Currently on show at K11’s chi art space in Hong Kong, “The Garden” features the work of 9 artists who take their inspiration from the theme of nature within a modern setting.
Art Radar spoke to curator and artist Enoch Cheng about the concept behind this unusual, thoughtful and constantly changing exhibition.
With works commissioned by K11 Art Foundation (KAF) that examine ideas surrounding nature, “The Garden” is “an exhibition like a garden in a glasshouse, but without plants”. This concept means that the exhibition is constantly in a state of flux, with motion being a key part of the show. Comprising of a variety of media including Aerial Art, sculpture, installation, found objects and CGI, the pieces mirror the overlapping components of an authentic natural space. The result is a multi-sensory experience, where artists have employed new techniques and technologies that take their inspiration from nature, inhabiting the space almost like natural organisms.
Curator Enoch Cheng‘s work also features in the exhibition, in his choreographed performance piece which sees an actor shifts between roles; first a security guard, then a gardener and an organism. As an artist himself, Cheng bridges the gap between curatorial and creative practice. As well as his work as an artist and curator, Cheng is also a director, writer, performer and founder of art collective Interlocutor.
Art Radar spoke to Cheng about bringing the concept of a garden to life, his own choreography and the rapid development of the Hong Kong art scene.
I have been looking at botanical gardens in the past few years. One of the significant features of the exhibition venue is its glass windows. During my first visit after the rain, there was mist coming from the nearby mountains, the area was very humid, and I saw droplets of water dripping from the glass panels. All these reminded me of the greenhouses in botanical gardens and of one’s perception of the dynamics of nature.
I try to relate these two ideas in “The Garden”: how all the plants in a greenhouse have their own sense of life within a particular setting, and how artworks form their own organisms within a group show to create a dynamic environment. There are no real plants (except for a living fungus) in the exhibition space, but all the works presented in the exhibition address some sort of movements that we can find in nature.
How did the concept of an ‘art garden’ impact your curation of this exhibition?
A garden is a favourable condition where many things – temperature, humidity, water and soil – are under control. And the gardener would arrange different species to form some categories of aesthetics. Yet, life is also beyond order, so there has to be a sense of chance, a non-order, or even chaos in a garden. A huge amount of care, sometimes gentle, sometimes forceful with a balance, is required to foster an environment for ‘growth’. To a certain extent, exhibition curating is similar to gardening, because a curator needs to provide a caring platform to make ideas come into life.
How does the exhibition and its themes relate to its geographical context, of being presented in Hong Kong?
People who see Hong Kong as a busy metropolis tend to overlook the fact that nature forms a huge part of the land and history of the city. There had always been indigenous vegetation before the city became a colony; a large portion of the forest cover[ed the city] and public parks we now see owe their origins to the afforestation programmes implemented since the colonial era. Besides, Hong Kong is often influenced by forces of nature. Examples include typhoons, air pollution (affected by wind direction), and viruses and bacteria (which have caused several epidemics). We all know that nature is important, but we don’t have sufficient tools to understand it. I have started to learn about it, not as an environmentalist, but as a layman. And I try to connect myself with the motions in our surroundings and to show them to the Hong Kong audience.
Since the exhibition does not take place in the city centre, the audience has to travel a long distance to see it. As they come through the hilly areas by car, they are experiencing a bit of nature. I hope to strengthen that experience and create a place where they can really feel nature with their senses, as if they are visiting a garden, but with a difference.
Your work oscillates between taking the role of curator and artist. Can you explain how your own creative practice impacts your curatorial work? And how do you find working with a number of artists within a group setting?
To me, curating an exhibition is like making art. We have different components made up of different ‘portions’ of space, time, material, money, the brains, the hands, the networks, the administrators, the audience. They are all there to ultimately enable a platform for ideas. Making art as an artist or a curator is an experience similar to preparing a dish or a feast. From my artistic practice in film and performance, collaboration with performers, musicians and technicians is often at the core of the process. The implementation of a project requires the participation of different practitioners and hence different modes of communication.
As for curating, what I enjoy most is the interlocution between people and things. I see my collaborators as my friends, and I hope that we can all learn together, whether it is for our professional careers or for benefits of the art ecology. Sometimes I’d put myself in an exhibition as an artist if I begin with an idea about making something, and then I’d invite others to join the party. I have realised that sometimes I gain another level of trust precisely because I am an artist – artists who work with me are happy to discuss the specificity about the texture of the medium or space that they employ in art making.
Sometimes we can also propose to work together during the process of discussion. And since I have been thinking about the ideas related to their ongoing practices, they are willing to push the boundaries with me. My goal is to safeguard the space so that artists can make the works they want to make. But I have also done shows where I put the artists at the centre without my artwork. I would try to help or even challenge them as the interlocutor or as the first viewer of their works.
But to be honest, working with others is a draining process because it does require a lot of time, effort, energy and care, especially if we don’t want to repeat ourselves but to do something new, something that is not part of our previous experience. That said, the process is a happy challenge, and the results are always rewarding. I can only work with people whom I know I can befriend, and I can care about ‘us’ genuinely.
You received an MA in creative writing at Goldsmiths. How does this inform your curatorial and creative practice?
I decided to do this MA because I knew I wouldn’t have a lot of time to learn different things in a relatively short period. Writing is a focused practice – a writer scrutinises only one medium. The training I received became a skill transferrable to other disciplines later – for me, the very act of art making is always related to space and time, regardless of the medium used. But what matters most is how that chosen medium is approached, and how messages are eventually relayed to readers or viewers. When I make a work, be it a text, a film, a performance, an exhibition, an event or even a meal, I always ask myself two questions: what should be the tools? What are their limits and potentials in activating ideas as well as encouraging audience’s participation?
Given that your own artistic practice works across multi-sensory levels, why was it important to you to explore various sensory experiences within this exhibition?
Exhibition viewing is a physical experience; it is especially true in this case, firstly because visitors have to travel a distance to come to see the show, which is far away from the city centre. I want to honour their effort and respect their attention. But this is not to say that the exhibition is a theme park where visitors are treated as customers. What I want to do is to utilise or even arouse their curiosity. In Hong Kong, one’s senses are often shut down because the city is way too overwhelming, and there is a lack of both external and internal spaces for contemplation. I hope that this exhibition could at least offer visitors a ‘space’ where they can re-see, re-touch, re-hear and re-smell. This is what botanical gardens have often inspired me to do.
Much of the work in the exhibition considers the idea of motion, such as Samuel Adam Swope’s aerial art, or Andrew Luk’s work. Can you explain why that was an important theme within this exhibition, and whether this theme has particular relevance now?
K11 Art Foundation has enabled six new commissions while some selected works are from the existing collection. All of them are related to motion. Samuel Adam Swope’s work is a sculpture in which paper maple leaves fly with the blowing of the wind, contouring the shape of air at a macro level; at the same time, we can see that every leaf follows a unique path as it flutters. Shane Aspegren makes a sound installation that, while his tea fungus is growing inside a tank, responds to the sounds of the dehumidifiers set at the exhibition venue. The sounds from the loudspeakers also create an invisible shape whose movement the audience can feel.
Andrew Luk’s burnt air-con frames form an installation which requires the audience to move their bodies. Similarly, Neïl Beloufa’s sculpture invites the audience to move between its front and back to see the beauty of the structures between nature and artificiality. Cheuk Wing Nam’s sound installation is like a Japanese zen garden with a twist: it focuses on the small movements in nature, all manifested through the assembled mechanical parts. Ian Cheng’s work is a dog living inside a tablet and running around the exhibition space. Cai Kai’s video is a saturated sun. Vvzela Kook’s three-channel sci-fi videos and paintings all address the transformations of bacteria and medicine.
My performance is delivered by a performer who shows a dance that takes its inspiration from the smallest movements of nature and of the human body. All the works coming together form a system to activate the space with movements. Ultimately, I hope the audience can come and feel, which is something that we can all do instinctively, but are often blocked by our surroundings or our busy livelihood. It is also important at least for me, or the artists to one way or the other, to learn about what nature is and might mean to use as an individual, without just the perceived image of the green.
One stand out piece is your own choreographed durational performance piece, which features an actor who shifts between roles as a security guard, a gardener and organisms of nature. Could you tell us a little about the thinking behind this piece?
The work is called The Nature of Performance. The performer stays at the venue every day throughout the exhibition period. The site is his mini-residence. He has a few tasks to do every day, but he is free to organise and develop them in the ways he wants. There is a dance score which he can perform for the audience – the score morphs from the minute movements of micro-organisms to the movements of us as humans. He embodies himself like a security guard managing the exhibition space and also as the gardener who takes care of ‘The Garden’ (the exhibition).
He would invite the audience to have a small tour with him around the garden, and he would converse with them to develop his dance moves. His other tasks include another set of movements that he would practice from time to time taking cues from how bacteria or plants move. As a performer, he is aware of his body and his ability to observe himself. From an imagined, third-person point-of-view, he is able to investigate how his performance evolves day by day and how he changes as the performer – he is just like a gardener who watches closely how his plants grow every day. He would also read different materials about movements on the Earth.
The audience can connect with him. He may dance for you, and with you. But like a tree in a garden, regardless of the presence of the audience, the performer is always moving and evolving in this exhibition space. Those who have seen the performance or have known it can also imagine him growing.
How do you feel the Hong Kong art scene has developed in the past five to ten years, and what do you think may be in its future? Are there any media that you think Hong Kong artists tend to favour?
This is a rather broad question that can take a long essay to discuss. I am afraid that I am not in the position to generalise [about] all the Hong Kong artists, and it is not easy to summarise the development of the scene in the past five to ten years. However, I do notice one thing: with the proliferation of new art schools in the past decade, the scene has witnessed the rise of academically trained artists whose practices evolve essentially from their understandings of the history of art. Many artists are extremely hardworking. Some have developed their unique voices; however, whether or not they will grow strong to be heard depends on the time, opportunities and perhaps the luck they will have. This time, with the support of K11 Art Foundation, we have really tried to see whether we could stretch the platform a bit by commissioning some slightly more ambitious projects with a time-based medium, which is the medium that often requires resource and space to nature.
How do you feel the creative infrastructure in Hong Kong is helping artists develop their practices?
Compared with many other Asian cities, Hong Kong has a relatively foundational infrastructure and that allows some artists to create new works. And many artists have managed to launch their careers with such base. However, we still have to try harder to support one another in all areas. My practice focuses on time-based media, such as film and performance. I hope to see more spaces, and a better understanding of the complexity of the concepts and technicalities peculiar to these media. Recently I have collaborated with K11 Art Foundation and Oil Street Art Space. We have tried to bridge this gap in the understanding of art by creating a platform for artists to further explore their practices. I must say that there is still a long way to go before the variety of practices can become sustainable and before we can establish a robust system. A lot of people are trying their best to narrow the gap. I hope that there could be more critical and open interlocution between different positions so that we have the courage to envision something more.
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