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Liu Heung Shing

Spring Breeze / Star Gallery / Beijing / Mar 20 – May 18 / Nooshfar Afnan /

A carefree rollerblader whizzes past a large statue of Chairman Mao at Dalian’s Institute of Technology in 1981. Like this one, each of the pictures in award-winning photographer Liu Heung Shing’s solo show Spring Breeze is a reminder of the enormous changes China has experienced since the “reform and opening up” that started in December 1978. For some audience members it is a trip down memory lane. For others it is a lesson in China’s recent history: Mao statutes were and often still are ubiquitous in public squares. Rollerskating was a popular pastime during an era of dire economic conditions, with wheels unceremoniously tied with strips of fabric around people’s shoes. The composition is engaging from a purely formal point of view, with the contrast between the solidity of the monument and the sprightly movement of the skater; and the juxtaposition of the dark shade of the figure with the light-hued statute.

The black-and-white photographs on display were taken by Liu in the late 70s and early 80s. These images take the viewer to a past era, albeit one that still lingers in the memory and whose effects strongly reverberate in the lives of many today. Shown in Star Gallery’s new Bauhaus-style space in Beijing’s 798 Art District, the exhibition won this year’s prize for best show at Gallery Weekend Beijing.

An iconic picture of a throng of cyclists streaming down Beijing’s famous Chang’an Avenue near Jianguomen (1981) greets viewers in the main gallery. For decades, bicycles were the officially sanctioned mode of transportation. Now millions of cars share the road with a plethora of mainly shared bikes on the capital’s busy streets. An early sign of warming relations with the west is captured by Liu when Big Bird, a popular character from the US TV series Sesame Street, made its debut in the capital in 1982. Even though the character was probably unknown to most, cheering crowds can be seen surrounding it at the Workers’ Culture Palace. Consumer goods then started to appear, as seen in a photograph of a young man leaning on his brand new motorbike (1982) or in a 1981 image of a newsstand stocked with a wide variety of print magazines.

A student skates past a statue of Chairman Mao. Dalian Institute of Technology, Liaoning Province, 1981. Courtesy the artist and Star Gallery.

As life returned to normal in the post-Mao era, people made more time for leisure. Liu’s image of a couple embracing on the grounds of Beijing Zoo (1979) or his photo of a young man posing for a beach portrait in Beidaihe, Hebei (1982) are examples of this new-found freedom. Citizens were once again able to think about personal emotions and a future together, as seen in a photo of a young couple on a bench in Shanghai’s People’s Park in 1978.

Starting in 1980, the systematic removal of Mao portraits signalled the end of the personality cult surrounding him. Liu captures one of those instances in 1981: a group of construction workers take a break outside the National Museum of China in Tiananmen Square during the process of taking down a large portrait of the Chairman. The masterful composition explains why Liu has been dubbed China’s Cartier-Bresson.

Liu, who is a former Time magazine photographer, has captured the zeitgeist of the life of ordinary citizens during those crucial decades in China’s history. As China has turned into an economic powerhouse, Liu’s iconic images constitute an important archive of the era.

Tung Wing Hong

Following the Imagined / CL3 Architects / Hong Kong / Mar 25 – Apr 26 / Christie Lee

Hong Kong artist Tung Wing Long’s recent solo at CL3 Architects’ Wanchai office is a short but nevertheless sweet paean to the medium of video, where exciting things are happening right now, bolstered by new editing tools, the possibility of ever bigger screens and the general obsession with the immersive.

The first thing the visitor sees on entering Following the Imagined is a video of a sleeping head. Inspired by Constantin Brâncuși’s The Sleeping Muse, Untitled (head) examines the idea of the medium itself. The term video art is often used interchangeably with the moving image; the piece questions whether a video needs to be moving for it to be considered video art.

The eerie stillness of Untitled (head) is quickly disrupted by the spinning and whirling elsewhere. Immediately behind it, i/i is an installation of two CRT TVs that move in a continuous circular motion until at one point meeting before turning away. The two screens depict blurred views of a cityscape, though there is one moment when the artist appears, seemingly in excruciating ecstasy or pain. In Hundred Jumps, a pair of feet continuously skip over a cable tie that is attached to the screen itself. Tung’s videos exist in the liminal space between the real and the untrue, between what happens behind the screen and before it, between what exists and what doesn’t. 

