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Huang Yongping, Shen Yuan

Hong Kong Foot 
Tang Contemporary Art
Hong Kong
Dec 20, 2017 – Jan 27
Katherine Volk

Huang Yongping and Shen Yuan don’t avoid provocative subjects, and their work often creates controversy. Late last year, for example, Huang’s work was topical when his piece Theatre of the World, featuring lizards consuming insects as a metaphor for human violence, helped provide the title of the exhibition Art and China after 1989: Theatre of the World at New York’s Solomon R Guggenheim Museum. After arguments between animal cruelty activists and proponents of artistic freedom, his work was ultimately pulled from the show.

Neither did the pair shy away from contemporary discourse in the four works they made specifically for the opening of Tang Contemporary Art’s new space at H Queens. The title, Hong Kong Foot, refers to the fungal infection more often known as athlete’s foot, which was historically a common local condition among settlers, missionaries, soldiers and refugees. As Huang says, it has now been redefined as the way Hong Kong infects those who come to the city with its characteristics.

Central to the exhibition was Huang’s large-scale installation Les Consoles de Jeu Souveraines (2017). Rotating near the entrance of the gallery, the carousel structure contained seven unique figures that orbited in the opposite direction to the core’s hanging map of Hong Kong and some of its many islands. The islands danced around heavily as the wheel spun and figures passed by, teeming with symbolism from politics, history and culture. The piece asks, with such diverse influences, how the characteristics of modern Hong Kong can be defined, and whether it is possible in a globalised society for a city to leave its mark as profoundly as it has in the past.

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Les Consoles de Jeu Souveraines by Huang Yongping, Iron, aluminum, wood, plastic, fiberglass, paper, straw and animal fur, 370 × 560 × 560 cm, 2017. Courtesy the artist and Tang Contemporary Art, Hong Kong.

 

Huang used creatures such as a locust and a replica of the 18th-century mechanical toy Tipu’s Tiger to comment on Hong Kong. Locusts refer to greed but have also become as a
derogatory term for mainland Chinese visitors and residents as tensions have grown regarding overcrowding, the influx of tourists, language and alleged disparities in behaviour. Tipu’s Tiger was an automaton featuring a tiger savaging a European man made for Tipu Sultan of Mysore in South India (1750-1799) as a comment on his hatred of the British East India Company. After lifelong hostilities, Tipu Sultan’s life came to an end when was killed after a siege by the British army. The original artefact went on to become a tool for imperial propaganda, and resides to this day at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

With its layers of history, the structure of the carousel itself carries a melting pot of implications. The concept was born from early war games in Europe and the Middle East, and brought into the mechanical age in the United States, where these depictions of invasion and conquest were transformed into whimsical attractions.

Shen’s Yellow Umbrella/Parasol (2017) is four tables filled with handmade items that recall the 2014 Hong Kong democracy protests, during which protestors blocked roads and set up camp for 79 days. Major Hong Kong streets shut down, crippling the heart of the financial district and bringing ordinary life to a standstill. The social and political movement was heavily student-led and was eventually suppressed by the authorities.

The 3D models are structured like sand tables used by the military, and Shen maps out a politicised landscape of Hong Kong society. Despite the apparent surface calm, tensions bubble up from below through the charged meanings left behind; even though there are no people, their presence is felt. Sand tables are also tools for education and planning, used for tracking ephemeral human changes against the permanent landscape; parts can be moved, layered, hidden and erased. The child-like aspect of the miniature models make them feel like doll’s houses or toys, alluding to youthful innocence and making the object of Shen’s critique unclear.

Huang and Shen posed no answers but offered a broad overview of contemporary Hong Kong society. Large-scale installations brought the pristine gallery to life, with the buzz of the city invading the white-walls. It was an image of where we are today, with reminders of how we arrived.

Ping Pong 129

Hilarie Hon, Lio Sze Mei, Mak Hoi Ching, Tom Chung Man, Tse Chun Sing, Tsim Hui Laam, Wong Yi Ching

May 10 – Jun 25

Hashtag is a selling exhibition by 7 young Hong Kong artists sharing their most cherished memories through the medium of paint, photography and installation. Curated by Emily Ip.

LG/F, Nam Cheong House
129 Second Street, Sai Ying Pun
T (852) 9835 5061
Mo-Su 6 to 11pm

Image: There’s such a lot of world to see by Wong Yi Ching, Oil on canvas, 40 x 30 x 1.5 cm, 2018.

