She Told Me to Head to the Sea @ Juen Juen Gung / Hong Kong /
Ceramist Vaevae Chan has built a private cave.
Located within a nondescript industrial building in Sun Po Kong, Kowloon, the space is where Chan retreated while contending with health problems, a parent’s death and upheaval in Hong Kong. Between 2018 and 2021, the artist toiled in private, turning it into a studio and exhibition space. This culminated in her inaugural project, She Told Me to Head to the Sea, which was a unique experience for visitors.
For a time, Juen Juen Gung, as Chan calls her space, was shrouded in mystery. Posts on Instagram created some buzz, but none of the images delivered the feeling that Chan aimed to instil in visitors. While descriptions of the show spread by word of mouth, little information was available. The only way to find out more was to book a slot for a visit.
She Told Me to Head to the Sea can be accessed via four locked doors, with three of them opening to lenticular images of waterfalls paired with sounds of flowing water and birdsong. The remaining one led into a darkened space where visitors had to pick up a torch to illuminate their way.
The cave’s rock-like surfaces were moulded with painstaking attention to detail, to make them as realistic as possible. Chan placed recovered objects on these surfaces – knick-knacks, vases and different types of vessels, all junk for someone else but retrieved as show pieces by the artist. Every item had a coloured die placed beside it as a price tag.
Throughout the space, black ceramic globules made by the artist – meant to look like mantou (steamed buns) – sat in the dark. A few black ceramic sculptures, also created by Chan, were placed in display nooks with glass windows.
She Told Me to Head to the Sea was a nod at Haw Par Mansion, also known as Tiger Balm Garden, an extravagant property built by Aw Boon Haw and his family in the 1930s. Aw and his brothers were herbalists who co-founded the company that makes the famed heat rub Tiger Balm, and spared no expense when designing and building their property.
The garden, located on Tai Hang Road, was open to the public and became a tourist attraction before it was demolished to make way for luxury residences. It was packed with sculptures and figurines, and had sprawling dioramas that showed viewers imagery meant to depict the 18 levels of hell in Buddhism. Menacing guardians with a horse’s face or an ox’s head served as gatekeepers, and sinners were tortured in the underworld: limbs and heads were torn from their bodies, tongues were ripped from their mouths, and they were dunked in vats of boiling oil.
There were lighter scenes in the Tiger Balm Garden too, plucked from fantasy classics like Journey to the West and familiar Chinese myths. Higher up, a pagoda, completely painted white, was a landmark recognisable from a distance.
Chan found a spiritual connection with Aw as her date of birth coincided with his date of death, although 36 years apart. The way she built her cave mimicked the rock garden aesthetic of Har Paw Mansion. To make the connection obvious, and olfactory, the artist placed a jar of Tiger Balm in the exhibition space.
Ring a bronze bell and a door would open, leading visitors to an area where Chan would serve steamed black buns (edible, not ceramic). The last part of the presentation was a video that shows the artist in a tiger suit, struggling with a bleak situation that seems overwhelming. A magical ointment helps her break free from her suffering, and she leaves a cave to head into the ocean.
After the show’s private preview ended, all the remaining objects in Chan’s cave were painted black, or “consumed by darkness”.
She Told Me to Head to the Sea was a thoughtfully assembled project. In a limited footprint, Chan was able to pull in viewers and lead them through a narrative, gradually peeling away the shroud around the story she wanted to tell. Every step of the way, there were little pings of wonder or surprise, eventually landing visitors in a conversation with the artist.
Then, with no obvious explanation, visitors’ shoes were moved and appeared at Juen Juen Gung’s exit. The artist said an animated Furby toy was her assistant, and it made that happen. By that point, the magic of the show was beginning to dissipate, but She Told Me to Head to the Sea was a satisfying demonstration of how an artist can engage new viewers in memorable ways.
Featured image: Interior view of Juen Juen Gung as a public exhibit. Courtesy the artist.