The exhibition Has-been-there at Pearl Lam Galleries (SoHo Space) bases its curatorial thoughts on Roland Barthes’ concept “That-has-been” which posits that the essence of the unique medium of photography is its ability to capture a moment of existence and truth instantly. Featuring six Hong Kong artists, including Max Chan Wang (b. 1991), Chilai Howard Cheng (b. 1986), Cheung Szelit (b. 1988), Phoebe Hui, Jess Lau Chingwa (b. 1991), and Tung Winghong (b. 1989), the exhibition explores authorship, personal emotion, diaspora, as well as urban and contemporary affairs experienced by local artists in the tumultuous city.
TEXT: Yang Yeung
IMAGES: Courtesy of the artists and Pearl Lam Gallery
Entering the gallery from the street, one is greeted by Phoebe Hui’s Pendulum Piano (2017), a curtain of piano keys, some yellowed for having lived together as a piano for almost a century, and now taken apart. Each key is distributed evenly in aisles just wide enough for one body to obliquely pass through. Still, yet robust, the keys lie in wait to be touched and brushed to sound out.
To go up to the first-floor gallery, one passes through the curtain and all of a sudden, becomes self-conscious of the weight of one’s own climbing body caught in the middle of those depicted in Chilai Howard Cheng’s stereo video S e e s a w (2014). In the video, shot from a vantage point above, anonymous bodies go up and down two escalators. Without revealing any starting or ending point and deliberately canceling a sense of depth, the camera renders the bodies a seamless flow the way the escalators are. Seesaw prepares visitors for a sense of disjunction that is to be addressed in the next works coming into view.
Szelit Cheung’s 06.2012 Beijing (2012) is the smallest piece of artwork in the gallery, but something about it jumps out. One or several dark grey rectangular blocks are situated in the middle of the painting. Its foreground is unevenly and sparsely dotted with white. One could figure it as an imperative to catch a passing view from inside a moving vehicle. But what is capable of transfixing one’s gaze and entire body is not so much what it is as what it does. The painting makes the gallery corner look deep, and that from there, an imaginary gust of wind is in the formation.
In sharp contrast to this invisible but perceptible energy is Cheung’s second painting In Land (2016). One reading of this depiction of the ruins of some ancient city could be the fragility of monumentality as suggested by the Chinese title ji nian bei (紀念碑), which does not show in the English title. Another reading could be that it offers an elongated gaze of the erosion of human traces by harsh elements of nature. If 06.2012 Beijing is where the ferocious source of energy is, In Land is its transformation in slow, scorching heat that becomes abrasive.
The tactility of the two paintings is in the company of the equally tactile third set of works by Cheung – Photoreceptor II and Photoreceptor III (2015). Cheung speaks of his interest in the reflection of light in the glasses of water placed next to the speaker’s podium in photographs depicting the trials for war crimes during the Second World War in the now courtroom cum museum in Nuremberg. As a study of light registering human conscience, Cheung regards the work as belonging to an ongoing exploration into grief with historical and politically oriented images. In the context of Has-been-there, I find the artistic attention given to the moment where speech is suspended moving: in overlapping orders of public rationality, legal technicality, and communicative structures, the speaker’s pause for a drink of water conjures a humble but necessary moment of humanity. The painting moves the imagination from a glass lifted up to the glass being put down again – a recuperative breath for the speaker, but a breath viewer tightly hold. The air is stale but is ready to pick up momentum any time; it is a staleness with a prospect of intensity.
The openness and vastness of scale in Cheung’s paintings come into sharp contrast with the self-induced, imploded white space Tung Winghong sets up to constrain a male torso – implosion, for being caved into such ordinary gestures of trying to flap a hungry mosquito – so ordinary that even life sometimes fails to empathize with. This is the video of the kinetic installation in circular motion Beyond the Sights – They Never Gone (2013-14). Beneath is Untitled (Head Piece) (2014), a video played back in a dated television monitor with wooden rocker legs. The video depicts a severed head, eyes closed, crown facing the viewers. This lightness of being in both works resonates the lightness of being in Cheng’s escalating and descending bodies, while making an explicit refusal to be interpreted by current, socially shared time. It is a quiet defiance of narratives with names, such as history.
