By Chihoi /
Published by nos:books, 2019 /
Ysabelle Cheung /
The day I visited Chihoi’s exhibition at ACO Art Space in Wanchai, it was strangely quiet. Both the security guard and docent were absent; I stood alone with the drawings and comic panels, which were pinned to soft fabric boards in pastel hues. After a while, a woman arrived and asked if I wanted to visit “the reading room” for a fee of HK$10. I agreed and was handed a key, which unlocked a small closet near the entrance. Inside I found a small school desk, a vintage lamp and a chair. There was a womb-like, conspirational feeling to the cabinet, augmented by the room’s central object: an unpublished, hidden chapter from Chihoi’s latest book, Library.
Chihoi, a Hong Kong-born artist, has been publishing fictional comics since 1996. Rendering his figures and landscapes in soft graphite tones – blacks rubbed silver from shading, the pages suffused with a sooty pallor – he has often referenced literature in his work, from his debut book, The Writer (1997), about a female author grappling with ambition, to an adaptation of Taiwanese writer Hung Hung’s short fiction piece The Train (2007).
Library contains five chapters, excluding the unpublished one, featuring a cast of characters linked to a fictional library in Hong Kong. Libraries are mythologised in popular culture, often presented as sacrosanct forums for philosophy and knowledge. However, in Chihoi’s one – a sculpted, tensile building with arched entrances – this trope is subverted. It is less a portal for knowledge, more a space of ambiguity and loss, reflecting our desperate and often futile search for truth and meaning in text. For example, in Borrowed Books, an elderly grandfather burns library books once read by his deceased wife, consumed by his grief. In the book’s titular chapter, a man enters the library but, instead of finding the text he came for, is given a key that unlocks a series of linked underground chambers. We see people rifling through ceiling-high filing cabinets and crushed under reams of paper and bookshelves. In the very last chamber, the skeletal remains of past visitors portend a morbid fate, which the protagonist ignores. Instead, he begins to read a book titled The Lost City.
The meaning of Library is layered and abstract. But there are clues: the presence of Hong Kong history books and fables throughout hint at an identity crisis connected to the city’s vanishing culture. In his afterword, Chihoi writes of how he has collected similar books onhis travels, creating an itinerant bookshelf that pays homage to a place on the edge of erasure. “Borrowed books, borrowed life,” the elderly grandfather laments, echoing a well-known term used to describe Hong Kong – as a “borrowed place on borrowed time”. Even the small cabinet in the exhibition was a space of borrowing; in it, you could read the unpublished chapter for as long as you wanted, but you could not take photographs or remove anything from the room.
In the penultimate chapter, The Book Inferno, a group of students visit a literature-themed park based on Dante’s visions of hell, which illustrate grotesque punishments for perceived criminals, including those who “steal or borrow books and fail to return them”. Although written in a facetious tone, the scene presents a sobering metaphor for authoritarian control and ownership. If books are our histories and we are the borrowers, who doles out these punishments? Who controls the library? Chihoi leaves this open to interpretation, only warning us that although we can rent our own narratives and stories, we must eventually return them.