Taking the gender non-binary pronoun “Ze” as its departure point, “Ze/Ro” at Ben Brown Fine Arts, Hong Kong, is a group exhibition featuring five local female artists whose artistic languages foreground the female body and mind as sites of creative ferment.
TEXT: Kitty Kong
IMAGES: Courtesy of various
Curated by independent curator Shirky Chan at Ben Brown Fine Arts in Hong Kong, “Ze/Ro” comprises 14 artworks created between 2003 and 2021 by five female artists spanning three generations. Impressive in its variety of mediums, the exhibition is framed by the gender non-binary pronoun “Ze”, which was acknowledged by the Oxford English Dictionary in June 2018, subsequently bringing the issue of gender neutrality into public consciousness.
Whereas the curatorial statement responded to an inclusive language system of gender expressions, the exhibition thrives on the diversity identified through the artists’ multidisciplinary practices. Through installation, sculpture, painting, video and mixed-media, the exhibition sprouts new languages beyond the linguistic framework, which foregrounds the female body and mind as sites of creative ferment.
Upon entering, we encounter Chan Ka Kiu’s installation works stemming from her ongoing poetic series A list of things to bring to paradise (2021– )—a checklist of around 20 things the artist would like to bring with her when she dies. Swathed in the ambience of hypnotic purple lighting, I found myself caught in a bizarre wonderland where uncanniness appeared at the heart of the familiar. I saw a faceless bird trapped between a glass pane, Love, Name of a Bird (2021), passively flapping its wings upon the mischievous pull of a curious child. Silently watching, an assemblage of inflated dogs, I Wanna be Your Dog (2021), with “Fragile” stamped on their white plastic skins, piled up in a corner. While another visitor was performing a cleansing ritual with the sealed vacuum box Pamper Day (2021), a couple dug into Ants (2021), attempting to decode meanings behind the barely visible ants dotted all over a piece of white paper. Cast adrift within the void of faceless animals and people set in motion without acute meanings, I was prompted to submit passively to the artist’s peculiar dream of mundanity and uncertainty.
In the main gallery space, the works of Christy Chow, Jaffa Lam, Jess Lau and Au Hoi Lam continue the inadvertent tracing of personal histories. I was immediately drawn to Chow’s mixed-media collage Baby #1 (2017), placed alongside her colourful embroidery Flood (2018). Interwoven with materials signifying the tenderness of motherhood such as wool, silk, thread and beads, Baby #1 was a mesh of brightly hued fabric depicting the ultrasound image of Chow’s miscarriage, which became more apparent when observed through a monochromatic filter. In doing so, Chow made her trauma (of losing) and pleasure (of creating) directly accessible in the artwork. Although not so much calling upon the viewer to share the experience as much as to witness it, the work was an attempt to shatter the taboo surrounding open, honest discussions on miscarriage. With a similar tactile approach in Flood, embroidery technique was employed to render a goddess-like silhouette bathing in the sea of free-flowing fluids from her body in union with Mother Nature, celebrating the desire for pleasure and liberation from society’s projected image of the ideal female body.
The theme continued to strengthen in two sculptures by Lam, who inscribed personal experience into her choice of material—recycled wood—which itself is loaded with history and connotations. Lady/Tree in Travel (2019), resembling the form of a tree measuring the physical height and width of the artist herself, marks a symbolic reference to her childhood experience living in a rural mountainous region of China, where she established an intimate connection with trees. A work made seemingly for travel with convenience in mind, the sculpture is presented with its wooden crate still semi-attached but laid open on the floor, hinting at its ease of which it can be packed and crated. Looking at the shipping labels from around the world attached to the box, I felt as though the labels were tattoos inscribed on the artist’s body.
Lam’s choice of medium is an important factor in the way that her works are understood, as demonstrated by Oval Chair (2013), where a round, orange half-dome handcrafted from wood serves as the back of an old, upcycled chair. With the materiality of rigid wood representing the masculine, the polished, curviness of the dome symbolising the feminine—in this instance, the artist’s fantasy of her own pregnant body. Meanwhile the bright orange hue makes reference to her discovery of the famous Jaffas chocolate during a trip to New Zealand.
Elsewhere in the exhibition, Lau’s minute-long stop motion animation Drowning (2017) probes into the futility of memories. Through a continuous process of erasure and mark-making, the process of the artist drawing her own right hand and effacing it eventually deforms the piece of paper on which she is working. While the video projected the artist’s longing to seize the fleeting present amid the inevitable decaying of memories, the immortality of the lost image is also simultaneously encapsulated within the eternal cycle of the minute loop.
Lastly, Au’s acrylic paintings, in softly feminine pastel colours, portray a quiet introspection into the artist’s own memories and thoughts. On close inspection of Memo (2001–2011) (2003) and Pink and Blue (2004), I saw scribbles of symbols and patterns in an expression reminiscent of a child. There was, however, a sense of discipline instilled in the scribbles, whether they were perfectly ordered as in Memo (2001–2011), or barred from an open space on the huge canvas as in Pink and Blue. While I personally read the symbols as the artist’s silent prayer, a song of encrypted lyrics, or even, an act of a prisoner counting down the days, the paintings defy a single interpretation. More abstract in appearance, The Cradle (2004) exemplifies the artist’s complete faith in painting as a medium, drawing viewers into translucent sheets of paint that emerge from, and recede into, the infinite pictorial space of intersecting and overlapping shapes.
Looking back on these paintings she created years ago, Au explained in a recent video interview that the paintings had more to do with the forgetting than the recollecting of memories. Through the repetitive process of accumulation and reduction on canvas, the artwork captured what she valued at that particular moment, but also was a reflection of changes that have evolved over the years.
The true magic of this exhibition is perhaps not about what the artists are speaking about, but how they are doing it. It is a question that courses through the exhibition, in the artists’ exploration of dreams, traumas, liberation, desire, among many other things. They declare ownership of the body and mind from personal to collective experiences, through the vernacular language of their chosen medium corresponding to their individuality.
13 July – 26 August 2021
Ben Brown Fine Arts, Hong Kong