Hundred Jumps by Tung Wing Hong, Video installation, 2015.
Courtesy the artist and CL3 Architects.

That experimentation continues in Mind Cut, consisting of six video panels spinning clockwise. Attached to it is a stick, the tip of which is an LED light, that keeps whipping the whirling piece. Look at it long enough and your
head starts to spin. A similar disorientation is provided by the sense of fragmentation pervading the show: the artist’s fragmented body, explicitly seen in Untitled (Head) and Hundred Jumps, but also the diffusive contemporary self. Snaking through the art, the viewer feels pulled in different directions. Focusing on the blurry images on the two screens of i/i inevitably means being distracted by the whirling Mind Cut behind.

But the show is also as unapologetically indulgent as it is contemporary. It doesn’t concern itself with race relations, gender politics or the larger sociopolitical questions of the day; its primary concern is with the pleasure of art itself.

Unlike In Between, a previous work that uses modern LCD screens, the vintage CRT TVs hark back to an earlier period in video art history, when the medium itself was seen as art rather than screening vessel, and as such bore a closer resemblance to abstract painting than sprawling visual essay. Tung’s videos, rid of any narrative content, pull the viewer in not by any particular stories they tell, but by the visual experience they promise. This is art that demands your time, not because it’s vast or because you need to pore over lengthy captions, but because it has the power to alter your sense of time and space – if you allow it to.

Video, Sofa, Bauhinia – Retrospective and Reconstruction of Ellen Pau

By Leung Po Shan /

“They said

There’s nothing

special about an onion

It deserves all criticisms

Despite an earthy costume

Its name doesn’t inspire trust

Its nature is not agreeable. Peel off

layer after layer, there is nothing inside

that can be called sophistication! How formalistic!”

(Yasi: Extract from “Onion”)

What About Home Affairs?, the title of Para Site’s retrospective of Ellen Pau, pioneering Hong Kong artist and co-founder in 1986 of the city’s first video and media art collective, Videotage, can been construed as a bilingual pun, taking in both Hong Kong politics and the shackles imposed on women in the home and society. “Home Affairs” brings to mind the Home Affairs Department, which is responsible for Hong Kong’s internal affairs. The ambiguity of the words creates a discrepancy between the title in Chinese and English.

In her essay in the exhibition catalogue, video artist Lo Yin-shan, who emerged a generation later than Pau, references academic David Wang Der Wei’s post-loyalist theory to point out that Pau’s Emergence (A work in progress) (2016) was an act of untimely resistance. Post-colonial theory has become unfashionable in Hong Kong, not only because discussion of the city’s colonial past is considered taboo among supporters of Beijing, but also because young artists can see little value in the theory in a globalised era. But there is radicalism in Pau’s treatment of the bauhinia, Hong Kong’s emblem, which has had the first character of its Chinese name amputated because it means “foreign”. In her work Pau tries to reinstate the plant’s original name. The work’s cleverness lies in its appropriation of science, where the matter speaks for itself; she picked a bauhinia in the park outside the gallery, then mapped its genome and turned it into sound, and makes a positive identification of the first segment of its genome that becomes physical evidence of its less than complete form, but done in a way that is inconspicuous. The beauty of the work is less in the subject of resistance than in the use of neo-materialism and abstraction to expose political lies. From analogue tapes to digital videos, Pau’s exploration of new media for the last dozen years has reached maturity with this piece.

