Breathing Space

Contemporary Art from Hong Kong
Asia Society, Hong Kong
12 March – 13 August 2017

Since 2012 the Asia Society Hong Kong Center has resided at the former Explosives Magazine of the old Victoria Barracks in Admiralty. The heritage site includes four restored and adapted British military buildings, including a specially designed contemporary art gallery, presentation spaces and offices. The raised walkway that provides access between these structures is the perfect place of respite, providing stunning outdoor views of the harbour and accentuating the natural beauty of the mountain surrounds.

The Asia Society’s exhibition Breathing Space: Contemporary Art from Hong Kong was on display during Art Basel Hong Kong, which draws a large number of visitors from the art world internationally. The exhibition was not to be missed for its exceptional presentation of local artists work at this significant cultural site.

Showcasing two works each by eleven local emerging to mid-career artists, the exhibition was conceptualised as a two-part journey represented by the dichotomy between the sites unique indoor and outdoor spaces. This dialogue aimed to allow the audience to ‘navigate life in Hong Kong through art’.1 Inside the Asia Society’s Chantal Miller Gallery, the works displayed explore the ‘various pressures that restrict our breathing space in the city’. Key themes included urban experience, current affairs, or shared and personal history. Outside, spanning the open areas of the site, was a series of new commissions, completed this year, positioned to enable us to pause, reflect and consider our surroundings. This helped to elaborate the key themes through references to the site’s colonial and military history, in addition to prompting us to directly interact with the site physically.

While there was no set path that determined our way through the show, Adrian Wong’s site-specific commission Untitled (Grate XI: Electric Bauhinia), was an exception. Situated in a recess near the entrance to the first level walk-way, it was the first point of contact for visitors. It is part of Wong’s ongoing Untitled Grates series, earlier examples of which were displayed inside the main gallery. The works in this series typically reference iconic Hong Kong motifs. Here Wong has rendered the official flower of Hong Kong, the Orchid Tree (Bauhinia x blakeana), into a 2.6 metre high steel grate, lit from behind by a pink and green neon version of the same flower. Intended to change over time, building patina and colour-shift, it brought to mind the aged street signs found throughout Hong Kong that endure despite the city’s continued social and cultural transformations.2 This touched on all three themes explored through the show, making Wong’s work the ideal visual and conceptual starting point.

Outside, the distance, placement and combination of both subtle and striking works, mirrored the unexpected encounters with objects and places we experience navigating the city everyday. Ko Sin Tung’s Every Unit, Andio Lai’s Cipher, and Vaan Ip’s Lost City No.52 all required acute attention to the details of the surroundings, or movement at a slow pace, to reveal themselves. The most distinct example of this was Enoch Cheung’s site-specific photo installation Spatial Neglect. Situated along the corridors of one of the historic armouries, Cheung presented close-up snapshots of indiscernible areas around the site, where historic features come into contact with contemporary materials. In contrast Magdalen Wong’s Blanket, Chloe Cheuk’s …Until I am found, Cheuk Wing Nam’s Rally, South Ho’s Buddha’s Light is Shining – No.1, Chilai Howard’s um, and Siu Wai Hang’s Fragmented Skies immediately stood out and captured the gaze from a distance, through the use of bright lights, sound, unexpected forms and distinct compositions.

Stepping inside the Gallery, the humming of Cheuk Wing Nam’s Avaritia–Silent Greed (2015) permeated the entire exhibition space. The installation consisted of a series of recycled wine bottles hanging at different heights, with swivelling lights moving swiftly inside at different frequencies. Referencing moths to a flame or fireflies in a jar, the combination of light and sound worked ‘to create an immersive environment that stirs feelings of anxiety and urgency’. The curatorial decision to allow the sound to fill the entire exhibition space worked in the context of this specific show. Located at the entrance, the source of the sound was known from the beginning, allowing us to push it into our subconscious in order to engage with the other works. This action mirrors the constant subconscious blocking of traffic and other common noises heard everyday in the city.

The lighting in each gallery space was dim, with most works lit with spotlights if they required it. Several artworks, including Wing Nam’s Avaritia–Silent Greed (2015), Ko Sing Tung’s Spectacular Seaview (2015), Andio Lai’s Pyxis44 (2015), and Adrian Wong’s Untitled Grate series (2014), all have major light components that worked best with relative darkness. Furthermore the darkness aided in viewing installations with video, including Chloe Cheuk’s If the Moment Came (2015), Siu Wai Hang’s Inside Outland (2013) and Chilai Howard’s The Doors (2008).

The works were grouped by theme: urban experience, current affairs, or shared and personal history. Two works that resonated with the urban experience in Hong Kong are Ko Sing Tung’s Spectacular Seaview and Chilai Howard’s The Doors. Both touch on the visible gap in wealth between the rich and poor in Hong Kong, reflected in housing. Siu Wai Hang’s Inside Outland (2013) and South Ho’s Defence and Resistance (2013) complimented each other, working to address the ambiguity of Hong Kong’s identity. This issue is central to the city’s current affairs, drawing attention to the paradox between self-defence and self-restriction, as it relates to Hong Kong’s experience since the 1997 British handover of the city to the People’s Republic of China.

The last exhibition space featured Adrian Wong’s Untitled Grate series leading to Magdalen Wong’s delicate installation Chains (2015), which drew attention to aspects of everyday life in the city. The strength of Breathing Space was the tight curatorial framework which, combined with a refreshingly thoughtful and creative use of indoor and outdoor sites, worked to showcase the depth and significance of contemporary art practice in Hong Kong.

Adrian Wong, Untitled (Grate XI: Electric Bauhinia), 2017. Cor-Ten steel and neon, 260 x 125 x 25cm. Commissioned by Asia Society Hong Kong Center. Gift of Hallam Chow and H2 Foundation for Arts and Education.

Cheuk Wing Nam, Avaritia—Silent Greed, 2015. Recycled wine bottles, DC motors, LED bulb. Dimensions variable.

Enoch Cheung, Spatial Neglect, 2017. Detail. Dimensions variable, UV print on sticker and 2D embossed print. Commissioned by Asia Society Hong Kong Center. Image courtesy the artist.

Enoch Cheung, Spatial Neglect, 2017. Installation view. Dimensions variable, UV print on sticker and 2D embossed print. Commissioned by Asia Society Hong Kong Center. Image courtesy the artist.

notes: 

1. Breathing Space: Contemporary Art from Hong Kong, Asia Society Hong Kong Center, Hong Kong, March 2017, p.15.
2. Ibid., p.83.