 

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Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra

Concert Hall, Hong Kong 
Cultural Centre
Hong Kong
Jan 18, 2018
Ernest Wan

In each of its past three concert seasons, the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, under the leadership of music director Jaap van Zweden, has presented one opera from Richard Wagner’s tetralogy Der Ring des Nibelungen, aka the Ring Cycle. The plaudits that these concerts and the commercial recordings made of them have received meant there were high expectations for Götterdämmerung (1874), the fourth, longest and toughest work in the cycle. Happily, this final instalment did not disappoint.

The orchestra, over a hundred strong, inevitably sometimes overwhelmed the solo singers, with the former just behind the latter on the stage. Daniel Brenna sounded youthful as the hero Siegfried should, but his voice and tone were wanting in power and focus respectively. As Gunther, the ruler of the Gibichung race, Shenyang had a sound that was dark and indistinct in Act One, but thereafter his voice opened up.

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Jaap van Zweden, the solo singers, the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, the Bamberg Symphony Chorus, the State Choir Latvija and the Hong Kong Philharmonic Chorus. Photo by Ka Lam.

By contrast, Eric Halfvarson sang with power and authority throughout, in a vivid and often frightening portrayal of the villain Hagen, Gunther’s half-brother. Peter Kálmán’s appearance as his dwarf father Alberich was brief but effective, so grimly did he urge his son to do evil. Gutrune, Gunther’s sister, sung by Amanda Majeski, pouring out her feelings on the death of Siegfried elicited pity for this rather passive character; it would be good to hear the vocalist in a more challenging role. As the valkyrie Waltraute, Michelle DeYoung sounded suitably gloomy and sorrowful when she told of the plight of the gods, while her sister Brünnhilde, sung by Gun-Brit Barkmin, listened in befuddlement.

Barkmin is a fine Brünnhilde, which is crucial to the success of any performance of Götterdämmerung. Hers isn’t the biggest of voices, but it projected well and possessed a poised calmness. She was affecting when fearful of her abductor; fearsome when she realised that he was none other than her lover Siegfried; and dignified, as befits an erstwhile valkyrie, when preparing to alter the world order in the final Immolation Scene. Her achievement is all the more impressive considering that this was the first time she had ever performed the role.

The combined forces of the Bamberg Symphony Chorus and the State Choir Latvija — plus just eight performers from the Hong Kong Philharmonic Chorus — had been trained by Eberhard Friedrich, chorus master of the Bayreuth Festival, and produced an idiomatic Wagnerian sound, singing as the uncouth Gibichungs with a raw vigour. Van Zweden generally adopted swift tempi, and the performance never dragged; it clocked in at just four hours 24 minutes. The orchestra played valiantly throughout and showed no sign of fatigue, even at the end of Act Three. Its powers of depiction were remarkable, for example of the complex emotions of Brünnhilde in Act Two when Siegfried’s betrayal dawned on her, while all of the orchestral interludes had a great cinematic quality to them. This was a strong conclusion of Hong Kong’s first-ever Ring Cycle, and a milestone for the Philharmonic.

Chen Tianzhuo, Chen Wei, Double Fly Art Center, Hu Weiyi, Lu Yang, Sun Xun, Carla Chan, Chris Cheung, Tang Kwok-hin, Morgan Wong

#You #Me #OurSELFIES 
Hong Kong Visual Arts Centre
Hong Kong
Jan 6 – 22, 2018
Valencia Tong

The hashtag has changed the way we communicate in the digital age. In the exhibition One World Exposition 2.2: #YOU#ME#ourSELFIES at Hong Kong Visual Arts Centre, artists from mainland China and Hong Kong born in the 1980s and 90s show us how the language of technology, the internet and social media infiltrates the aesthetics of art. The title suggests a radical change in how art is experienced, especially by the millennial generation. Gone are the days when security guards in museums yelled “No photos”; instead, audience members are now encouraged to document their participation and interaction with the art works by generating content themselves, usually in the form of a selfie on social media, democratising the consumption of art across time and space. The exhibition showcases how media art can engage with contemporary issues through a selection of multidisciplinary works.

