A Journal of the Plague Year. Fear, ghosts, rebels. SARS, Leslie and the Hong Kong story

by on Dec.13, 2013


It’s cold in the Rust Belt. The children have disappeared, but they have littered the house with their alt manifestations:  Mumins—white, gelatinous manifestations of cold. Mylings, half baby, half breast.  Parasites and hosts. Mamifestations. Cold, mammary, scandinavian breath-collects in the fairy hollows, lumpy fairy cairns. Carrion comfort. The mumins are not wraithlike but plump. They look like spores and lungs. They will ludicrously digest you through the lung.




At the end of the year, stumped in snow, I want to write about an exhibit I did not see, an exhibit which ran in Hong Kong this summer.  It was curated by Cosmin Costinas and Inti Guerrero and based at their gallery, Para Site.  It featured 27 artists, mostly based in Hong Kong. The title of this exhibit reads like it was scraped up in the future as a specimen from the inside of my cranium when I am a dead human 6,000 years ago:

“A Journal of the Plague Year. Fear, ghosts, rebels. SARS, Leslie and the Hong Kong story”



As the lengthy millipedinous title with its jointed, segmented abdomen suggests, this exhibit was many things, but it could be summarized as a portrait of Hong Kong in the plague year of 2003: the year of the invasion of Iraq was eclipsed by the the SARS epidemic which was then trancepted by mutable superstar Leslie Cheung’s leap from the 23rd floor of the Mandarin Oriental hotel.

Participants, with their heads sticking out from holes of a large white fabric, perform during a performance, "Divisor" during an exhibition, "A Journal of the Plague Year. Fear, Ghosts, Rebels. SARS, Leslie and the Hong Kong Story," in Central business district of Hong Kong

Recreation of Brazilian artist Lygia Pape’s 1968 ‘Divsor’ performance at the opening of A Journal of the Plague Year



The plague year: 2003. The plague year, 1894, the year the plague bacillus was isolated in Hong Kong, like ghost gold in the bank, ‘confirming’ racist hyopthesis and funding the bad currency of the ‘yellow peril’ for a century to come[i]. Isolates and contamination. Alien exclusions. Mutations and killer apps.  The plague year, 1665, when the Great Plague struck london.  Daniel Defoe was 5 during the plague, which did not stop him from publishing his ‘Journal of the Plague Year’ in 1722, a fradulent first-person account culled, probably, from the diary of his Uncle Foe. The fake is the real. The fraud is vicious and virulent. Counterfeit money costs more. The black market’s steepness reveals the real cost of death and life.  The value of a star explodes and cannot be zero’d-out. On the heart-scale. On the black market.

Leslie Cheung.

cheung sars



The magnitude of Leslie Cheung’s life and death probably cannot be grasped by one who did not exist in Asia in the gilt penumbra of his stardom, soaked in his nutritive Cantopop. For this American cinephile, his incredible beauty, his tenderness and violence, his mutability, this way he IS image. The strange, greeny, gelatinous light-eating corpse-garment, Film, seems to have evolved for him, for his image, for his cheekbone, his hairline, his face.  His suicide contaminated Hong Kong with a viscera and drove Hongkongers to disobey the quarantine to congregate in grief. A grief congress, drenched in fame. A drought of fame. A  plague of fame. A counterepedimiology. A group show. Unparaphrasable. It must be spelled out, term by term, in spirit writing. A journaloftheplagueyear: fearghostrebels. SARSleslieandthestoryofhongkong.


In the elevation and evisceration of Cheung;  in the condemnation and quarantining of Hong Kong, in the caricatured visage of the Asian male, at once weak and viscious, whose swarm-body can barely be individuated from the hyperinstrumental group body of the ‘yellow peril’; in the historical identity of Hong Kong as a valuable disputed territory and a conduit for capital; in the role of Asian bodies as specimens and contaminants in the Western imaginary in recent centuries—all these themes are animated, pierced, denatured, re-mounted in the various works which made up this exhibit.  Gender becomes denatured in the title of Ai Wei Wei’s ‘with milk’,  a kind of black fathermilk involving 65 tons of milk and 15 tons of coffee, produced by this very male artist. ‘with milk’ more directly references the milk-powder scandal, involving the contamination of baby formula with melamine in 2008, and the resulting fallout, whereby a crackdown on formula-exportation through and from Hong Kong created a blackmarket favoring very wealthy and/or connected Chinese families. As always, the obscene father Ai Wei Wei provides/fails to provide nourishment through an act of Bataillean expenditure.