There is one more work in the upper-floor gallery: A Night to Walk Through (2017) by Jess Lau Chingwa. The video is set up in a dark room. The artist’s lens looks out from the interior of home, through window railings, into the indivisibility of night. The camera pans so slowly that it registers endlessness as an idea that Cheng’s video of escalators shares but also challenges, perhaps with the question of how artificial day light is lived without the context of night.
Now, Hui’s Pendulum Piano as an invitation to play makes a timely return. The volatility of all the situations in the upper floor gallery is ready to be punctuated by a different tone and rhythm. Hui’s practice has long been marked by an interest in the making of (mostly Western) musical instruments by unmaking them while being loyal to their timbre. Relative to the Pendulum Piano, Max Chan Wang’s paired photographic works Equivocations (2014) are noisy. By noise, I do not mean that which is unpleasant to hear. I mean instead density and restlessness. The artist’s view of the city is flattened from afar and above, as if only then would its quivering monotony stop. The view is rational and fictional. They come into a dialogue with Lau’s A Night to Walk Through regarding home – home as something that always hovers above, never landing, as an artist friend once shared with me.
Lastly, Lau’s second work My name is still written on it (2017) that she calls a video poem. The artist builds an iconography of her name inscribed in different styles of handwriting. It could be read as a gentle resistance of the presets – or false choices – of “font style” in the digital life of writing. It could also be read as a footnote for the exhibition as a whole, showing the lurking idiosyncrasy always already in artistic endeavors, the work is a reminder of a youthful attention one lends oneself. Lau’s conclusion is that her name and its inscriptions on paper do not belong to her. This reminds me of Geta Brătescu’s video work Linia [The Line] (2014) presented in the Romanian Pavilion in the Venice Biennale 2017. The shot is framed to a drawing paper pad. The artist holds a thick, dark marker on her right hand and begins to draw lines. Brătescu objectifies what’s in her mind, moving back and forth between its subjectivity and objectivity. While Brătescu isn’t giving attention to herself, she seems all the while contemplating how her ideas correspond to what comes out on paper with her hand as guide. Lau, on the other hand, starts from what’s commonly accepted as part of selfhood – the name. She embarks on a process to render it strange. One may ask if her project is a paradox, for the act of diminishing or detaching from the self could also be another way of accumulating and completing the self. My concern here is the curiosity in this strangeness that has arisen out of while also resisting the self, which is what unites Brătescu and Lau’s gestures. Therefore, the youthfulness consists not in age, but in the anxiety of not (yet) being able to live up to oneself. I am reminded of Ernst Bloch, “From early on we want to get to ourselves. But we do not know who we are. […] Attempts have always been made to live commensurately with ourselves.” (The Principle of Hope, Volume 3, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1995:927)
As an array of rhythms played out in crests and falls, in neither haste nor congestion, Has-been-there leaves the air stirred.
Artists: Max Chan Wang, Chilai Howard Cheng, Cheung Szelit, Phoebe Hui, Jess Lau Chingwa, Tung Winghong
Pearl Lam Galleries
11 Aug–15 Sept, 2017
Yang Yeung is a writer of art and an independent curator. She founded the non-profit soundpocket in 2008 and is currently its Artistic Director. In 2015, she started independent project A Walk with A3 located at a back alley in Causeway Bay in Hong Kong to support the right of art to be in the streets and right of pedestrians to encounter art as a daily experience. She is member of the independent art critics collective Art Appraisal Club (HK) and the International Art Critics Association (HK). She was awarded the Asian Cultural Council Fellowship in 2013-14. She currently teaches classics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.