Hu Weiyi’s The Raver compares our consumption and production of information to being strapped to electric chairs used during executions. We are forced to react incoherently to the bombardment of images, sounds and words we are spoon-fed by digital devices. Partial images captured by the cameras surrounding a figure strapped to an electric chair are projected onto a screen in front of her. This eerie performance and installation piece echoes daily life, especially when we sit in front of a computer screen staring at pictures of ourselves. It makes us wonder if we are truly free, or mindlessly controlled by technology.

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The Raver by Hu Weiyi, performance and video installation, 2017. Courtesy the artist and Videotage. Photo by Derek Yung.

Another attention-grabbing work in the show is Chris Cheung’s CarbonScape. In a stark white room, black spheres bob up and down in acrylic tubes in a mesmerising, hypnotic fashion. Coupled with the ambient noise in the background, the work is reminiscent of industrial chimneys. The artist says the spheres symbolise carbon dioxide levels, which are increasing globally due to human activities. This immersive, kinetic installation situates the audience in a manmade environment and asks them to rethink their position in relation to the planet. Similarly, Carla Chan’s A Blacker Cloud shows us the destruction of the environment through a real-time smoke-machine installation inside three transparent boxes. Viewers can see clouds of smoke turn from white to black.

Several works in the show reflect on technology, pop culture, religion and folklore, such as Double Fly Art Center’s Guess Guess Hero, featuring performers in comic-book character costumes; Sun Xun’s Time Spy, showcasing traditional woodcuts and 3D technology; Chen Tianzhuo’s An Atypical Brain Damage, a kitschy appropriation of cultural symbols from club culture; and Lu Yang’s Electromagnetic Brainology, which explores deities, medical technology and neuroscience.

Everyday life, meanwhile, is explored in Chen Wei’s Trouble (New World), which depicts an out-of-context advertising screen; Morgan Wong’s Our Feet Are Always Younger Than Our Heads, about temporality and choreography; and Tang Kwok Hin’s interactive piece Diners.

Elpis Chow

Blunt
Gallery Exit
Hong Kong
Feb 24 – Mar 17, 2018
Valencia Tong

The muted, pastel hues of emerging Hong Kong artist Elpis Chow give her paintings a timeless quality. To viewers who are Hong Kong natives, the paintings portray easily recognisable surroundings, featuring common objects such as fences around a construction site at the side of the pavement, the iconic orange rubbish bins, security guard booths, and red and yellow bricks on the street.

Despite the presence of familiar objects from the city, the paintings also look nothing like Hong Kong, with their vast empty spaces generating an uncanny feeling. It’s unusual for a densely populated city with notoriously cramped living spaces to feature such open spaces with not a single person in sight. The crisp lines and modernist aesthetics of the architecture depicted in paintings such as Invisible Wall and Dim Scene recall those of American artist Ed Ruscha’s low-rise suburban communities, while Vacant is reminiscent of British artist David Hockney’s Californian swimming pools. The interior and exterior
settings shown in Chow’s paintings elevate the mundane and banal side of everyday existence to the centre of attention.

Elpis CHOW, Dim Scene

Dim Scene by Elpis Chow, Oil on linen, 77 x 77 cm, 2018. Courtesy the artist and Gallery Exit.

The artist pays particular attention to observing the intricate details often ignored in quotidian experiences. “The paintings are drawn from places that she knows well by heart but never cared to look, until now,” says a statement accompanying the show.

In Chow’s paintings, human beings are depicted mostly as lone figures. These figures are not particularly animated, and look as if they are minding their own business. In Peel, the unsmiling figure in a reflection in what seems to be a bathroom mirror becomes the focal point, looking fatigued against a monotonous backdrop. The sheer stillness makes the paintings look either calm or eerily alienating. Animal figures also gather in them, but they are also rather motionless. By highlighting the paradox between the familiar and the unfamiliar, the artist urges viewers, especially those also living in Hong Kong, to
re-examine their daily lives.

 

NOW: A Dialogue on Female Chinese Contemporary Artists

Multiple venues in the UK.
Until September 2, 2018.
By Margot Mottaz

Over the past two months, six institutions across the UK have come together to celebrate the women at the forefront of contemporary art in China. A project spearheaded by the Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art in Manchester, in collaboration with the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art, Nottingham Contemporary, Turner Contemporary in Margate, HOME in Manchester and Tate Research Centre: Asia, NOW: A Dialogue on Female Chinese Contemporary Artists offers a platform for cultural exchange, raising universal issues relating to gender, identity and perception.

