With 95 percent humidity, Hong Kong’s air can already make you feel like you’re walking underwater, but Trevor Yeung’s ‘That Dog at That Party’ at Gallery EXIT attempted to create an effect of total submersion. In Silver Duckweed (2014), three sets of helium-filled Mylar balloons rose to the gallery ceiling, trailing white ribbons and long, blonde horsehairs. If these silver orbs were floating against an imagined watery surface, we were trawling slowly underneath. A faded blue-grey carpet in the middle of the floor (The stone garden in your fish tank, 2014) inferred the gravel on the bottom of an aquarium. Several irregular shapes indented in its weave suggested large rocks that may once have sat on top, but the only objects that remained were a comb covered by a small stone. With a few scant props, Yeung’s sculptural installation trapped us in an evocative aquarium, but he insisted on piling in several more inert sculptures. In I am fine, but please don’t disturb me (2014) an air pump sent ripples through a spot-lit cube of water, making shadowy traces on the walls. The dense formal presence of Black Triangle (2014) – three panels covered with black aquarium sand – filled one corner. As if all these aqueous nods weren’t enough, two Volcanic Lovers (2014) sat on plinths – craggy rocks with deep red coral growing in their crevices. Yeung could have achieved the same effect with less: his suggestive titles, mixed metaphors and sense of melodrama perhaps led not so much to intricate fables than to, as the title of the show suggests, the random, failed connections of half-remembered anecdotes.
The three-person group show ‘After Time’, curated by David Ho Yeung Chan at Pearl Lam’s Hong Kong space, similarly cast the viewer in an abandoned setting. Upon entering the gallery, the viewer was provided a view of Morgan Wong’s Untitled (DVD Burning) (2014), a mock-studio set up with a desk covered in discs and chairs scattered on the floor, via a transparent wall. This show didn’t seem to imagine a point ‘after time’ so much as a point after humans, or after humans cease toiling in the ways they currently do. Erica Lai’s staid photos depicted dark, overgrown gardens and empty observation towers and platforms. The only bodies visible here were on video; in Chung Seo Yung’s 2013 4 O’Clock (2013), a woman doggedly traces a path through the concrete shell of an unfinished building using black duct tape. Wong’s video Frustration of Having more than Two Choices to Make in Life (2013) features the artist, dressed in white in a white room, like a psychiatric patient, staring motionless at a large steel bar and file lying on the floor beside him. Both Chung’s and Wong’s works seem like self-imposed purgatories, where the artists are immersed in determinedly pointless activities. Each participating artist’s work was installed in a separate area of the gallery and, likewise, their three approaches never quite met. While Chung’s actions and remade objects, like the ink-stained grid etched into the wooden table of Place (2013), have an air of performative masochism, Lai’s serene images seem comparatively aloof. Wong’s studio set-up manages to suggest a Samuel Beckett-like burrowing through time with repetitive mundane gestures. The desktop computer incessantly creates DVDs with nothing on them and his Study of Eventfulness and Durationality (2014) is a video loop showing him moving a set of stools in varying stacks and arrangements, before deciding, as the physical artefacts displayed in the gallery attest, to cast their legs in a cylinder of concrete. If we can’t stop time, we can at least celebrate the illusion of capturing it.
The theatrical sets suggested by these two exhibitions were made manifest in ‘Zoo as Metaphor’ at Oi!, an arts complex in the former Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club. Perhaps the most notable thing about this controlled, immersive exhibition was its structure: guest curator Orlean Lai invited five artists (Au Wah-yan, Steve Hui, Vee Leong, Kingsley Ng and Wong Hung-fei) to participate, but their work (left uncredited) was dissolved into a wider performative fiction. Visitors were given supervised access to three sets: the study, storeroom and seemingly forgotten back room belonging to a character simply known as The Collector. What he collects seems arbitrary: leaves preserved in bell jars, boxes of matches, old records, stereoscopes with unknown family portraits, old-fashioned radios and small plastic animal figurines.
On the walls next to old film posters, black and white drawings depicted unlikely diagrams, such as the ways in which a jockey can fall off a horse. As I flipped through Cantonese comics and eyed the range of tree branches lining one wall, a watchful actor-chaperone explained that The Collector tries to preserve what he considers to be a disappearing Hong Kong; the branches were from plants in his neighbourhood, which has been undergoing urban redevelopment. So this was primarily a doe-eyed eulogy to the casualties of the rapidly changing megalopolis. The real puzzle was the title itself: zoo as metaphor for what? The Collector’s hoarding certainly spoke of a desire for preservation and, at points, I also felt slightly like a caged animal as I was led around the rooms. But the zoo trope seemed to point mainly to the show’s use of taxonomies and archetypal roles; casting the curator as theatre director and the artists as both set designers and the expressions of different aspects of the ‘Collector’ character. The audience, however, played the same role that it always does. Imposing a narrative on a setting, it seems, only limits our capacity to imagine its histories and possible trajectories.
First published in Issue 167