Above, right: Exhibition detail of Ellen Pau What about Home Affairs at Para Site, Hong Kong, 2018. Courtesy Para Site. © Johnny Au

Nevertheless, solely political interpretations of Pau’s work miss its sentimentality. To access the exhibition space on the top floor, the visitor has to take the lift from the ground floor, then turn into the dimly lit space. There the curator lets the audience sit on a brown sofa and watch, mesmerised, two of the artist’s earliest works, TV Game of the Year (1989) and Blue (1989-90). This kind of brown sofa is well known to Hong Kong’s older generations, as they were used in government offices under British colonial rule. The curator not only used timelines and facts displayed on the wall to let the audience understand the artist’s life experiences and related events, but also used the materiality of the work and the exhibition space to let viewers immerse themselves. As a response to the 1989 Chinese Democracy Movement, Blue did not use a single frame or image from the avalanche of news footage shown on Hong Kong television at the time, capturing the emotion after June 4 with just a flickering blue abstract image. By contrast the neighbouring TV Game of the Year indirectly clarified the historical context of Blue through several Hong Kong artists’ humorous impersonations of then Chinese premier Li Peng. Projection Drained (1988) is even more experimental: at the time there was no video projection, and geometric images captured on a television with a camera become abstract.

What About Home Affairs? might be a retrospective, but it is one in the present tense. Because it is difficult to recreate the media art of the past as the technology used to create it has become outmoded, it has to be recreated using newer technology. But the curator and artist did not see new technology replacing old as a mark of the end of an era. Recycling Cinema (1998), which was exhibited at the 2001 Venice Biennale, has frequently been interpreted as a commentary on post-97 Hong Kong politics. But the artist’s life experiences and melancholy behind the camera have rarely been commented on. The most moving, emotional work in the exhibition was Bik Lai Chu, which juxtaposed the old and the new. The original 1993 video installation was a recording of the artist looking up and slamming into a wall, a site-specific piece created to be projected under a table in the dressing room of the Fringe Club. The recreated video in this exhibition was projected in a closet that was easy to miss. The room was almost completely dark on opening the door, and the projection was in the attic, above a mass of household items including plastic boxes, imitation jewellery and a folded wheelchair; the technology of art and the technology of living both left their marks on the artist’s life.

Bik Lai Chu at Ellen Pau What about Home Affairs at Para Site, Hong Kong, 2018. Courtesy the artist and Para Site. 

It is rare to be able to understand Hong Kong society and the development of contemporary art through the life journey of a female artist. And sadly, it seems that even the godmother of video art is still unable to headline Art Basel.

Recycling Cinema vs Big Brother is Watching You

Wesley Tongson – The Journey Book Launch & Curator Talk, Asia Society

Jul 9, 6.30 – 8.15pm
Evening Book Launch & Talk by Catherine Maudsley,
Curator of “Wesley Tongson – The Journey”Exhibition &
conversation with Tina Pang and Cynthia Tongson
Asia Society Hong Kong Center, 9 Justice Drive, Admiralty, Hong Kong

Wesley Tongson – The Journey documents the acclaimed solo exhibition of Hong Kong ink artist, Wesley Tongson (1957-2012), held at the Chinese Culture Center in San Francisco (October 12, 2018 – March 9, 2019). The book features 23 works, including the artist’s signature finger paintings, and a selection of Tongson’s never-before published personal notes. Included are new essays about the artist and his work by curator Catherine Maudsley; Mary Ann Milford, Carver Chair in East Asian Studies at Mills College; and Wu Song, Professor at Sichuan Fine Arts Institute.

Curator Catherine Maudsley will begin this evening program with an account into the curation process behind the exhibition, the inspiration behind conceiving the exhibition as “A Journey”, and the meaning of Wesley Tongson’s art. This will be followed by a conversation among Catherine Maudsley, Tina Pang, curator of Hong Kong Visual Culture at M+, and Cynthia Tongson, the artist’s sister.

Sign up here.
Asia Society Members $100, Non-members $150

McArthur Binion

Hand: Work: II / Lehmann Maupin and Massimo de Carlo / Hong Kong / May 22 – July 6 / Diana d’Arenberg Parmanand /

After decades of being overlooked, 73-year-old American artist McArthur Binion is having a moment. With a spate of recent exhibitions, notably his inclusion in the 2017 Venice Biennale Viva Arte Viva and a 2018 solo exhibition at the Cranbrook Art Museum in Detroit, this past month the artist has also celebrated the opening of several solo exhibitions in Asia. One at Lehmann Maupin Seoul was preceded by Hand:Work:II, a two-gallery show spread out across Massimo de Carlo and Lehmann Maupin in Hong Kong’s Pedder Building. 