Bringing together a variety of artists connected by their gender and nationality naturally prevents the programme from being perfectly cohesive and thematically straightforward. The exhibition at the CFCCA, for example, features works by seven artists that are perplexing, but equally rewarding once they reveal themselves as acute commentaries on established social structures.

Na Buqi

Floating Narratives by Na Buqi, Installation, 2017. Courtesy the artist and CFCCA.

Na Buqi’s (b.1984) site-specific installation Floating Narratives (2017) combines artificial exotic plants and images of landscapes printed on silk with portable fans and hanging lights on a scaffolding-like frame to conflate perceptions of man-made objects and nature, and by extension of the fake and the real. In dialogue with this work, Luo Wei’s (b.1989) multimedia installation Wave Transmitter Company-World Line (2017) seeks an alternative reality to our own by proposing a virtual interdisciplinary world where everything is connected. This universe might be fictional but it also seems plausible, presented as an imagined virtual mega-city, not unlike Hong Kong, Beijing or Singapore, inhabited by digital avatars.

Nearby, Geng Xue’s (b.1983) photographs and videos specifically emphasise the human body, with close-ups of hands painted red, some in focus and others blurred. Its human touch offers a welcome sensuous counterpoint to many works that deal with the realms of the fictional and the digital. Similarly, a series of works by Yang Guangnan (b.1980) draws attention to the relationship between the body and automation. In Action No. 1 (2012), a white shirt is suspended on a horizontal metal rod, bent and suddenly released by a relentless rotating arm, causing the shirt to shake jerkily – trapped in an endless, monotonous routine. On the floor by the next wall, a small television shows images of door after door being shut in Nothing (2012). Both works speak to our expectations: as viewers, intensely watching the works unfold, hoping something different will happen next time; and as human beings, creatures of habit, capable of repeating tasks daily even when we know the outcome will be the same.

The fast pace of contemporary life, and our inability to escape it, are the premise of NOW’s showstopper at Turner Contemporary, a giant stomach made up of flesh-coloured clothes sewn together and stretched over a metallic structure. Imposing, confrontational and strange, Digestive Cavity (2017) by Yin Xiuzhen (b.1963) looks as if it has been created for the gallery’s foyer. To engage with it fully, viewers must enter it and explore its innards: be eaten up and digested in order to contemplate how we are similarly engulfed by our urban environments. Exiting the cavity and looking out onto the North Sea through the large window behind it, we are also reminded of the role urbanisation and globalisation have played in today’s environmental crisis. Our mass-produced, synthetic commodities – as exemplified by the numerous, quasi-identical items of clothing that make up the piece – are consumed and spat right back out, only to end up in our oceans. It is this topical urgency that makes Digestive Cavity such a poignant experience.

Despite the exclusive focus on female artists, there is surprisingly little in NOW that relates directly to questions of gender and feminism. In a sense, it doesn’t really matter. The all-caps title loudly proclaims that now is the time to pay attention to the women shaping the creative landscape in China and elsewhere; that geographical distance does not preclude emotional and cultural proximity; and that female artists are more than their gender.

During a symposium at Tate Modern, Na Buqi, Ma Qiusha (b.1982) and Ye Funa (b.1986) spoke candidly about their practice, rarely mentioning their femaleness or feminism. Each felt that such notions were only incidental in their work, present merely because they are women and that is what they know best. Together, the works in NOW are powerful because they address the human condition, one not necessarily defined by gender.

Image, top: Digestive Cavity by Yin Xiuzhen, installation, 2105. Photo: Stephen White. Courtesy the artist and CFCCA.

Liang Ban

Diary of a Pioneer 
de Sarthe Gallery
Hong Kong
Jan 27 – Mar 17

An unearthly purple glow fills the room as a rumble of thunder emanates from the back of the gallery. Consisting of four new works, Liang Ban’s immersive first solo exhibition at de Sarthe Hong Kong questions our relationship to wilderness and the absurdities of human civilisation.

The source of the glow is Neon Wilderness: Nazca Lines (2018), which as the name suggests alludes to the Nazca Lines in Peru, geoglyphs scratched into the earth nearly 2,000 years ago that have survived due to the area’s dry climate and minimal human interference – until a truck driver damaged them by driving across them the same week Liang’s exhibition opened. The depictions of animals, plants and shapes went largely unnoticed until they were discovered in the 1920s by a hiking archaeologist, and became increasingly famous with the growth of aviation. Through his use of glowing paint, Liang recreates the symbols on the gallery walls, commenting on the mystery of how they appeared. Though widely thought to be created by the Nazca civilisation, some people believe they were created by aliens. Liang questions why some people find it easier to believe in aliens rather than the remarkable feats of cultures long before us: how humans, without modern technology, could construct such precise, elaborate carvings at such a scale.

