Project 2: The Hong Kong Family Album 1951 / 2018


This project was made in 2018 while I was teaching stage design in Hong Kong. It is focused on the re-staging of family photographs taken in 1950s Hong Kong on the original sites as they exist today, using my own body in place of the figures of my mother and grandparents. The outcome of the project was a series of photographs which were made into a hardcopy album, but the process and outcome of the project are documented and discussed in the film below. A transcript of the film commentary can be found here.

(2021 - 23 min)


The opportunity to make this second project came about because of a short-term teaching position in Hong Kong. This allowed me to explore the city where my white British mother and grandparents lived in the early 1950s, and to build on the experimentation with being part of my own scenography that had begun in Project 1. Moving on from a focus on being a body moving through space, this project included the story of the scenographer to a greater extent, through the inclusion of family history and greater emotional investment in the actions undertaken in service of the project. In this way, the project foregrounds the 'personal' dimension of autoscenography (see Autoscenography, She Wrote for the identifying of this quality alongside two others).

The task was to replicate – as far as possible – photographs taken by my grandparents and featuring my mother as a two-year old child, using my body in place of theirs. This concept echoes approaches taken by writers and artists referenced in Autoscenography She Wrote, for example, Jo Spence who performs her childhood self through some of her photographic self-portraits or Lori Novak who creates installations and images with family photographs, both her own and those of others.  Likewise, the author Laura Cumming's wrote the story of her mother's childhood disappearance using family photographs as an embedded part of the book, rendering it almost a photo-narrative (Cumming 2019).  In The Hong Kong Family Album 1951 / 2018, I performed as part of a series of scenographic compositions which were in dialogue with images ‘staged’ and created by my relatives sixty years ago. There is a relationship here to the first project in terms of its being occupied with space and time (Practice Review Part 1), and also with the motif of distance, which emerged through Project 1: A Scenographer Walks. This second project could be considered to be another expression of ‘entfernung’, focused on time as much as space – this time with sixty years between scenographies rather than a few days or months as per my Lake District walks.

While this project happened before I articulated my emergent practice research as autoscenography, it is the first project in this thesis with an intentional autobiographical dimension. The Hong Kong Family Album 1951/2018 affirms autoscenography as something that can happen in places other than a traditional stage or performance space, in this case within a series of stages: a multitude of locations and actions around Hong Kong, in the hardcopy album containing both sets of photographs and in the performance of the conference papers through which I presented the project.

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The presenting of conference papers has been critical to the development of each practice research project within this thesis. In presenting The HK Family Album, I found creativity in exploring how best to tell a story of image-making happening in two time periods.  There was also an unexpected dimension which emerged in the sharing of this project – the role of displaying emotion in relation to one’s own research, where the enquiry is personal in addition to being a process of design. This was a project about loss and gain, and how these act over time: I have lost my family, but I can make a gain by making them active collaborators in the work. I can speak their names in academic contexts, and they can have whole presentation slides to themselves. Our shared history is asserted and valued alongside (and as part of) theory and practice research. This emphasises the practice of the scenographer-researcher as being integrated with who they are, where theory, practice, art, and the person are in dialogue. Crying while rehearsing and delivering this paper was not something I was initially comfortable with (and I was surprised by it) but it pointed to the assimilation of ‘auto’-ness within my scenography – the project created a space for emotion and subjectivity that was a shift in direction from Project 1. 

Reviewing these images prior to submission I am reminded (as was pointed out to me at the TaPRA 2018 conference) of the strong tourist gaze within the original images, which presents Hong Kong from a Western 1950s perspective. It was interesting to occupy those same spaces in much-developed contemporary Hong Kong and to appreciate that while many of the colonial marks on the city endure, many have disappeared. In making the project, I explored Hong Kong in a way I might not otherwise have done, in a form of parallel with my mid-twentieth century family. I found myself creating and participating in scenography sited in places that no longer attract a tourist snapshot and that would outwardly seem unpromising sites for a work of autoscenography. The resistance of sites to nostalgic storytelling was one of the most satisfying dimensions of this project from my perspective, and points to the imperfect aesthetic realities of incorporating lived experience into artmaking. 

Having introduced two practical autoscenographic projects generated during this research process, the next section will return to Part 2 of the Practice Review to analyse the way in which autoscenography, the autoscenographic or autoscenographics are manifest within the practice of others.

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