In the late 1970s Binion found himself at the centre of the dizzying, meteoric art scene in Soho, New York, hanging out with artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat, Dan Flavin and Sol LeWitt. Binion’s works are seemingly cut from the same mould as the two minimalist figureheads; they appear minimalist from a distance, but up close reveal themselves as something entirely different.

Using oil stick, Binion draws vertical and horizontal lines in a grid over a layer of photographs or copies of personal documents: photocopies of his birth certificate and pages from phone books he kept from 1972 to the 1990s. The surfaces of the aluminium or wooden panels are divided into squares, resembling a patchwork quilt or woven rattan. Some works are in black and white, while others are washed over with expressionist strokes of coloured ink: purple, green or yellow. These biographical documents and photos underpin all Binion’s work, and are what he refers to as the “under-conscious”, rather than collages. This skin is marked with a network of grids, both concealing and disclosing information. But there is much more than just surface to Binion’s work; the works are self-portraits as much as they are abstract compositions.

Installation view: Hand:Work:II, 2019. Lehmann Maupin, Hong Kong. May 22 – July 6, 2019. 
Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong, and Seoul. Photo: Kitmin Lee.

In Binion’s Hand:Work series, tiny photographic images of the artist’s hands at work are repeated numerous times, methodically organised into grids. His hands are placed this way and that, creating a woven hatching pattern with a visual rhythm. Many of the works are divided vertically into two equal sections, lighter and darker, like Ink:Work (2018) at Lehmann Maupin Gallery, a large painting, divided vertically into a red and blue grid that from a distance almost references colour field painting. A closer inspection reveals layers of colour and texture atop copies of handwritten numbers and names: Lois Markowitz, Peter Brown, Charles Mingus III. Friends, colleagues, people who have gone out of his life and those who have remained. Memories, moments and relationships past. Like the images of his hands, copies of lined and handwritten square sheets are pieced together the right way up, upside down, left and right. 

The repeated use of handwriting and the incorporation of images of the artist’s hand alludes to the manual labour that goes into each piece, as well as referencing the artist’s own biography. Binion was born in 1946 on a cotton farm in Macon, Mississippi, and started picking cotton at an
early age. His hands were always working. Later he found his
creative voice as a poet and writer, before discovering art. Words bleed across and down the surface of the board, reminiscent of the poems of modernist E E Cummings, where words tumble playfully down
the page, establishing a movement and tempo. Some images and words burst their way loudly through the structural conformity of the grid, while others recede behind it, sombre and quiet, creating a pulse and beat.

Perhaps unsurprisingly the artist cites the beat writers of the 1950s, who found inspiration in jazz, as being among his favourites. Although the works visually take minimalism as a reference point, they are too personal and emotive to be minimalist, with emotion as their driving force. Their movement and sense of improvisation have more in common with jazz than minimalism or the political art that was expected of a black artist in the 70s.

In much the same way as jazz improvisation, Binion’s work is a conversation, sometimes with other artists who came before him, other times with the audience. But more often it’s a conversation with himself – between the past and the present, minimalism and the emotional, line and shape, structure and improvisation. Binion creates visual rhythm from the synthesis of binaries, weaving together abstraction and storytelling to create a hallmark vernacular and style, full of rhythm, repetition and visual syncopation.

M+ presents Five Artists: Sites Encountered

Jun 7 – Oct 20, 2019
Lara Almarcegui, May Fung, Lee Bul, Ana Mendieta, Charlotte Posenenske

M+ Pavilion, Art Park, West Kowloon Cultural District

Tracking notions of site across multiple historical moments and artistic languages, the exhibited works include poetic expressions of the body, intense investigations into the built environment, and in one case, a direct response to the M+ site. Together, these multifaceted works display powerful connections between art and its surroundings—be they the natural environment, architectural space, urban contexts, or discursive frameworks—prompting us to rethink our relationships to place and sense of belonging in the world.

A specially commissioned project by Lara Almarcegui presents a rigorous breakdown of the materials involved in the construction of the M+ building, offering a systematic expression of the transformations currently taking place at the museum’s site. With over twenty years of experience in investigating land and urban space, the artist fuses art-making with her research strategies, reflecting on unseen connections between what lies in the earth and the buildings that surround us.