In addition to the colossus  Ai, there’s also the exhumation and reanimation of Len Lye’s entrancing 1935 animation Tusalava, which seems to evolve an theory of trans-pacific Art through germ theory. The short film seems to deploy an anachronistic fore-knowledge of late 20th  and 21st century plagues, while reversing imperial plague logic which rendered the indigenous as inherently parasitic, instead showing the parasitism of the imperial power on the indigenous.


And beyond that, films and images, documents and artwork which I must exhume from their pixelated cairns all over the Internet before I could describe them here. An infolding, multiplicitous, multivectored and non-paraphrasable organism, a counter-cluster, a plague of Art. The titles alone inflorate and lodge in my brain: “Total Mobilization” by Yin-Ju Chen and James T. Hong;  “The Ghost of the Face-Mask” by the theater group Zuni Isocohedron;  and an array of other works. And beyond the themes I’ve been drawing out here, there’s also of course the problem of capitalism’s plague-like motion; of fear as a kind of advertising medium; of the body as medium in the state of epidemic;of the state in the state of epidemic;of the state of exception and the bodies it renders; of capitalism as a permanent emergency; of ‘pan-Asian’, Chinese, Hong Kong,  and British identities and dis-identities; xenophobia; Warholian immanence or non-immanence viz. the image; money as a magic image; expenditure; Hong Kong and the spectre of wealth. Man and other species. Man as other species.

Adrian Wong, 'Sak Gai (Chicken Kiss)', 2007, digital print. Image courtesy the artist and Para Site.

Adrian Wong, “Sak Gai (Chicken Kiss)”, 2007.




A second uncanny effect this (absent) exhibition  has had on me has to do with another  Journal of the Plague Year, another fraud-novel, anachronistic and in-progress towards 1992:  Johannes Goransson’s Sugar Book. As a symbol of imperialism’s mobility, it’s sugar that’s moving around on the back of fear in Johannes’s book-in-progress; instead of Hong Kong or London, the porous citadel is LA; instead of Leslie Cheung, a starlet has died. And yet the book unfolds with the same massing of membranes, the same mutating,  autophagal force as unite and distress  A Journal of the Plague Year. Fear, ghosts, rebels. SARS, Leslie and the Hong Kong story. The Sugar Book is also directly parasitic on Defoe’s Plague Year, appropriating and distressing Defoe’s slummy, fraudulent passages.  Johannes’s book tells the story of a city, besieged by plagues, from the perspective of one plague, that is, the immigrant, wherein the survival of the immigrant and of the city is fatally interlinked. They are mutually parasitic, each trying to kill the other, heedless and, like sugar, dissolute (soluable)and superefined: each is the developing media for bringing the other into existence yet each pains the other, each filters its waste through the other’s tissues and bones. It may not be proper parasitism, then,but mutualism; mutual miserabilism. Here, in LA, Johannes opens his throat and the voice of Disney’s Little Mermaid spills out, as in the upshot of some clearancesale of souls, some devilish bargain:

One day I will go where people live. One day, I will totally invent an idiot language with which I will teach the crowd how to draw conclusions from their own cadaver.  I can draw certain conclusions from poetry: We lived here, we pretended we were black here, we had fever with the lilies here, we partied on the bros here, we drank black milk from each other’s mouths here, we read books about nazi glamour here, we went boom-boom here. Our bodies were taken out on stretchers here. They were brought into: Los Angeles. Even the poorest dictator deserves to have his photograph taken in sugar.







[i] this connection I garnered from the press materials on Para Site’s website, here.

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