“Hong Kong is back!” seems to be the city’s official PR motto since quarantine for incoming travellers to the city was essentially abolished in October, and restrictions were dropped. If the succession of gala fundraisers and exhibition openings and the general year-end frenzy is anything to go by, the slogan applies to the city’s art scene, which seems to be overcompensating for its dearth of activity over the past two years. There were numerous shows and events last autumn, from Asia Art Archive and Para Site auction fundraisers to blockbuster exhibitions like Yayoi Kusama: 1945 to Now at M+ to smaller exhibitions such as John Batten’s showcase at Ping Pong to online initiatives such as the launch of David Clarke’s digital archive. Here are eight noteworthy exhibitions.
Behind Your Eyelid, Pipilotti Rist at Tai Kwun Contemporary
Tai Kwun Contemporary’s blockbuster exhibition surpassed expectations, providing an experience that cultural institutions should aspire to. Serving as a mini survey of Rist’s practice, the show featured a number of highlights from the artist’s career, including I’m not the Girl who Misses Much (1986), Selfless in a Bath of Lava (1994) (cleverly embedded in the floor of the Tai Kwun artist’s library) and Ever is all Over (1997) (yes, the one that inspired Beyoncé’s Lemonade video). As much as being able to view her older works was a treat, it was the newly made, site-specific works that evoked the most curiosity.
The new iteration of Pixel Forest (2022) consisted of glowing, amorphous forms that gradually changed colours, instantly mesmerising viewers. Big Skin (2022) infused a viewing gallery with a sense of lightness through video footage and animation projected onto suspended, semi-translucent, cloud-like surfaces. The addition of a playful chandelier made of underwear infused a sense of humour into the installation. Incredibly intricate, The Apartment (2022) was filled with collections of numerous domestic items, including a painting by the city’s own Ant Ngai Wing Lam. The installation demonstrated the full extent of Rist’s engagement with Hong Kong, while the show infused the city with a much-needed, magical dose of wonder and light.
Music for selective hearing, or assisted living, Samson Young at Kiang Malingue Tin Wan
Young’s latest solo exhibition features work created during the past two years across multiple media: sculpture, drawing, film and, of course, sound. The show builds on the artist’s inquiries into sound as a cultural threat to authoritarianism, as well as how sound conditions or controls us.
The highlight was undoubtedly the poignant film Often easy, sometimes impossible (2021-22). It was created in collaboration with Young’s long-time friend, violist William Lane, who performs a 17-minute piece composed by the artist. The two-channel video is layered with imagery, most prominently of Lane tracing gestures on Young’s hand as if it were a violin, visually exposing sound’s intimate, poignant nature. Abstracted through the sound of the violin, the original composition was made for instruments deemed harmful to mental health in 18th-century Europe: viola, triangle and glass harmonica. With this and other references, he examines sound’s effect through the lens of mental health, self-care, recuperation, isolation and disengagement, themes that were particularly resonant during the pandemic.
Alice Neel: Men from the Sixties, Alice Neel at David Zwirner
The female gaze is unflinching in Alice Neel’s raw, honest portrayals of nine male subjects, all of whom the artist knew in some capacity. Her paintings are almost like character sketches coming to life. From capturing art critic Hubert Creehan’s dignified manner in Hub Crehan (1961) to budding artist Harrell Randall Bailey’s disturbed, anxious state of mind in Randall in Extremis (1960), Neel’s signature expressionist realism brought her subjects’ personalities to the forefront. The most compelling, disarming work was Richard (1967), which portrays the artist’s son, who was 28 years old at the time. Casually sitting on a chair, with one leg dangling off its arm, Richards is wearing just a t-shirt and underwear, gazing directly at his mother, and coming across as at once confrontational and intimate.
Another highlight was a documentary film featuring her sons and grandsons. Screened at the gallery, the film provided insight into her fascinating life story and interpersonal relationships, many of which dictated the staggered progress of what turned out be a prolific career. The only criticism of this exhibition is that it left visitors wanting to see more than just the nine works on view.
Thank You, Next in Jordan, curated by Natasza Minasiewicz
A small, unexpected encounter in the midst of Jordan, Thank You, Next takes place on the ground floor of a residential building on the brink of demolition. Architect and curator of the exhibition Natasza Minasiewicz named it after Ariana Grande’s song of the same title, as a nod to Hong Kong’s obsession with urban redevelopment. Photographs, archive materials and installations created between 2019 and 2022 make up the majority of the exhibition.
While the show was staged in order to prompt reflection upon continuous demolition and subsequent reconstruction, and the idea of sustainability in regard to this practice – which it undoubtedly does – it’s the layout of the works, which seamlessly resonate with their surroundings, that strikes a chord. Construction materials that were found washed up on beaches among pebbles and other detritus lie in a simple but striking spiral on the floor of the building’s courtyard. A totemic pillar made of coring samples, materials taken from walls or floors of renovated buildings, which symbolise layers of the city’s history embedded into concrete, stands against the wall as a sculpture that was always meant to be there.
