Identity and history come under scrutiny in a quietly gripping Hong Kong exhibition by Mariana Hahn and homegrown star artist Kwan Sheung Chi.
The joint exhibition explores the social and political fabric of life in Hong Kong, commenting powerfully on history, progress, privacy and power relations.
“Social Fabric: New Work by Mariana Hahn and Kwan Sheung Chi” runs at MILL6 Foundation‘s pop-up space at The Annex in Hong Kong until 23 April 2016. Curated by internationally renowned curator David Elliott, the exhibition presents intriguing new works by two young artists who respond in different ways to the history, culture and current social fabric of Hong Kong.
Mariana Hahn: The language of fabric
German artist Mariana Hahn (b. 1985) is the first overseas artist to join MILL6’s Artist-in-Residence programme. As an artist whose practice re-thinks the body as “carrier of continually weaving narrative”, Hahn often uses textiles to interweave the conceptual with the metaphorical, all the while feeding her art with richly layered sociological and anthropological theories. In curator David Elliott‘s words, Hahn’s works engage with “both archetypal and local legends by weaving a common female mythology between them that enters into dialogue with the present”.
In “Social Fabric”, Hahn presents work that is the result of research into Zishunü (自梳女), the so-called ‘self-wedded women’ silk workers of the Pearl River delta. Refusing to marry in order to retain their independence, the Zishunü fled to Hong Kong in the 1940s and two of them are rumored to still live on Lantau Island today. While Hahn failed to find them, her field research led her to meet and interact with one of the last old Tanka (蜑家) boat dwellers, inspiring her to create a fascinating multimedia body of work dealing with local memory and cultural amnesia.
Hahn’s objects, drawings and videos re-tell the sidelined stories and dying crafts of forgotten peoples living in a world of irreversible progress. She learned to weave fish nets from the island’s last surviving fishermen and created silk dresses in memory of the graceful craft of the Zishunü. Suspended from the ceiling of the exhibition space are three ethereal semi-transparent dresses: crystallised and hardened from exposure to salt water, the beautiful forms are at once intimate and ghostly, a living embodiment of history. Diana d’Arenberg writes on Ocula:
[…] water carries memory; the dresses are memories made visible, memories given a physical body. They are a reminder of the silk sisters, and of the people whose livelihoods and lives were dependent upon the surrounding body of water.
Kwan Sheung Chi: The tension of vulnerability
In stark yet complementary juxtaposition to Hahn’s feminine, intimate and lyrical art is stellar conceptual work by Hong Kong artist Kwan Sheung Chi (b. 1980). The immersive installation Room (2016) grapples with the anxieties of Hong Kong’s political identity and changing cultural landscape. Visitors are first greeted by a carpet of red flag pins scattered on the floor. While the pins appear to be Chinese flags at first glance, one quickly discovers that Hong Kong’s Bauhinia flower symbol has in fact replaced the five yellow stars of China’s national flag.
Wading through the sea of flags – literally, as visitors are encouraged to step on the pins – one enters a brightly lit room through mirrored doors. All at once, visitors realise that they were under surveillance from the moment they were standing in the threshold of the pins. Another door automatically opens, leading to a smaller room that traps the visitor until someone else triggers the sensor to open the door. As d’Arenberg writes:
If the experience makes you feel powerless then Kwan has succeeded in getting his message across. The work is an ironic commentary on the changing political and cultural landscape of Hong Kong, of power relations, and privacy.
The exhibition manages to be at once intimate and impersonal, weaving beauty and nostalgia with a lurking threatening unease. The objects themselves, including Hahn’s dresses and Kwan’s pins, are richly evocative and invite extended visual exploration, while the conceptual underpinnings open up the material beyond the realm of the tactile. Connecting past and present, the personal and the political, “Social Fabric” triggers involuntary associations about identity, memory, the self and autonomy, constituting a shrewd and timely commentary on the fluid and uncertain context of Hong Kong today.
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