Neon Wilderness 3

Neon Wilderness: Nazca Lines by Liang Ban, Installation view, Paint, fluorescent powder, dimension variable. 2018. Courtesy the artist and de Sarthe Gallery, Hong Kong.

The sound grows louder towards the back room of the gallery, where a floor-to-ceiling screen plays Arrested Lightning (2018) on loop. The video depicts the artist trekking through snowy forest as storm sounds grow louder. Lasso in hand, Liang appears on a cliff edge ready to lasso the lightning in an irrational attempts to capture nature. The lightning connects with the rope but we can’t be sure if he has managed to tame it or if nature took its course. The screen cuts to black.

Liang’s cynical observations, in the form of surreal installations, provoke questions about the constructs of civilisation – how we attempt the impossible now but fail to give credit to ambitious ancestors – and suggest that we will always be deeply connected with the earth, however much we try to sever the ties.

Sculpture Parks and Street Art: Curating Hong Kong’s Public Art Agenda

By Aaina Bhargava

Hong Kong, renowned for its booming art market, is widely regarded as Asia’s art hub. While commercial success has unquestionably been essential in validating this rising status, so has been the provision of proper education and exposure of the public to a diverse range of artistic practices. To fulfil its potential as an art capital, Hong Kong needs more of the latter. There are still sectors of the art community that are severely under-represented, from local art initiatives to experimental art spaces and, in particular, public-art projects.

Public-art programmes are vital to cultural development in cities, due to the easy accessibility to art they provide. Hong Kong has suffered from a lack of quality programmes, but two recent initiatives seek to change this. One is Hong Kong’s first sculpture park, and the other is the formation of HKwalls, a non-profit organisation facilitating street-art projects citywide.

Harbour Arts Sculpture Park opened in late February, altering an iconic space on the harbour front between Central and Wan Chai. Co-curators Tim Marlow and Fumio Nanjo have emphasised the significance of the park in developing public arts in Hong Kong, selecting artists whose work can be incorporated into an everyday context but has a cultural and aesthetic relevance specific to the city and its people.

JENNY HOLZER, Installation view of Truisms, 2013, Image Courtesy of Harbour Arts Sculpture Park.

Truisms by Jenny Holzer, Installation view, 2013. Courtesy the artist and Harbour Arts Sculpture Park.

Yayoi Kusama, Michael Craig-Martin, Zhan Wang, Zheng Guogu, Gimhongsok, Tony Oursler, Conrad Shawcross, Bosco Sodi and Hank Willis Thomas are among the best-known international artists featured. While wandering through the space,
visitors are also able to encounter Antony Gormley’s cubist representation of the human form; Rasheed Araeen’s striking blue geometric complex, Hong Kong Blues, created for the park; and Jenny Holzer’s minimalist conceptual white bench, fittingly perched in the middle of the viewing platform. Adapting seamlessly to the site, many of the pieces correlate aesthetically with the wide array of geometries provided by the architectural background.

The participation of local artists is critical to the project, including Wong Chi-yung, Matthew Tsang, Ho Kwun Ting, Kacey Wong and Morgan Wong. Through contemplating the duration of time, Morgan Wong’s A Time Capsule of Someday “prompts audiences to think about what could be of Hong Kong, someday”, according to the artist. 

A spin-off piece from his Time-needle series, it comprises a marble plaque, with a tube in the shape of a needle buried beneath, containing metal dust from a steel bar. Process-driven and indicative of determination and duration, the idea comes from the Chinese allegory of filing down a steel bar until a needle is made.

While Morgan Wong applies concepts from local, ancient traditions, Kacey Wong’s practice is heavily inspired by the local political climate. Placed next to the infamous “dark corner” of the Umbrella Movement, just steps away from the Legco building, the site of his work Asteroids and Comets is politically and emotionally charged, especially for the artist, who was an activist in the movement. Politics is a part of his life as much as art: “As I was installing this work, I was thinking about the dark corner and also in a way exploring the dark hole of the universe,” alluding to the astronomical theme of his piece. In his structures, compositions of linear and circular elements complement the skyscrapers behind, and also allow physical human engagement: Wong encourages people to step inside and immerse themselves in the piece.

