By Diana d’Arenberg Parmanand /
The first exhibition in Hong Kong addressing and engaging with the city’s current political and identity troubles, Liquefied Sunshine | Force Majeure is a creative dialogue between Hong Kong artists Luke Ching Chin Wai and South Ho Siu Nam that explores the notion of storms, one natural, the other political. With works made in 2014, the year of the Umbrella Movement protests, and 2018, the two socially engaged artists respond to the earlier protests and presciently foreshadow the protests and riots that are still unfolding in the city.
In the bifurcated gallery space, Ching’s exhibition greets visitors with Liquefied Sunshine (2014-15), a wall of 721 postcards of Hong Kong and Taiwan landmarks, obscured by strokes of white ink suggesting a curtain of heavy rain. A video installation, Weather Report: Liquefied Sunshine (2014-15), depicts artificial rain brought by water trucks descending on art museums in Hong Kong and Taiwan. The inspiration behind the work lies in the use of water cannons against protestors in Taiwan’s 2014 Sunflower Movement, and an incident shortly after that when rain fell through the ceiling of Festival Walk shopping mall during a storm. In a letter to the Taipei police in which the artist requests the use of a water cannon for his art work, he implores the recipient “to subjectively think that these situations of artificial rain are related”. The artist injects a sense of magical realism into the work by connecting the two events across time and space, one in which water’s destructive powers were demonstrated by politics and the other by nature. But by juxtaposing footage from the two cities, Ching draws a parallel between their political realities and struggles against political forces. Of course, a sense of déjà vu permeates the work as fiction becomes reality, with water cannon use by police in Hong Kong now commonplace in an effort to disperse protestors.
Nearby is installation Panic Disorder (2019), in which cockroaches fashioned out of double-sided tape litter the gallery floor in small clusters, a reference to a comment made by a Hong Kong police officer calling protestors cockroaches, suggesting that like the pest, they are vermin, inspiring fear and disgust. Overlooked by exhibition visitors, occasionally the cockroaches get trodden on. The Edge of Sky (2019), a street lamp perched on a wall, in which a trapped white bird is caught mid-transformation into a giant cockroach, calls to mind Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis, a fitting allusion to the transformation besieging a city whose identity is currently in flux.
South Ho’s part of the exhibition, Force Majeure, starts with a series of black-and-white photographs, The Whiteness of Trees (2018), which document the destruction wrought by 2018’s Super Typhoon Mangkhut in areas like Tin Shui Wan, where the artist grew up, and Fo Tan, where he works today. Tens of thousands of trees were uprooted and destroyed by the force of the winds, littering the city and blocking roads for days in the aftermath of the typhoon. The photographs, many showing mangled trees against the background of a concrete metropolis, speak not just of the incredible destructive power of natural phenomena, but also of displacement, both of a city’s inhabitants and of nature. The natural disaster provided a collective moment of liberation by nature. But as quickly as the trees were destroyed, they were cleared out by government workers, and the city went back to business as usual, as was the case during the 2014 occupation of Central by the Umbrella Movement. The artist was struck by the speed with which Hongkongers resumed their daily lives – workers in suits clambering over tree wreckage to get to work the next day, unruffled by the destruction or the later removal of trees that were a part of the city’s landscape and the daily life of its inhabitants. Prioritising efficiency and productivity, little thought was given to the role of nature and its non-human inhabitants, highlighting the uncomfortable relationship between the urban and the natural, particularly as the former encroaches on the latter. The photographs hint at the fragility of nature, and suggest that the line between manmade and natural disaster is increasingly blurred today with climate change.
The photo series stands alongside a video installation depicting a protest on a commercial Hong Kong street; moments of quiet tension in a stand-off between police and protestors are interspersed with scenes of tear gas being lobbed back and forth. A strong sense of déjà vu and history repeating itself hits visitors – in particular Hong Kong visitors – viewing this film, if not the entire exhibition. This same scene has played out in the commercial streets of Hong Kong every weekend for the past few months, a repetition of marching and chanting slogans, punctuated with violence. A small pile of colourful, playful-looking foam balls, similar to the sponge grenades fired by police at protestors, sit conspicuously before the video screen, while on an opposite wall hangs a photograph of peaceful protestors, numbering a million, marching through the streets of Hong Kong in white on June 9. This photograph marks the beginning of the protests, setting off a chain of events that would eventually lead to the scenes depicted in the video.
Using the typhoon as a metaphor – a seasonal occurrence in Hong Kong – the two-part exhibition reflects on the destructive power of natural phenomena, but the typhoon in this case also represents the political troubles that have assailed Hong Kong over the past several months. By also highlighting that which is often overlooked in society, like the trees in Ho’s photographs or the cockroaches in Ching’s work, the exhibition asks: how do we achieve a multi-species, pluralistic survival today, ecologically, politically and socially?