The artistic interpretation of the construction processes in a soon to be non-existent site made for a poignant, thought-provoking viewing experience.
Chasing an Elusive Nature, Jaffa Lam at Axel Vervoordt
Jaffa Lam’s first commercial exhibition in the 22 years she’s been practising art realises itself at Axel Vervoordt’s Wong Chuk Hang gallery. Older works such as Meditation Tent (2011), made from recycled umbrellas, and Peaceful Surging (2017), made of stainless steel that casts delicate shadows against the wall, are on view alongside newly commissioned pieces.
Recycled crate wood, umbrella fabric and bronze are among the many materials the artist experiments with as part of her enquiries into the city’s histories. She does so through an ecological lens, most noticeably in Taishang Lao Jun’s Furnance (2022), a striking installation on view upon entering the gallery. It features 500 rocks cast in bronze, concrete and aluminium from 50 rock moulds, placed across two beds of Hong Kong soil. The cast rocks are representative of those she collected on walks along Hong Kong’s coastlines. The artist brings the city into the gallery space, evoking questions about boundaries and the city’s loss of craftsmanship.
The exhibition effectively showcases the under-recognised sculptor’s minimalist flair and her engagement with and mastery of a diverse range of materials.
Nour نور, Raha Raissnia at Empty Gallery
Brooklyn-based Iranian artist Raha Raissnia infuses Empty’s Gallery dark interiors with nour (“light” in Persian). For Raissnia, light is both medium and subject, the properties of which she experiments with to uncover what isn’t visible. Most significantly, light is a counterpart to music, her ultimate inspiration and aspiration. Through her work, she seeks to recreate the incorporeal, abstract quality inherent in music.
The exhibition’s star work, which perhaps comes closest to capturing this abstraction, is also its namesake, Nour (2002), a looped film featuring superimposed images of photographs and footage taken by the artist to create a moving landscape. The work is projected onto a large, cubed screen, serving as the artist’s sculptural take on film. Mesmerising, the projected imagery hypnotically shimmers through screens made of translucent material.
Painstaking, intricate details characterise Raissnia’s paintings and drawings, which consist of heavily layered imagery taken from a diverse range of source material, including old film archives. The effect is an almost animated one, which mimics the gestures of experimental film, demonstrating a link throughout the artist’s practice. The paintings on view depict the artist’s recent forays into colour. Radiating a heavy sheen, they feature a literal play on light through the striking use of metallics, most notably in Euboea (2022) and the alternating bronze and green hues of Untitled (2022).
Haunting and poignant, the show serves as a comprehensive introduction to Raissnia’s practice, featuring drawings, paintings and film-based works.
Order of Operations, Dylan DeRose at PHD Group
Visually minimal but theoretically complex, Dylan DeRose’s monochrome panels are informed by the unlikely combination of worms, theme parks and conspiracies, yielding in controlled chaos. While the gridded background evokes a sense of order and boundaries, the seemingly directionless, maze-like tunnels within the work denote an organic explosion of sorts. The intricate tunnel formations are in fact created by worms eating their way through polystyrene. The artist raises the worms in an extremely controlled environment in his studio, and painstakingly removes them from the blocks of polystyrene before finishing each work.
His interest in controlled, curated, natural environments stems from an interest in the history of theme parks, particularly why and how they came into existence. While aesthetically subtle, the panels visualise the contrasts between reality and fantasy, and organic and man-made, challenging ingrained perceptions in how we consider and interact with natural and artificial environments.
[Cotton in the Ears, Furball in the Throat], Nicole Wong at Rossi & Rossi
In her third solo exhibition with Rossi & Rossi, Nicole Wong explores the idea of comfort – the desire for it and its inaccessibility. Among three different series of works, including lenticular prints and conceptual works, it’s the sculptural objects incorporating fur that strike a chord, both physically and conceptually. From the entrance of the gallery itself, Wong begins setting boundaries, albeit nicely. Visitors are greeted with stanchions covered in faux fur, a work aptly titled VIP (2023). Soft and inviting, the fur’s tactility is in conceptual contrast to the stanchion’s function as a crowd control device. Two glass orbs containing authentic fur pelts are placed on a table, visualising the proximity of material comfort (which the fur symbolises), and its distance, through the glass orb it’s encased within. Hidden at the end of a hallway, a small, altar-like sculpture containing a faux-fur centrepiece is placed on a pedestal – literally elevating the idea of comfort to a religious, almost unattainable status. The decision to use faux fur in works which visitors can physically touch further challenges our perception regarding what is fake and real, and how we prioritise what we think we need to be comfortable, particularly over the past couple of years.
Featured image: Sequel of hide and seek by Nicole Wong, 2023. Courtesy the artist and Rossi & Rossi.