MORGAN WONG, Installation view of Time Needle (A Time Capsule of Some Day), 2018, Image Courtesy Harbour Arts Sculpture Park

Time Needle (A Time Capsule of Some Day) by Morgan Wong, Installation view, 2018. Courtesy the artist and Harbour Arts Sculpture Park.

Supporting the street-art community and exposing their work to public viewers was a priority for the founders of HKwalls, Stan Wu and Jason Dembski, who organise an annual street-art festival and other community-driven initiatives including an interactive workshop and a large mural at Bui O School on Lantau, and a massive street-art maze in conjunction with their main sponsor House of Vans. They emphasise the importance of visibility and viewer engagement for the art form.

“We thought we could fill that gap by providing artists prominent exterior walls to paint where the public can see not only the final product but also the process,” says Dembski.

By allowing viewers to witness the process, the work becomes participatory and more accessible. This connection is amplified when a work is created in a political context. The Umbrella Movement produced some of the most moving, innovative street-art works in Hong Kong, much of which was the result of collaborative efforts.

Says Dembski: “One of the most memorable pieces for me was a paste-up in Central during the Umbrella Movement which looked like a Windows system error message, reading ‘you do not have the permission to vote’, by an unknown artist. Citizens of Hong Kong have perhaps never been so involved in and committed to using art to collectively express their feelings about the political future of their home.”

Unknown artist, you do not have the permission to vote, Image Courtesy of HKwalls

You do not have the permission to vote by unknown artist. Courtesy HKwalls.

Street art is inherently site-specific, almost always created for a particular physical surface, building, neighbourhood, community and city. Two notable pieces from HKwalls 2016 stunningly adapt to the architecture of the building and landscape of the streets: Peeta’s work at the Golden Computer Centre and Okuda’s Rainbow Thief, both in Sham Shui Po. Characterised by bold, graphic imagery with dynamic lines, Peeta’s work shows command of perspective and illusion, particularly at the corner of the building; while Okuda’s giant, vibrant work spans the entire length of a building, seamlessly incorporating itself into the surrounding urban landscape.

The sculpture park and HKwalls represent different ends of the artistic spectrum, but have very clear agendas that focus on fostering cultural development. Both projects add new dimensions to public art that are unique to Hong Kong and reflective of what the city has to offer.

Leung Chi Wo

By Caroline Ha Thuc

there and thenness

“Is History not simply that time when we were not born?” asks Roland Barthes, while looking at a photograph of his mother as a child, in his book Camera Lucida. Leung Chi Wo’s process is all too Barthesian: born in 1968, he focuses here on 1967, the year when the most violent riots in the post-Second World War history of Hong Kong took place. In the womb of his mother, the artist could not witness those events, and to recollect today occurrences that are lost forever, he can only rely on archives, found objects and stories. This exhibition could be perceived as a personal museum, another version of the Museum of the Lost project he and Sara Wong began in 2013, but one dedicated to 1967, a year he was not around but tries to reach for – despite the effects of time and subjectivity – through the power of photography and the socially constructed memory of the past.

Fraser (2015) epitomises the artist’s practice and concerns. The installation features an old sewing machine that has been modified to make holes very slowly, at one stroke per minute, in a loop. It regularly pierces a roll of black-and-white negative film depicting artificial roses. The act of puncturing a bunch of roses is by itself both poetic and violent. The roses, exhibited as a series of photographs, feature a line of holes as if shot using a machine gun.

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Blue Volkswagen by Leung Chi Wo, Inkjet prints in wooden frames, embroidery on fabric, 100 x 93 x 25 cm, 2018. Courtesy the artist and Blindspot Gallery.

The sewing machine could have been the symbol of Hong Kong in the 1960s and 70s, when most of the city’s workers were employed in factories. They had no labour rights and often worked 12 hours a day without leave. The artist’s father worked in a large garment factory, and his mother used to sew at home to earn additional money. The work asks what price was paid for the economic development of the territory, and who benefited. The roses refer to the artificial-flower factory where the riots started with the dismissals of about 650 workers in April 1967. The escalation of the labour dispute quickly turned into a full-scale anti-colonial campaign.

