THAI CONTEMPORARY ART IN HONG KONG
Is national identity still relevant within our globalized world, which is more interdependent than ever before? Where do we get our identity, and what does baby powder have to do with it? Art Radar talks with the renowned Thai contemporary artist Nipan Oranniwesna at the Osage Gallery in Kowloon, Hong Kong before the opening of his latest exhibition Being….. at homE.
Storytelling through sight, smell, and unexpected mediums
Nipan Oranniwesna had a big job ahead of him when he arrived in Hong Kong for his exhibition at the Osage Gallery, perhaps the most respected experimental art gallery in Hong Kong. In only 4 days, he would create 2 massive installation exhibits that sprawl across the floor of Osage’s Kwun Tong gallery space in Kowloon, which are sculpted out of only baby powder. Not just any baby powder either, mind you. Nipan’s baby powder installations require the signature scent of a product by Johnson & Johnson that is only available in Thailand, and countless packages needed to be flown into Hong Kong for the artist’s materials. The exhibition is essentially a story, and is complete with 3 narrative installation works that consider identity and the idea of home on a global scale, a national scale, and ends considering the idea of home and connectedness to one’s personal space.
Powder cities demonstrate fragility
The result of Nipan’s labor is astounding. The exhibition, titled Being….. At HomE questions the validity of nation-based identity within modern society. The first piece of the show, City of Ghost, is a massive cityscape made of baby powder that depicts 13 major metropolitan cities of the world as interconnected. A similar work of his was also on display at the 2007 Venice Biennale for 6 months, and other sprawling works of sculpted baby powder cities have sold to private collectors, fetching up to $20,000 USD. Nipan explains the meaning of this work:
“Every country is nationalistic, but is it real, or does it just manipulate our thinking? This piece challenges personal and national identity. We think we are Thai, but the interconnectedness of this work demonstrates a question… I used baby powder because global society is both beautiful and fragile. The smell of the specific brand was important, as I wanted this to be a full sensory experience, with a stronger, more serious scent.”
Chinese National Anthem in powder suggests vulnerability
The next piece, titled ...with our flesh and blood, examines the idea of home and identity at the national level, depicting the Chinese national anthem written in baby powder. Accompanying framed works also show the Chinese anthem created from small pierced holes on paper, creating a braille-like version of the lyrics. Through these works, Nipan was subtly suggesting the vulnerability of basing personal identity on one’s nationality or ethnicity.
Come home, take off your shoes.
The last piece of the show, Narrative Floor, brings the audience to the most intimate interpretation of place and identity, the home. The piece invites viewers to get involved, take off their shoes and walk on the work, which resembles a hard wood floor inlaid with photographic ‘rain drops’. Upon closer inspection, these raindrops are revealed to be small scenes from Hong Kong, China, and Thailand. Nipan admits this piece reflects his heritage; he is ethnically Chinese, but native to Thailand. The work begs the question, when a person is connected to different places, where is home? Nipan suggests everywhere that touches someone becomes a part of him, and all of those places are his home. The piece invites viewers to take off their shoes, sit down, and even lie down, demonstrating home is a feeling that can be felt anywhere one happens to be.
It’s easy to miss the meaning
The last work, Narrative Floor, is decidedly different from the other pieces, most notably because it does not use baby powder. Nipan explains:
“I wanted to use a new language. Baby powder is just one language….. I deal with the perception of the viewer, especially using distance, the space between people and artwork, the space between people and other people. This is what I access in my work. In this piece you come inside…
The exhibition is also full of clues of meaning that could be easily missed. Nipan reveals:
Every piece and work is like a sign. The way to read the exhibition is to look for the signs, issues, even though they are almost hidden, very subtle… The red in this room suggests the color of the Chinese flag. The 5 dots that are present in the exhibition title are a reference to the 5 stars on the Chinese flag. The capital letters in the exhibition title Being….. at homE are a reference to the space between the word ‘be.’ I am concerned with what lies between. Of course my work can be read in other ways, and that is okay. But I want to deal with this triangle of me, Hong Kong, and China.
Problem: Fragile art gets harmed
The delicate nature of the work is part of the art’s significance, and also leads to inevitable mishaps. Staff at the Osage Gallery mentioned they considered turning down the air conditioning to prevent air flow from disturbing the powdery surface, and Nipan cheerfully recalled the footprint he discovered in the Venice Biennale’s installation.
Solution: That’s OK.
He explains that damaging the artwork is not encouraged, but minor accidents are natural and ultimately contribute to the participatory quality of the work, relating it to viewers. Such an attitude is wise, considering the tours of school children that parade through the gallery. Furthermore, upsetting the fragile medium reinforces the essence of the work. Nipan proves although something is not meant to be broken, it may still be far too easy to destroy.
Nipan’s exhibition is among 2 others on display at the Osage Gallery in Hong Kong. Other exhibited artists include Cheo Chai-Hiang from Singapore, and Sun Yuan & Peng Yu (China). The exhibition runs from August 21-October 4, 2009.
-contributed by Erin Wooters