Déjà Disparu

Déjà Disparu

 

Pearl Lam Galleries, Hong Kong

Artists: Ho Siu-Kee, Ellen Pau, Sara Wong, Vincent Yu

The exhibition title Déjà Disparu takes its reference from Hong Kong: Culture and the Politics of Disappearance, a seminal book on Hong Kong’s cultural politics of the 1990s written by the reputable cultural theorist Ackbas Abbas. Unlke déjà vu, in which a present experience coincides with the one from the past, Déjà Disparu is defined by Abbas as: “the feeling that what is new and unique about the situation is always already gone, and we are left holding a handful of clichés, or a cluster of memories of what has never been. It is as if the speed of a current event is producing a radical desynchronization.” [1]

Like a film on auto pilot that progresses with its own narrative and speed whether we like it or not, the schizophrenic alteration of our immediate surroundings has hidden all human traces to the extent that a reverse hallucination is taking place. This master narrative that seems to deny the very authorship of our urban space may best define the context for cultural production in Hong Kong during the 1990s. Artists Ho Siu-Kee, Ellen Pau, Sara Wong, and Vincent Yu confront our numbness with spatial changes, and propose different strategies to recuperate a consciousness with spatial history that is central to the post colonial identity.

Following this logic, Déjà Disparu simulates an overloaded experience with different media – including objects, photographs, video installations and projection – in part to stage a regressive state that oscillates between hallucination and reality. As a result Déjà Disparu conveys a contradiction of wanting to escape yet being contained; whereby the reading of art as objects becomes flattened and takes on the visual qualities of a film still. The critique of places in this exhibition extends towards diverse spheres, from a cinematic space to a dwelling space, urban space as an open theatre to a private refuge for mediating with our body. Regardless of how generic the urban space has become (a process that is still very much happening in the present) the artworks by these often overlooked individuals offer insights into ways of confronting with amnesia, for the impetus to define what is personal is fueled by a strong desire to preserve a space for survival and creativity.

