Tai Kwun Contemporary / Hong Kong / Dec 24 – Apr 10, 2023 /
There’s a quote that aspirational content creators like to share online: “Those who tell stories rule the world.” It’s often attributed to Plato or Aristotle, while some say it is wisdom passed down by the Hopi or Navajo Native Americans, but nobody can pin down its origins. Perhaps the line is a modern piece of prose attached to the distant past to feign legitimacy, or maybe thinkers from different eras and geographies landed on the same thought. In any case, it’s branded into the collective consciousness of 21st-century storytellers, giving a semblance of meaning to the words and images they generate.
This is precisely how myths are seeded, their origins eventually lost but tales retold with embellishments and new interpretations injected in each iteration. Maybe those who make myths don’t rule the world, but they certainly shape it.
The third edition of the Sunpride Foundation’s Spectrosynthesis exhibitions, presented at Tai Kwun and curated by Inti Guerrero and Chantal Wong, involved artworks that highlight LGBTQ+ and gender-fluid perspectives. Titled Myth Makers, the show aimed to hone in on “queer mythologies” that rear up in artistic practices. While the inclusion of some works felt forced, Myth Makers was a landmark exhibition in a city where the rights of individuals with non-heterosexual identities at times remain contentious.
The show eased viewers into its framework, starting with pop culture references. Garlands (2010) by the late Hiram To consists of two digital prints on glittered fabric that depict the artist’s mother as Judy Garland—she is using an eyebrow pencil in one and doing jazz hands in the other, referencing actual photographs of the Hollywood actress.
Other works had mainstream appeal while nodding at references that were closer to home. Christopher Cheung’s oil painting Farewell / Adieu (2015) features scenes from the 1993 film Farewell My Concubine, which had an openly bisexual local actor and singer, the late Leslie Cheung, in a leading role. Oscar Chan Yik Long’s ink-on-canvas You just suck my soul without any hesitation (2022) shows the star in a moment of intimacy, kissing the neck of another man.
These works’ connections with the LGBTQ+ community are tragic. Judy Garland was a queer icon in her lifetime, and her 1969 funeral following a barbiturate overdose has been theorised as a trigger for the Stonewall riots. Five years before her death, Garland visited Hong Kong. During her stay, she attempted to commit suicide by overdosing on drugs.
Meanwhile, Leslie Cheung didn’t only portray tragic queer characters on screen, but in fact committed suicide in 2003, leaving behind a suicide note in which he said he was suffering from depression — a consequence of being criticised after wearing feminine outfits, gender-crossing and appearing with a long mane of hair during a concert tour in 2000.
Elsewhere, Myth Makers dived deeper into body politics, such as in Singaporean artist Josef Ng’s 10-minute video of the performance Brother Cane, which took place as December 31, 1993 became January 1, 1994 at the now-shuttered 5th Passage art space. To protest the arrest of 12 gay men, Ng clipped his pubic hair and scattered it before the audience. This led to the artist himself being arrested and banned from performing in public, followed by the Singapore government halting funding for unscripted performances for a decade. It wasn’t until 2022 that male homosexual activity was legalised in the city-state.
A captivating component of the exhibition was a wall devoted to works by Martin Wong — four acrylic paintings and one calligraphic work, accompanied by an 18-minute documentary of the artist generally living life. Wong’s work gleams in between prospect and loss — the possibility of what could be if some men had not lost so much that even their freedom was forfeit. Mintaka (1990) shows incarcerated men having oral and anal sex; Ferocactus Peninsulae (1997–98) is an unsubtle hint about the bristles that gay men need to grow to defend themselves against people who oppose their existence; Mi Vida Loca (1991) ornately frames a towering phallus constructed out of bricks.
Wong was openly gay and didn’t shy away from depicting scenes of homosexuality in his work. More than that, he was an acute commentator about urban gentrification in New York, racial tensions in the United States and the AIDS epidemic. His work was a high point in the show — the most potent voice cutting through myths washing over each other.
Jes Fan’s 3D-printed, enlarged resin human organs in a “punch-out” plastic grid that is familiar to model hobbyists, Visible Woman (2018), was striking in the final section of Myth Makers. The artwork takes its name from an assembly kit first released in the 1950s that featured removable parts in an anatomical model of a woman. Fan takes this concept to its ultimate conclusion, clinically presenting the essence of a woman’s body in its barest form, ready to be reshaped and sculpted, just as the artist used testosterone to masculinise their body.
One of the works commissioned by the Sunpride Foundation for Myth Makers was Samson Young’s sound and light installation based on Propaganda, a Soho club for gay men that existed between 1991 and 2016. pp (2022) includes a moving projection that shows a recognisable chandelier that hung at the entrance of the club — a fixture that was branded in the collective consciousness of gay men in Hong Kong for 25 years. Rhythmic bass notes thumped and filled the gallery, the space’s sparseness a stark contrast to Propaganda’s teeming bar and dancefloor, yet nonetheless conjuring the feeling of escape that many of the club’s “members” sought in the dark.
In all, what was the story being told throughout Myth Makers? There wasn’t a single answer. Yarns from different cultures, eras and segments of the LGBTQ+ community, plus their allies, expressed divergent narratives related to queer life; few strands were braided to form a cohesive presentation. Yet the scattershot exhibition represented a pivotal moment in LGBTQ+ outreach via Hong Kong’s art and culture scene.
Featured image: pp by Samson Young, Installation view of Myth Makers—Spectrosynthesis III, 2022.
Courtesy the artist and Tai Kwun. Photography: South Ho