On the side of the Queen Victoria Women’s Centre, near Chinatown, six-storey-high text glows on the walls, projected from across Lonsdale Street. "I empty out / I conjure / Images and ideas / Make space for / Creative thoughts / To enter" reads the light, before flickering in an instant to another phrase: "我們都在發同一個夢" - roughly translated: "We dream the same dream".
This is part of I Conjure, the work of legendary conceptual artist Jenny Holzer. Since the 1970s, when her Truisms series saw provocative texts plastered across the walls of New York City, her work has been been displayed in public across the world: on posters, T-shirts, plaques, LED signs and condom wrappers. In using text, Holzer speaks directly to her audience.
This, the latest in Holzer’s globetrotting projection events, will see hundreds of her statements lighting up the walls above Golden Square. This time, however, Holzer isn’t alone. Her words will alternate with those of Canadian Agnes Martin, American Grace Hartigan, Australian artist Tracey Moffatt (responsible for the I Conjure text and title), and Hong Kong- via-Melbourne-based Nikki Lam, the author of the previous "We dream" statement.
Lam has spent roughly half her life in Hong Kong, and half in Melbourne. As such she has a deep connection with both cities. With this project, Lam addresses the current climate in Hong Kong, with text projected solely in traditional Chinese. There’s no translation written below, and no context provided.
“The content of my contribution is intended to speak directly to Hong Kongers,” says Lam. “It’s a reminder of the freedom held together by all of us.”
“I’m thinking about translation all the time, consciously and subconsciously,” Lam says. “Certain images translate in a certain way, through the audience.“Perhaps only those familiar with the context
will understand the meaning. These are almost coded messages to other Hong Kongers. If they walk past that in Chinatown, they’ll know exactly what it means, and the context it came from. But not anyone else.”
Since 2019 millions of Hong Kong’s citizens have taken to the streets to protest the government’s (since abandoned) extradition bill, which would have allowed activists and journalists to be extradited to China. Exacerbated by a violent police response, the vast and well-organised protests have become a globally recognised flashpoint of people power.
Being solely presented in a language understood by some five per cent of Melburnians, these statements are strictly targeted. But there are elements to this work that will seem cryptic even to Melbourne’s many thousands of native Chinese speakers.
In writing her contributions, Lam was inspired by slogans and language adopted by protesters. In 2020, when the new national security law made protest and discussion of it increasingly difficult, the protesters evolved, using coded language to communicate without interference. “Hong Kongers have always been creative with our languages,” says Lam. “It’s been a port city for over a century, and lots of multilingual phrases come from Cantonese, English, Mandarin and other languages.”
Between them, the four artists in this work are responsible for close to 300 statements – proclamations on creativity, art and activism. Holzer’s words are at once poetic and activist, simple and built on a web of meaning, which gives them a universal relevance, and an enduring power. Lam complicates this, and reminds us that which may seem distant is interwoven with the streets of our own city.
As Holzer once plastered on a Billboard over Times Square: "All things are delicately interconnected". And as Lam writes: "讓我們的創作成為歷史的見證 Let our art bear witness to history".
I Conjour runs from 1- 12 June at the Queen Victoria Women’s Centre, near Chinatown as part of Rising festival, you can find out more here
Broadsheet is a proud media partner of Rising