The looping of the installation foregrounds the idea of repetition, which is essential to Leung’s practice: the choice of the medium of photography reflects this fascination, with its ability to repeat forever a moment that only lasted an instant. Applied to the theme of
history, it questions the possible repetition of events, and invites the viewer to approach the past from a contemporary perspective. The sewing machine could also be perceived as a metaphor for the camera, combining two opposite yet complementary readings of time: the punctual (photography), which isolates or freezes moments in time; and the linear (film), with its continuous movement.

The idea that history could repeat itself is underscored by the exhibition of a 2010
newspaper article dealing with the riots, headlined “Return of the Radicals”. It offers a guideline to the whole exhibition: is there anything left today of these protests that took place 50 years ago? The paradox is that the artist’s kinetic devices and repetitive movements suggest an iterative return of history, without any change, while at the same time his subjective reappropriation of the events highlights the impossibility of history repeating itself, since we barely know what exactly happened.

Both history and photography resist the artist’s attempts to re-create the 1967 events. His endeavour echoes Jean Baudrillard’s famous statement “The Gulf War did not take place”. The French philosopher knew that the conflict did happen, but with this provocative sentence he emphasised that most people experienced it only through television and media images. Leung did not experience the riots. We have no proof that the images and objects exhibited here are authentic. They do not narrate history but the artist’s own re-contextualisation of history, a recycling of traces and quotations.

Playing with a free association between quotes and images extracted from the newspapers of that time, Leung creates new meanings on the brink of reality. This is typical of his work and its attempts to bring back anonymous people from the dead through the re-appropriation and re-actualisation of archival photographs: here, a photograph of an anonymous person, taken on a ferry in 1967, revived and recontextualised with the unconnected words “I hate him”, quoted out of context from the Hong Kong Standard; or another anonymous photograph showing a young man in 1967 on Lugard Road and engraved with the caption “growing up”, a reference to a quote from a magistrate in another newspaper. It is left to the audience to invent their own
narrative and to connect the individual stories if they wish to do so.

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People’s Flower by Leung Chi Wo, Vintage acrylic flower, synthetic leather- mounted cushion, vintage signage, automotive paint stainless steel plinth, 40.3 x 40.3 x 116 cm, 2018. Courtesy the artist and Blindspot Gallery.

Another series in black and white represents archival photographs that have been reproduced as pairs and juxtaposed as if they were reflected in a mirror. All of them bear the engraved caption “extremely recalcitrant”. Without reading the artist’s statement, it is hard to get an idea of what he intended to express. The word
“recalcitrant” refers to Susan Sontag’s definition of photography, “understood as recalcitrant, inaccessible”, and to a comment by a magistrate towards schoolgirls who disobeyed police officers during the riots. Once more, Leung draws a parallel between photography as a medium and history.

It is almost impossible to follow all the trails intertwined in the exhibited works, and some associations are a bit far-fetched. For example, Leung combines a schoolgirl’s uniform with a record of the theme tune of Charile Chaplin’s last film, A Countess from Hong Kong, with the argument that they both refer to women who had to escape Hong Kong: the student was jailed because of her involvement in the riots, and Sophia Loren, in the movie, emigrates to the west. One of the core questions with research-based practices is the extent to which the public needs to know the context and underlying
stories hidden behind each work to be able to appreciate it. While it is impossible to fully
appreciate Leung’s practice without an introduction, the explanations in the booklet here reduce the significance of the installation. The risk with the systematic contextualisation of the work is that the audience tries to understand or decipher the work rather than feeling it or responding to it freely.

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A Countess from Hong Kong by Leung Chi Wo, Belilios Public School uniform, cloth hanger, 1967 Hong Kong 50-cent coins, vinyl record This Is My Song by Petula Clark (1967), motor system, 19 x 68 x 134 cm (still), 2016. Courtesy the artist and Blindspot Gallery.

The 1967 riots left a deep impression on Hong Kong society. Interpretations of the events are still controversial today, with debates over who was responsible and to what extent they were a spillover of the Cultural Revolution: a “communist-initiated confrontation” or a “righteous mass movement”. Leung is not taking either side: in his statement, he says: “I know I am no historian or researcher. I will be lost and will never establish any conclusion.” Maybe this is what is lacking in the exhibition: the artist addresses the issue from many perspectives, from micro-history to official narrative, but he remains on the edge, as if he did not dare really embrace his subject. His work is all about contours, detours, deviations and anecdotes, and the very detailed private stories do not
compensate for the vagueness of the global vision.