Ana Mendieta, a pioneering performance artist celebrated around the globe, used her own body as a tool to communicate with the natural landscape. The selected films from her influential Silueta series (Silhouette series) (1974–1981) documents the artist’s performative actions in which she impressed her body into dirt, sand, and mud and transformed the materials with water, smoke, and fire. In view of her life as a Cuban exile in the United States, these actions can be seen as part of a process of recovering her lost identity, and the trauma of separation from family and homeland.

Also addressing site through the display of bodily encounters, the films of May Fung—one of the most important moving image artists working in Hong Kong today—echo themes of loss and self-discovery. Featuring a blindfolded woman feeling her way through the bustling streets of Hong Kong, Fung’s She Said Why Me (1989) depicts a journey in search for identity. The filmed footage is interspersed with black-and-white archival clips of women in Hong Kong from different historical moments, evoking the city’s collective memories and its layered past. 

Elsewhere in the gallery is a group of over thirty maquettes by Lee Bul, a leading Korean artist and prominent voice of her generation. These small glittering models of real and fictional buildings respond to ideas of architectural utopias, as does her hanging sculpture, intricately crafted from steel, metal sheets, and mirrors. Born to dissident parents, Lee grew up during a period of military dictatorship in Korea. She witnessed first-hand the struggle to build a utopian state and its resulting breakdown, making ideas of human ambition and perfection a recurring theme in her works. 

Notably different in form and appearance, the sculptural units created by German Minimalist artist Charlotte Posenenske, known as the Vierkantrohre series (Square Tubes series) (1967), are the artist’s final and most lasting contributions to art. Resembling ventilation shafts, these modular parts in galvanised steel and cardboard can be assembled in various shapes according to the space and desires of the owner. Fond of placing her sculptures in public spaces, such as train stations and factories, Posenenske encouraged interactions between artwork and our everyday surroundings. 

Complementary programmes, including reconfigurations of Charlotte Posenenske’s sculptures, conversations with exhibiting artists, a teachers’ private viewing, and special guided tours, will accompany the exhibition. For more information, please visit

Five Artists: Sites Encountered is curated by Pauline J. Yao, Lead Curator, Visual Art, M+; assisted by Ethan Cheng, Assistant Curator, Visual Art, M+; Vera Lam, Curatorial Assistant, M+; and Jenny Wang, Intern, M+.

Dates: Jun 7 – Oct 20, 2019
Opening hours: 11am–6pm, Wednesdays to Sundays and on public holidays
Location: M+ Pavilion, Art Park, West Kowloon Cultural District
Admission: free

For media enquiries
West Kowloon Cultural District Authority
Patricia Wong
Assistant Manager, Communications and Public Affairs
+852 2200 0223

Erica Tang
Communications and Public Affairs Officer
+852 2200 0719

About M+
M+ is a museum dedicated to collecting, exhibiting, and interpreting visual art, design and architecture, moving image, and Hong Kong visual culture of the 20th and 21st centuries. In Hong Kong’s West Kowloon Cultural District, we are building one of the largest museums of modern and contemporary visual culture in the world, with a bold ambition to establish ourselves as one of the world’s leading cultural institutions. Our aim is to create a new kind of museum that reflects our unique time and place, a museum that builds on Hong Kong’s historic balance of the local and the international to define a distinctive and innovative voice for Asia’s 21st century.

About the West Kowloon Cultural District
The West Kowloon Cultural District is one of the largest and most ambitious cultural projects in the world. Its vision is to create a vibrant new cultural quarter for Hong Kong on 40 hectares of reclaimed land located alongside Victoria Harbour. With a varied mix of theatres, performance spaces, and museums, the West Kowloon Cultural District will produce and host world-class exhibitions, performances, and cultural events, providing 23 hectares of public open space, including a two-kilometre waterfront promenade.

Various artists

Algorithmic Art: Shuffling Space and Time / Hong Kong City Hall / Dec 27 – Jan 10 / Valencia Tong /

As I casually strolled into the dimly lit space of the group exhibition at City Hall, I considered a number of issues: the relationship between art and technology; how artists explore contemporary issues through the use of technology; whether machines can be creative – and whether machines that can think will threaten human existence.

