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.
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.
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)"
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
Proper planning prevents piss poor performance, that’s what I always say. Of course, that only works if you stick to the plan. There were two races on Sunday, starting together and running concurrently, one over a distance of 24km and mine, over a distance of 52km. I had two alarms set to wake me up on Sunday morning, all my gear was ready, I knew the course well and had worked out optimum split times for each section, I arrived at the start line with time to spare.
Here’s the view from the start; Hong Kong just before dawn:
Last week Hong Kong was affected by two typhoons, torrential monsoon rains and flooding. I was expecting a wet, muddy run.
7am , the starting gun fired and off we went. The first 10km was a mix of trail and tarmac with a lot of downhill. I got to 10km inside the top five runners and 8 minutes ahead of my plan. This is when I should have slowed down to save energy and get back on plan. Instead I settled into a pack of runners keeping pace with this guy. Great bloke, but unfortunately he was pacing himself for the 24km race, so by halfway I was fifteen minutes faster than planned and already starting to overheat.
The runner who went on to win the race overtook me at about 30km. We chatted and agreed that the morning was way hotter than anticipated, but the temperature would be ok as long as the sun didn’t come out.
I eased off the pace. Every time the trail crossed a stream or waterfall I dunked my head under to cool off, by 35km I was feeling good and overtaking again. I was still inside the top ten runners.
Then at 40km I started to be sick. I’d been carefully managing my intake of water, energy and electrolytes, but was starting to get heatstroke. There was an aid station at 42km, I guzzled a litre of water and filled two flasks to last me the final 10km.
The last section of the course includes three big hill climbs and descents, I’d run this route before, all I had to do was stick it out until the finish line.
The sun came out.
By the time I was coming down the penultimate hill I was stumbling, struggling not to vomit and was low on water. At 45km I found a race marshal, lay down on the ground and puked.
Looking back, it’s easy to think ‘I could have made it up that last hill, I was so close to the finish.’ But in reality, I know that if I tried to continue I’d have been in big trouble. I used to pride myself on never having dropped out of a race. One time when I was a junior track and field athlete I finished a steeplechase with what turned out to be a damaged knee ligament and ended up unable to walk unaided for a couple of weeks. That was a dumb thing to do. Dropping out on Sunday was probably the right call. It means I have a chance to get fit in time to race again next weekend. But I’m still gutted. For the first time ever my race result says ‘Did Not Finish’. DNF.
Over the summer I had a lot of fun joining a few running groups, meeting other runners and generally being a bit more sociable than usual. One week I set out to join seven Hash House running clubs in one week. Hash Houses, in case you’ve not heard of them before, are groups who meet weekly to run following a trail set in advance by a member known as the ‘hare’, then all go for dinner afterwards. They drink a lot of beer too, earning them a reputation as “drinking clubs with a running problem”. I only managed to join six groups over the week, and I ended up writing an article about it for Time Out Magazine.
Here are members of the Hong Kong Ladies’ Hash following the trail down a storm drain:
I suppose Hashes are a combination of running, urbex and Binge-drinking. Anyway, tomorrow is my first ultramarathon of the season, so for the past few weeks I’ve been putting in a lot of preparation and doing a lot of milage on my own.
In a previous post I briefly mentioned how photographers along the course spurred me on during my last race; with me wanting to look fast on Facebook. Well, on the subject of social media, I should mention Strava. Strava (which you can see in the screenshot above) is a social network for runners and cyclists. On the one hand it is a really useful tool for tracking your progress and keeping motivated, the downside is that it turns every weekday evening training run into a race. People can see your speed, cumulative weekly and monthly kilometres, every time you run your performance gets ranked alongside hundreds of other people. It has the potential to bring all the anxiety of social media into your daily run.
Still, it is a good way to stay social while doing long solo training runs.
And finally, on the subject of being sociable, I have been recruited onto a team for the Hong Hong Trail Racing League. Every time I race this season, I will be earning points (hopefully) for my new team. I’m really excited about taking part, the league has a really nice ethos, but the added competition does add a little more pressure for tomorrow.
I went for a training run on Sunday with a friend who routinely beats me in races, but with the temperature in the high thirties and the humidity above 90% he dropped out after 20km. This left me to run the second half of the route on my own.
Over the summer I got into the habit of being sociable; joining groups or arranging to meet other runners to go exploring. Now I was back on my own and found I had forgotten how difficult it is to stay motivated when trying to find your way; alone, tired, thirsty, overheating, sore feet, steep hills…
The previous week at the finish line on Lantau Peak I heard a few runners complaining about there being so many photographers on the course. But I think their presence is actually beneficial. Obviously, photographers tend to position themselves on steep sections of course where the views are best. When I’m struggling up that steep bit of hill (alone, tired, overheating, etc.) and I see a photographer I always try to speed up for Facebook. Pure vanity of course. But it probably cut a whole minute off my race time.
To mark the first day of my residency I left the flat before dawn to head to my first race of the Autumn; Lantau Vertical. In 2014 it was the first race I did after coming to Hong Kong. Today was my third attempt, and one of my main goals for this year was to do it in under an hour.
The rules are simple; run from the bottom of Lantau Peak to the summit at 934 meters. The first 5k climbs steadily for about 450 meters. But then the final 1.5k is an extremely steep climb that never seems to end. It’s a horrible course, and I love running it.
Here is the mountain from the bottom:
It’s the big one just right of centre. The course goes up the steep bit on the left hand side. Climbing it along the ridge is even harder, but that’s a story for another time.
As you can see, it was a beautiful sunny morning, temperature in the 30s centigrade, hardly a breeze. Better beach weather than running weather.
I go to the top in 59m 47s, right on target, which I’m really happy about. Afterwards I went to cool off with a swim and a beer. Here are some of Lantau Island’s famous cows on the beach: