Shanghai-based brothers duo take over gallery in Hong Kong with multimedia presentation morphing the personal and universal dimensions of time and space.
On 28 April 2016, Tang Contemporary Art in Hong Kong opened “White”, a joint exhibition of Shanghai-based artist brothers Chen Yujun and Chen Yufan, as its May offering in a monthly rotating exhibition schedule.
Individual Life, Memory, Identity
Curated by leading Chinese curator Cui Cancan, the exhibition of Shanghai-based brothers duo Chen Yujun and Chen Yufan entitled “White” presents four works that range across media, including acrylic, wood, threads, wool carpets, photographs and light boxes. Making use of muted colours, representational and abstract forms, as well as visual and physical space, the works interweave individual life, memory and identity within the personal and universal dimensions of time and space.
Dialogue across Time and Space
Placed within the present context of Hong Kong, the exhibition seeks to carve out a dialogue with the city, which, as Cui writes in his statement, seems to “possess no past or future”, encompassing a unique mesh of local and colonial history, Chinese and Western culture, economic struggles and prosperity, and political stability and uncertainty.
In 2011, the Chen brothers first exhibited their Mulan River Project, a collaborative work named after the river that feeds into their hometown in Fujian. First shown in Beijing, the project engaged with the cultural history of their hometown as well as their individual experiences. This imagination of identity, memory and history revolving around the artists’ personal history has travelled to different cities in China as well as overseas.
“White”, the project’s latest manifestation in Hong Kong, is expected to spark new directions for artistic contemplation on history and memory set against a vibrant metropolis that is forging out a new identity under the political, social and cultural circumstances it faces today.
An Evocative Sensory Experience
Running until 24 May 2016, “White” utilises the compact and minimalist space of the gallery to display the four works on adjacent walls as well as across the floor, extending the contemplative tension they conjure into the physical space of viewers.
This installation ties the works together in a narrative arc that, as Cui explains, begins with Chen Yujun’s imagination of a universal domestic space in A Temporary Home (2014 – 2015), then shifts to an abstracted, symbolic contemplation of time and space in Chen Yufan’s Derivative – White (2015) and Daily Behavior 1-15 (2011- 2012), before bringing the focus back to a shared nostalgia evoked by the brothers’ collaborative work Borrowed Land 9.72 Square Meters (2016), which alludes to an illusive memory.
Cui says about the overall sensory experience created by the four works:
When the four works go together, they become an overall experience… Art is not a precise statistical entity, but rather a sensory experience. Viewers need to use their own associations and open mind to fill in the discussion of themes presented here, such as the relationship between these works and their city, the tensions between Hong Kong and nostalgia, and the links between individual and urban life.
A Universal Space Both Illusive and Concrete
Chen Yujun’s painting A Temporary Home, which makes use of mixed media including acrylic and colored threads, depicts a direct view onto an open, bare interior surrounded by three walls. The perspective is created mainly by the sharp boundary between the grey floor and lighter wall – textured with threads at close view, as well as a white chair highlighting the depth of the right corner. Over the left corner hangs a small, blank canvas that protrudes out of the painting to complete this shell of a “home” that belongs to every viewer for the fleeting moments he/she stands in front of it.
The bareness of the interior space, depicted in whites and other muted colours, seems to present a universal domestic space – a “temporary home” – where viewers can imagine themselves inhabiting in their past, present or future. In its subtle and muted décor, and uncertain perspectives, the painting imagines a shared historical, temporal and spatial setting in which viewers can search for their own personal private experiences.
Artist Chen Yujun reveals to Art Radar:
Visually, the work offers an open, accessible space with depth. The traces on the walls, the chair and the spotted floor boards are concrete perspectival reference points, but whose room is it really? The story behind this question is like an empty hole that viewers must fill up themselves. This requires the viewers’ participation by imagining their own experiences. Also, in the creative process this ‘temporary home’ was painted as an illusive image that wasn’t based on a concrete photograph. In this sense, the only ‘real’ elements of the painting are the time I spent on it, the concrete traces this effort left behind, as well as my genuine emotional connection with this drifting home.
Through depicting an imagined, illusive, almost metaphorical domestic space, Temporary Home becomes a concrete setting of individual history and memory in the viewers’ own imagination.
Abstracted Expressions of Time and Space
Stepping away from Chen Yujun’s imagination of a universal domestic space, viewers confront Chen Yufan’s two non-representational works, Derivative – White and Daily Behavior, which use the colour white as the basic compositional element, recalling the “themes of blankness”, Cui alludes to in his statement.
Derivative – White is an acrylic white painting on canvas mounted on banded wood. The painting does not have a flat surface, rather, it is facetted, with its jagged, three-dimensional contours visually heightened when mounted on the gallery’s white wall. Stripped of any representational trace of reality and the everyday, and left only with its contours, the work presents a “blank” site – although one with a heightened physical presence – that is infused with new meaning by the show’s setting as well as viewers’ individual history and identity as they interact with it.
This white, abstracted expression of time, space and history is stretched further in Daily Behavior, a work that took two years to create as Chen painted layers of white on 15 canvases over and over, logging his own time, history and personal life gesturally and physically in a finished work that deceptively appears “empty” and “blank”.
As Chen Yufan explains:
White is a big part of my creations. In Daily Behavior, I stressed my own daily life and internal experiences, so I tried to compress the work into the most fundamental and purest state possible. The meaning behind all this that, first, time has mass and volume, and second, time is an extended experience that never stops but keeps going on. Time as experience is not just a process but also brings forth something concrete.
Memory and Nostalgia
The Chen brothers’ collaborative work in the show, Borrowed Land, features a photograph of a man’s legs standing on a woolen carpet mounted on a lightbox. Perpendicularly on the floor in front of it, a custom-woven woolen carpet – the same one the man is standing on – is unfurled, transposing the seemingly far-off memory into the present reality of Hong Kong.
After the abstracted, symbolic contemplation of time and space in Chen Yufan’s two works, Borrowed Land seems to allude to a specific but illusive memory with the use of a photographic image of a man while highlighting his punctuated absence in the real space of the gallery. The work brings forth feelings of nostalgia as viewers respond with their own forgotten – but no less existent – memories.
The artists comment their collaborative work thus:
Borrowed Land is an extension of our Mulan River Project. It explores the relationships between identity and external space. This is the first time in our collaboration we used a representational human image to explore the merging of different cultures. This work uses a carpet as a visual medium, bringing the land on which the photographic subject is standing to the gallery. By taking up 9.72m2 of floor space, the carpet acts as a channel that leads the show to the real world.
The work shows how, after the carpet is detached from the specific setting and context of the photograph, it becomes an entity between reality and virtual reality, bridging the person in the image and the viewer. The discussion shifts from a ‘faraway nostalgic memory’ to the ‘reality’ of Hong Kong, a city with a vibrant immigrant history. We think the person in the image reflects a nostalgic shadow in the heart of each viewer.”
“White” evokes universal themes of identity, history and nostalgia within the evolving context of Hong Kong, a city that has constantly reinvented itself in response to different historical circumstances. In the short time it takes to appreciate the spare works in the show, viewers are invited to respond with their individual experiences and personal memories and reflect on their own lives across the axes of time and space.
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