Advertising Positions: the China Edition (2018) by Daniel C Howe. Interactive digital installation with machine learning and gaze-tracking 65” monitor standing upright with Kinect.

The sale of an art work generated by artificial intelligence at Christie’s in New York for almost US$500,000 sent shockwaves across the art world, as it tried to grapple with what the identity of an artist meant. So the exhibition Algorithmic Art: Shuffling Space and Time, curated by Hong Kong Arts Development Council 2017 Artist of the Year in Media Art Linda CH Lai, was a timely one. Coinciding with the exhibition, scholars and artists from around the world gathered at the School of Creative Media at the City University of Hong Kong, known for bridging art and science to foster creativity, for four-day conference Art Machines: International Symposium on Computational Media Art. They presented innovative works and cutting-edge research as part of the School of Creative Media’s 20th- anniversary celebrations. Topics in the symposium ranged from machine learning to bioart, and a salon featured works by PhD students that used technologies such as virtual reality, 3D scanning and 3D printing.

At the Algorithmic Art exhibition, Daniel C Howe’s recent work Advertising Positions: the China Edition greeted viewers near the entrance. The digital installation explored the mechanisms behind surveillance capitalism in the contemporary Hong Kong context, using technology to react to viewers’ gazes. In another section of the exhibition, Iwai Toshio’s Time Stratum II, a mesmerising motorised sculpture from the 1980s inspired by the zoetrope, a pre-cinematic optical toy, demonstrated the transformation of images through the motion of spinningand rotating as the strobe light from the video monitor changed. It exemplified the connection between new media and the moving-image arts. Particularly eye-catching was the section of the exhibition dedicated to artist Tsai Wen-Ying and the signifcance of his 1979 show Cybernetic Art of Tsai Wen-Ying, one of the first media-art experiences in Hong Kong. His kinetic work offered a glimpse of what the artist envisioned as the marriage of art and science. 

By opening the black box and creating a dialogue with the public to deepen their appreciation for machine-made art, the exhibition went beyond sensory experiences in the process of viewing art; it gathered the brightest minds in media art from around the world and brought computational thinking to the fore.

Fung Lam, Teriver Cheung, Anthony Lai

Hong Kong Episodes (Re-run) / JC Cube, Tai Kwun / Hong Kong / Jan 26–28, 2019 / Ernest Wan

Hong Kong Episodes (Re-run) is a shorter, revised version of an October 2015 show that was conceived amid the social unrest in the city the previous year. The programme note describes the production as a “jazz-classical cross-over piece… accompanied by… video images”, but the visuals turn out to be just as important as the live music, if not more so. One reason is that the video depicts scenes with skyscrapers, housing estates, neon signs and people in a subway station, for instance, that are unmistakably Hong Kong — which makes it impossible not to take the title of the show
seriously — whereas the music has about it nothing especially evocative of Hong Kong or, for that matter, any particular locale.

Another reason is that the visuals, largely created by Anthony Lai, play with both time and space so effectively that the viewer’s attention is absorbed throughout. Among the eight “episodes”, each representing a three-hour period in a day, is a video, shot with a stationary camera, of burning joss sticks at a temple, played backwards and in slow motion. Another episode presents aerial video taken along a coastline, with roads and buildings on one side and the sky-blue sea on the other, immediately followed by a sequence, shot with a camera mounted on a street-roving vehicle and pointed upwards, that shows the upper parts of high-rise buildings against the backdrop of a sea-blue sky. With the sky looking just like the sea, the top of each building has now seemingly turned into its base, and from apparent sea level these upside-down buildings rise too high to fall within the frame — a giddy-making effect.

Hong Kong Episodes (Re-run) in performance. Courtesy Jockey Club New Arts Power.

The music for half of the episodes was composed by Fung Lam, who conducts a small ensemble of strings, flute, trumpet and saxophone, as well as a jazz band comprising drums, bass, piano and guitar, the last played by Teriver Cheung, who wrote the other half of the music. In general, Lam’s music is used for the episodes with slower-moving images, and is contemplative and given to gradual build-ups, with sustained string chords as a characteristic sound, while Cheung’s goes with the more flowing episodes, and is marked by capricious changes of mood, pungent harmonies, abundant jazz improvisation and hectic excitement at climaxes.

A final surprise comes in the form of an avowed “encore”, one of the numbers from the original show that, the conductor tells the audience, had been excised from the latest version. This composition by Lam is the most overtly melodic of the evening, and indeed the yearning melody verges on the sentimental, as if the melancholy underlying much of his preceding music can no longer be contained. This explosion of pent-up emotions, combined with slowed-down images of a firework display, could be suggestive of faded glory, innocence lost, hopes dashed in the wake of the events of 2014. It is uncannily apt that such a wistful piece, professedly withdrawn, should have the last word.

Marcel Dzama

Crossing the Line / David Zwirner / Hong Kong / Jan 22 – Mar 9 / Katherine Volk /

If artists are historians of our times, Marcel Dzama represents the present. Canadian-born, New York-based Dzama references the contemporary climate in the US under Donald Trump’s presidency; this was paired with influences from elsewhere, in particular Hong Kong, for his recent show at David Zwirner, which spanned both floors of the gallery.

Dzama departs dramatically from his earlier approach of sparse characters on plain paper, with his style morphing into colourful, large-scale works that are bold and chaotic but meaningful. The new approach was influenced by the work and looser approach to creation of his friend Raymond Pettibon, as well as Dzama’s time living in and visiting large cities such as New York and Hong Kong, and the vibrancy and crowded energy of these places.

The neon lights of Hong Kong aren’t Dzama’s only inspiration; the city’s iconic horse racing also features as a prominent theme across multiple works, including Ghost riders (or Watch out he don’t fall on you) (2018) and On the Track with Brother and Sister Ray (2018). Dragons and pandas also make an appearance but it’s unclear whether they’re infiltrating or protecting, an ambiguous nod to Hong Kong’s relationship with Beijing.

Storyboard of the tension around which history is built (or Storyboard chapter 3 of a flower of evil) by Marcel Dzama, Watercolor, ink, metallic acrylic, collage, graphite, and adhesive tape on paper in eight (8) parts, Paper, each: 24.1 x 15.2 cm, Framed: 57.2 x 77.2 x 3.8 cm, 2018. 
Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner Hong Kong.

Throughout the exhibition, images are filled with an abundance of visual references. Animals are scattered throughout the frenzied scenes as musical instruments are blown. In works such as It’s time they paid with the tyrant’s head (2018), figures dance around the pieces as others shoot arrows or ride horses defiantly across the paper. These carnivalesque creatures attempt to unsettle and undermine; the characters appear ready for battle, but we don’t know whether they’ll win the war.

Surreal situations feature tricksters, witches and bats; someone is playing with an iPhone in the jungle in Why the darkness and obscurity in all your words and laws that none touch the fruit in the serpent’s jaws (or Everything that blooms in holy, or A garden we know nothing of) (2018), while at the bottom of The afterbirth of a nation (or The shame-faced one) (2018) is Donald Trump’s severed head on a plate, spewing an upward fountain of toxic gas. There it goes Beuys (2018) depicts the artist Joseph Beuys’ infamous performance I Like America and America Likes Me (1974), in which he spent three days in New York locked in a room with a coyote, except now the coyote is hiding, shielded by the dynamic duo, Batman and Robin, along with a spinning dancer; instead of living with one wild creature, maybe the whole world has become untamed, with even those supposed to be our heroes swept up in the frenzy.

The nightmarish quality of the work is balanced by Dzama’s use of humour and identifiable imagery, a familiar method of challenging systems of power. Recognisable cartoon faces are spread around the scenes, mocking or encouraging the actions of their masked friends, cheering for them to fight or fail in their attempts to change the course of our world. The cartoons themselves are sourced from a variety of places: silent films, comics, Disney and even Felix the Cat and fairytales, with many deriving from material Dzama read with his young son. Several of the works started out as automatic drawings, some undertaken on trips to the beach with his son, which display a slightly more optimistic tone. This freedom of artistic flow also allows for open interpretation of Dzama’s world.

