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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Taxis

In a previous post I mentioned that I should tell you about Hong Kong’s taxis; in short they are uniquely awkward and confusing. On the other hand they are incredibly cheap. My favourite thing about Hong Kong taxis is the phones on the dashboard; drivers will have, on average, four phones mounted on their dashboard which they will operate throughout your journey, even while travelling at speed on the motorway. Fewer than four phones suggests that your driver is something of an amateur. I have seen as many as six phones plus a paper notepad mounted above the steering wheel, almost entirely blocking the driver’s view of the road. 

The first thing you need to know is that taxis come in three colours; blue, green and red. I’ve only ever been in a blue one once or twice, they are only allowed to operate on Lantau Island. It’s a large area and close to the airport. But it is sparsely populated and the blue taxis are not allowed to leave the island and take you elsewhere else. There are only fifty blue taxis.

The green ones are a little more useful. They can take you anywhere in the New Territories, a huge area taking up the whole north of Hong Kong and containing several large towns. But the green taxis are not allowed to take you to Hong Kong Island or Kowloon, where most jobs and businesses are based.

The red ones serve Kowloon and Hong Kong Island, but don’t go where the green taxis or blue taxis go and are a little more expensive. There are two types of red taxi, some serve Kowloon and will refuse to cross the harbour to Hong Kong Island (a five minute drive) some serve Hong Kong Island and will refuse to cross the harbour to Kowloon. There is a way to tell the two types of red taxi apart, but I have never worked out what it is.

I have had taxi drivers refuse to take me because the journey is too short and not worth their while and because the journey is too long and will take too much time. I’ve also had them tell me:

“You’ll have to get out here, I have lunch plans”

“I’m not going that way, but I can take you somewhere else instead”

“I can’t take you there because I don’t know the way back”

It’s totally illegal for the driver to act like this, but probably a direct consequence of the economic pressure placed on them by the city’s taxi licensing system. There are 18,138 taxi licenses in Hong Kong. The majority of these licenses are owned by investors who rent their license and car to drivers on a shift basis. The licenses change hands for millions of dollars and the cost is passed to the drivers, who pay up to $800 a day to drive the car. So the drivers become very selective about which fares they accept.

Raising fares would take this pressure off the drivers, but wouldn’t solve the problem of the price bubble around the taxi licenses. And it seems that the license owners have sufficient political clout to make sure that the price bubble won’t be burst by the introduction of new licenses. 

It’s a good thing I enjoy walking.

Leave a Comment (3)

co-director (s) wrote on Jan 14:

huh that's interesting!

George Major wrote on Jan 5:

Uber is here, but is considerably more expensive than taxis. As they can't compete on price they're marketed on luxury and reliability.

co-director (s) wrote on Jan 5:

So clearly, no Uber in Hong Kong, and it likely won't be forever?

Originally coming from and having done a fair amount of travelling in Asia, I find North America "too simple" that, in my opinion, creates other kinds of problems, or they *try* to make it complicated to fill in the gap or something. It's a good thing I too enjoy walking/biking here.