Amid columns of art books at Blindspot Gallery’s Wong Chuk Hang office is what looks like an object belonging in a Chinese scholar’s study. But stare at it a bit longer and an image of a tear gas cloud – a common sight on Hong Kong streets in the second half of 2019 – comes to mind. Suddenly, an object that supposedly inspires turns into one that muddles and impedes. This ambiguity threads through most of the works at The Palm at the End of the Mind, a group show by three artists, Lau Hok Shing, So Wing Po and Zhang Ruyi. The title, lifted from the first line of Wallace Stevens’ poem Of Mere Being, is something of a riddle.
Which palm does Stevens refer to here – the palm of a hand or a palm tree? (It turns out to be the latter.) And never mind what lies at the end of mind – what, precisely, is the end of the mind? Despite the mind being human, the poem appears to be reaching for something beyond the limit of human consciousness.
“There’s something in the art that you don’t quite understand. It looks familiar but there’s also distance between the work and the audience,” says Lau, who created the aforementioned work, Fence of Cloud I (2020), when asked how he interprets the exhibition title.
The artist’s pièce de résistance in the exhibition is Remote Islands (2020), a composed installation of wooden globes, cubes and rocks atop a polished acrylic table. It looks like a traditional Chinese garden but there is also something off about it – in the specks of black dust that adorn the wooden globes and cubes. The artist says that the ink has been mixed with dirt and dust collected from various parts of the city, including protest sites. “I’d originally intended it as documentation of sorts, but later I realised I wanted to include it in the work.” Lau pauses, before adding: “There are probably remnants of teargas canisters. There must be. Given how many were fired off.” The wooden globes and cubes sit on top of glass slats which are inked with images of the city, including Victoria Harbour, protest graffiti and the sky above the government offices in Admiralty. Irregularly shaped rocks, beautiful in their ruggedness, are stuck precariously onto the top of the globes and cubes, completing a composition of so much beauty yet also unspeakable anguish. “You have got this elegant fixture, but within the context of the piece, they’re like monsters – crushing whatever is underneath.”
While Lau’s work plays with different temporalities and the idea of beauty, So’s works destabilise the line between human and nature. They continue the artist’s investigation into the human ear, but also allow her to excavate intersections between the human body, nature and science. Earth Battery (2020) is constructed to simulate how we receive and perceive sound. At one end of gigantic installation made of transparent globes is a sound receiver; at the other end, a dead cicada. Chinese spices and herbs fill the globes, a nod to So’s family’s business. “These Chinese spices and herbs are rich in mineral ions, which provide that transmitting power,” she says. When someone speaks into the receiver, sound waves pass through the system until they reach the cicada, which glows to indicate that sound has been transmitted. So says she wants to draw parallels between the system within an ear and that of our bodies, society and the universe. Amplifying the different elements of the structure also exposes its fragility: it only takes the wires that link the globes to be cut for the entire system to collapse.
There is also a wax sculpture of an ear lying atop a hand installed on the wall. The bizarre-looking yet memorable piece is a misinterpretation of Stevens’ poem, which the gallery and artist had thought referred to the palm of a hand. “If we imagine the ear to be its own mini universe … to think that you can hold the universe in your hand,” she says.
On the floor are about a dozen abalone shells that open and close, each at its own pace. Some are quieter, others louder; some are slower, others faster, as if they are clamouring to be heard. So lifts one of them to reveal a tiny motor nestled within it. “I had this idea of turning them into cyborgs,” she says. “I don’t know why, but some of them have edged away from their original positions.” As the two halves of the shells knock together, lulling us with their hypnotic chorus, the visitor suddenly becomes aware of a greater sound coming from the dimmer end of the gallery. Is it the construction upstairs or does the sound come from within the gallery itself?
The work, Domestic Wasteland (2020), features four metal sheets that look like commemorative plaques placed against the wall. Behind them are tucked loudspeakers projecting sounds recorded at a construction site in mainland China. The idea was to pluck something one encounters in a construction site, whether metal sheets or sound, and re-situate it in a commercial gallery, Zhang says. The irony, of course, is that the piece is embedded within a space that is in turn embedded within a construction site.
Zhang’s Ewha in the Storm (2020) plays with different temporalities and the dichotomy of human and nature. Made of cement, electrical wires, steel rods and wood, it takes the form of a cactus which, upon closer inspection, plays host to tiny sprouts of bronze wire. It’s plopped atop a ceramic tile that is equipped with a drain – a cheeky oxymoron, given that the plant lives in extremely dry conditions.
“The cactus is a very old plant that is usually found in the desert,” says the artist. “Putting it in a modern, commercial setting, I find that contrast quite interesting. There is also that visual parallel between the cactus column and the gallery columns.”
This is nowhere more apparent than in Matte Substance-12 (2020). Installed against a gallery column, it is big and monstrous-looking, and has as its pedestal a bulbous rock that the artist excavated from a construction site. Wires extend from the cactus to fasten it to the rock, recalling retro androids from 80s Japanese animations. Visually, it is a foe of sorts to Lau’s Remote Islands. Where the latter masks disturbances with beauty, Matte Substance-12 is bulging, its protrusions out there for all to see, a succinct commentary on the hybrid, messy and disorienting nature of our urban landscape.
The exhibition is a tribute to various objects that make up our landscape and our existence. As So says: “It’s amazing how one material can be broken down and, when one of these broken pieces is infused with another, become a completely different object.”
Yet there is also a gap in understanding, an ambiguity in the agency inherent in these objects – are they man-made constructs through and through, or is the artist’s job merely to tease out tremors and codes intrinsic to them? We, as humans, will never know.
藝術家指的相比，在她的《暗色之物 no.12》（2020年）更能彰顯出來。這件巨大、看來駭人的作品靠著畫廊的一根柱子，它的底座是一顆球根狀的石頭，是她從一個建築工地撿拾的。仙人掌上的電綫，嫁接到底下的石頭，令人想起八十年代日本動畫內的懷舊機器人。視覺上，這部作品與劉學成的《離嶼》可謂是對手，《離嶼》用美感來隱藏不安感，而尖突和鼓脹的《暗色之物 no.12》較搶眼，簡潔有力地評論我們城市現時的混雜和令人迷失的狀況。