  1. When entering the gallery, we see a video of texts and images projected onto a glass wall. Pau’s video For Some Reasons (2003) is named after a phrase used by the former chief executive of HKSAR when dealing with the proposal of Article 23 of the Basic law. In the name of protecting national security, Article 23 was introduced to grant the government power to persecute suspected individuals or political organisations of treason or subversion. Article 23 was met with massive public outcry, soon followed by a large-scale protest and this law was shelved indefinitely. Pau states: “For Some Reasons starts with the exploration of the figure of speech. Every Chinese character is a face; each face has a story. Put the faces together you end up having another story.” Shot mostly in Berlin and presented in montage style with images of the cityscape stretching vertically across the screen, the Chinese phrases included in the video convey a strong sense of negativity and pessimism, e.g. cannot afford to eat, not able to think, cannot afford to lose. For Some Reasons expresses the impossibility of reaching a consensus, and the growing gaps between our everyday lives and the enforcement of an ideology in an ad-hoc city state.
  1. Well versed in Greek mythology and in French phenomenology, Ho Siu-Kee considers the body as a tool for our perception. It is through the body’s timely engagement with different man-made structures that reveals our relationships with the world. In Gravity Hoop (1996), the artist suspends himself upside down inside a large scale circular stainless steel apparatus and asks us to ponder on gravity, a fundamental physical condition that has limited the appearance of our reality. Such a defiant act champions stillness and the longing for a private space for introspection.
  1. Opting to experience the changes of the city in real time and place, Local Orientation (1998) by Sara Wong interrogates the elusive representation of maps and our ability to navigate through a stable urban terrain. By drawing four straight lines along the four cardinal directions on a bird’s eye map of Hong Kong from a determined centre, Wong proceeded to walk along the set trajectories on actual location to document what was happening around her. When a building along the set journey became an obstruction, Wong would then proceed to the nearest open space to continue with the set path. The absence of the author from the camera invites the beholder to participate in her in situ performance as a flâneur. In an attempt to disorient the directional bearing of the gallery, Wong will project one of her walking tours from 1998 (west direction) onto the ceiling of the gallery. Furthermore, Wong will make a new version of Local Orientation (2013) by traversing along the same path as she did in 1998 to differentiate the actual physical changes of the city.
  1. In sharp contrast with Gravity Hoop (1996) that emphasises stillness, Flying Machine (1995-1996) is an absurd juxtaposition of a rigid mechanical device and the human body. Displayed in front of a large window with the cityscape as the backdrop, audiences are invited to try out this device on their own under supervision. The imaginary exercise of flying connotes freedom or own will to escape from reality. In fact, this mobile sculpture is a satire that refutes an increasingly dematerialised environment predicated on mobility of people and information.
  1. Vincent Yu has worked as a photojournalist for Associated Press since 1989. His documentary photographs in this exhibition inscribe a more objective social history of Hong Kong. Two series of photographs are on display. The first series of black and white photographs is composed of mostly frontal portraitures of the long time inhabitants of the now mostly demolished and redeveloped Shek Kip Mei Estate, the oldest public housing estate in Hong Kong built by the former colonial government in 1953. Yu captures meticulously the hardness of life of different elderly people living inside a cramped quarter, yet they are assured with their own sense of place in history. The second series of photographs is titled HKG. It is a series of photographs Yu took from the 1980s to 1990s recording different events leading up to the pre and post-1997 handover. Yu’s visual diaries provide an abbreviated chronology which binds the ephemeral artworks by other artists together in this exhibition in a provocative manner.
  1. Subverting the narrative structure of film, Ellen Pau’s Recycling Cinema (1999) is a single channel video installation that signifies our compliance with a master temporality central to urban development. Pau tracks a moving vehicle on the busy Island Eastern Corridor highway with a panning video camera. The moment the panning speed of the video camera matches with the one of a moving car, the vehicle is held captive for a brief moment only to accelerate out of sight during the next instant. The artist then targets another vehicle on the opposite lane, only to have forgotten the one she saw seconds ago. The act of viewing is a monotonous exercise of blind fate, the reading of our surroundings is merely a series of flattened images that can never be held captive for closer scrutiny, for the set narrative must move forward.
  1. Moving towards the opposite end of the gallery is a video titled Diversion (1990) produced by Pau one year after the June 4th incident in 1989. Pau incorporates old footages from the government’s Public Record Office of the cross harbour swimming contest popular during the 1960s. In the video, we witness a flock of swimmers jumping into the harbour in slow motion; this once popular scene is then intercut with a swimming instructor jumping in and out of the water in a swimming pool. The scene is then followed by an anonymous figure falling onto a cobble stone pavement shot upside down and a burning newspaper goat head descending a staircase. Diversion delves into the collective void of a migrant city deprived of a sense of belonging. The transient subject must flee in times of political uncertainty or crisis.
  1. Drained (1988) documents a performance by Hiram To. Inspired by the narrow streets of Hong Kong, this video records from opposite ends a burning flame in a narrow corridor inside the Fringe club. The flame is a negligible threat that poses no imminent danger to anyone therefore we can ignore it altogether. Yet the diminishing flame speaks of total self- exhaustion and our numbness to discern the differences between the material and immaterial, the spoken and muted.
  1. City Monument/ Monument City (1998) is critical of the binary power relation between the centre and periphery, central to the discussion of identity politics under the influences of economic globalisation during the 1990s. Using silk screening technique to inscribe a map of Hong Kong on the top of four steel circular turntables, Wong attaches fake pearls to demarcate noteworthy Hong Kong landmarks on the sculpture’s surfaces. Individual turntables revolve continuously handicap any static reading of the given map, thereby blurring the reading of a place, a territory, or instrument. Instead, its identity is predicated on synchronising with the clock of the global economy.
  1. Standing Above the Water Level (2011) by Ho upholds the ideal of human hegemony, no matter how turbulent and unpredictable the world is becoming. The pacifying backdrop brings to mind the history of Hong Kong; its development from a seaport to its current role as a financial capital is something we have all taken for granted. To seek what is spiritual and eternal through the human body is no longer possible in a territory infiltrated with clichés and controlled by transnational capitals. The sea water level may be the only permanent marker that has not changed through time and to stand above it is to allude to our basic survival instinct.

 

David Ho Yeung Chan

July 16, 2013

 

Edited by Liesl Cheng


[1] Ackbar Abbas, Hong Kong- Culture and the Politics of Disappearance (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), 25-26.

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