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Joseph Chen 陳敬元

By Christy Lee / 

In 2018, Joseph Chen was sauntering through the street markets in Sham Shui Po when he happened upon a stack of 50 hard drives. The Hong Kong artist bought all of them for “under HK$100” and extracted the deluge of personal images and documents. 

That exercise culminated in Shameplant in Glory Hole, a series of performances, a series of performances, a research group and exhibitions from 2019-21 exploring the idea of “second-hand memories”. The latest event was a solo exhibition, Shameplant in Glory Hole, that ran from June 19 to July 17 at Videotage. At the dim art space, one sees as well as enters Chen’s immersive installation, where 8-10 terabytes of “second-hand memories” have been collaged into a psychedelic whole.

Walls are plastered with a mishmash of images and documents, from selfies to song lyrics to travel photos to pornographic images, while the objects in the space offer a glimpse into lives, real or imaginary, underlined by the artist’s predilection for juxtapositions. 

Having kicked off his career as a video artist, Chen is increasingly drawn towards found objects, though his interests remain the same: technology’s impact on the way we receive and process information, and the idea of originality in a digital age.

Christie Lee: Why drew you to the images and documents of strangers? Joseph Chen: They are testaments to lives lived. Sometimes I’d see a pornographic image and immediately think: this was likely to be a guy. But then I’d think: wait a minute, doesn’t that assumption reveal certain gender biases? After all, women also watch pornography. As an artist, I’m interested in the ways I can reappropriate these found materials to tell new stories.

CL: How did you conceptualise this exhibition? 
JC: I am always into correlative thinking when I make art, versus causality. It’s about finding the patterns between things, whether visually or conceptually. The abundance and disorder of materials on the hard drives drove me to chaotic imaginations, inspiring me to build a universe with excessive and maximal elements, not focusing on a specific thing. Hopefully it can open up a variety of perceptions and interpretations.

CL: Who or what are your visual inspirations? 
JC: Animes, video games, internet meme culture and 80s consumerist culture. 

Big Data Big Other by Joseph Chen, Mattress, barbwire, steel knife, rose, expanding spray foam, 2021.
Courtesy the artist. Photo: Sze Ming Li..

CL: One of your installation pieces refers to a hospital environment. An impregnated figure lies on a stainless steel bed, while beneath it a pendulum swings menancingly over an ultrasound image of twin foetuses. Could you tell us more about this work?
JC: I was reading [philosopher] Bernard Stiegler, who spoke about how a lot of what makes up our consciousness is externalised or coded in different objects. I thought: isn’t ultrasound our earliest externalised memory?

CL: Meanwhile, a few objects in the exhibition are coded with messages.
JC: Yes: for example, a headboard I picked up near where I live. When I picked it up, there were already children’s stickers all over it, so I decided to work with that idea. I proceeded to carve some of the messages from the hard drives onto it. You know how we used to carve messages on our desks during secondary school days, as a way of leaving your mark on something – of leaving a memory behind?

CL: But you also installed three spiky plants in front of it, which evokes the image of a gravestone.
JC: There is innocence but there is also pain and a bit of absurdity. I like to contrast ideas and visual images in my works.

Unconditional Love by Joseph Chen, Silicone, Steel table, 
reciprocating rocking motor, LED screen, 2021.
Courtesy the artist. Photo: Sze Ming Li..

CL: Your exhibition also intermingles organic and inorganic in a way that blurs the line between the two. For example, you attempted to grow weeds from the hard drives.
JC: I want to appropriate objects in a way that appears absurd. That’s why I created a sculpture of a pair of wings that might look like a vagina at a different angle, a dildo that evokes the image of an animal’s tail or a pointed sword. I suppose all this is because I like abundance and disorder, as [they allow] my eye and mind to wander till they decide to focus on something.

CL: Let’s talk about the rather provocative exhibition title. Originating in London in 18th century, glory holes were a way for gay men to engage in sexual behaviour while safeguarding their identity.
JC: I am a queer person, so I am naturally drawn to idea. The idea is quite intriguing. You are revealing the most private part of yourself, which is exhibitionist, but you’re also doing it in a way that won’t reveal your identity.Normally, I am ‘Shameplant’, but when I’m exhibiting, I feel like ‘Glory Hole’.

Hard Collage 1-7 by Joseph Chen, PVC sticker, 2020-2021.
Courtesy the artist. Photo: Sze Ming Li..

CL: Do you think there is such a thing as queer aesthetics
JC: To be queer is to resist categorisation. I think my art has that inclination, as I like to mix various ideas and styles. I think that queer identity will have an impact, but since queerness is also a sort of anti-identity identity, there won’t a singular definition. As an artist, my works don’t explicitly talk about queerness.














Feature image: Eye, Tail, Bait, Rite, Wing by Joseph Chen, Installaion view from Shameplant in Glory Hole at Videotage, 2021. Courtesy the artist. Photo: Sze Ming Li.

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