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Ho Sin Tung 何倩彤

The Optimism in Swamps / 沼地裡的樂觀 /

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.

踏入何倩彤的個展「沼澤地」,觀眾費力趟過一眾平面和裝置作品,小心翼翼切不要碰上那毛茸茸的牆或撞倒鬼魂雕塑。Sufjan Stevens為影片《以你的名字呼喚我》(2017年)配唱的主題曲《Mystery of Love》籠罩著那些正在閒談、碰杯的人們。

標題「沼澤地」配合畫廊裡昏暗的光線和陰鬱的鈷牆,不禁讓人想到香港經過8個月的社運後所處於的不確定狀態——儘管何氏說這並非她的決定。

是次個展的佈置風格和她往昔所呈現的截然不同,她素來精細繪畫令她癡迷的事物,曖昧的人物渴望達到一種理想狀態,唯以失敗告終。1986年生於香港的她,畢業於香港中文大學藝術系,她表示自己總是沉迷於相同的主題。

「這件作品說的是我們每個人心中想要建立一個烏托邦世界的願望以及隨之而來的失敗。」一月尾某個早晨她談到《死皮》時如此對我說。九個手繪的床單鬼代表九個包括英屬香港等已消亡的地區。「好像是某些地方亡了,但仍對世界有好大影響,像鬼一樣陰魂不散。」

此作品與香港社運共鳴,同時也對身份建構提出更廣泛的問題。「我認為許多身份都是虛構的。」她說道。「我的意思是,我們說香港人是中國人,但這是為什麼呢?做個香港人又是什麼意思?概念總是在變。我認為能夠選擇個人的身份這是種自由,虛構和你的所見一同控制著我們的想像力。」

「揮之不去的過往」這一觀點被展現在作品《Same Old Street》裡,何倩彤將前任愛侶送給她的糖果和藥片融化、混入黏土中,然後扔進玻璃罐裡。

「在製作時,這些材料散發出的酸宿的味道。」她說。「整個過程讓我重新審視了自己與這些物品原主人間曾經的關係。」

糖果的造型取材于皮埃爾·保羅·帕索裡尼的爭議電影《索多瑪120天》(1975年),關於四個法西斯份子綁架並在一棟義大利別墅中折磨18個未成年少男少女的故事。其中一幕,這些少男少女被逼吃下糞便,施暴者在一旁看著隨後也加入了這場「盛宴」。「你能看到這些人有多享受,你也能看到之後他們如何享受被雞奸或被毆打;你意識到即使局面扭轉過來也根本無法擊敗他們。對我來說,這才是最令人震驚的。」

《以你的名字呼喚我》與Stevens的專輯奠定了展覽的基調。畫廊主牆上有三幅畫作,是為專輯中的三首歌繪出的樂譜並配的圖畫。「這三年我一直在反復聽這張專輯,是Spotify告訴我這三首聽的最多。」何笑稱。

為歌曲《Mystery of Love》而作的畫《愛之秘》與歌詞卻不太相關,就如同《Same Old Street》一樣,沒有直接的敘述。歌與畫之間其實顯得有些脫節,歌詞表達的是主角Elio對自己的愛慕物件Oliver所懷有的複雜情感。而畫作結合了多種視覺元素:希臘廢墟;精細繪製的山地景觀;還有四根柱子是源自中文大學入口處的四根柱子,該大學是2019年11月香港社運的主戰場之一。

「《以你的名字呼喚我》其中有一幕,Oliver將希臘雕塑的一隻手遞出,Elio握了握它。這讓我想到欲望是如何代代相傳下去的。」何倩彤說道。

《死亡榮光》說的是Stevens的亡母靈魂穿過他的身體。「他與母親生前關係不緊密,但自她死後卻無比思念。它告訴我們緬懷某人並不需要有直接的回憶。」她以自己和六四事件舉例:1989年時,她才三歲,對此沒有直接的記憶。

「歌曲《Death with Dignity》中,Stevens一邊唱一邊說著『不知講什麼才好』,他在悼念過程中不斷嘗試建構自己的身份。在此次展覽中我也在努力這麼做。」她表示。

作品《我在至高處看見的東西》由兩部分構成,一片鋪滿整面牆長度的毛茸茸的畫,還有高高懸掛在上空的三個中文字,兩者皆以《金剛》為創作理念。何倩彤很仰慕這隻著名的猩猩,但沒有把他當成主角而是用其來探究其他更複雜的情感。

「金剛是個龐然大物,對不對?這是我能想到擁抱他時的感受。」說著她把臉伸入了那叢軟毛中。「金剛是現代的伊卡洛斯,他與人類搏鬥,爬上帝國大廈但最後卻從那裡掉下來。對我而言,他象徵著一個永遠無法適應體制的外來者。」

那三個字取材於一段古怪的邂逅。「一次,這個泰國男人對我說,『我是金剛』,我不知道他為什麼這麼說。後來他教我怎麼用泰語說『永遠』,『dta-lot-bpai』,我聽上去像是粵語裡的跌落。此後每次我想起永遠,都會聯想到跌倒。」

何承認觀者可能無法從作品中推敲出全部資訊。「有時候我覺得作品不被完全讀懂的感覺不錯的。」說著她帶我來到《他卻切切想著那片純粹的冰原》前。她從描繪維根斯坦這位高深莫測的哲學家的書籍中取出些空白頁,從背後打光形成一個長長的、平滑的白色面。這視覺靈感來自戴力渣文執導的電影《維根斯坦》(1993年),講述了這位天才想用純粹的邏輯來建構一個完美世界,可當他成功後卻發現,這個世界裡不存在摩擦力,每次他想進入其中都會跌倒。

在她看來,這個作品是種提醒:一個在邏輯統治下充滿百分百理解的完美世界是無法存在的。「如果你以維根斯坦為例:有這麼多人去表現他、他的人生還有作品,但誰能說他能完整體現他?即使他自己也不能完全體現自己。」

何倩彤的藝術始終在扣問一個人能否完全理解另一個人,此次個展則完全沉浸於探索理解中的差異,但這並不是要人們不再去嘗試。這也是作品《你的血是綠色的,沒關係》所暗示的:一根手指好奇地探入其他人的身體,流出的血是紅色的也是綠色和藍色的。何倩彤告訴我這個作品的創作靈感來自十二門徒聖徒多馬,他拒絕相信耶穌復活的事實,直到親自感受他的傷口。日本熱門動漫《美少女戰士》同樣也啟發了她,有一集說某女子鎮定自若地面對妖怪愛人流出的綠色血液。

「我想這裡必定有著某種樂觀:不被某些和你看上去很不一樣的東西驚嚇到。」她說。

或許這便是沼澤地的樂觀:它們素有泥濘、死氣、滯緩的名聲,而其底下卻暗藏著一派繁忙,在那裡各種實體遇見你我而後各自糾纏抑或分離。

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