit the spot. As I passed 70km, further than I’ve ever gone before, I saw fewer and fewer fellow runners. At 72km there was a deep river-crossing, that fresh pair of socks were definitely not fresh any more.

From here on I concentrated on keeping a steady pace. The mind wanders into some bizarre territory when you spend this long running alone at night in the forest.

Did I imagine it or was there a dead fish on the side of the trail back there?

I had been taking care to eat plenty of food all day, but by the final aid station I was starving. I chomped down a bowl of thick gooey congee (a rice-based porridge), half a sandwich, a cup of tea, some energy drink, two cups of Coke. I ate it all way too fast and most of it came straight back up again.

One more big climb up to that ridge. My Cantonese is not great, but I knew that Pat Sin Leng means Eight Somethings Ridge. If I had done more research I would have known that it means Ridge of the Eight Immortals. If I had given it some thought, I should have realised that the name Eight Immortals refers to the eight more peaks between me and the finish line.

From where I was running along the top of the ridge I could see the lights of the finish line 500 vertical meters below. 

With my GPS watch reading 94km, a sharp mountain peak emerged from the darkness ahead of me. One last climb I thought to myself. 

But then, a second peak appeared beyond the first. Any minute mow the trail was going to turn downhill all the way to the finish. But every time the trail began to descend, another of the eight peaks would be appear out of the dark.

Until eventually, after nearly 98km, the trail turned and headed down towards the finish.

Well, nearly. There was one last little hill before the finish line, but no big deal. After 101km in 17 hours and 43 minutes I was back where I started. Time for a drink with some other finishers.

My legs were feeling pretty ok all things considered. The biggest challenge of the night was going to be getting a cab back from the remote finish area to my flat. I should do a post on Hong Kong Taxis, they don’t always make life easy for you.

The next morning I headed to a German Christmas market, the perfect place to replace some of the thousands of calories I’d just burned.

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Leave a Comment (3)

Lee wrote on Dec 12:

Congratulations! I have a friend who is an ultra-marathoner so I have some idea of how crazy this really is. Truly an amazing accomplishment!

co-director (S) wrote on Dec 12:

Wow. I'm kinda speechless. I also thought "wait, is his term already ending then?" But it's your "first". Wow. It's also simultaneously surreal and fabulous to have you at "Residency For Artists On Hiatus". (; We love it.

co-director (m) wrote on Dec 12:

Awesome George!! Congratulations! What an amazing achievement. I'm trying to fathom running up a mountain in the dark after already running 90km O_o. Total respect.