When passing a homeless person on the street, we all wonder where they go, what they do and how they survive. Some might stick in our minds for a good while. Sadly, most of us soon forget them again, distracted by our own lives.
Hong Kong artist, Leung Mee-Ping, was compelled to follow certain characters that seemed to be walking city streets lost, unacknowledged by the rest of society. She challenged herself to find out what might happen to them if we didn’t just walk by.
As part of the Liverpool Biennial, Leung presented videos of the most interesting individuals she came across on her travels. The theme for the Biennial this year is “hospitality” and Leung’s take on this was investigating a persons struggle with city life. “I care about their relationship with the city and how they can survive the situation that we are unable to see clearly.”
Leung spoke of her first video in the exhibition showing a man stumbling his way through a bustling city street. “I started in 2005 when I was working in a really busy area in Hong Kong. He was just a local person but it seems like he can’t you know, move with the environment. And he’s just walking and walking. He didn’t look like a homeless person so I followed and followed. He is the only one who never takes a look in the shop window. Hong Kong is a really big commercial centre. When you walk through the town you can’t escape it, its everywhere. He is the only one who is not looking.”
You can see what she is getting at. Watching the man in the video I could see why people might have stayed out of his way. He could be drunk or dangerous or both. But after witnessing the journey that Leung takes us on with him, you can see that he was neither. You realise that the likelihood is that he needed some kind of help. “I traced him for more than 3 days. He took me to some areas of the city that I have never reached. He didn’t know who I was. Most of the people didn’t pay attention to him, he smelled very bad. But I found out later that he is not crazy. He is just lost in his mind. He is not a homeless person, he is just lost and lonely. I tried following many other people but I went back to him because he is the most interesting. ”
Leung’s work is clever in that it is suggestive but never domineering. It isn’t edited in a bid to sway her audience’s viewpoint. The footage is raw and simple and she presented a picture of a life that wouldn’t ordinarily be accessed. “I just wanted to put myself in their place. It was very simple.” She allows the reality that she discovers to do the talking, she doesn’t have to dress it up. She doesn’t question her audience but rather makes them question themselves.
Leung showed me some footage of an elderly lady in Bangkok, again in a busy environment. “You have to find them, you have to look for them. Bangkok is a tourist country, you might want to go to take your holidays. This lady walked the most slowly around there, she was wearing a mans shirt and carrying a packet of biscuits, asking if people wanted them. But the packet was already open. She wanted to share the value of the biscuits, and then no one took care of her, no one looked at her. There is an insect on her back. I looked very close and from inside her clothes always came insects, I was shocked.”
Leung didn’t just uncover mysteries of those going it alone. In the Smokey Mountain in Manila, she discovered a group of street children, collecting garbage for money. “They have a really rising population in Manila. They all survive by collecting all the garbage, you can see all the plastic bags, everything. A full cart, between all the children will only get them about 1 US dollar. And they can survive like that? When I find these people some are old, some are lonely. But I also find the sunny side of them you know, their energy. These children are a new generation. I really liked them, very much and they touched my heart.”
To date, Leung has seventeen versions of these individuals in different cities around the world. “They are the guests. They are the guests in their own country. They don’t belong to this place.” Her work is part of the “All Are Guests” exhibition for the Liverpool Biennial, featuring two other Hong Kong artists. Its takes place in an old Royal Mail sorting office in Liverpool until 25th November.
All Are Guests goes way beyond the average visual arts show and really lives up to its name – we are all invited to get involved.
There’s a whole programme of thought provoking events and activities to explore and take part in. For full details visit www.liverpoolbiennial.hk
words Hannah Barr