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Ho Sin Tung

The Optimism in Swamps /

By Christie Lee /

At the opening of Ho Sin Tung’s Swampland, one wades (pun intended) through paintings and installations, taking care not to bump into a furry wall or knock over a ghost sculpture. Sufjan Stevens’ Mystery of Love, the theme song to the 2017 film Call Me by Your Name, washes over the crowd, who chat and clink glasses.

The title of the show evokes the uncertain state that Hong Kong is in after eight months of protest, with the dimly lit gallery and cobalt walls conveying moodiness – although Ho says they weren’t her decisions.

The setting looks markedly different from previous exhibitions by the artist, known for intricate drawings of her obsessions, usually borderline characters aspiring to reach an idealised state, only to find that it inevitably ends in failure. The artist, who was born in Hong Kong in 1986 and is a fine arts graduate from The Chinese University of Hong Kong, says she’s always been interested in the same themes.

Installation view of Swamplands at HanartTZ Gallery, 2020.
Courtesy the artist and Hanart TZ Gallery. Photo: South Ho Siu Nam.

“This work is about the desire in all of us to create a utopian world and the subsequent failure,” she comments when we meet on a late January morning, referring to Dead Skin, a series of nine hand-painted bed sheet ghosts depicting nine extinct states, including British Hong Kong. “These countries might be extinct, but the impact they have on the world is still there, like a ghost.”

The work strikes a chord in protest-hit Hong Kong, but it also asks broader questions about the construction of identity. “I think a lot of identities are make-believe,” says Ho. “I mean, we say that Hongkongers are Chinese, but why? What does it mean to be a Hong Kong person? That concept is always in flux. I think the ability to pick one’s identity is a kind of freedom. I think fiction and what you see in front of you have equal hold on our imagination.”

The idea of the lingering past is seen in Same Old Street, where the artist melts candy and medicinal pills given to her by her exes, mixes them with clay and plops them into glass jars. 

Installation view of Swamplands at HanartTZ Gallery, 2020.
Courtesy the artist and Hanart TZ Gallery. Photo: South Ho Siu Nam.

“While I was making them, they gave off such a rancid smell,” she says. “I think this process allowed me to re-examine the relationship I had with their original owners.” 

The shape the candy takes was inspired by Salò (1975), Pier Paolo Pasolini’s controversial film about four fascists who kidnap and torture 18 adolescent boys and girls in an Italian villa. In one scene, the boys and girls are forced to ingest faeces while their torturers watch on, then moments later join in. “You see how much they enjoy it and, later, how much they enjoy being sodomised or beaten; you realise there is no way to defeat them, even if the tables are turned. That, to me, is the most shocking thing.” 

Call Me by Your Name and Stevens’ album anchor the exhibition. On the main gallery wall are three paintings, each featuring the hand-painted lyrics of a song from the album, accompanied by a drawing. “I’ve put this album on repeat for the last three years. Spotify tells me these are my top three songs,” Ho laughs.

The drawing with Mystery of Love appears to have little to do with the lyrics. Like Same Old Street, there is no straightforward narrative. In fact, there appears to be a disconnect between the song and drawing. Where the lyrics are about the complicated feelings the movie’s protagonist Elio has for his love interest, Oliver, the drawing fuses various visual references: Greek ruins; a delicately drawn, mountainous landscape; a pink moon, symbolising rebirth and rising among the ruins; and four pillars, a reference to the four pillars marking the entrance of Chinese University, a key battleground during the Hong Kong protests in November 2019.

In Call Me by Your Name, there is this scene where Oliver extends the hand of a Greek sculpture and Elio shakes it. It made me think of how desires are passed down generations,” says the artist. 

Death by Dignity depicts the ghost of Stevens’ mum passing through his body. “He was never very close to his mum but when she died, he missed her intensely. It’s missing somebody but not necessarily because you have this trove of memories.” She draws a parallel with her feelings about the June 4 incident: she was only three in 1989 and has no first-hand memory of it.

Kluedo for Artists by Ho Sin Tung, Colour pencil and ink on paper, 
dimensions variable, set of 5, 2012. Courtesy the artist and Hanart TZ Gallery. 

“In this song [Death with Dignity], Stevens kept singing, ‘I don’t know where to begin’. But he’s actually trying to construct his own identity
in the process. I try to do the same with this
exhibition,” she says.

What I Saw on Top of the World is a two-part piece comprising a furry painting that occupies a length of wall and, hanging above it, three
Chinese characters. Both pieces revolve around King Kong – the artist is an admirer of the famous gorilla – although he isn’t the main character as much as a springboard for the artist to explore other, more complicated feelings.

“King Kong is huge, right? I imagine this will be all I see if I hug him,” says Ho, as she sticks her face into the soft patch of fur. “At the same time, King Kong is a modern-day Icarus. He fights the men and manages to scale the Empire State Building, but he ends up falling from it. For me, he symbolises the outsider who’d never fit within the system.”

The three characters were inspired by a curious encounter. “One time, this Thai man told me, ‘I am King Kong’. I have no idea why, but later he taught me how to say ‘forever’ in Thai. I heard ‘dta-lot-bpai’, and to me, it sounded like hitting or falling in Cantonese. Now, wherever I think of forever, I think of falling.”

Ho admits viewers might not be able to deduce all that from the work. “Sometimes, I like it when a work isn’t totally comprehensible,” she says, before leading me to But Something in Him Was Still Homesick for the Ice, where blank pages from books about the elusive philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein are back-lit to form a long, slippery, eggshell-white surface. This visual is inspired by the last scene of Derek Jarman’s 1993 film about the philosopher, which tells the story of a genius who wants to use pure logic to construct a perfect world but, when he achieves success, realises that friction doesn’t exist in this perfect world, and falls over every time he tries to enter.

Right: Bitter Dust by Ho Sin Tung, Colour pencil and ink on paper,  
38 x 58 cm, 2016. Courtesy the artist and Hanart TZ Gallery. 

For Ho, it is a reminder that the perfect world, a world of complete understanding ruled by logic, can’t exist. “If you use Wittgenstein as an example: so many people have represented him, his life, his work, but who’s to say they can fully represent him? Even he himself couldn’t fully represent himself.”

Ho’s art has always asked whether one person can fully comprehend another, but Swampland absolutely revels in exploring the gaps in understanding – not that it means people should stop trying, as Your blood is green and that’s okay hints. An inquisitive finger stabs into someone else’s body, drawing blood, which is red but also green and blue. Ho tells me the work is inspired by the apostle Thomas, who refused to believe in Jesus’ resurrection until he’d personally felt his wound, but also by an episode of popular Japanese anime Sailor Moon, in which a girl is unperturbed by the green blood of her extraterrestrial lover.

“I think there is a certain optimism in that: to not be scared by something that looks so different from you,” she says.

And perhaps that’s the optimism of swamps: they’ve acquired a reputation as slimy, dead and slow-moving, but beneath that is a hive of activity, where different entities meet and become entwined or separate.

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