Many of the pieces in the show make use of text and its vague quality, with words and phrases taken from song lyrics, horse names, poetry and even Goya’s series The Disasters of War (1810-20). He uses lifted Chinese text, sometimes without knowing the meaning, layering cultures and allowing for a playful element of chance. The combination of this text and these colours and layouts, especially in some of the larger works, such as The land of the bat (2018) and And who breaks a butterfly on a wheel? (Or A rapture, a butterfly, a dancer and a bowie knife (2018) allude to posters for low-budget science-fiction or horror B-movie – but we are all players in this twisted reality.

An excerpt from one of Dzama’s films is shown on the bottom floor of the gallery, starring Pettibon, comedian Amy Sedaris and the artist’s son. Alongside it is a storyboard for the production, Storyboard of The Tension Around Which History is Built (or Storyboard Chapter 3 of a Flower of Evil) (2018), featuring a chess game, a metaphor for a dance or war, animated as a ballet performance; a villainous opponent; a vampire gallery owner (David Zwirner, played by Pettibon); and an extreme version of Dzama himself, played by Sedaris.

Despite the many references to the US, the unpredictable situations depicted also apply around the world. The works reflect the present, but the references in Dzama’s work may shift as times move on; sourcing them from a plethora of eras, artists and types of culture allows his work to evolve and remain timeless, while remaining a reflection of the contemporary that allows us to learn from the past.

Danh Vō, Isamu Noguchi

Noguchi for Danh Vō: Counterpoint / M+ Pavilion / Hong Kong / Dec 27 – Jan 10 / Christine Chan Chiu /

Noguchi for Danh Vō: Counterpoint, the eighth show staged at M+ Pavilion, brought together the diverse works of two artists, Danh Vō and the late Isamu Noguchi. The word “counterpoint” refers to the two artists’ works being independent but possessing the ability to be interdependent, creating a harmonious rapport when juxtaposed. The exhibition lived up to its musical metaphor and more, highlighting the talent and ingenuity of one artist while exploring the imaginative, multi-layered approach of the other.

Inspired by a leitmotif in traditional Chinese ink painting, Vō’s Untitled (Structure for Akari PL2) (2018), modelled after a Chinese Dong pavilion, took centre stage in the main gallery. Flanked and illuminated by Noguchi’s famous Akari lamps, visitors were encouraged to sit and rest there. Parallels soon became clear between Vō’s pavilion and Noguchi’s lamps: both are made from wood (cedar and bamboo respectively), are affordable, easily dismantled and rebuilt, and most importantly stand alone as sculptures in their own right, redefining their surrounding spaces. 

Dirty dancing by Danh Vō, Bronze, writing by Phung Vo, 121.9 x 21 x 20.3 cm, 2015/2018.
© Museum Abteiberg, Mönchengladbach. Photo: Achim Kukulies.
Courtesy West Kowloon Cultural District Authority.

In fact, the viewer is consistantly encouraged to consider the notion of space. With no suggested order of visit or partitions, visitors roam freely in the spirit of Noguchi’s imagination to explore more than 30 pieces. Standing, sitting or hanging, and ranging from stone to metal to bamboo to ceramic, they demonstrate his mastery over different textures and media, testifying to his versatility and creativity not only as artist, but also as designer, architect and sculptor. 

Outside, experimental works by Vō were sited inside modified shipping containers, giving new meaning to interior/exterior space. Dirty Dancing (2015/18), an installation of a hanging bronze sculpture of Christ juxtaposed with large Fraktur script written by Vō’s father, draws attention to the complicated relationship the artist has with religion. ydob eht ni mraw si ti (2015), a Greek marble sculpture sectioned off to fit inside a milk crate, looks seemingly innocent, but carries with it strong underlying messages involving consumerism, religion, good versus evil, and traditional canons of beauty.

Both artists’ works convey transcultural upbringings impacted by displacement and diaspora, and raise collective consciousness for a heritage not easily forgotten. The themes interweave at particular points of the exhibition, the multi-faceted approach traversing the boundaries of sculpture, design and architecture to create pieces that not only redefine the spaces around them, but also tell meaningful stories.